Oscar season is a fragile time. As each hotly anticipated film makes its festival debut, it has the power to immediately shift the awards season trajectory. Last year, when "12 Years a Slave" cropped up as a surprise Telluride entry, the first screening’s rapturous response instantly changed its status from intriguing period drama to leading best-picture contender. Another 2013 Telluride entry, Jason Reitman’s "Labor Day," suffered the opposite fate, facing mixed-to-negative reactions and quickly faded from the race.What follows is our attempt to codify the first moments in an awards-contenders lives, in which we address: How was the screening? Our critics and editors will report on the response to these films’ earliest debuts, when anticpation meets reality, describing everything from the crowd’s response to the immediate chatter outside the screening — and of course on the occasional outliers such as malfunctioning projectors or lunatic Q&A moments.
Sunday, October 5: 10am: Early word going into "Inherent Vice," Paul Thomas Anderson’s anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-nominated "The Master," was that it’s fun, but likely too weird for the Academy to swallow. Last night’s world premiere at the New York Film Festival confirmed it. Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s beloved novel of the same name boasts one hell of a cast, led by Joaquin Phoenix as a stoner detective, and looks spectacular like all of Anderson’s films (it was shot on 35mm and screened that way in Alice Tully Hall). But unlike all of Anderson’s previous work, "Inherent Vice" doesn’t attempt to make much sense for those unfamiliar with the source material — something that will most definitely hinder its awards prospects. "The Master" confounded on some levels, but the character relations were clear and the basics of its plot were discernible. It also wasn’t a comedy, a genre the Academy all but ignores. Reaction at Warner Brothers’ after party at Tavern On the Green was predictably divided, ranging from "I fucking loved it" to "I was completely lost." (Everyone did agree that the film is probably best enjoyed stoned.) If anything, "Inherent Vice" stands a very minor shot at a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Josh Brolin’s scene chewing turn as an oddball police chief. He’s a total riot and his commitment to the role is something to witness. Production value is stellar, but Anderson’s past films have all been ignored in that department (yes, even "Boogie Nights"). Don’t expect "Inherent Vice" to be the film to change that streak. [NS]
Saturday, September 27: 10am Four years after debuting "The Social Network" at the New York Film Festival, David Fincher returned to the event last night with his latest offering, "Gone Girl," based on Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novel. Early reviews for the thriller were solid going in to the premiere (Variety’s Scott Foundas went so far as to call it "the movie of the year"), so expectations were sky high. For many in attendance, it delivered, but what everyone seemed to agree on was Fincher’s spot-on casting. As the beleaguered husband to the "Gone Girl," played by Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck gives what is arguably the strongest performance of his career. And Pike, who up until now has been relegated to supporting parts in films like "An Education" and "Pride & Prejudice," is a total knockout as the mysterious heroine. In fact, the entire ensemble — which also includes Tyler Perry, an against-type Neil Patrick Harris and a scene-stealing Missi Pyle as a Nancy Grace clone — is pitch perfect. They’re matched by peerless production value that we’ve come to expect from Fincher. From Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ hypnotic score to Jeff Cronenweth’s exacting cinematography, "Gone Girl" looks and sounds uniformly terrific. What did divide folks, however, was the pulpiness of the narrative, something that could hinder its Oscar prospects. It lacks the prestige of Fincher’s "Social Network," sharing a lot more in common with the director’s last film, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," also based on a bestselling novel. It’s also important to note that once the twists start coming, "Gone Girl" reveals itself to be hilariously twisted, which may turn off some voters who don’t go for the film’s wacky tone. Some at last night’s premiere ate it up, howling as the shocks manifested, while others remained muted, probably unsure of how to react. My gut tells me "Gone Girl" will mimic "Dragon Tattoo’s" Oscar path, netting a nomination for its lead actress and a slew in the technical categories. Affleck’s great, but this year’s Best Actor race is already crowded with the likes of Michael Keaton, Ralph Fiennes and Benedict Cumberbatch. Plus Pike has the showier role out of the pair. [NS]
Sunday, September 7: 8:50pm Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones deservedly got a lengthy standing ovation tonight in Toronto for their performances in James Marsh’s "The Theory of Everything." Playing Stephen and Jane Hawking in the film — which is incredibly affecting despite generally offering up standard biopic elements — Redmayne and Jones help end off Toronto’s first weekend by adding a few more surefire Oscar contenders to the lot. It’s certainly hard to imagine Redmayne missing out (it’s an especially remarkable performance), though best actor is pretty stacked already: Michael Keaton, Timothy Spall, Steve Carell, Ralph Fiennes and Benedict Cumberbatch are all very much in the race too, with so much more to come…[PK]
Saturday, September 6: 7pm Is there any Oscar underdog in Matthew Warchus’s "Pride"? The British film, which premiered under the radar at Cannes this year and is being released later this month from CBS Films, got a ten minute standing ovation at its North American premiere in Toronto this afternoon. Detailing the true story of a gay and lesbian rights group who team up with initially reluctant striking miners to fight for their collective rights, it’s a crowd pleaser if there ever was one and certainly falls in line with heartwarming British films that have previously made Oscar’s cut ("The Full Monty," "Billy Elliot," etc). It’s definitely no sure thing, but if the film plays as well with theatrical audiences as it did here at TIFF, it might be an unexpected new player in the season. [PK]
