Emma Stone, Annette Bening, Ava DuVernay vault into the Oscars race

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TORONTO — Imagine David, Goliath and 50 of their friends in a street brawl and you’ll get close to approximating what the past two weeks have been like in the film world, with pretty much every remaining Oscar contender premiering across the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals (with the New York Film Festival coming at the end of the month). The smackdowns were somewhat muted, though, in festivals nearly entirely devoid of movie stars, who are holding the line in the historic dual strike of the writers and screen actors guilds. (Jessica Chastain, who had an interim agreement with SAG, used her red carpet time to talk about — the strike.)

None of this, though, has stopped tenacious Oscars prognosticators from gaming the race. As our film critic Ann Hornaday writes, this was the rare year in which movies could eloquently speak for themselves.

Right now, the Oscars are set for March 10, 2024. Who knows! The Emmys got pushed back four months because of the strikes. Some big-time Academy Award contenders are already on the board and didn’t need to show at the fall fests: Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” Celine Song’s “Past Lives” and Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” (which hits theaters Oct. 20, but had a splashy premiere at Cannes). Other major Oscars-y movies won’t bow till later in the year: Joaquin Phoenix’s “Napoleon,” “The Color Purple” with Fantasia Barrino, and the George-Clooney-directed “The Boys in the Boat.”

Still, the stage for the showdowns has nearly been set, the major players revealed. Here’s my wildly subjective take on who’s popping, or should be, in the fall film fest deluge:

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Surprise entry in the best picture race: Ava DuVernay’s “Origin” (acquired by Neon at Venice, no release date yet)

Perhaps the most divisive of the major films to bow in the fests, DuVernay’s narrative interpretation of Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste” is so tricky to describe that it wasn’t on anyone’s awards radars. How do you adapt an unadaptable book? DuVernay’s solution: Turn the author into the protagonist (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, a powerhouse) and take us through her creative process as she uses a period of profound grief to fuel her incredible thesis that connects the killing of Trayvon Martin with the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany and the societal shunning of Dalits, or “the untouchables,” in India. Critical consensus hasn’t been universal, but let the multiple standing ovations and the audible sobbing that racked Toronto theaters be your guide.

Instant front-runner: Emma Stone in Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things” (Dec. 8)

From the second Stone appears on-screen, playing piano with her feet, lurching around like she doesn’t yet have full control of her limbs, the actress is transformed into Bella Baxter, a 19th-century woman who is reborn and raised again by a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe). Every moment of this gorgeously shot satire, which turns into a sex-positive feminist fable, has Stone’s stamp on it; she’s a producer and spent years creating the character with Lanthimos, her director on “The Favourite.” Winner of the Golden Lion at Venice, “Poor Things” got an explosive reception at Telluride when it debuted there a day later.

Best case for a best duo Oscar: Annette Bening and Jodie Foster in “Nyad” (Oct. 20)

Bening trained for a year to play the stubborn, immensely talented Diana Nyad, who was determined, in her sixties, to be the first person to complete the open ocean swim from Cuba to Miami without a shark tank — a distance of 110 miles. Recent controversy swirling around Nyad’s accomplishment threatens to diminish Bening’s considerable one. The movie’s big lesson, though, is that swimming is a team sport, and it just feels like there should be a special statue for the synergy between Bening and Foster, who plays Nyad’s coach, best friend and former lover Bonnie Stoll — and is a lock for a supporting actress nod, according to most pundits.

Freshest new voice: Cord Jefferson, “American Fiction” (Nov. 3)

You could practically feel the theater shaking with laughter during both screenings I saw of Jefferson’s directorial debut, which just walked home with the People’s Choice Award in Toronto. The sharp satire, based on Percival Everett’s 2021 novel “Erasure,” stars Jeffrey Wright as a fed-up professor who writes a race-baiting novel pandering to White audiences, only to find himself with a smash hit, to his great discomfort. Jefferson, who won an Emmy for his writing on “Watchmen,” also fills the film with tender moments about sibling discord, aging parents and the traumas that keep us closed off to affection. He’s a strong contender for the stacked adapted screenplay category, while Wright has plenty of advocates for best actor. As Jefferson said in screenings, “I’m 41 and I just figured out what I want to do with my life.” The maturity shows.

