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The State of the 2024 Oscar Race: The Fall Festivals Leave Burning Questions

With the three major fall festivals—Venice, Telluride, and Toronto—all in the books, the 2024 Oscar season is now unofficially underway. All of the highly touted films that premiere at the fall fests tend to add more films and names into the conversation than they remove, and this year’s fests didn’t see any “The Son”–level critical flops that were so catastrophic they immediately ended a film’s awards chances. 

So, what did we learn about the Oscars from three weeks of getting immersed in mountains, canals, and poutine? Maybe not that much, actually. But at the very least, we learned what questions we should be asking. With that in mind, let’s look at the big races through the lens of the most interesting question looming over each category. 

Best Picture: How Many Fall Fest Premieres Punched Their Tickets?

As we entered Labor Day Weekend, four of the ten Best Picture slots appeared to have been spoken for: the twin box office juggernauts of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” (which won rave reviews at Cannes but won’t open theatrically until October 20), and the summer’s justifiably gushed-over indie drama, “Past Lives.” With most of the year’s other Oscar hopefuls playing the fall fests, how many now feel like probable nominees? 

The closest to a lock is “Poor Things,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow-up to 2018’s “The Favourite,” which features Emma Stone in a story that infuses the Frankenstein archetype with comedy and graphic sex. While the film might have initially sounded too weird and transgressive for the Oscars, that perception dramatically shifted after winning the top prize in Venice and receiving almost universally excellent reviews. 

That still leaves five slots, so what else feels like a reasonably safe bet? Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” also received strong reviews and was seen as a major return to form for Payne after 2017’s disappointing “Downsizing.” And Cord Jefferson’s debut, “American Fiction,” won the coveted People’s Choice Award in Toronto, which is considered a major Oscar predictor; 14 of the last 15 winners have gone on to Best Picture nominations, including the last 11 in a row. But from there, it gets much more complicated.

Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla,” and Michael Mann’s “Ferrari” all premiered to strong reviews in Venice, while “Rustin” and “NYAD” delighted audiences in Toronto. But with “Oppenheimer” seemingly a lock, how many biopics can realistically get nominated? Three widely adored international films from Cannes continued to make their case at the fall fests: “The Zone of Interest,” “Perfect Days,” and Palme d’Or winner “Anatomy of a Fall.” Any of the three could ride a “Drive My Car”–like wave into Best Picture contention if they galvanize the Academy’s growing international contingent, but they could also all split the vote. And a few other well-received films from the fall fests could become contenders if they really land with audiences: David Fincher’s “The Killer,” Andrew Haigh’s “All of Us Strangers,” Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn,” Todd Haynes’ “May December” (which premiered at Cannes and will also play the New York Film Festival), and the Sundance hit “Fair Play” (which was also a Gala premiere in Toronto). 

That’s already 13 films fighting for what looks like the final three to four nominations, and two major would-be contenders haven’t even premiered yet: Ridley Scott’s long-anticipated “Napoleon,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, and the new musical adaptation of “The Color Purple,” which opens on Christmas Day. In other words, prepare yourselves for a lot of blistering oppo takes over the next four months. 

Best Director: Is it Finally Christopher Nolan’s Year?

Nolan has been nominated for five Oscars, but somehow, only one of those was for Best Director (for 2017’s “Dunkirk”). The stunning success of “Oppenheimer” may strike voters as the perfect opportunity to honor one of the most adored and successful filmmakers of the 21st century. In case you missed the news, “Oppenheimer” recently became the highest-grossing non-action/sci-fi drama ever, and for a three-hour, partially black-and-white history lesson mostly featuring long-dead scientists talking to one another, that’s an achievement the Academy may find too irresistible to ignore. 

Who could reasonably compete against Nolan? Three names immediately come to mind. Greta Gerwig is Nolan’s Barbenheimer partner in crime, and if jaw-dropping financial success could propel Nolan to the win, Gerwig has to be considered a serious contender for the same reason. Martin Scorsese has still only won a single Oscar (against 14 nominations), and “Killers of the Flower Moon” could become one of the most acclaimed films in his career. And if “Poor Things” musters in audiences anything close to the gushing enthusiasm it elicited from critics, Yorgos Lanthimos could also become a serious contender. 

