They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?:
La La Land Wins at TIFF
By J. Don Birnam
September 21, 2016
The first prediction of the Oscar year was an easy one - and several future ones this season will be so as well. As we said a number of times, the reception to the film from Venice to Telluride to Toronto was such that there was really never any doubt that La La Land would win the People’s Choice at TIFF and, on Sunday afternoon, it did.
Has La La Land Ended the Best Picture Race?
The statistics don’t lie - most of the last ten or so winners of that audience award end up nominees for Best Picture and it is not difficult to understand why. A win in Toronto means that a movie is a universal pleaser, one that almost anybody can watch and walk out satisfied our even wowed out of. The Imitation Game was such a movie, as was Room, and there is no question that La La Land is that film.
The question then is whether Damien Chazelle’s film can leverage that into a Best Picture win? I think the answer is a clear yes.
Not only is La La Land a much more ebullient crowd pleaser - as opposed interesting but tepid stories (The Imitation Game) or a more staid drama (Room) - it has a number of elements these last two TIFF winners but Oscar losers did not. It has, for example, that weighty Hollywood importance factor that the movie that ousted Imitation Game. Like Birdman, La La Land raises questions about the future of the industry itself. And while it may not have the gravitas of the last movie to triumph over the People’s Choice winner (Spotlight), it has the self-involved nature of the story to add to its weight.
Moreover, La La Land is missing something that likely sunk Room, broad support among other branches of the Academy. Yes, Spotlight also triumphed with relatively few nominations, but music and acting nods showed that branches were reaching for ways to give it that, which did not happen with Brie Larson’s flick. La La Land, by contrast, is looking at double digit nominations, what with music, song, and acting nods to add to the screenplay, directing, and other technical ones.
The problem for it is twofold and interrelated - there is more time here, and we are not sure what is coming. But that is not necessarily fatal. True, Birdman came in in the last phase to steal it from under Boyhood, but Spotlight was considered the frontrunner coming out of TIFF. Sure, that label moved back and forth as the crazy guilds went every which way, but eventually that early favorite was the winner (as it happened in the year of 12 Years a Slave, also a People’s Choice victor.)
Will people look for reasons and signs that this movie can lose? Of course. It’s too boring and too monotonous a season otherwise. But query whether there will be any truth to this. The film is a slam-dunk Golden Globe winner and prohibitive favorite for the most nods. It’s going to take a lot to derail the train, and the ultimate question really is how high it can go.
What Else We Learned
Meanwhile, two sort of unexpected movies emerged victors of the second and third place in the balloting - they are Lion, the Nicole Kidman film about the Indian kid who is lost from his family and adopted by Australians, and Queen of Katwe, the story of a prodigal Ugandan female chess player. Both are strong, crowd-pleasing movies - you walk out with huge smiles and feeling overall like your fate in humanity is restored.
Is it the political environment? The upcoming election? Or simply how Canadians function? It’s interesting to see this same thematic thread govern the winners as opposed to harder but much deeper films like Moonlight or even Manchester by the Sea. Not everyone wants to cry at the movies I suppose.
Still, I am not sure that either of those are serious Oscar contenders (though, recall that Spotlight did finish third at TIFF last year). Sure, Lion has Harvey Weinstein behind it and it’s an accessible story, but I think the movie ultimately suffers from some predictability and emotional confusion. Katwe, for its part, is an archetypical Disney movie - that’s good for audience but bad for the film’s awards prospects because it will be seen like another contraption by the House of Mouse.
Now the action shifts to the New York Film Festival, though this year’s fest does not showcase an obvious new entrant into the Oscar race. I suppose they can still add a surprise screening, but it’s looking less likely.
Instead, the heavier dramas from Telluride and TIFF (and before) will make stops here, with the aforementioned Moonlight and Manchester screening at the Lincoln Center. We will be covering mostly for audience and critical reaction, which will tell us more about those film’s chances for the rest of the season.
Really, the turn is of the audiences. Most of these films, including the not dead yet Birth of a Nation, will open in theaters over the coming weeks. The AFI film fest in November has normally featured the let entrants and we will be watching for those as well.
Thoughts? Twitter: @jdonbirnam