'The Fabelmans' looks like this year's Oscar front-runner, but here's why that's complicated

Director Steven Spielberg attends the premiere of "The Fabelmans" at the Toronto International Film Festival
Director Steven Spielberg attends the world premiere of "The Fabelmans" during the Toronto International Film Festival. (Evan Agostini / Invision / Associated Press)
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Steven Spielberg was onstage at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre, talking about the End or, more precisely, how his new movie memory piece, "The Fabelmans," isn't quite the End or a signal that he's retiring, but simply an acknowledgment that the clock is ticking.

"It wasn't now or never," he said of making the long-gestating film, a crowd-pleasing look back on his childhood and a burgeoning passion for making movies, "but I almost felt that way."

And you don't have to be a 75-year-old filmmaking legend to relate in some way to Spielberg's sentiments. If you care about movies — and I'm guessing that if you're reading this you have at least a passing interest — you've probably felt that it might be now or never for the medium itself, particularly if you've recently wandered through a deserted multiplex, silent barns that at times feel like Blockbuster Video stores circa 2010.

Which is why, after the fall film festivals in Venice, Italy, Telluride, Colo., and Toronto, this year's awards season seems to be shaping up as a celebration of movies, both in the content of the films themselves ("The Fabelmans," Sam Mendes' "Empire of Light," Damien Chazelle's still-unscreened Golden Age of Hollywood extravaganza "Babylon") and, perhaps, in Oscar voters' willingness to acknowledge the few well-reviewed box office hits ("Top Gun: Maverick," "Everything Everywhere All at Once") that coaxed audiences — and life — back into theaters.

The movie business may be f—, as filmmaker James Gray told a colleague at Telluride. But between the aforementioned films and upcoming potential blockbuster sequels (and Oscar contenders?) "Avatar: The Way of Water," "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" and the sure-to-be-loved Netflix streamer "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery," there's a hopeful impression right now that the business intends to go down swinging.

Certainly, the Toronto International Film Festival, back at full capacity and, at times, resembling a bacchanal straight out of that "Babylon" trailer, with crowded street fairs and crushes of fans eager to get a glimpse of pop stars Taylor Swift and Harry Styles, provided an indication that audiences are ready to shed their inhibitions (and masks) and have a little fun after a two-year sabbatical. To be clear, many moviegoers still wore masks in theaters; one actor sported one at the premiere of his high-profile film, discreetly removing it now and then to take a few hits from his vape pen to get through the evening.

Because, even with the relaxed vibe, who's not still feeling a twinge of anxiety these days? Any awards consultant working on a campaign in which a film or an actor is being hailed as a front-runner definitely needs a vape pen handy. No one wants that target on their back right now, having witnessed the fate that befell fast, out-of-the-gate starters like "La La Land" and "The Power of the Dog" recently. Think about where "CODA," the 2022 Oscar best picture winner, was at this time last year: struggling to find an audience on Apple TV+ and eking out a few dollars during a limited qualifying run in theaters.

So the breathless reviews and all the buzz off those meticulously timed standing ovations at the festivals (someone in Venice is probably still clapping for Brendan Fraser) are wonderful, but let's manage those expectations for the moment, pleeeease.

Thankfully for all concerned, there is no definitive front-runner for best picture at the moment, though Spielberg's "The Fabelmans," which won the People's Choice Award on Sunday at Toronto, leads the pack.

The four acting races already have early favorites, more so than last year, when only Will Smith had emerged from the fall festivals as something of a lock for his strong performance in "King Richard." Remember: Smith owned a great awards season narrative as he'd never won an Oscar during his long career (it's his time!). How could he be denied? Everyone loves Will Smith!

So yes, perceptions can change. At the moment, Fraser is basking in a comeback story for his work in Darren Aronofsky's "The Whale," in which he plays a massively overweight, depressed man looking to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink from "Stranger Things") because he thinks time is running out. The warmth of feeling for Fraser is mostly confined to ’90s kids who grew up watching "Encino Man," "School Ties," "George of the Jungle" and "The Mummy" on a loop, and "The Whale" has divided critics, who have been kinder to Fraser than the film itself. But Oscar voters can't resist transformative turns, so the veteran actor figures to be a force this season.

Cate Blanchett, meanwhile, doesn't need any kind of narrative apart from perhaps being the greatest working actor alive, a distinction confirmed by her work in Todd Field's “Tár,” an immaculately crafted provocation that flirts with a number of hot button topics — #MeToo, cancel culture — in its uncompromising portrait of a world-class conductor and magnificent tyrant. Blanchett is in nearly every scene of this dazzling 158-minute movie, and I'd be ready to hand her the Oscar if it weren't for the fact that Michelle Yeoh has a legion of googly eyed admirers for her inexhaustible turn in the beloved "Everything Everywhere All at Once." Look for them to divide the prizes in the coming months.

Yeoh has never won an Oscar — she hasn't even been nominated, not even for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" — and neither has Michelle Williams, a four-time nominee for "Manchester by the Sea," "My Week With Marilyn," "Blue Valentine" and "Brokeback Mountain." The fifth time could well be the charm for Williams, who wowed the Toronto crowd with a powerhouse performance in "The Fabelmans" as the movie's (and Spielberg's) fragile, fiery mother.

Williams will have to contend with who knows how many members of the ensemble of Sarah Polley's "Women Talking," a moving portrait of women coming to terms with trauma and debating how to move past it. It's a serious film, and its construct alone seemed to threaten a few men reviewing it. (An entire movie about ... women ... talking???) But it placed second to "The Fabelmans" for the Toronto festival's People's Choice Award, proving, perhaps, that the movie business isn't entirely doomed. (Netflix's aforementioned "Glass Onion" placed third.)

However, we're still in the middle of the insular festival season, with New York and London on the horizon, a time when hope — and standing ovations — feel eternal.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.