There’s a great chance those will be four of the five nominees. If that happens, then who has the best odds of taking the last slot? Bradley Cooper (“Maestro”), Sofia Coppola (“Priscilla”), David Fincher (“The Killer”), Andrew Haigh (“All of Us Strangers”), Todd Haynes (“May December”), Cord Jefferson (“American Fiction”), Michael Mann (“Ferrari”), Alexander Payne (“The Holdovers”), Ridley Scott (“Napoleon”), and Celine Song (“Past Lives”) will all have a chance to stake their claim. But the Academy’s Directors Branch leans heavily international, esoteric, and arthouse, so more than likely, the final slot will go to an international auteur like Jonathan Glazer (“The Zone of Interest”), Justine Triet (“Anatomy of a Fall”), or the great Wim Wenders (“Perfect Days”), who has been nominated three times for Best Documentary Feature, but never for his narrative films. 

Best Actor: Are We Already Down to Six Serious Contenders?

As summer ended, two actors felt safely in contention: Cillian Murphy as the titular “Oppenheimer” and Leonardo DiCaprio for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” In what is usually an impossibly deep category, the big question heading into the fall fests was how many additional names would insert themselves into the fight for those other three slots. But shockingly, the answer might only be four. 

That list starts with Paul Giamatti, who anchors “The Holdovers” with a wonderfully vulnerable portrayal of an ornery academic. Alexander Payne’s films have a long history of earning nominations for their leading men (including Jack Nicholson, George Clooney, and Bruce Dern), and Giamatti is widely seen as criminally under-rewarded. That descriptor also applies to two other major contenders, Jeffrey Wright (“American Fiction”) and Colman Domingo (“Rustin”), both beloved actors who have never gotten their due and finally have the meaty roles to change that. And then there’s Bradley Cooper (“Maestro”), who can’t be counted out no matter how many times his prosthetic nose trends on Twitter. 

Could anyone else break into that top six and seriously challenge for a nomination? Peter Sarsgaard won Best Actor in Venice for “Memory,” and Glen Powell won raves for his hilarious and charismatic performance in “Hit Man,” but neither film is likely to get released this year. Alden Ehrenreich (“Fair Play”), David Strathairn (“A Little Prayer”), and Gael García Bernal (“Cassandro”) all received Best Actor buzz out of Sundance, but their films have significantly cooled off since then. And Michael Fassbender (“The Killer”), Adam Driver (“Ferrari”), Andrew Scott (“All of Us Strangers”), Jamie Foxx (“The Burial”), and Mads Mikkelsen (“The Promised Land”) all received acclaim at the fall fests, but the enthusiasm likely wasn’t effusive enough to launch them into serious contention. 

That means the best bet to challenge the current top six is probably a performance we haven’t seen yet. Three major candidates come to mind: Joaquin Phoenix as the titular “Napoleon,” Kingsley Ben-Adir in “Bob Marley: One Love” (which is scheduled to open next January but may opt for a late-December Oscar-qualifying run), and Sir Anthony Hopkins playing none other than Sigmund Freud in a movie called “Freud’s Last Session” (which is still in production, but will reportedly open this year). 

Best Actress: Who Will Break Annette Bening’s Heart This Time? 

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Annette Bening could actually, for real, finally win Best Actress this year for her tough, physical, and demanding performance as swimmer Diana Nyad in “Nyad.” She worked her ass off in the film, both on camera and in prep, and she’ll certainly be a sentimental favorite among a significant swath of Academy voters. But this is a stacked field, and given the Academy’s recent resistance to narrative and “they’re due” wins (recall the shocking losses that befell Glenn Close, Chadwick Boseman, and Sylvester Stallone in recent years), it does Bening no favors to call her the favorite. 

Who is the favorite? The answer may lie in a reunion from “The Favourite.” In her latest collaboration with Yorgos Lanthimos, Emma Stone dazzled critics at both Venice and Telluride. When a role is both the most acclaimed and most daring of a major star’s career, Oscar voters often find that combo irresistible. But right up there with Stone is Margot Robbie, who not only led “Barbie” to the year’s highest box office gross, but she also shepherded the film into existence as its producer. It’s easy to imagine her incredible accomplishment culminating in a Best Actress win. 

But the major contenders don’t end there. Lily Gladstone is the top-billed actor in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and she provides the film’s emotional backbone. Cailee Spaeny won Best Actress in Venice for her titular portrayal of Priscilla Presley in Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla,” and given the child-bride nature of the story, it’s sure to be a much-debated film that could make a dent in the cultural zeitgeist. 

Those could be our five nominees, but several other actresses have a great chance to break in. That list starts with Sandra Hüller, who owns the screen in the Palme d’Or–winning “Anatomy of a Fall.” Hüller has had an incredible year (she also co-stars in “The Zone of Interest”) and fluently speaks three languages between the two films. It’s easy to picture voters wanting to honor her. That also applies to Greta Lee for her bilingual and deeply emotional performance in “Past Lives,” and it will surely help her that the film’s cast was just granted a SAG exemption to campaign for the film. 

Those seven names should all have an excellent chance at making the final five, but we’re not done yet. By all accounts, Carrie Mulligan is actually the central performance in Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” and she received top billing. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor anchors Ava DuVernay’s ambitious “Origin,” which was a bit divisive in Venice and Toronto, but those who love it do so wholeheartedly. Natalie Portman, playing an actress researching a difficult role in “May December,” could play like catnip to Academy voters. As the star of the upcoming musical version of “The Color Purple,” Fantasia Barrino could easily find herself in the race if the film is a critical and/or commercial hit. 

And there are even some legit dark horse candidates. It currently doesn’t look like Jessica Chastain (“Memory”) and Kate Winslet (“Lee”) will see their films released this year, but they could become fast contenders if that changes. Phoebe Dynevor is incredible in the psycho-sexual, gender-dynamics drama “Fair Play,” and if it really hits with audiences when it premieres on Netflix in a few weeks, she could ride that momentum to a nomination. And Leonie Benesch is magnetic in the German Oscar entry “The Teachers’ Lounge,” which could be a strong contender for Best International Film. 

Best Supporting Actor: Is it Still Ryan Gosling vs. Robert Downey Jr.?

When Barbenheimer had its grand summer moment, competing takes were flying left and right that either Ryan Gosling would surely win Best Supporting Actor for hilariously embodying Ken, or that Robert Downey Jr. would surely win Best Supporting Actor for his scenery-chewing in “Oppenheimer.” 

Either could absolutely still happen, but are those still the two best bets? Yes and no. While no one else has entered the race with the heat and momentum of Gosling and Downey Jr., the field has certainly gotten a lot deeper. But what’s interesting about this year’s Best Supporting Actor race is that it’s flush with pairs of actors from the same film, all of whom may hurt one another’s chances. 

Robert Downey Jr. may already be competing against some of his “Oppenheimer” cast mates, starting with Matt Damon (whose performance is less showy in the moment but arguably more memorable). And three of the other most acclaimed films of the year could each launch multiple contenders into the field: Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, and Ramy Youssef in “Poor Things”; Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons in “Killers of the Flower Moon”; and Paul Mescal and Jamie Bell in “All of Us Strangers.” Other possibilities include John Magaro (“Past Lives”), newcomer Dominic Sessa (“The Holdovers”), Jacob Elordi (“Priscilla”), Sterling K. Brown (“American Fiction”), Tommy Lee Jones (“The Burial”), and Colman Domingo or Corey Hawkins from the upcoming “The Color Purple.” But at this moment, it still feels like a Gosling v. Downey Jr. showdown.

Best Supporting Actress: Where Are the Frontrunners?

Every year, one major category seems to emerge from the fall fests without a true frontrunner, and this year, it’s Best Supporting Actress. There are plenty of worthy candidates, but none have really emerged from the pack. Who could take the lead? 

As with so many of these races, the conversation begins with Barbenheimer. America Ferrara is, in many ways, the emotional center of “Barbie,” and she even gives the film’s most memorable speech. And though “Oppenheimer” is mostly three hours of men talking to each other, Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh make a real impression on the film. 

The fall fests launched several names into the mix, including Jodie Foster, who anchors “NYAD” by being the most likable and sympathetic character; Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who provides a wonderful counterweight to a film (“The Holdovers”) that could have otherwise devolved into frustrating unawareness of its own white privilege; Penélope Cruz, who by all accounts steals the show in “Ferrari”; and Rosamund Pike, who does the same in “Saltburn.”

But the winner of this category could easily go to a movie that premiered earlier in the year. Sandra Hüller is terrifying as a Nazi wife in “The Zone of Interest,” who cares more about showing off her garden than she does about what’s happening on the other side of the walls at Auschwitz. Viola Davis nearly runs away with "Air" as Michael Jordan’s mother. And Julianne Moore is given a difficult character to wrestle with in “May December.” 

And then two huge ensembles could each launch several candidates into the race if they really hit with audiences. Issa Rae, Erika Alexander, and Tracee Ellis-Ross all take turns stealing scenes in “American Fiction,” and “The Color Purple” has any number of meaty roles—two of which are played by Taraji P. Henson and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor—that could end up being the film’s breakout.

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