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Oscar tracker: Kenneth Branagh's 'Belfast' enters best picture Oscars race, Jessica Chastain is awards-ready

·5 min read

And just like that, we have our first major contender for the best picture Academy Award.

On Saturday night, Kenneth Branagh's semi-autobiographical crowd-pleaser "Belfast" took home the coveted People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film, which follows a boy (Jude Hill) and his family in tumultuous 1960s Ireland, boasts 89% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and features an all-star cast led by Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds and "Outlander" breakout Caitriona Balfe.

In the last decade, nine of the 10 winners of the Toronto festival's audience-voted top prize have received nominations for best picture at the Oscars. Three have gone on to win, including last year's "Nomadland."

With its latest victory and warm reception at Telluride Film Festival last month, "Belfast" is now on the exact same upward trajectory as two other heartwarming best picture winners: "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The King's Speech," both of which also world-premiered at Telluride and clinched the Toronto festival'ss top award, before repeating at Oscar.

Toronto Film Festival: The 6 best films for representation to add to your movie list

With the Oscars ceremony still more than six months away on March 27, 2022, there's always a fear of peaking too early in the season. ("A Star is Born," anyone?) But for now, "Belfast" has all the momentum going into its Nov. 12 release in theaters.

The Toronto festival was an otherwise muted affair: low on star power at its in-person screenings and offering limited film selections for journalists covering the fest virtually. But it did help bring some key Oscar races into focus.

Ranked: All the best films we saw at Toronto International Film Festival

Jessica Chastain has 'Eyes' on the prize

Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) gives a joyful noise while Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) looks on in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye."
Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) gives a joyful noise while Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) looks on in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye."

"The Eyes of Tammy Faye" (now in theaters) seems like the type of movie that's reverse-engineered to win Oscars. It stars a well-respected actor (Jessica Chastain) playing a famous person (televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker), caked in heavy makeup and donning a litany of wigs as she sings, cries and pops pills. Although the film can never quite decide whether it's laughing at or with its eccentric subject, Chastain disappears into the role, nailing not only Tammy's Minnesota accent and high-pitched voice but conveying the Christian TV host's infectious enthusiasm and enormous empathy for other people.

It's a convincing, at times heartbreaking portrayal of a misunderstood figure, and one of the rare cases where heavy prosthetics don't distract from the performance at hand. Although critics are mixed on the film itself (67% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes), they're near-unanimous in their praise of Chastain. And with two acting Oscar nominations already under her belt for 2011's "The Help" and 2012's "Zero Dark Thirty," academy voters may think that Chastain, with her ardent devotion to the craft of acting, is overdue for a win.

'Are we going to get in trouble?': Jessica Chastain went incognito at a church for 'Tammy Faye'

'Dear Evan Hansen’ had a rocky debut at Toronto fest

Ben Platt reprises his Tony-winning role in the film adaptation of musical "Dear Evan Hansen."
Ben Platt reprises his Tony-winning role in the film adaptation of musical "Dear Evan Hansen."

Ben Platt's road to EGOT just hit a speedbump. The golden-voiced actor won Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards for his emotionally naked turn in the Broadway musical "Dear Evan Hansen," playing an awkward teen caught in a web of lies after a classmate's suicide. But any hopes of completing his awards quadfecta dissipated following brutal reviews out the film's opening night debut, with some critics calling Platt, who is 27, "comically miscast” and too “distracting” to convincingly portray a high schooler. The musical drama has an unfavorable 48% Rotten Tomatoes score, with other critics dinging the story's queasy morals.

Having seen the film (in theaters Friday), the level of vitriol on Twitter about Platt's age seems unnecessarily cruel. He, of course, sounds fantastic and has some genuinely great moments with co-stars Julianne Moore and Kaitlyn Dever, even if his overwrought performance could've been dialed down more from stage to screen. Regardless, with A-listers Andrew Garfield ("Tick, Tick ... Boom!") and Peter Dinklage ("Cyrano") also starring in high-profile movie musicals later this year, Platt will likely be overshadowed in the highly competitive best actor Oscar race.

'Dear Evan Hansen': Director Stephen Chbosky has no doubts about Ben Platt's casting

Denzel Washington, left, and Frances McDormand take on the Bard in the forthcoming "The Tragedy of Macbeth."
Denzel Washington, left, and Frances McDormand take on the Bard in the forthcoming "The Tragedy of Macbeth."

Something worthy this way comes

With Cannes, Venice, Telluride and Toronto festivals now in the rearview, many of this year's most anticipated titles have already screened for audiences. But there are still plenty more unseen films coming down the pipeline. Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" (in theaters Dec. 10) and Guillermo del Toro's "Nightmare Alley" (Dec. 17) debuted new trailers to great enthusiasm online this week, as did Adam McKay's "Don't Look Up" (Dec. 10) the week before.

But perhaps the most exciting movie on the docket is "The Tragedy of Macbeth," which will make its world premiere on Friday at the New York Film Festival before its release in theaters and on Apple TV+ later this year. The black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Lord and Lady Macbeth, respectively, and is directed by Joel Coen (of the Coen Brothers).

If it's as incredible as it sounds on paper, McDormand could very well have back-to-back Oscar wins after last year's "Nomadland," tying Katharine Hepburn with four best actress trophies. Two-time winner Washington, last honored for 2002's "Training Day," could also extend his record as the most winning Black performer if he triumphs again this year.

Last Oscar tracker: Kristen Stewart vaults to the front of the best-actress race as Princess Diana

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oscar tracker: 'Belfast' wins at Toronto fest, Jessica Chastain shines

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