This year's Toronto International Film Festival sent one clear message: Feels are in.
Every year, the Toronto Film Festival kicks off awards season, that precious time when entertainment journalists look for whatever film Eddie Redmayne is starring in and report back breathlessly to their editors. But the 2016 slate featured no films starring Eddie Redmayne, which left a wide-open field of Sundance and Cannes favorites, big-ticket fall premieres, and star-laden catastrophes that flame out in real time.
The common theme in 2016? Tears. From a chorus of sniffles that passed through the theater like reception hors d'oeuvres to great, heaving, irrepressible sobs that would court public embarrassment if everybody else wasn't doing it, too. This year's Best Picture winner will likely be a weepie, so Oscar prognosticators are advised to trace the tracks of Academy voters' tears.
With that in mind, here are some early, early odds on ten of the contenders.
La La Land
In a nutshell: Damien Chazelle's follow-up to Whiplash is a throwback musical that sends two impossibly charming stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, through a Los Angeles sprinkled with fairy dust—even the freeway.
Tear factor: Substantial. Chazelle draws from many influences, but the main one, Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, has a bittersweet quality that carries over to the romance here.
Backlash potential: The line against La La Land is that it's all surface, a superficial pastiche of classic Hollywood musicals that doesn't have their depth or soul. Gravitas wins awards; this one literally dances on air.
Most likely awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, all the technical and music categories. There's the potential for a West Side Story/Sound of Music-style haul.
Is it any good?: On the rare occasions Hollywood makes a musical, it's usually some surefire Broadway adaptation that never plays nearly as well off the stage. La La Land was written and choreographed directly for the screen, and has a fluidity and charm that makes it feel like the revival of a lost art form.
Best Picture odds: 2 to 1.
Manchester by the Sea
In a nutshell: The latest from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) stars Casey Affleck as a Boston janitor who returns to his hometown in coastal Massachusetts after a death in the family and has to reckon with his devastating past.
Tear factor: An entire box of tissues—even, perhaps, an investment opportunity in Kimberly-Clark, the corporation that makes Kleenex. It's best not to know why Affleck's character doesn't want to go home again, because once it's revealed, the film wrings you like a dishcloth.
Backlash potential: Minor. Praise from critics was close to universal at Sundance and Toronto and there's nothing culturally provocative about Lonergan's meat-and-potatoes drama. Only in another #OscarsSoWhite year will anyone single this film out.
Most likely awards: Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay.
Tear factor: An entire box of tissues—even, perhaps, an investment opportunity in Kimberly-Clark, the corporation that makes Kleenex.
Is it any good?: Lonergan returns to the wrenching family drama of You Can Count on Me with another story about a tragedy that alters the contours of its characters' lives. Manchester by the Sea is even richer and more heart-rending, with a quietly piercing Affleck performance and an ear for marvelously profane regional dialect.
Best Picture odds: 5 to 1.
In a nutshell: When alien spacecraft hover over various spots on the globe, an expert linguist (Amy Adams) is tasked with figuring out how to communicate with the "heptapod" beings before humanity gives up and goes to war with them.
Tear factor: Arrival seems like hard sci-fi, as if Close Encounters of the Third Kind were told from the perspective of the brainiac scientists at Devils Tower. But a loss in the first act sets up a gut-punch in the third—once a reprise of Max Richter's "On the Nature of Daylight" kicks in, there go the waterworks.
Backlash potential: Relatively low, but Arrival tries to reconcile the intellectual challenge of puzzling through languages and symbols with the sentimental business of a mother getting over the loss of a child. Sci-fi devotees might find it too lightweight; mainstream moviegoers may find it too remote.
Most likely awards: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay. It may not be as accessible as The Martian, but it's more audacious and should be up for many of the same prizes.
Is it any good?: Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) burrows so deeply into the difficulties of human/alien communication that the overwhelming emotional impact of Arrival comes out of the blue. But the film makes a meaningful statement about the fragility and preciousness of life and our elastic relationship with time.
Best Picture odds: 7 to 1.
The Birth of a Nation
In a nutshell: Writer/director/star Nate Parker subverts the title of D.W. Griffith's racist political epic to hail the foundational importance of Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher who led a revolt in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831.
Tear factor: The brutality and inhumanity of plantation life comes through powerfully enough, but it's Turner's transformation from passive preacher to righteous avenger that's most affecting, particularly in the lead-up to the insurrection.
Backlash potential: Already in progress. Considering how a rape charge in Parker's past might affect his Oscar hopes is awards chatter at its most unsavory, but The Birth of a Nation is about the violation of the human body and spirit, and Parker's authority on that subject is questionable to say the least.
Most likely awards: Best Picture, Best Actor. The fall festivals were supposed to be a coronation for a film so fervently championed at Sundance that it got a standing ovation before it even started. Now it's embroiled in controversy—which, ironically, brings it line with the other Birth of a Nation.
Is it any good?: Too much of Birth of a Nation is a generic slave narrative, built around a relationship between Turner and a sympathetic plantation owner (Armie Hammer) that recalls the more complex dynamic between Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch in 12 Years a Slave. But the film's strong religious underpinnings lend it distinction: Parker has made an explicitly Christian drama that frames Turner's story as a Biblical call to justice.
Best Picture odds: 10 to 1.
In a nutshell: Pablo Larraín's intimate biopic about Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) limits itself mainly to her response to her husband's assassination, both on the day it happened and over the funeral preparations that followed.
Tear factor: Massive. Jackie spent November 22, 1963 in a pink Chanel suit stained by her husband's blood—to see her manage the personal and political fallout of this national tragedy is a poignant lesson in courage and dignity.
Backlash potential: The experience of a First Lady working through trauma would seem uncontroversial, but given the intensity of interest in the JFK assassination and the blowback Selma got from LBJ's inner circle, the nitpickers will likely be out in force.
Most likely awards: Best Actress. It's only been six years since Portman won the prize for Black Swan, but Jackie may well be her defining role. Portman's physical slightness naturally suggests Jackie's vulnerability, but her performance is poised somewhere between shock and grief on one end and shrewd calculation and resolve on the other.
Is it any good?: Most biopics fail by covering too much territory. Jackie takes just a few fateful days of Kennedy's life to capture her essence, strongly refuting her worst image as the vainglorious height of American political royalty. In staying close to her side, Larraín provides a window into a surreal moment when the First Lady was forced, as quickly as the crack of a rifle shot, to address a trauma that was not hers alone.
Best Picture odds: 12 to 1.
In a nutshell: Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Take Shelter, Mud) chronicles the Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving, the plaintiffs in the Loving v. Virginia case, which addressed a state's right to prohibit interracial marriage.
Tear factor: Nothing more wrenching than a love story about societal forces keeping two good people apart, but it's the simplicity of the Lovings' relationship that hits especially hard. They want nothing more than to live in peace and start a family in their rural Virginia home, and they're harassed endlessly for it.
Backlash potential: Virtually nonexistent. There's nothing objectionable about Nichols' sensitive treatment of two decent people insisting on leading a normal life, which may be the most objectionable thing about it. Now that same-sex marriage is on the books, Loving isn't even relevant as a lesson in marriage equality.
Most likely awards: Best Actress. It's shaping up to be a crowded field, but Negga projects hidden strength as a woman who insists on realizing a modest dream for herself and her family, and overcomes her reticence to take up the fight.
Is it any good?: Loving is beautifully realized, with two powerful lead performances and a subtler understanding of racial prejudice and division than other films of its kind. The question hovering over the film, however, is "Why now?" Audiences might feel flattered to be on the right side of the interracial marriage issue, but that's setting the bar awfully low.
Best Picture odds: 15-1.
In a nutshell: Barry Jenkins' drama looks at three phases in a black man's life in the Miami projects, focusing on his sexual awareness in a masculine culture that forbids its development.
Tear factor: See also: Loving. Another tale of love oppressed by society, made all the more heartbreaking by a hero defined by his loneliness and alienation. There are few chances for him to be his true self and when they arrive, his sense of longing is palpably desperate.
Backlash potential: Minor. If Moonlight infiltrates the mainstream, audiences may blanch at the Wong Kar-wai movie it ultimately becomes, but the experiences of a black gay man—as rendered by a black filmmaker—are so rarely articulated on screen, much less this eloquently, that a backlash is hard to imagine.
Most likely awards: Best Director, Best Cinematography. Moonlight is a gorgeous piece of work that defies the conventions of a typical drama, operating in visually striking vignettes that present a character's coming-of-age in vividly realized pieces rather than an arc. It's primarily a feat of filmmaking.
Is it any good?: The hero's development from one chapter of his life to the next requires some leaps in imagination—and it's not particularly authentic as a film about the drug business—but Moonlight is nonetheless a singular achievement in queer cinema, casting a poetic eye toward the intense confusion and suppressed passion of a gay kid cornered by drugs, poverty, and cultural mores.
Best Picture odds: 15 to 1.
A Monster Calls
In a nutshell: As his single mom (Felicity Jones) enters the final stages of terminal illness and his hated grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) takes over his care, a little boy (Lewis MacDougall) turns to a tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) for wisdom.
Tear factor: A miserable, bullied child learning to accept to death of the only person in the world he loves? It's an unfair fight even before the allusions to storybook fantasy make you feel like a helpless kid again.
Backlash potential: The danger isn't a backlash so much as convincing audiences to see it at all. The fantasy elements of A Monster Calls are not an appeal to family adventure, but a form of supernatural grief counseling that may be a tough sell for children and parents alike.
Most likely awards: Best Visual Effects. A Monster Calls will have to contend with The BFG and Pete's Dragon for making an affecting character out of a CGI creation, but the tree monster is vividly detailed. (And Neeson's booming voice gives it whatever presence it might have lacked on its own.)
Is it any good?: Director J.A. Bayona ventures back into the rich gothic style of his period horror film The Orphanage, but once it becomes clear that the tree monster is basically an ornery child psychologist with a knack for storytelling, A Monster Calls starts to feel contrived and soppy. It's like The Giving Tree if Shel Silverstein only cared about the boy getting what he wanted.
Best Picture odds: 30 to 1.
In a nutshell: Tom Ford's long-awaited follow-up to A Single Man brings his pristine eye to the noir premise of an author (Jake Gyllenhaal) who sends his soon-to-be-published crime novel to his ex-wife (Amy Adams), perhaps as an act of revenge.
Tear factor: Cheeks as dry as desert canyons.
"It's a step forward for Ford, who better matches his impeccable vision with a story that crackles with tension."
Backlash potential: The opening credits sequence alone, featuring plus-sized women dancing in the nude, drew some scolding commentary about the beauty standards that Ford is carrying over from the fashion industry. Beyond that, Nocturnal Animals approaches noir genre with an archness that defies its gritty spirit and it's never entirely clear how much perspective Ford has about modern art scene or the grotesque privilege that defines his characters' lives.
Most likely awards: Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography. If Tom Ford cannot be counted on to manage the look of a film, then there's really no hope for the rest of it. And in a perfect world, Michael Shannon's hoot of a performance as a law-bending cop in the story-within-a-story would get him a supporting actor nod.
Is it any good?: Nocturnal Animals doesn't quite lose the hermetic qualities that hampered A Single Man, but it's a significant step forward for Ford, who better matches his impeccable vision with a story that crackles with tension. There's a gap in interest between Adams' gilded cage and the story-within-a-story about kidnapping and murder in West Texas, but most of Nocturnal Animals takes place in the latter realm, which has the punch of a dimestore paperback.
Best Picture odds: 100-1.
In a nutshell: After a decade-long absence, director Paul Verhoeven returns with a nasty psychodrama about a businesswoman (Isabelle Huppert) who survives a sexual assault, but doesn't report the incident to police. She has plans of her own.
Tear factor: Precisely as many tears as you shed during Verhoeven films like Robocop, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers or Huppert films like The Piano Teacher—which is to say, zero.
Backlash potential: Enough to keep thinkpiece writers in clover for months. Verhoeven has never been shy about challenging cultural sensitivities, particularly when it comes to sexual violence, and Elle may be his biggest provocation to date, a rape-revenge thriller that muddies up the psychology of its characters. Verhoeven wants people to argue about it, and they'll almost certainly oblige.
Most likely awards: Best Actress. Isabelle Huppert may be the greatest actress in the world. Surely that counts for something, right?
Is it any good?: Verhoeven has spent a career spinning the human capacity for degradation and atrocity into dark, Hitchcockian entertainments, and Elle finds him going not-so-quietly into that goodnight. With Huppert in the lead, the film keeps gaining in complexity, until multiple acts of violence and perversion coalesce into a human mystery that's not so easily unraveled.
Best Picture odds: Infinity times infinity to 1.