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Telluride and TIFF’s Oscar Tea Leaves: How Two Key Festivals Could Predict This Year’s Winners

Telluride was packed with promising awards candidates, but we need more intel from Toronto and New York.

The “Moonlight” team at Telluride.

Telluride Film Festival programmers Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger pride themselves on curating the cream of the Hollywood crop, which has included Best Picture Oscar-winners “The King’s Speech,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Argo,” and “12 Years a Slave.”

However, even a Telluride hit needs amplification from noisy Toronto as they head into awards season.

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Summit Entertainment

Launched at Venice and Telluride, Lionsgate’s “La La Land” has propelled Emma Stone and, possibly, costar Ryan Gosling into awards contention. How the audacious musical fares with critics and audiences will impact how far it goes with the Academy, who will give “Whiplash” nominee Damien Chazelle points for ambition and a relatable showbiz story. This film boasts passionate supporters, while many others don’t get the movie at all. The larger media presence in Toronto and New York will continue to ripple out and build must-see for the movie. So far I am discerning a slight generational divide, as younger critics and audiences seem a tad less less critical and more enthusiastic of the innovative portrait —an homage to Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York”—of young artists in love.

"Arrival"

“Arrival”

Paramount Pictures

Denis Villeneuve’s Venice/Telluride debut “Arrival” has placed Amy Adams in the Best Actress race; her tribute reminded Telluride attendees of her impressive range, from her own fairy-tale musical (“Enchanted”) to five Oscar nominees (“Junebug,” “The Fighter,” “Doubt,” “The Master,” and “American Hustle”). Meanwhile, Paramount is trying to find ways to sell the cerebral sci-fi thriller to audiences, and will mount a major Toronto press junket — friendly turf for Canadian Villeneuve. Its dazzling technical achievement is more like “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Interstellar” than the warmer, more emotional “The Martian” or “Gravity.” In any case, “Arrival” should nab lots of craft and VFX support.

"Bleed For This"

“Bleed For This”

Open Road Films

Telluride/Toronto premiere “Bleed for This” from “Boiler Room” director Ben Younger is a classic true boxing tale about grit and survival and tenacity and, yes, it feels a tad familiar. Rising star Miles Teller as real-life Providence fighter Vinny Pazienza is strong and believable and admirable. But the boxer also seems a tad demented in his determination to put his life at risk in the pursuit of his avocation. Will Open Road turn this into the must-see that was “Spotlight”? Best Oscar hope here is Eckhart, buoyed by “Sully.”

Related 2017 Oscar Predictions

The Telluride discovery was “Moonlight,” which built word-of-mouth buzz as the weekend progressed, and won Indiewire’s Critics’ Poll. More and more, people admitted to being touched deeply by Barry Jenkins’ three-part evolution of a damaged, bullied young boy into a sullen, angry youth and beautiful young man. I see photos from the film, especially of Mahershala Ali as the boy’s mentor and father figure, and my eyes well up. This movie could fill the void left by Nate Parker’s once-promising “Birth of a Nation” as a film that hits the Black Lives Matter zeitgeist in just the right way. (Thankfully, this year offers multiple possibilities.) Distributor A24 pushed “Room,” “Amy,” and “Ex Machina” to Oscar wins last year, but they will still need to make all the right moves to push “Moonlight” past breakout indie status.

Another movie that draws torrents of tears is Telluride’s strongest Oscar contender: Amazon/Roadside Attractions’ Sundance pickup “Manchester by the Sea.” Kenneth Lonergan’s tragic New England family drama fires on all cylinders: acting, writing, directing, editing, and crafts. Amazon’s Bob Berney runs the marketing and will shepherd this from festivals and a November release through the Oscars.

Related Casey Affleck’s Career-Spanning Q&A: How Lessons from Gus Van Sant, Joaquin Phoenix and More Led To ‘Manchester’

Friendly rivals IFC and Sony Pictures Classics are each intent on pushing Best Actress Isabelle Huppert in two French movies, Mia Hansen-Love’s family drama “Things to Come” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” respectively. Both offer powerful performances from the French star, who is enjoying playing complex roles about women in their prime who refuse to become victims. It remains to be seen which film France picks as its Oscar submission.

Not going to Toronto or New York after Telluride is “Sully,” the solid, old-fashioned, well-made Clint Eastwood drama with great aerial reconstructions of Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s heroic landing of a wounded plane on the Hudson. Tom Hanks jumps into the Best Actor race, and Eckhart has a shot at supporting for this; again, reviews and box office and year-end kudos will determine the long game.

Other titles looking to gain awards traction in Toronto include “A Monster Calls,” “Snowden,” “Deepwater Horizon,” “Queen of Katwe,” “American Pastoral,” and “Lion.”

