As trial balloons go, the one launched earlier this week by the Hollywood trade paper Variety went over like the Hindenburg.
The headline, on a dispatch from the Toronto International Film Festival, read: “Should There Be (Gasp!) 20 Best Picture Nominees This Year?”
Now Timothy P. Gray, Variety’s awards editor (yes, they have an editor whose sole job is to keep tabs on Hollywood awards coverage), was not arguing what you think. He was not advocating that the motion-picture academy turn the Oscars into a T-ball tournament where everybody gets a prize, or expand the already overloaded Oscar ceremony with 10 Best Picture nominees added to the 9 or 10 contenders of the past few years.
No, Gray was making a point that at Toronto, the traditional launchpad for Hollywood studios’ Oscar dreams, there were so many movies available that were solid awards contenders that it would be easy to fill the nominations and then some.
Over the last two weeks of festival season — from Venice through Telluride and finally Toronto, which wraps up this weekend — the Academy Awards drumbeat from Hollywood insiders and critics has been loud and steady. The only part that changes is the title of the movie being discussed as the next sure-fire Oscar favorite.
At Telluride over Labor Day weekend, Utah’s Robert Redford was given one of that festival’s three gala tributes, with a career’s worth of performances compiled in clips. Telluride also had the U.S. premiere of “All Is Lost,” in which Redford has the movie practically to himself as a man sailing solo and fighting for survival on the open sea. The movie’s debut at Cannes started the talk of an Oscar nomination for Redford, which would be his first acting nod since “The Sting” in 1973.
Telluride also debuted the Coen brothers’ latest, the folk-music tale “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Ralph Fiennes’ Charles Dickens biopic “The Invisible Woman,” and Jason Reitman’s dark drama “Labor Day.” Telluride also gave the U.S. premieres to other Cannes titles, such as Alexander Payne’s father-son drama “Nebraska,” the French-Iranian family drama “The Past,” and the Palme D’Or-winning French lesbian drama “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (which, because of arcane Academy rules, probably won’t be eligible for the Foreign Language Oscar).
Reading the Twitter traffic from Toronto, it seemed as if every day there was another Oscar contender unleashed.
First it was “The Fifth Estate,” the WikiLeaks drama with Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange. Then came the rapturous reviews for British director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” and for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as a free black man kidnapped into slavery in pre-Civil War America.
Then it was “Dallas Buyers Club,” the AIDS-era drama being touted for Matthew McConaughey’s performance. After that came “Philomena,” with Judi Dench starring as an Irishwoman looking for the son she gave up for adoption.
Then there was the big enchilada, “August: Osage County.” I say “big” in part because of its pedigree, an adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It’s also big because it’s being pushed hard by Harvey Weinstein, who plays the Oscar game the way Mr. Spock plays three-dimensional chess. And, of course, there’s the cast, which includes past Oscar winners Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper and the lady herself, Meryl Streep, as the nasty matriarch of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family.
“Meryl’s got the Oscar on lock … again,” tweeted Moviefone’s Chris Jancelewicz — a fairly typical response to the movie and its chances at securing multiple Academy Awards nominations.
It’s that response — and similar responses to the other so-called “Oscar bait” films — that rankles, though. It reduces the art of moviemaking, and the craft of movie criticism, to a simple yes/no question: Will a movie get an Oscar or not?
There are some 300 titles at the Toronto International Film Festival every year. Only a handful will receive Oscar nominations come January, and even fewer will end up with a statuette on March 2.
Does that mean the other movies are worthless crap? Of course not, but you scarcely hear anything about them from the awards-obsessed movie press.
Handicapping the Oscar race through this August-September festival crush also has an unfortunate tendency to set the field in stone. This allows little room for latecomers and surprises from the November and December releases, and it practically invites a backlash from skeptical critics who didn’t get to make the trip to Toronto.
Maybe now, as the awards season slams into high gear, it’s time for a reminder that the Oscars are not the best yardstick of movie greatness. Remember this: Alfred Hitchcock never get an Oscar, but Eminem has one. Think about it.
Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans.