The Imitation Game has risen to the top of the Oscar pack after winning the Grolsch People’s Choice Award on the final day of the Toronto International Film Festival. This handsome biopic of mathematician–turned–WWII code breaker Alan Turing is propelled by several strong performances, most notably, that of its star, Benedict Cumberbatch (above). The film has a heart-wrenching tragic arc — a few years after cracking what was thought to be an unbreakable German code, Turing, a gay man who kept his sexual orientation a secret, was prosecuted for gross indecency by the government for which he served so nobly.
Now, leaving TIFF, The Imitation Game, which opens in US theaters on November 21, bears both popular and critical support. The British production follows the successful path of past TIFF films that used the festival as an awards-season springboard, like last year’s Gravity and 12 Years a Slave; and Argo and Silver Linings Playbook in 2012. And the Grolsch prize was given to three of the last five best picture Oscar winners: 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire.
Here’s the lowdown on what’s in — and what’s out — of contention following Toronto:
This year yielded a bounty of solid films. And, while The Imitation Game edged ahead, The Theory of Everything — the Stephen Hawking biopic, starring Eddie Redmayne —offers serious competition. If Theory has a weakness, it’s that Redmayne’s performance is bigger than the picture (as no such issues arises in the finely tuned The Imitation Game). Don’t be surprised if the drummer-drama Whiplash (pictured), starring teen heartthrob Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons as aspiring musician and demon mentor, becomes the low-budget indie with awards legs.
Yet another biopic, Foxcatcher, with Steve Carell in a dramatic role alongside Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, came out strong after Cannes, but may have weakened a bit here, battling impossibly high expectations. And there’s some firepower waiting in the wings that did not screen at TIFF: Birdman starring Michael Keaton in a comeback role screened to raves at the Venice International Film Festival. Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken has not yet been screened, while David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice make their debuts at the upcoming New York Film Festival.
IN: The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
OUT: Maps to the Stars, The Drop, Clouds of Sils Maria
Right now, Cumberbatch leads all contenders in what is shaping up to be yet another monster battle in this always-competitive category. Last year, Matthew McConaughey stepped up at Toronto with Dallas Buyers Club and went all the way to the Oscars. This year, Redmayne competes for playing the physically-challenged physicist Hawking. Meanwhile, the man to beat at the critics’ awards will be Timothy Spall (above) for his all-consuming performance as the eminent English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s warts-and-all biopic Mr. Turner. Foxcatcher's Carell is still in the game following the tradition of comic actors getting recognition for crossing over to drama.
Buzz for Bill Murray in a star-turn as a curmudgeon with a heart of gold in St. Vincent has been muted by a lack of passion for the project as a whole, ditto Tom Hardy in the so-so crime drama The Drop.
The common theme for the contenders: biopics rule. But, wait, there may be one sleeper performance to sneak in: Richard Gere as a homeless man in Oren Moverman’s Time out of Mind.
IN: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Richard Gere (Time out of Mind)
OUT: Tom Hardy (The Drop), Bill Murray (St. Vincent). Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge)
Julianne Moore came to Canada riding a wave of good buzz off her Cannes-honored turn as a dyspeptic diva in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. But following its Toronto screening, the performance of a desperate actress seemed itself desperate and the air went out of the movie as its new distributor, Focus World, announced there would be no money for an Oscar campaign. And then Moore’s second film, Still Alice, arrived – and the buzz returned. She plays a 50-year-old wife and mother facing early onset Alzheimer’s — and Sony Pictures Classics immediately snapped it up for an Oscar run. Also getting attention was Reese Witherspoon playing against type in Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir about a heroin addict fighting back by hiking the Pacific Coast Trail. It’s already been called Eat Trailmix, Pray, Love.
While British actress Felicity Jones is getting attention for playing Stephen Hawking’s wife in The Theory of Everything, her role fizzles, unfortunately, and I doubt she’ll be in many award-season conversations. I’m praying for Marion Cotillard’s naturalistic performance in the Belgian drama Two Days, One Night to catch fire in the race, along with Juliette Binoche’s aging actress (opposite Kristen Stewart) in the awkwardly-titled Clouds of Sils.
Overall, this category seems weak exiting Toronto but not as weak as Best Supporting Actress (see below).
IN: Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night), Juliette Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria)
OUT: Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
J. K. Simmons crashes the party, a veteran character actor who finally gets the role of a lifetime as an abusive jazz instructor in Whiplash. The supporting characters in Foxcatcher, the Olympic wrestler brothers Mark and David Schultz, pit Channing Tatum against Mark Ruffalo (pictured). The latter may win this bout, moving on to the nominations with Tatum sacrificing. Word is that Edward Norton’s flexes his Oscar muscles in Birdman,but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves this early in the race.
IN: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
OUT: Channing Tatum (Foxcatcher), Robert Duvall (The Judge)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
This is absolutely the weakest category exiting Toronto. Laura Dern plays Reese Witherspoon’s mother in Wild, although, in real life, only nine years separate the two actresses. There has been some talk involving Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game, but that’s largely because the overall field is so feeble. Likewise, Vanessa Redgrave in Foxcatcher, in a tiny but pivotal role as Carell’s disapproving mother. Kristen Stewart proves to be an excellent supporting player as the personal assistant to Binoche’s demanding diva in Clouds of Sils Maria, but it remains unclear if that film will get the attention it deserves. All of this is good news for Boyhood's Patricia Arquette (pictured), whose position may be strengthened by the lack of competition. As of now, this is the long-suffering, or insufferable, wife-and-mother-and-daughter-and-girlfriend category.
IN: Laura Dern (Wild), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Vanessa Redgrave (Foxcatcher), Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria)
OUT: Mia Wasikowska (Maps to the Stars), Melissa McCarthy (St. Vincent)
Up next: The New York Film Festival, opening September 26, where Gone Girl, Birdman and Inherent Vice will shift the odds. Again.