As we write this, we're somewhere over the Alps, flying back to London after an exhausting, rewarding week at the Venice Film Festival. Meanwhile, our editor-in-chief just returned from the mountains after an equally busy weekend at the Telluride Film Festival. Festival season is only just getting underway, with TIFF kicking off as we speak, and Venice doesn't wrap up til Saturday. But even so, it's true that the first salvo of the awards race have been fired in both Italy and Colorado, so it seems like a good time to run down which films have found themselves in a promising position after the last ten days or so, and which fizzled as soon as they arrived.
Venice has a fairly good record of digging up Oscar potentials — "The Hurt Locker" premiered there in 2008 (though didn't win an Oscar til 18 months later), and "Black Swan" opened the festival in 2010, but last year didn't see much Academy love for the line-up, bar some scattered nominations for "The Ides Of March" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Certainly, this year saw a number of American movies with no chance of fitting into the conversation. To be fair, no prognosticators really had "Disconnect" or "The Iceman," which screened out of competition, on their radars, and the reason became clear when they screened — the former is a fairly awful, if well-acted, cautionary tale, the latter isn't terrible, but it's mainly a commercial proposition. The best it could probably hope for is an Independent Spirit nod for lead Michael Shannon, though we'd argue he's given many, many better performances in the past.
In smaller categories, Israeli pic "Fill The Void" is one of five that's vying to be the country's foreign language entry this year, and while we weren't especially enamored of it, it's one of the serious contenders for the Golden Lion, which would certainly help its chances. It's the kind of picture that the Foreign Language branch eat up, and if it beats out its compatriots, we can absolutely see it ending up among the five nominees. One to watch in the doc category is Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell," a beautiful, personal bit of autobiography from the actor/director. The film's widely loved, but feels too small and intimate to get up a Best Picture head of steam, but a doc nomination could certainly be feasible. Of course, it'll have to clear the torturous eligibility rules of the category (there's a certain amount of manipulation and reconstruction in the film), and needs a distributor and release date first, plus it's not the kind of film that the doc branch typically reward. Our gut says it's the kind of popular success — like "Senna" or "Project Nim" last year — that gets overlooked, but we've got our fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, a film that could be a player, albeit not this year, is "At Any Price" (which like "Stories We Tell" and 'The Iceman" also played Telluride). A step up to the big leagues for director Ramin Bahrani, the film, an old-fashioned Arthur Millerish rural melodrama, may be too divisive to get real attention on the Best Picture front, likely too blunt and unruly for some. But it's got serious prospects thanks to central performance of Dennis Quaid, who's never quite had a role like this one.
Even those who were cooler on the film raved about the actor's performance, and as such, there could certainly be a Best Actor campaign in the future for him. Sony Pictures Classics, who picked the film up about six weeks back, have said that it isn't planned for release until 2013, which is probably a smart plan given how outrageously competitive the category is this year. Whether Quaid can get a foothold next time around will depend on what else he's up against, but it's certainly the actor's best ever shot.
Looking less good is "To The Wonder," the latest from Terrence Malick, whose "The Tree Of Life" got director and picture nominations last year. We liked the film a lot, more so than its predecessor, but we were decidedly in the minority: it's arguably the director's most tepidly received picture, and without the universal critical support of last year's film, will struggle to feature into the Best Picture conversation, unless North American critics respond more favorably in Toronto. That said, when it finds a distributor (it's still looking), and gets a release date — unlikely to be until 2013, so not figuring into this season's race — it does a stand a very strong chance at a Cinematography nod for the still unrewarded Emmanuel Lubezki, and, if it's very lucky and the field is weak, maybe another for Javier Bardem's faith-stricken priest.
Of course, the big news in Venice, although it had screened multiple times already, was the 'official' unveiling of Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master." While we had more reservations about the film than some, it's undeniably a hugely impressive piece of work, and having seen it, we're pretty sure it'll make it in to one of the Best Picture slots. But we're less confident that it has a chance of winning. Early on in the film it felt like a home run, but it gets more difficult and button-pushing as it goes on, and we're not sure we can see the voters who went for "The Artist" and "The King's Speech" responding to it, no matter how hard Harvey pushes it.
That said, it should make it through to the "Tree Of Life" slot, and we can certainly see it being, like "There Will Be Blood" before it, among the most nominated of the year. Nods for Picture, probably Director, Original Screenplay, Production Design (and maybe costume…) Cinematography, Editing and Score all feel like they're in the bag. Joaquin Phoenix is a mortal lock in Best Actor (and is a serious front-runner to win at this point), while the only reason that Philip Seymour Hoffman might miss out is if the Weinsteins campaign for him alongside Phoenix in Best Actor, rather than Supporting, and given their general Oscar-campaigning canniness, we can't imagine they'll do so unless Anderson insists. Amy Adams should get a nomination too, though could fail to win once again — she's superb, but it's not an especially Oscar-friendly role. Between all of that, all it needs is a Sound nomination or two, and it'll land among the most nominated films in history. Unless we're very wrong about all these extra nods, we can't see the film missing out on a Best Picture slot, and the momentum could even be enough to push it on for a win.
That said, it's got some serious competition because way out in Colorado, Ben Affleck unveiled "Argo" as a (not so) secret screening, and the response was pretty phenomenal. The film's looked like the real deal to us for a while, but RP's review, and reactions from other Oscar watchers, suggests that the film is a potential juggernaut, a thrilling, funny picture that satisfies on almost every level.
