Fall film festivals play a huge role in launching the year’s best movies into Oscar contention, but here’s the dirty little secret: Films don’t need critics to play well for the Academy. The TIFF People’s Choice Award is so predictive with Academy Best Picture nominees because it represents a broad swatch of ardent cinephiles with mainstream taste. People’s Choice Award-winner “Green Book” in Toronto 2018 followed a long list of eventual Oscar winners, from “Slumdog Millionaire” and “12 Years a Slave” to “The King’s Speech.”
This year’s TIFF audience-winner was Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” a lighthearted but serious fable about a lonely young Nazi enthusiast (Roman Griffin Davis) and his imaginary friend Hitler (Waititi), who finds himself fighting for dominance with a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hidden by his activist mother (Scarlett Johansson). “Jojo Rabbit” may come at a resonant time as neo-Nazis are on the rise, but it’s also a heart-tugger that makes audiences feel good. That’s more important than its modest 54 Metascore.
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This weekend will tell the audience side of the “Jojo Rabbit” story as it hits theaters. The movie is playing well to Academy voters as a mainstream arthouse play from a remarkable filmmaker who hasn’t been in the Oscar zone since his 2005 nominated short “Two Cars, One Night.” At 44, Waititi is a late-bloomer, having moved from a tiny town in New Zealand to start dabbling in short films in his 30s. After four features, including the 2014 “What We Do in the Shadows,” he was scooped up by Marvel to direct “Thor: Ragnarok.” And he finally found a home for his long-in-the-works Hitler satire at Fox Searchlight, which is still at the top of the arthouse awards heap.
On the other end of the critical spectrum is Neon’s box-office record-breaker “Parasite” from Bong Joon Ho (Metacritic: 95); like Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” it’s a strong foreign-language contender with potential to break into multiple Oscar categories. Also in the Oscar hunt is Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” (Metacritic: 88 and a “Must See”), which has Sony Pictures Classics chasing director and writer as well as overdue Antonio Banderas as Best Actor.
Critics will push these movies at year’s end, as will the craft guilds and tech Oscar voters. However, it’s the mainstream Academy voters — publicists, executives, producers, and actors — who determine a movie’s Oscar fate.
Even as the Academy appears to be getting younger and more adventurous, the older (white male) contingent still has significant influence. (Women make up 32% of Oscar voters, with people of color at just 16 percent.) They’re the guys who voted for Oscar-winners “Life of Pi,” “Gravity,” “American Sniper,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “The Revenant.” To win over this group, you don’t have to garner critical acclaim. “Green Book” wound up at 69 on Metacritic; “Bohemian Rhapsody” had a 49 Metascore and still delivered $893 million worldwide based on the enormous appeal of Queen and Freddie Mercury, with Rami Malek winning the Oscar. But “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t even try to play the festival game.
This year, Warner Bros.’ DC origin myth “Joker” followed “A Star Is Born” to a Venice debut, but Todd Phillips played in competition and won the Golden Lion. That may have hurt the movie more than it helped; Toronto critics turned sour, yielding a 59 Metascore.
That said: Reviews may not matter for “Joker,” either. Box office is huge ($573 million worldwide) and global audiences have embraced the movie’s Martin Scorsese-tinged violence more than critics. Academy actors will likely reward Joaquin Phoenix with a nomination, along with the writers, production designers, cinematographers, music branch, and more.
Another mainstream contender emerged this week, as director Jay Roach (Oscar-nominated “Trumbo”) and Oscar-winning screenwriter Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”) unveiled “Bombshell” (December 20, Lionsgate) to various guild groups and press. This ripped-from-headlines docudrama is focused on the women who confronted the toxic male culture of Fox News. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and fictional Fox News associate producer Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) take on a formidable adversary: Fox News czar Roger Ailes (a jowly John Lithgow).
Both Randolph and Roach (who directed two HBO Emmy-winners, “Game Change” starring Julianne Moore and Ed Harris, and “Recount” starring Laura Dern) come from Fox-friendly family backgrounds. And the movie carefully weaves its story without taking political sides. “The movie is about human beings, not politics,” said editor John Poll at a Q&A following the film’s DGA screening.
Producer-star Theron said she wrestled with how to portray powerful Fox news anchor Kelly, and had her breakthrough when she decided not to worry about whether she was likable. “That’s the last thing I could give a fuck about,” said Oscar-winner Theron, who carries the movie and could land her third Best Actress nomination. She’s almost unrecognizable, and “Darkest Hour” makeup star Kazuhiro Tzuji could win another Oscar for a series of remarkable transformations including Theron, Kidman, and Lithgow. And “I, Tonya” star Robbie could land her second acting nomination, for Supporting Actress, boosted by her mostly silent role in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” The more recent, fresh performance could grab the slot.
Will the movie pick up rave reviews? Initial response was strong. But finally, it doesn’t really matter.
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