By Peter Knegt | Indiewire September 1, 2009 at 9:28AM
The kick-off of the Venice Film Festival tomorrow marks the annual turning point for the fall awards season. Over the next 19 or so days, Venice, Telluride this weekend and Toronto next week will offer both industry, and in Toronto's case the public, a glance at dozens of films that may or may not factor into this year's big race. From new works by the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh and Michael Moore, to films that could rocket out of nowhere to feature prominently during awards season, these fests should take us a few decent-sized steps away from the state of mostly ignorant speculation we're currently in.
Granted, this year has already offered some exceptions. Earlier fests like Sundance and Cannes have given us quite a bit of food for awards season thought, from "Precious" and "An Education" at Sundance to "Bright Star" and, as it turns out, "Inglourious Basterds," at Cannes. And that whole ten best picture deal has all of a sudden made the summer movie season a much more viable time for Oscar prognosticators to break out their blogs, with best picture talks including every well-reviewed-blockbuster-of-the-month, from "Star Trek" to "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" to "District 9." And while I personally feel those discussions were a big case of us getting ahead of ourselves, talk surrounding the best picture chances of "Basterds," "Up" and "The Hurt Locker," as well as performances such as Meryl Streep's in "Julie & Julia," are all completely warranted.
But now we are about to enter a whole other monster. Distributors with light awards season slates (and there are many) may be madly searching through Toronto's near-300-film-strong catalog in search of the next "Juno." Buzz surrounding any of those aforementioned could get drowned out by shiny and new contenders. And even those newbies could find themselves in, and then out, of the race before the ink on their For Your Consideration ads has even dried (remember early last fall when everyone thought Kristin Scott Thomas was the frontrunner for "I've Loved You So Long"? Or when we thought "Rachel Getting Married" would get, you know, more than one nomination?). Awards season is upon us and it's up to these next few weeks to get the ball rolling.
While there's still loads of murky water left after these fests come and go - a laundry list of possibilities remain, from Rob Marshall's "Nine" to Terrance Malick's "The Tree of Life" to Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" to Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" - it's likely a respectable batch of unanswered questions will be no longer by September 19th. And instead of rambling on like a rabid awards geek for another six paragraphs, indieWIRE offers you ten such possibilities:
1. Are "Precious" and "An Education" the real deal?
From the moment they premiered at Sundance, doubts about these two films - both female coming-of-age stories, though the comparison can most certainly stop there - have been few and far between. In fact, it seems both films have managed to continue buzz-building despite cautiously staying away from the festival circuit. Lee Daniels' "Precious" has only screened once - in Cannes - after its triumphant Park City debut, while Lone Scherfig's "Education" screened in Berlin, Sydney and Brisbane, also waiting for Toronto to make another North American splash. At this point betting against either as they continue their carefully sketched routes to the Kodak Theater is not recommended. But, Toronto's public audiences will definitely be a good test for these titles, and should give a clearer indication as to how solid their stronghold really is. My prediction? These crowd-pleasers are made for festivals like Toronto, and I wouldn't blame Carey Mulligan or Mo'Nique if they started practicing Oscar speeches in their Toronto hotel mirrors.
2. Can this female coming-of-age trend extend beyond those two films?
In a recent interview with indieWIRE, Toronto co-director Cameron Bailey acknowledged the female coming-of-age trend this year (also including Andrea Arnold's Cannes premiere "Fish Tank," which I fear might have a tougher time with awards season, despite being worthy), and suggested two new additions coming from his festival: Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg's prep school-circa-today-set "Tanner Hall" and Jordan Scott's boarding school-circa-1934-set "Cracks." Both are looking for North American distribution. My prediction? Considering I have no knowledge of either film beyond their synopses, I can't say anything with remote confidence. But, if one of these films is worthy of a major acquisition and awards campaign, I'd wager they'll go "Hurt Locker" style and save it for 2010 to avoid "Precious" and "An Education."
3. Is Michael Moore still capable of causing a stir? And can this equal a best picture nomination?
Had this ten best picture deal gone down a while back, it's likely Michael Moore would have factored into the race with either "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Bowling For Columbine," or both. Which makes "Capitalism: A Love Story" a good bet for a documentary's best hope at making use of the expanded Oscar pasture. But it's also unclear if Mr. Moore still has the ability to make a cultural impact like he used to. "Capitalism" - which explores the price America pays for its love of it - seems like it could feel dated. A lot has happened since Moore finished production. I mean, wouldn't a re-issue of "Sicko" prove more timely? My prediction: Moore still rouses the crowds, but its quieter than usual, and talk of a best picture nomination dies quickly.
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4. Is Tom Ford capable of making a good movie?
Perhaps the film I'm most curious about from Venice or Toronto is Tom Ford's "A Single Man." If only because the iconic fashion designer's capabilities as a filmmaker are completely unknown, and the fact that his debut offers so much potential in its stars (Colin Firth and Julianne Moore) and source (it's based on a Christopher Isherwood novel). The fact that it got into either festival means nothing - I'd gather its too high profile for either fest to turn down - so I'll be anxiously awaiting its first screening to see if this is simply a vanity project, or the discovery of a new facet to Ford's talents. And hey, as much as talk has surrounded the potential for 3 or 4 female-helmed films getting into Oscar's big ten, Ford could join Lee Daniels ("Precious") and Rob Marshall ("Nine") in another directorial trend: openly gay men. My prediction: I'd love to say I'm sure it will end up a poignant tale of gay love and loss (its about Firth's character losing his longtime lover in a car crash) and puts Julianne Moore (playing Firth's fun-loving best gal pal) in line for gold, but that's a grand prediction to make considering Ford's entirely unproven directorial talents.
