With critics and movie buffs flocking to fall film festivals like swallows returning to Capistrano, it's clear that Oscar season is upon us again. Already, the buzz is strong for movies that played last week at Venice and Telluride, and the air in Toronto is thick with anticipation for likely contenders playing there later this week and next. Therefore, we can anoint some favorites in the race, even though none of these movies has been released yet.
The biggest hosannas at Telluride went to "12 Years a Slave," the based-in-fact epic about an African-American free man who was shanghaied and sold into bondage in the years before the Civil War. Not only will we no longer have any excuse for not knowing how to spell and pronounce Chiwetel Ejiofor (an instant Best Actor contender), but his movie will also be a favorite for Best Picture, Best Director ("Shame" helmer Steve McQueen), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender), Best Supporting Actress (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o), and Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley).
Much praise also went to "Prisoners," the kidnapping drama whose cast consists largely of previous Oscar nominees and winners (including Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, and Melissa Leo) who may get booked for a return trip to the podium.
Also at Telluride: "Inside Llewyn Davis," Joel and Ethan Coen's look at the New York City folk scene of the early 1960s. Having premiered back in May at Cannes, the film wowed viewers in Colorado, too, spurring talk of Best Director and Best Actor (Oscar Isaac, of "Drive," as the title musician).
Another Venice and Telluride favorite was "Gravity," Alfonso Cuaron's ("Children of Men") sci-fi opera about an astronaut (Sandra Bullock) adrift in space. People are talking about that for Best Picture, too, as well as Best Director, Best Actress, and maybe even Best Supporting Actor for frequent Academy favorite George Clooney.
Venice also sparked buzz for Judi Dench (always Oscar bait) in "Philomena" and Daniel Radcliffe (as poet Allen Ginsberg) in "Kill Your Darlings."
Some of these movies will also play at the less-exclusive Toronto Film Festival, beginning Sept. 5. Listen for talk about such movies as "August: Osage County" (with an all-star cast led by Julia Roberts), "Rush" (Ron Howard's racing drama), "Labor Day" (with Kate Winslet doing her trademark unhappy hausfrau role), "The Fifth Estate" (with Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks' Julian Assange), "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" (starring Idris Elba as the South African leader), and "Dallas Buyers Club" (starring an emaciated Matthew McConaughey as an AIDS-stricken activist).
Some movies that already played at Cannes will be seeing their North American debuts in Toronto. Among the buzziest are "All Is Lost," the one-man, nearly-silent drama that stars Robert Redford as a solo sailor adrift at sea, and "Nebraska," the latest from director Alexander Payne ("The Descendants"), featuring a comeback role for Bruce Dern as a cantankerous dad on a road trip. "Blue Is the Warmest Color" wowed Cannes viewers with the performances of Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux as a lesbian couple.
There are still some movies that remain wild cards, since no one has seen them yet, but whose makers have Oscar pedigrees that make them possible contenders this year. Tom Hanks has two movies: "Captain Phillips" (as a real-life victim of a Somali pirate attack) and "Saving Mr. Banks" (as Walt Disney, opposite Emma Thompson in the role of "Marry Poppins" author P.L. Travers). George Clooney has two: "Gravity" and "Monuments Men" (a World War II drama directed by and co-starring Clooney). Director David O. Russell is back with "American Hustle," a period crime drama featuring Oscar-nominated stars from both of his last two films ("The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook"). Ben Stiller, after years of trying, finally remade "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" as director and star. And "The Wolf of Wall Street" is the latest collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. Some of these will debut at the New York film festival in a few weeks.
These films may join such already-released summer movies "Blue Jasmine," "Fruitvale Station," and "Lee Daniels' The Butler" among Oscar contenders. "Jasmine" has generated awards talk for writer/director Woody Allen and star Cate Blanchett; "Fruitvale" for star Michael B. Jordan; and "The Butler" for director Daniels and stars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.
Why does it matter what a handful of critics saw at Telluride or are about to see at Toronto? Well, last year at this time, the pundits were emerging from Telluride and raving about a movie called "Argo."