Graham: Best Picture race takes shape at TIFF

"A Star is Born," "Roma," "Green Book" and more headed from Toronto to Oscar

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

"A Star is Born" is the belle of the ball at the Toronto International Film Festival, and February's Oscar picture is now a little clearer. 

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in "A Star is Born."

Writer-director-star Bradley Cooper’s new version of the classic Hollywood romance swept through the 10-day movie marathon, which wraps up Sunday. At a festival where there were plenty of doubles and triples, but few, if any, home runs, “A Star is Born” was the most well-received film, and it's looking like a major player come Oscar time.

It seems like a lock for Best Actor (Cooper), Best Actress (Lady Gaga) and Best Supporting Actor (Sam Elliott) noms, and it's currently looking like the film to beat in the Best Picture race.

In its favor is the fact that it’s likely to be a hit with audiences, which is important, even though the last several Best Picture winners have whiffed at the box office (2012’s “Argo” was the last Best Picture winner to gross $100 million).

Popularity matters, this year more than recent years, especially since the Academy has killed its plans to hand out a conciliatory “People’s Oscar” prize, an announcement that came down during TIFF.

That popular Oscar prize was viewed by many as a way to honor “Black Panther” or another mega-blockbuster without outright giving it the Best Picture prize. Since that consolation prize is now gone, don’t count out “Black Panther” from the main race, but it also bolsters the chances of a likely hit-to-be such as “A Star is Born.” The category's announcement was an admission that there has been a disconnect between the Oscars and audiences in recent years, so honoring a good, old-fashioned audience pleaser is one way to try and get those audiences back.   

TIFF titles likely to join "A Star is Born" in the Best Picture race include Alfoson Cuaron’s “Roma,” a deeply meditative, black and white art film about Cuaron’s own youth, and “Green Book,” Peter Farrelly’s road movie about a bouncer-type (Viggo Mortensen) who drives a musician (Mahershala Ali) through the 1960s south.

“Green Book” had good buzz heading into TIFF, but following its world premiere at the fest, it was catapulted to the front of the Best Picture race. The Thanksgiving release is also looking like a crowd-pleasing hit in the waiting, which helps its case.

Director Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” follow-up, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” premiered at the fest, though reaction was far from unanimous. Some praised its poetic style, others found it tedious, but its pedigree is likely strong enough to help it break through and nab a Best Picture nomination.

“La La Land” director Damien Chazelle brought his Neil Armstrong story “First Man” to the fest, and while it dazzles on a technical level, its human connection never gets off the ground. The subject matter alone (and the fact that Chazelle’s last two movies have made the Best Picture race cut) puts it in the Best Picture conversation, though it would be one giant leap to consider it a favorite to win.

Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” a crackling heist movie with soap opera twists that doubles as a commentary on our nation's socioeconomic inequality, had many drum beaters in Toronto, though it’s unclear whether the film will be positioned as a prestige film or an audience pleaser. It seems too pulpy (and frankly too silly) for Academy voters to embrace, but McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) raises its pedigree considerably and may force voters to take it more seriously than they should.

And then there’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” a comedic drama in which Melissa McCarthy stars as a down-and-out author who takes up a career in forgery when her writing gigs dry up. McCarthy is tremendous in the lead role, and she’s assisted by a marvelous Richard E. Grant, who is the best he’s been in years as her low-life, street-smart friend. Both seem destined for Oscar noms, and as it stands, the movie’s got an outside shot at joining the Best Picture race.

A lot can change, of course, between now and awards season. But it’s fun to have the conversation, and TIFF is a good place to start.