5. Did "The Road"'s delays actually suggest anything about how good it is?
Many of us were expecting John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's grim, critically-celebrated book "The Road" to screen at last year's fall festival trifecta, but that wasn't the case. The Weinstein Company ended up pushing the film back, eventually deciding to give it a shot this time around. So did all those rumors about reshoots and poor test screenings have any truth to them? To me, subjecting a film that a distributor isn't confident about to both the Venice and Toronto festts seems like a massive risk. Buzz could fall into extinction and the film's release - set for October 16th in "The Road"'s case - could be met with a larger thud than if they'd kept people waiting. But we all know this is by no means a hard rule, as exemplified by at least a few films annually. My prediction? It'll be better than most of us might have thought, but too bleak to make a serious play for Oscar's big categories.
6. Will "Bright Star"'s buzz translate Stateside?
Jane Campion's "Bright Star" came out of Cannes with perhaps more awards buzz than any other title, despite going home empty-handed from the festival's awards ceremony. I was tempted to rope in "Star" with "Precious" and "An Education" in asking whether or not it's awards promise is the real deal, but I felt it warranted its own spotlight. Unlike "Precious" and "An Education," Campion's suggested critical comeback has yet to screen in North America, and it's much less likely to play as the definitive crowd-pleaser those other films should. I haven't seen the film, but I paid close attention to its Cannes reviews, and not all of them fell head over heels. I'll be curious to see what a larger batch of North American critics think of the film because as we all know, sometimes the difference in reaction between Europe and the U.S. can be quite drastic. My prediction? "Star" is met with critical approval - though not overwhelmingly - and struggles to keep buzzing as the competition heats up.
7. Is this really the year of Matt Damon?
This is actually a two-part question, one that can only be fully answered once we get a look his work in Clint Eastwood's Nelson Mandela biopic "Invictus" much later in the year. But while Matt Damon's role in that film is suggestively in support of Morgan Freeman as Mandela, Steven Soderbergh's Venice/Toronto premiere "The Informant!" is Damon's show. While the film's excellent trailer doesn't exactly scream "best picture", Damon's performance - for which he gained a bunch of weight - suggests otherwise. Damon - who as a personality seems to have very few detractors - has been neglected by Oscar since "Good Will Hunting," despite worthy work in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "The Departed." My prediction? The first part of this question is met with a resounding 'yes'.
8. Can Jason Reitman do it again?
The same can be asked of Diablo Cody, also in Toronto this year, with her "Juno" follow-up script "Jennifer's Body." Both she and Reitman are branching out on their own at the festival that made them two of 2007's award season darlings. But I'm sure no one - including Cody - is betting on "Body"'s Oscar chances, Reitman is in a different situation. Directed from his own screenplay - an adaptation of Walter Kim's novel - Reitman's comic drama "Up In The Air" stars George Clooney as a corporate downsizing expert. The fact that Paramount, just sent its other big contender "Shutter Island" to the next decade could be seen as a huge vote of confidence for "Up In The Air." My prediction? Toronto crowds love it, and Reitman and Clooney are both sent into the fall on every online awards prognosticator's current prediction list.
9. What film we've never really heard of will all of a sudden be a major contender?
Toronto has something like 100 films up for North American acquisition and its assured that a couple of them are going to come out of the fest with a distributor and an Oscar campaign-in-waiting. Dagur Kári's "The Good Heart," for example, starring Brian Cox and Paul Dano; or Neil Jordan's "Ondine," starring Colin Farrell as a fisherman who discovers a woman in his fishing net who he believes to be a mermaid; or opening night film "Creation," starring real life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly in a biopic of Charles Darwin and his wife. And these are the films we have kind of heard of. My prediction? Making one takes the fun out of Toronto, which is my excuse for the fact that I have no idea.
10. Is the Toronto-Venice-Telluride trifecta still the awards launch pad it once was?
The films that aren't screening in any of those festivals are quite a list - the previously noted "Nine," "The Tree of Life," "The Lovely Bones," and "Invictus," as well as films like Jim Sheridan's "Brothers," Mira Nair's "Amelia," even Spike Jonze's "Where The Wild Things Are." In many cases, it could be simply a matter of these films not being done in time to screen. But in others, it might be a matter of economics. If you screen at Venice or Toronto, your awards campaign - at least in some capacity - starts there. And that can get expensive. Only two years ago, in the noted year "Juno" reigned as Toronto's big surprise, almost all the eventual Oscar contenders were taking part in that fest trifecta. Only "There Will Be Blood" and "Sweeney Todd" were left as major question marks. This year (and last), we have a good half dozen. My prediction? The mere suggestion that these festivals don't matter in terms of awards season is a bit much - I can't forsee a near future when they won't. But their role might continue to become a little less dominant as distributors try and pinch more pennies.