Most in danger of getting overlooked due to the SAG strike: TIE, Colman Domingo and Gael García Bernal

These incredible actors and union men stayed home in solidarity with their guild, but they’re fighting for attention with folks in stronger best picture contenders and could use the bump that comes with a festival spotlight. Domingo is having one hell of a year, and could be competing against himself with his lead performance as gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in “Rustin,” (Nov. 3) and his supporting role in “The Color Purple” (Dec. 25). He also stirred a huge reaction at TIFF for playing the prisoner-leader of a theater program, alongside a cast of formerly incarcerated actors, in “Sing Sing.” If that movie gets released this year, it could muddle the race even further. Bernal, meanwhile, throws his body on the line in a tender turn as Saúl Armendáriz, a gay Mexican wrestler known as “the Liberace of Lucha Libre.” Bernal was at the world premiere of “Cassandro” at Sundance in January, but couldn’t come to its Telluride screening, or shill for its debut on Prime Video Sept. 22. One can only hope that academy voters catch his exuberant performance without the promotional push.

Most sustained buzz: TIE, Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” (Dec. 8) and Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall” (Oct. 13)

With the exception of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” in 2019, favorites of the Cannes Film Festival are often too artsy for the academy’s tastes. Two years ago, the violent, confrontational Palme d’Or winner, “Titane,” didn’t even make it into the international feature race. With commercial Hollywood fare clearing out due to the strikes, though, both Triet’s Palme-winning courtroom thriller and Glazer’s chilling Holocaust film (which took the fest’s runner-up prize), are not only going strong but gaining momentum. They also both star the same German actress, Sandra Hüller, who could join Domingo in competing against herself in two different categories — and she’s overseas talent and therefore not on strike.

Wildest wild card: Andrew Scott in “All of Us Strangers” (Dec. 22)

British director Andrew Haigh’s last film, “45 Years,” had enough support to earn Charlotte Rampling a best actress nomination in 2015. His latest, a sexy, tender ghost story centered on a romance between two lonely gay men will test whether the academy has really progressed with the times. Scott, a.k.a. the hot priest from “Fleabag,” has never been had this kind of spotlight in film. And his performance, as a middle-aged writer whose early traumas have kept him from experiencing love, opposite an equally vulnerable Paul Mescal (last year’s surprise best actor nominee), left much of the audience stumbling out of the theater in a tear-stained stupor.

Best un-retired retiree: Hayao Miyazaki, “The Boy and the Heron” (Dec. 8)

This epic fantasy set in the countryside of Japan in the Second World War was billed as the 83-year-old animation master’s final film. In it, a 12-year-old boy travels through space and time, befriending magical creatures and battling giant, menacing parakeets in what feels like a profound parable for death and climate change. It seemed like a shoo-in for best animated feature, like 2001’s “Spirited Away,” and a possible long shot best picture nom, but now — surprise! — Miyazaki is no longer retiring. He’ll lose some of the honorific vote factor, but what a fortuitous turn of events for all of us.

Best chance for a do-over pile of nominations: Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” (Nov. 10)

This is, simultaneously, Payne’s Christmas movie, and a wonderful reunion between the director and his “Sideways” star Paul Giamatti, who plays a grumpy boys’ preparatory school teacher forced to babysit the “holdovers” who can’t go home during the holiday break. Let’s look at the history: Three of Payne’s last four films got best picture and best director noms, starting with 2004’s “Sideways,” which received five nominations and won for adapted screenplay (Payne won again for “The Descendants”). Giamatti, though, didn’t get nominated — and his terrific performance has only aged in our collective estimation like fine wine. Look for academy members to make up for that slight, plus reward Payne’s old-fashioned, warmhearted pluck. The film also features breakout performances from Da’Vine Joy Randolph of HBO’s “The Idol” and newcomer Dominic Sessa.

Documentary to beat:The Pigeon Tunnel” (Oct. 20)

Let’s get this out of the way: I am not an Errol Morris devotee. I’ve never read a John le Carré novel. But I was glued to my seat for the whole of this unconventional documentary, which rests entirely on the words of David Cornwall, who used le Carré as his pen name and died in December 2020, laying out his life’s story, knowing the end is nigh. Morris — who won best documentary the only time he’s been nominated, for 2004′s “The Fog of War” — presents archival images and interviews as if filmed through shattered mirrors, and illustrates anecdotes with wordless reenactments, all to an anxiety-inducing score from Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan. It plays like a thriller.

Stacking the shorts race: Pedro Almodóvar’s “Strange Way of Life” (Oct. 6) and Wes Anderson’s “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” (Sept. 20)

If you’re a live-action shorts director, this is either the best of years or the worst of years, depending on your tendency toward optimism. Two of the most-beloved directors in the industry have stepped into the race, to great fanfare. Almodóvar went to Cannes and Toronto with a 31-minute gay Western that aims to bring the heat he felt “Brokeback Mountain” lacked, starring Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke as lovers.Anderson received a filmmaker award at Venice while premiering his 40-minute short, based on a Roald Dahl story and starring Benedict Cumberbatch. They could crush all other competition, or be a catalyst for the most-watched shorts program in ages. Stay tuned!



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