As great as the reaction was (and while the customary backlash may hit when it screens at TIFF, it's likely to remain a critical favorite), the film has obstacles to overcome before it wins. We've been sure for a while that it would be a nominee, but the film does seem to be caught between a serious political thriller (a la "The Hurt Locker"), and a sort of caper comedy. From everything we've read, Affleck juggles the tone beautifully, but it could go either way with the Academy. There's not a lot of precedent for a a film like this one winning, and it doesn't help that the film seems to be lacking in potential acting nominees. Few seem to think Affleck has a chance at Best Actor, and reviews vary on a favorite supporting player, with Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Scoot McNairy all picking up plaudits. In the last decade, only "Return of the King" and "Slumdog Millionaire" won the top prize without an acting nomination. If Warners are smart, they'll aid their film by picking out one performer to throw their weight behind.
Not having such a great time in Telluride was "Hyde Park On Hudson." Roger Michell's FDR biopic has been hoping to follow in the footsteps of "The King's Speech," but judging by reviews from Colorado, "My Week With Marilyn" seems to be the closer comparison; a film that might get a performance or two over the finish line, but is much too insubstantial to go any further. The decidedly tepid response has pretty much convinced us that the film's chances at Best Picture are dead, and for the first time, we're not even 100% convinced that Bill Murray will get a nomination — he's said to be good without ever becoming exceptional, and the role is seemingly a smaller one that it might appear, with Laura Linney (who doesn't look like she'll get the momentum up for an Actress nomination), the real lead. It could do well at the Globes, assuming it campaigns in Musical/Comedy rather than Drama, and Murray could still make it to the final five, but otherwise the film seems more or less DOA, Oscar-wise.
Much more intriguing were the Telluride prospects of Sony Pictures Classics, who brought Cannes hits "Amour" (which won the Palme D'Or) and "Rust and Bone" to the US for the first time. Both went down as well as they did on the Croisette, and look to break out of the Foreign Language ghetto to contend for other awards.
Jacques Audiard's film looks unlikely to contend for the big prize, but its lead actress, Marion Cotillard, has a real shot at winning Best Actress. Cotillard won for a foreign language performance only 5 years ago, for "La Vie En Rose," and a second win would be almost unprecedented, but in a category that's as weak as we've ever seen, she's pretty much the front-runner at this point, her only serious competition being an 8-year-old girl, Quvenzhane Wallis of "Beasts Of The Southern Wild." Unless it beats "The Untouchables" to be France's foreign-language entry, it may not get nods elsewhere, though if it picks up momentum, an Adapted Screenplay nomination could be in the cards, and even one a Supporting Actor nod for co-star Matthias Schoenhaerts isn't entirely out of the question.
Looking like an even more serious prospect is "Amour." Before "The Tree Of Life," no Palme D'Or winner had been a Best Picture nominee since "The Pianist" (and before that, "Pulp Fiction," but Michael Haneke, of all people, could make it the second in two years. Arguably the director's mostly accessible film (admittedly a relative term) to date, we've barely seen anything but raves for the film, and Sony Pictures Classics confirmed to us in Telluride that they'll be pushing hard in major categories for the film. Foreign Language best picture nominees happened all the time in the '60s and '70s, but are rarer these days. If you exclude "The Artist," the last foreign language, foreign-produced Best Picture nominee was "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" twelve years ago, and this is decidedly a more intimate film.
But it's also one where the subject matter is firmly in the Academy's wheelhouse, and the sheer emotion and power of the film could well see it among the nominees, and Haneke and the film's two leads all have a chance. We wouldn't call any of these a lock (it may be that the subject matter hits a little too close to home for the ever-aging Academy contingent, but it's likely to do well in the Critic's Awards in a few months, and Sony Pictures Classics should be able to ride that towards a nomination.
Elsewhere in Telluride, "Barbara," "No" and "A Royal Affair" look like they could be big players in Foreign Language, and the latter is probably a dead cert for a costume nomination, while "The Act Of Killing," "The Gatekeepers" and "The Central Park 5" all look like serious contenders for documentaries. Harvey Weinstein showing "The Sapphires" suggests he's trying to gauge reaction to the film before putting it on the calendar, but the film's still said to be a 2013 picture at this point. He's likely to either add that or "Song For Marion" to the schedule, but not both, and it'll depend on how the latter goes down at TIFF.
Finally, not showing at either Venice or Telluride, but about to be unveiled at TIFF ahead of its UK release tomorrow is "Anna Karenina." We liked the film enormously, but remain of two minds about its Oscar chances. It's essentially already won Costume Design and Production Design, barring an upset, and given the weakness of the category, Keira Knightley should end up in the mix, though it's not the home run we were expecting. An Adapted Screenplay nomination would be well deserved, as would a supporting actress nomination for young Swedish star Alicia Vikander, but neither are home runs.
Best Picture is more of a question mark. It's a handsome, lavish and well-performed film, but one targeted more at the head and the eyes than the heart, and may ultimately prove too radical for Academy voters — after all, it's a while since a big period literary adaptation like this came through — "Atonement," from the same team, was the last one to do so.
For now, our gut says that it'll likely miss out, but that could change over the next few months. The reaction from TIFF will be key, and we can certainly see some critics fervently taking against the film. The season will come into focus even more after Toronto — look for our awards breakdown, and our next Best Picture chart, once things wrap up in the Great White North.