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10 Things the Fall Festivals Could Tell Us About Awards Season

10 Things the Fall Festivals Could Tell Us About Awards Season

READ MORE: Which Films That We’ve Already Seen Will Make Oscar’s Cut?

The Venice Film Festival kicks off this week with the world premiere of “Everest” and that’s as good as a starting gun: Awards season is here.

Over the next six weeks, Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York (which has established itself as the full-on fourth member of the fall festival Oscar influencers) will offer the first look at dozens of films that may or may not factor into this year’s race. From new work by Oscar favorites Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Ridley Scott, Robert Zemeckis, Stephen Frears and Tom Hooper to films that could emerge out of nowhere, these festivals are the first opportunity for awards prognostication to move beyond intelligent (and sometimes not-so-intelligent) guessing.

Granted, this year has already offered some clues. We went over them in this article, which suggests “Brooklyn,” “Carol,” “Inside Out,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Sicario,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Youth,” and few others may or may not have what it takes to make a play for Oscar gold.  But at this point, buzz surrounding any of those titles could get drowned out by shiny new contenders. Distributors with light awards season slates (and there are a few) may be madly searching through Toronto’s nearly 300-film catalog in search of the next “Juno” or “The Wrestler.” And even those newbies could find themselves in, and then out.

READ MORE: 2016 Oscar Prediction Charts

Of course, festivals can’t tell us everything. Among those that aren’t on the circuit: Quentin
Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” David O. Russell’s “Joy” and last year’s winner Alejandro González Iñárritu with “The Revenant”  — all looking very Oscar-friendly, even though they aren’t finished yet.

Keeping that in mind, Indiewire’s offering up 10 possibilities as to what the next six weeks can indeed tell us. This column will continue through all the awards season ups and downs, leading up to next February’s Oscars. You can also check out our updated Oscar prediction charts, the current edition of which clearly should be taken with a serious grain of salt as very few of the major contenders have been on screens, festival or otherwise. For more awards season analysis, stay tuned to Anne Thompson’s coverage and her own Oscar predictions chart.

Can “Everest” continue the good luck charm of opening Venice?

Last year, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman” made its debut on the first night of the Venice Film Festival and went on to defy expectations and win Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. The year before, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” opened the fest and won more Oscars than any other film, including Best Director. Will Baltasar Kormákur’s “Everest” follow suit? It’s the question we’ll (to some degree, at least) have answered sooner than the rest — Venice kicks off with the film tomorrow. 

With an all-star cast including Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, and Jake Gyllenhaal, “Everest” is based on the real events of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster which led to the deaths of several climbers. It’s co-written by two men that are not strangers to awards season (Simon Beaufoy, who wrote “Slumdog Millionaire, and “Gladiator’s” writer William Nicholson), and is being released by a studio no one should be betting against this year (Universal, which has seriously had a golden horseshoe in its possession recently).

Can it go the distance? The reviews we’ll be reading in less than 24 hours will be very telling.

Does Eddie Redmayne really have what it takes to go two-for-two?

Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks are the only two men who have won back-to-back Oscars for Best Actor, but Eddie Redmayne — on paper, at least — sure looks like he might have what it takes to join them in that distinguished category. A year after Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival to buzz that Redmayne would ride all the way to the stage at the Oscars, another biopic — Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” — aims to the same. 

Premiering in Venice before heading to Toronto, “The Danish Girl” tells the true story of Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sexual reassignment surgery. Redmayne plays Elbe, and if handled properly has Oscar bait written all over it. Transgender activists are surely going to be paying close attention given Redmayne is not himself transgender (though despite protests in the same vein, that didn’t stop Jared Leto from winning an Oscar a few years ago). But if Redmayne wows audiences (which is hard to doubt after “The Theory of Everything), he will at the very least be in the conversation.

What about Julianne Moore?

Redmayne’s fellow recent Oscar winner Julianne Moore will also be aiming for another chance at gold this year via a biopic that also tackles LGBT rights: Peter Sollett’s “Freeheld.” Based on the true story that was chronicled in the 2007 documentary short of the same name (which just so happened to win an Oscar) “Freeheld” finds Moore playing a lesbian police officer who — after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer — fights for the rights to have her pension benefits passed on to her partner (Ellen Page).