Friday, September 5: 11:50pm Following a triumphant run at last year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Enemy" and "Prisoners" both debuted to solid notices, Jake Gyllenhaal returned to Toronto tonight with "Nightcrawler," the directorial debut from "The Bourne Legacy" screenwriter Dan Gilroy. While "Prisoners," his more acclaimed title from last year’s crop, failed to nab Gyllenhaal his second Oscar nomination (he was previously nominated for "Brokeback Mountain"), "Nightcrawler" could possibly do the trick — but it’s a long shot. Gyllenhaal reportedly lost 20 pounds to play Lou Bloom, an insanely ambitious Los Angeles-based criminal videographer; the role is a challenging one with some big moments and Gyllenhaal nails it. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, and Gilroy has matched his actor’s efforts, crafting a taut thriller that’s timely without being preachy. Still, the material is twisted stuff and probably a little too dark and pulpy for the Academy’s tastes. Look then for distributor Open Road to champion Gyllenhaal’s performance. The Best Actor category will be a difficult one to break into this year with Steve Carell ("Foxcatcher"), Benedict Cumberbatch ("The Imitation Game"), Michael Keaton ("Birdman") and Ralph Fiennes ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") all looking like possible locks, but should the film become a hit for Open Road, then who knows how far Gyllenhaal might get. He’s deserving of all the praise coming his way. [NS]
Thursday, September 4, 11pm Robert Downey, Jr. did his very best to break the general losing streak that has met the opening night film at the Toronto Film Festival with "The Judge" tonight. After a half-hour delay in getting things going, Downey, his director David Dobkin, and fellow cast members Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Dax Shepard and Vincent D’Onofrio took the stage and were quick to celebrate the idea that Hollywood "doesn’t make films like this anymore." What they meant was relatively big-budget, smart dramas, though "The Judge" didn’t entirely deliver in that regard — despite Downey’s best intentions. His effortlessly charming performance was the center of a tired, messy film about a son who returns to his hometown to help his father (Duvall) after he’s charged with murder. The Toronto audience was expectedly polite, but it’s unlikely much buzz — Oscar or otherwise — will meet "The Judge" after tonight. [PK]
Saturday, August 30, 8:45pm "Birdman" continued to build hype in the wake of its great reviews from Venice with its U.S. premiere at Telluride. The crowd was predictably emphatic about Michael Keaton’s eccentric performance and the movie’s loopy satiric take on contemporary show business. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu gave a passionate introduction to the movie that he will likely deliver many times over — essentially saying that he felt creatively hungry as he turned 50 and this movie was the result. Is it too weird to dominate Oscar season or just weird enough? Right now it’s looking like the latter. In terms of Academy appeal, the movie seems likely to strike a chord similar to "Black Swan" a few years back with its lively depiction of backstage drama, though its formal dexterity (most of the movie is a simulated long take) is more comparable to the appeal of "Gravity." All good signs for this movie’s lasting appeal. Of course, Academy voters love to see their own insecurities reflected at the movies (remember "The Artist"?) and Keaton’s role — as his character struggles between creative and commercial desires — has already struck a chord with insiders at Telluride. Immediately after the screening, at a dinner hosted by Sony Pictures Classics, legendary German director Wim Wenders couldn’t stop singing the movie’s praises. Judging by tonight’s reaction, this is the picture to beat until something more formidable comes along. [EK]
Friday, August 29, 8:30 p.m. The first screening of "The Imitation Game," in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays British scientist Alan Turing helping to fight the Nazis during WWII, concludes to strong reactions at the Telluride Film Festival. The Weinstein Company release mainly receives praise for Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance, which Michael Nordine singles out in his review for Indiewire as the movie’s strongest suit. Some audience members compare the reception to the enthusiasm that met "The King’s Speech" here a few years ago, though Nordine’s review suggests the fairly traditional drama may not be an instant best picture contender the way its star has already shot to the top of the race. [EK]
Telluride Review: Benedict Cumberbatch Carries Uneven WWII Drama ‘The Imitation Game’
Friday, August 29, 4:40 p.m. "Wild" premieres on the afternoon of the first day at the Telluride Film Festival, its outdoorsy spirit striking a chord with the crowd, which includes Oprah Winfrey (who supported the book on her show). It’s met with hearty applause, though no standing ovation save a group of viewers who were sitting near the film’s subject, Cheryl Strayed. The movie’s sentimental flourishes don’t seem to register with everyone ("it should have stayed a book," asserted one audience member on the gondola ride back to town), there’s a healthy amount of buzz centered on Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Strayed, who turned away from drugs and promiscuity to find catharsis on the Pacific Crest Trail. That’s as it should be; as I explain in my review, Witherspoon (and the lush outdoor cinematography) are the movie’s strongest suits. But as a whole, "Wild" may not be wild enough to hold up in an especially in a crowded fall season. [EK]
Telluride Review: Reese Witherspoon Finds Nature, Catharis in the Sentimental ‘Wild’
These subjective snapshots aren’t reviews of the movies (although we’ll link to our reviews as we have them) but of the screenings themselves. Nor are they tea leaves for what happens to a film as it makes its way through the festival circuit and to the Oscar promotional machinery that follows. Everything is subject to change.
At Indiewire, we embrace the Oscar race even as we approach some aspects with skepticism: What does any of this really mean with respect to good movies, anyway? The reality is that this fast-paced arena can make or break certain movies long before they make their way to the larger public. We hope this ongoing attempt to chronicle the ebb and flow of the hype machine will provide you with a means of wading through the chaos. If nothing else, we’ll have quite the timeline on our hands come February.
Contributor Key: EK = Eric Kohn, NS = Nigel Smith, PK = Peter Knegt, AS = Anne Thompson