'The Awards Pundits' on Toronto's Triumphs, Surprises and Audience Favorites

The Hollywood Reporter

The Hollywood Reporter's awards analyst Scott Feinberg and executive features editor Stephen Galloway discuss the road to the Oscars.

GALLOWAY Scott, you're on your way back from the Toronto Film Festival. Tell me the good, the bad and the ugly.

FEINBERG Excluding films we saw in Telluride, TIFF had two clear standouts: Jackie, Pablo Larrain's stunning portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy around the time of her husband's assassination, which features a performance for the ages by Natalie Portman and quickly got snapped up by Fox Searchlight; and Lion, a deeply moving adaptation of a best-selling book starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara and terrific Indian child actors who dominate the first half of the film, which also puts Harvey Weinstein back in the Oscar race, just as many were ready to write him off.

GALLOWAY You're talking about one of my two favorite films of the season, along with Moonlight. You have to give it to Harvey. Every time people think he's down-and-out, he bounces back. Whether he can give Lion the kind of push it deserves, we still have to see. But his taste and judgment remain exceptional. One of the remarkable things about this movie is that it juxtaposes two completely different worlds, and even two different filmic universes, and somehow makes them gel. What else caught your fancy?

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FEINBERG Snowden, which was teased at San Diego Comic-Con back in July, marks a real return to form for Oliver Stone, with an Oscar-caliber performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the complicated title character. I don't understand why this film hasn't generated greater excitement -  I don't even like what Snowden did, but I loved the film, which also stars Shailene Woodley. I hope that Open Road, which rode Spotlight all the way to the best picture Oscar last year, realizes what it has with this one, as well.

GALLOWAY I'm more of a Snowden supporter than you are - I mean, the real man, not the film. Here's what people aren't fully acknowledging: Strip away the pyrotechnics that you saw from Stone in some of his flashier movies, like U-Turn, and he's a remarkably gifted director. The performances he gets, the use of camera and sound - he understands all these elements as well as anyone. What might be disappointing to people is that the story itself feels familiar, and maybe they were expecting bigger surprises. It's very, very solid.

FEINBERG A number of other films unveiled at the fest also struck me as solid, but with decidedly limited awards prospects. Denial is notable mainly for the fine performances of Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall as antagonists in a debate over the Holocaust. American Pastoral is an impressive directorial debut for Ewan McGregor that has received the seal of approval from the fussy author of its source material, Philip Roth -

GALLOWAY - who's always proved exceptionally hard to adapt, and I think McGregor pulled it off with subtlety, even if the material feels a little old-fashioned -

FEINBERG - as does Their Finest. Even so, it's a long-overdue vehicle for the gorgeous and talented Gemma Arterton.

GALLOWAY Luc Besson's company, EuropaCorp, picked that up. They have another best actress hopeful in Miss Sloane's Jessica Chastain. She's a gifted performer who may be doomed by being good in too many things. It's a terrible dilemma for an actor who wants to practice his or her craft: Do you remove a bit of the magic and the mystery by making yourself too familiar? Or do you do what you love doing, and then people kind of take you for granted?

FEINBERG I can't get enough of her. Whether she's playing an airhead with a heart of gold in The Help or an intelligence officer in Zero Dark Thirty or a grieving mother in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby or the wife of a white-collar criminal in A Most Violent Year or an astronaut in The Martian or an NRA lobbyist turned gun control advocate in this latest film, she's always so good.

Read more: 'Lion': Film Review | TIFF 2016

GALLOWAY Wow, you know everything she ever did.

FEINBERG She's probably my favorite actress of her generation.

GALLOWAY So, we've dealt with TIFF's good. Now the bad and the ugly. Did any Oscar hopefuls stumble?

FEINBERG Several generated a passionate response, but are not Academy-friendly. Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, coming seven years after his extraordinary A Single Man, is well made and acted (especially by Michael Shannon in a supporting role), but it's just too weird for your average Academy member.

GALLOWAY But they must see it! He has great talent, even if he veers very dark. By the way, read my profile of him - he's nothing if not complicated. I think if the audience can get past the film's opening, they'll be hooked by the story-within-the-story.

FEINBERG Yes, but the opening is a minutes-long title sequence featuring obese nude women gyrating in slow motion. That's going to lose some people.

GALLOWAY Did anyone object when Fellini did that? And by the way, where are all the great foreign directors this year?