“Freeheld” premieres in Toronto before its theatrical release on October 2. If reviews are in its favor, it could end up landing Moore her sixth Oscar nomination (and second in a row for playing someone facing a tragic illness), and would make for a rare occasion when both of the previous years’ lead acting winners were nominated again the next year.

Is Johnny Depp really about to make us forgot about the last decade of his career?

Everyone loves a comeback, right? Almost a decade after being nominated for an Oscar three times in five years (for “Finding Neverland,” “Sweeney Todd” and the first “Pirates of the Caribbean,” respectively), Johnny Depp has made a bit of a mess of his career. Films like “The Tourist,” “Dark Shadows,” “Transcendence” and “Mordecai” have weakened his once-stellar reputation, though Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” sure looks poised to change that. 

Based on the 2001 book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob” by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, the film finds an almost unrecognizable Depp playing mobster Whitey Bulger (also the subject of last year’s acclaimed documentary “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger”). “Black Mass” premieres in Venice this weekend, which should kick off Depp’s first full-on Oscar campaign since “Sweeney Todd.” Surely Academy voters are going to be rooting for him — it just depends on how much “Black Mass” gives them to work with (though early word suggests it’s quite a bit).

Is “The Martian” this year’s “Gravity” or “Interstellar”?

Another year, another high-profile film set in space from an acclaimed director.  In 2013, that worked out quite well when it came to awards season for the year’s biggest winner, “Gravity.” Last year, however, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” failed to follow suit. It was nominated in five technical achievement categories (winning for Best Visual Effects), but didn’t make the Best Picture lineup. How will Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” compare?

The film — which, interestingly, shares two cast members with “Interstellar” in Jessica Chastian and Matt Damon — will premiere on September 11 in Toronto. That’s when we’ll find out whether this is a movie built for awards season or simply for general audiences. Starring Damon as a man who is left behind on Mars when a mission goes awry, it could definitely offer a showcase for its lead actor (much like “Gravity” did for Sandra Bullock). Meanwhile, Damon has never won an acting Oscar, and hasn’t been nominated since “Invictus” in 2009, so like quite a few people in contention this year (Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp in particular) he seems overdue.

Does Don Cheadle have what it takes to direct himself to an Oscar nomination?

Roughly half the films we’ve mention so far are biopics (as is typically the case come Oscar season), but “Miles Ahead” — which takes on the story of legendary jazz musician Miles Davis — has one thing that sets it apart: Its lead actor Don Cheadle also directed, co-wrote and co-produced the film, which is having its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. Co-starring Emayatzy Corinealdi and Ewan McGregor, “Miles” has clearly been a passion project for Cheadle, whose lone Oscar nomination so far came for 2004’s “Hotel Rwanda.” Does he have what it takes to direct, write and produce himself to a second one this year?

In a vast sea of year-end biopics (including another iconic musician, Hank Williams, in Toronto premiere “I Saw The Light”), it’s going to take a lot to stand out. But the fact that it just got picked up by Sony Pictures Classics (the folks that distributed 50% of last year’s acting winners) is a definite vote of confidence. If Cheadle gets nominated, it will mark the tenth occasion in which someone directed themselves to an Oscar nomination for acting. Only twice did that result in a win: Laurence Oliver for “Hamlet” in 1948 and Roberto Benigni for “Life is Beautiful” in 1998. All that being said, “Miles Ahead” does not currently have a 2015 release date — Sony Pictures Classics has hinted that it may hold off until next year — so we’ll have to wait and see if the movie lands a qualifying run this season.

Can A24, Bleecker Street and Netflix enter the Oscar conversation?

Three distributors with virtually no history of Oscar nominations between them are looking to make major plays at awards season this year: A24, Bleecker Street and Netflix. The former came very close last year with “A Most Violent Year,” and this year already has a few contenders in Amy Winehouse documentary “Amy” and David Foster Wallace biopic “The End of the Tour.” In Toronto, they’ll launch Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” which stars Brie Larson as a woman being held captive with her five-year-old son in a single small room for years. Larson was in the conversation a few years ago with “Short Term 12” but didn’t end up getting an Oscar nod. If she’s great in “Room,” it could be a big opportunity to make up for that.

