A quiet, moody indie picture like Moonlight, starring Alex R. Hibbert (left) and Mahershala Ali, is competing against big budget studio fare.
It happens every year around this time. The days get shorter, the nights get longer and the movies get a little more serious. Welcome to awards season, when the studios roll out their Oscar bait – or what they think is their Oscar bait anyway – for your consideration.
A number of them will be familiar from TIFF: La La Land, Lion, Arrival, Jackie, Moonlight. Others, like Loving, Paterson, Toni Erdmann and The Birth Of A Nation, debuted at Sundance or Cannes, while another wave – John Madden’s Miss Sloane (out December 9), Martin Scorsese’s Silence (January 6), Stephen Gaghan’s Gold (January 27) – arrives at the megaplex fresh from the edit bay.
And each film will spend the next month vying for this critics’ prize or that Golden Globe nomination, and maybe a little Oscar buzz.
It’s all kind of exhausting, really, and impossible to keep up with. And the constant nattering about awards potential quickly becomes meaningless.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are both great in the colourful La La Land. But is it fair to compare them and the film to something muted like Manchester By The Sea?
Can a film as delicate and stylish as Moonlight compete with a machine-tooled weeper like Lion? Is Ryan Gosling’s prickly but heartfelt turn in La La Land really comparable to Casey Affleck’s muted suffering in Manchester By The Sea? Can what Amy Adams does in Arrival be measured against Jessica Chastain’s turn in Miss Sloane? Will Denzel Washington’s decision to direct Fences (out December 25) be a distraction from his performance in the leading role?
Here’s a different question: Why does it matter? The very concept of “awards bait” creates a state of false competition, with elements of a given film being judged on their potential to win a prize rather than whether or not they function as required within a larger work of art. But filmmakers and audiences buy into it, even when they should know better – resulting in performances calibrated to convey maximum gravitas or pathos, marketing designed to signal that the movie you are about to see is a very serious work, or endless magazine profiles and talk show segments to the same end. Whatever the film, the conversations are exactly the same.
Worse, the tradition of releasing “important” movies in the last few weeks of the year is starving theatres of serious cinema for the other 10 or 11 months. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea premiered at Sundance last January, but it spent the rest of the year on the festival circuit – including a stop at TIFF – to build awards momentum before opening in late November.
Now, it’s true that as a critic I evaluate movies all the time, and I vote in the Toronto Film Critics Association Awards every December. But I’d love to be able to discuss these films without worrying about whether they’ll make it to the Golden Globes or the Oscars or any other ceremony; I just want to appreciate the movies for what they are. And I’d especially love it if distributors spaced out their prestigious titles a little more, rather than trying to cram everything into the last eight weeks of the year.
It's a shame great films like Midnight's Special, starring Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher, will be forgotten during the awards season chatter.
After all, plenty of good stuff came out in the spring and summer; I’m thinking specifically of Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special and David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon. Released in April and August, respectively, they’re both wonderful, unexpectedly moving films made by genuine artists.
I dunno. Maybe a November slot would have led audiences to take them more seriously. But that just feeds the awards-season trap, so forget I said anything. Just catch up with them when you can and enjoy them for what they are.
That’s the best way to see any movie, Oscar bait or otherwise.