FEINBERG The foreign language Oscar race is beginning to take shape, with submissions coming in this week from Spain (Pedro Almodovar's latest, Julieta), Mexico (Jonas Cuaron's Desierto, which I saw at last year's TIFF), Chile (Neruda, another film from Pablo Larrain that I saw at this year's TIFF), Iran (past Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman) and many other countries. My personal favorites, though, remain Finland's The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, the black-and-white boxing movie that won Cannes' Un Certain Regard section and could score a best cinematography nom, too; and the submission from Germany, Toni Erdmann -

GALLOWAY Oh, no. Scott, what happened to you?

FEINBERG We disagree vehemently about that one.

GALLOWAY I heard a number of films at TIFF that were expected to be awards contenders proved to be more like straight commercial plays.

FEINBERG That was my sense with Deepwater Horizon, which reunites Lone Survivor director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg, and Sing, the latest animated film from Universal and Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me), which is very entertaining, but too derivative for the animation branch.

GALLOWAY I promise you, it'll rake in the cash. And that's a studio's sole aim these days - maybe it always was. Show business is primarily business, and that's why people who cling to the belief that film is an art form are so often disappointed. Which brings me to Queen of Katwe, the Uganda-set movie starring David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o. You know what a huge fan of Lupita's I am, but I can't get a read on this. I'm seeing it in a couple of days. Is it an Oscar film? A money maker? Neither? Both?

FEINBERG I'm not sure it'll prove to be either of those things, but it's important. As Disney's first live-action movie ever set in Africa and/or with an all-black cast, it's historic and empowering, and I tip my cap to Disney for taking a chance on it -  and to your (our) beloved Lupita for using her profile to tell stories that matter, whether on Broadway (she was Tony-nominated this year for Eclipsed, Broadway's first-ever play with an all-black and female creative team) or onscreen.

GALLOWAY I gather that TIFF also teased a number of Oscar-hopefuls without actually screening them.

FEINBERG Right. Wahlberg unveiled the trailer for his other 2016 collaboration with Berg, the more Oscar-y Patriots Day, about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. And Fox unveiled select footage from Hidden Figures, a dramedy about the true story of three black women who played key roles in NASA's first space missions, which will receive an Oscar-qualifying run on Christmas Day -

GALLOWAY - though Fox, for some reason, won't admit it.

FEINBERG The clips were introduced by director Ted Melfi (in absentia, via pre-recorded footage) and played very well, with some even generating applause. They were followed by an emotional Q&A with stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, as well as Pharrell Williams, who is one of the producers and worked on the soundtrack.

GALLOWAY So now that you're heading home, what would you say were the biggest surprises coming from Toronto?

FEINBERG Apart from the dearth of sales (Maudie and LBJ, among many other buzzed-about titles, still are up for grabs), I'd say the tremendous reception accorded The Birth of a Nation. It arrived in Toronto on its deathbed, in the wake of the Nate Parker controversy, with pundits like us pondering about picketers, hecklers and booers. But there was none of the above.

GALLOWAY I heard it got two standing ovations.

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FEINBERG Yes, and of a length and volume unlike any others at this year's fest. Sure, Parker got asked - and dodged - a few questions about the controversy at a press conference, but Fox Searchlight took a big gamble in bringing the film and the filmmaker to the fest, and it paid off. Now many Academy members who were on the fence about even watching the film will check it out, if only to see what was good enough to provoke that response. And, like Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who was interviewed at TIFF about the Academy's diversity push), I think they should check it out.

GALLOWAY The audience award will be announced Sunday. Place your bet now: What's the winner?

FEINBERG That's been one of the stronger harbingers of Oscar success, with past honorees including Chariots of Fire, American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, The King's Speech and 12 Years a Slave, all of which went on to win the best picture Oscar. And each of the last four honorees was at least nominated for best picture -

GALLOWAY You're dodging the bullet here, Mr. Feinberg. Get it right, and I'll treat you to dinner. Or a free movie - which may be the last thing you feel like at this point.

FEINBERG It's very hard to predict, but if you look at past winners, they're almost all well made and deeply moving. So I'm going to say La La Land, with Moonlight and Lion hot on its heels. That said, every few years TIFF audiences surprise you and give their award to something that hasn't registered on most people's radar, like 2012's Where Do We Go Now? -

GALLOWAY If they do that this year, who wins?

FEINBERG I think the beneficiary could be Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, a gut-punch of a British kitchen sink drama that won Cannes' Palme d'Or and then arrived at TIFF and left many members of a packed house not only in tears, but so stricken they didn't vacate their seats until the credits had finished rolling and theater officials asked them to leave.

GALLOWAY Admit it, you were one of them!

FEINBERG You got me.