Meanwhile, Bleecker Street and Netflix are hoping to launch their first big Oscar campaigns this year (though Netflix previously cracked the documentary category with “The Square” and “Virunga”). Established late last year, Bleecker Street has Jay Roach’s “Trumbo” (which stars Bryan Cranston as Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) premiering in Toronto, which holds plenty of promise. Then there’s the film for which Bleecker is partnering with Netflix to release: Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” will premiere in Venice before being released in theaters via Bleecker Street on the same day it streams globally on Netflix (October 16). Netflix paid $12 million for worldwide rights to the film, and is definitely set on making it a success both financially and in terms of awards season.  If it debuts to the raves one would expect from a film from the widely beloved Fukunaga (who directed every episode of the first season of “True Detective”), watch out.

Will this be a landmark year for LGBT films at the Oscars?

It will be ten years ago next February when Oscar voters were heavily criticized for homophobia when “Brokeback Mountain” rather shockingly lost Best Picture to “Crash.” On that anniversary, there will be plenty of films that could help them make for that.

The aforementioned “The Danish Girl” and “Freeheld” both take on real-life stories of LGBT heroes. Toronto premiere “Stonewall” depicts a fictionalized account of the momentous Stonewall riots (which many feel kickstarted the American gay rights movement), while another Toronto entry, “About Ray,” features the story of a transgender boy transitioning with the help of his family. And then there’s Todd Haynes’ lesbian period romance “Carol,” which will be making its North American debut at either Telluride or New York (we suspect the former), attempting to continue the remarkable acclaim it initially gathered at Cannes. Add that to this summer’s Lily Tomlin vehicle “Grandma,” and we have quite the compelling list of actors potentially in contention for playing LGBT characters: Eddie Redmayne, Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Tomlin, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Elle Fanning. Notably, Tomlin and Page are both openly gay. If nominated, they would become only the second and third LGBT actors to receive Oscar nods for playing LGBT characters (after Sir Ian McKellen for “Gods and Monsters”).

Will the New York Film Festival premiere a Best Picture winner?

In the past half-decade or so, the New York Film Festival has established itself as a force to be reckoned with when it comes to launching awards campaigns. “The Social Network,” “Lincoln,” “Hugo,” “My Week With Marilyn” and “Life of Pi” have all had their world premieres at Lincoln Center before heading on to receive multiple Oscar nominations (and in most cases, multiple wins).

But while “The Social Network” and “Lincoln” arguably came very close, none of those films ended up winning Oscar’s biggest prize. Will New York’s 2015 slate be the exception to that rule? There sure is a lot of potential. In addition to the aforementioned “Miles Ahead,” Steven Spielberg will be returning to the festival with Cold War thriller “Bridge of Spies,” Danny Boyle premieres Aaron Sorkin-penned biopic “Steve Jobs,” and Robert Zemeckis’ Philippe Petit film “The Walk” will open the festival. Spielberg, Boyle and Zemeckis have all seen their films win Best Picture. Could they do it again in 2015? We have almost a month until we get first word on that: The 53rd edition of the New York Film Festival kicks off September 25th.

Could a film without distribution enter the race?

There are loads of films that could get picked up out of Venice or Toronto for awards season contention (Telluride and New York rarely screen acquisition titles). Last year, very few had heard of “Still Alice” before it was nabbed out of Toronto by Sony Pictures Classics and went on to win Julianne Moore an Oscar.  Perhaps one of these “7 hidden gems” at this year’s festival could follow suit?  Any of them could be the next “Still Alice” or “The Wrestler,” “Rabbit Hole” or “A Single Man” (all of them acquired at fall festivals). Then again, they could also go the way of “The Cobbler.” (Remember that Adam Sandler stinker from last year? We didn’t think so.)

Check out Indiewire’s latest chart of Oscar predictions here.

Peter Knegt is Indiewire’s Contributing Editor and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

READ MORE: Anne Thompson’s 2016 Oscar Predictions

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