“A Monster Calls,” from Guillermo del Toro protégé J.A. Bayona (“The Impossible”), has been screening in New York and L.A. in advance of its September 10 debut as a Toronto Film Festival Gala. It’s a four-hankie movie, starring “The Theory of Everything” Oscar nominee Felicity Jones as a single mother fighting cancer while trying to keep her bright 12-year-old son Conor (Lewis MacDougall) from falling apart. He’s being bullied at school, and doesn’t get along with his control-freak grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). So Conor retreats into his imagination. Or does he? A giant yew tree comes alive as a charismatic and ancient (performance-capture) monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who visits Conor at 12:07 AM every night to help him deal with his conflicting emotions.

Media buzz has been so strong that Focus Features pushed it back from October to a December 23 limited release. Gorgeously made and acted, with proper handling “A Monster Calls” could come out of Toronto with enough gravitas to be taken seriously as an Oscar contender.

Queen of Katwe

“Queen of Katwe”

Disney

When Disney decided to make a biopic based on the true story of Ugandan girl Phiona Mutesi, who pulls herself out of the slums by playing winning chess, the studio’s smartest move was hiring filmmaker Mira Nair. Born in India, educated at Harvard, with residences in New York and Uganda, Nair vividly brings this female empowerment saga to life, well-supported by Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. This movie teems with naturalistic color and humor and emotion, and could yield some acting prizes for Oyelowo and Nyong’o, whose earth-mother role conjures up Barbara Stanwyck in “Stella Dallas.”

Related ‘Queen of Katwe’ Teaser: Lupita Nyong’o & David Oyelowo Instill Confidence In a Chess Prodigy

It’s been a while since Oliver Stone (“Platoon,” “Wall Street”) has had Oscars in his sights. They won’t necessarily come with the NSA-bashing “Snowden” either, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the intrepid whistleblower with quiet passion and conviction. But “Snowden” may be a stepping stone on Stone’s way to redemption. Open Road will open the foreign-financed indie on September 9, right after its market launch in Toronto. (No studio would go there.)

Ewan McGregor, after long wanting to play the role of Jewish football star and New Jersey leather glove maker The Suede, finally decided to direct Philip Roth’s great novel “American Pastoral” (Lionsgate) himself. Jennifer Connelly is his shiksa wife and Dakota Fanning his troubled daughter, whose protests in the ’60s go horribly wrong.

Related ‘American Pastoral’ Trailer: Ewan McGregor Makes His Directorial Debut By Adapting Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize–Winner

Weinstein Co. is placing its 2017 Oscar bets on Garth Davis’s “Lion,” starring Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, and Nicole Kidman, about a man who returns to Calcutta after many years to seek his parents. Toronto will determine if the Weinsteins have picked the right horse this year.

"Arrival"

“Arrival”

Also staging Toronto comebacks after playing Cannes are Jeff Nichols’ period racial drama “Loving” (Focus Features), starring Australian Joel Edgerton and British Ruth Negga, Jim Jarmusch’s low-key meditation “Paterson” (Amazon/Bleecker Street) starring Adam Driver in a major leading role, Ken Loach’s Cannes-winning “I, Daniel Blake” (IFC), and two Sony Pictures Classics buys, Maron Ade’s generation-clash comedy “Toni Erdmann,” which is the German Oscar submission and wowed Telluride, and Pedro Almodovar’s Hitchcockian drama “Julieta,” which is Spain’s Oscar entry.

Related ‘Toni Erdmann’ Review: Here’s the Funniest Nude Scene of All Time — But It’s Not a Comedy

Launching at Venice and Toronto is Antoine Fuqua’s hugely entertaining western “The Magnificent Seven” (Sony), a rousing shoot-em-up with a strong, diverse cast led by Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke. Is it an Oscar picture? Nope—maybe sets, costumes and score.

Skipping a TIFF bump is Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” (Lionsgate), starring Andrew Garfield as a conscientious objector, which is starting to screen stateside following its strong Venice debut.

Going straight to New York are Ava DuVernay’s doc “The 13th,” Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women,” James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z,” and Ang Lee’s fast-frame-rate experiment, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”

Related Mel Gibson’s ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ Is His Power Ballad To Violence and Pacificism – Venice Film Festival Review

And there’s plenty of mystery waiting down the pike, from Washington’s take on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Fences,” Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” Bob Zemeckis and writer Steven Knight’s World War II spy drama “Allied,” starring Brad Pitt as a spy who falls for a French woman (Marion Cotillard) who may be a Nazi, and Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes movie “Rules Don’t Apply,” which has started the preview process heading toward opening night at AFI Fest.

Meanwhile, other movies are falling by the wayside. “The Light Between Oceans” died a dismal box office death, and its Oscar hopes with it. Will Fox Searchlight be able to breathe new life into “Birth of a Nation” via a press junket and Nate Parker press conference in Toronto? Stay tuned.

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