By Peter Knegt | Indiewire August 27, 2014 at 9:00AM
The Venice Film Festival kicked off today with "Birdman" and that's as good as a starting gun: Awards season is here (and it already seems certain that "Birdman" will be a part of it). And thus begins the first edition of this weekly column, which will guide you through the entire thing.
Over the next six weeks, Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York (which has supplanted 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 Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Jason Reitman, Jean-Marc Vallée, David Gordon Green and Noah Baumbach to films that could rocket out of nowhere, these festivals are the first opportunity for awards prognostication to move beyond intelligent (or not) guessing.
Granted, this year has already offered some clues. Last month, a special edition of this column surveyed the chances of a number of awards-worthy films that have already screened at festivals or in theaters, from "The Grand Budapest Hotel" to "Boyhood" to "Foxcatcher."
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.
Of course, festivals can't tell us everything. Among those that aren't on the circuit are Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken," Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" and Tim Burton's "Big Eyes" -- each looking very Oscar friendly.
Keeping that in mind, Indiewire will now offer 10 possibilities as to what the next six weeks can indeed tell us as this column continues -- for better or worse -- through all awards season ups and downs, leading up to next March's Oscars.
In addition, each week we will update our charts of Oscar predictions, 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.
1. Will "Birdman" maintain its borderline frontrunner status over the next few weeks?
The reviews for Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman" were the first to drop from the fall festival circuit (it opens Venice today) and they have been stunning. Which feels like a bit of a deja vu to last year, when "Gravity" opened Venice and immediately blew everyone away. Iñárritu is no stranger to awards season. "Babel," "21 Grams," "Amores Perros" and "Biutiful" all got major nominations. And it's obviously premature to say so, but it seems like "Birdman" is a pretty safe bet to follow suit. Michael Keaton leads the film as an actor famous for playing an iconic superhero who is struggling to out together a Broadway play. Its the kind of role that could very well be poised to offer a major comeback for Keaton (and his first Oscar nomination), and it also seems like Edward Norton and maybe Emma Stone could join him in the supporting categories. But being the first major Oscar possibility out of the fall festival gate isn't always easy, though if anyone can handle that trajectory, it's Fox Searchlight (who pushed "12 Years a Slave" to a best picture win last year). The next few weeks (and the various possibilities listed below) will be telling as to how competitive it's going to be for "Birdman." Though for now we already have it high atop our prediction charts.
2. Which film is The Weinstein Company's MVP this year?
After a relatively disappointing awards season last year, with "August: Osage County" and "Philomena" the only films to really make a major Oscar play (and neither of them winning anything), The Weinstein Company is surely hoping to at least win most improved this season, and we'll get our first taste of two of its biggest hopefuls -- Theodore Melfi's "St. Vincent" and Morten Tyldum's "The Imitation Game" -- in Toronto. Both have a lot of potential, and they'll join the already seen likes of "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby," "Begin Again" and "Tracks" in TWC's Oscar slate. That leaves only one question mark, at least among those officially slated for 2014 release: Tim Burton's "Big Eyes." Though something tells us the Weinsteins' are looking to add one or two more films to what is really a fairly light Oscar slate. Perhaps a pick-up from Toronto? Or perhaps they'll bump up one of their 2015 films -- likely "Macbeth" or "Suite Francaise." Either way, knowing whether that would even be necessary will be clear in Toronto. If "The Imitation Game" or "St. Vincent" hit it out of the park, TWC might be all set already.
3. Is Jon Stewart an awards worthy filmmaker?
Definitely one of the biggest question marks of these festivals is Jon Stewart's "Rosewater," an adaptation of Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy's book "Then They Came For Me," which details Bahari's detainment in Iran for more than 100 days due to an interview regarding the country's presidential election. Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Bahari in the film, which certainly sounds promising on paper. But is Jon Stewart -- who took time off from "The Daily Show" to make the film -- capable of making a great film? Or more over, the kind of film that gets awards buzz? Early word is very strong, but we won't know for sure until the film screens in Toronto (and very likely Telluride before that -- though that festival's official slate isn't unveiled until just before it starts).
4. Will "Men, Women & Children" be more of a "Labor Day" or an "Up In The Air"?
Both "Juno" and "Up In The Air" premiered in Toronto (after previewing in Telluride) and ended up getting Jason Reitman Oscar nominations for best picture and best director. In 2011, he changed it up and released "Young Adult" without any festival premieres, and he ended up sans any Oscars nominations for the first time since his directorial debut "Thank You For Smoking." Then that happened again with "Labor Day" last year, which he did indeed bring to the festival circuit (it premiered at Telluride) to very little fanfare. Will "Men, Women & Children" reverse the trend? Based on a novel of the same name written by Chad Kultgen, the film explores the timely topic of relationships in the digital era, and has a strong cast in Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt and Emma Thompson. It definitely stands out in an award season jammed packed with historical biopics and genre films, so if Reitman can get the reviews he couldn't manage with "Labor Day," this could be a major player. Or not.
5. What's up with "Inherent Vice"?
Paul Thomas Anderson interestingly opted to debut his latest (and clearly intensely anticipated -- as all his films are) as a centerpiece screening at the New York Film Festival. Is that perhaps a sign that his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel is as rumored far from Oscar fare (it's been compared to Zucker Brothers movie or "The Big Lebowski")? Or is it a sneak attack? Obviously we should never underestimate Anderson, though we should also keep in mind that winning Oscars has never seemed to be a major motivator in his work. Either way, we can't wait to see what "Vice" -- which stars Joaquin Phoenix, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin and Martin Short, among others -- has to offer.
6. Can Robert Downey Jr. make a return to the awards season conversation?
A week from Thursday, David Dobkin's "The Judge" will open the Toronto Film Festival, which isn't as prestigious an idea as you might think. "The Fifth Estate" did the same last year and quickly crashed and burned, while in general films that open TIFF have not gone on to great things Oscar wise. Will "The Judge" change that? And more over, will it return Robert Downey Jr to the Oscar conversation? He stars in the film as a successful lawyer who returns to his hometown for his mother's funeral only to discover that his estranged father, the town's judge (Robert Duvall, also looking for Oscar heat here), is suspected of murder. Downey Jr. has been too busy with his "Iron Man" and "Sherlock Holmes" roles as of late to offer much in the way of awards season fare. His last nomination (which hardly came from "awards season fare" itself) was for 2008's "Tropic Thunder," which was over 15 years after his previous nod -- for 1992's "Chaplin."
7. What about Reese Witherspoon?
Reese Witherspoon has generally had a rough go at it since winning an Oscar in for 2005's "Walk The Line." From poorly received mainstream fare ("Four Christmases," "How Do You Know," "This Means War") to unsuccessful attempts at returning to the awards conversation ("Devil's Knot," "Rendition") to that pesky 2013 arrest, Witherspoon could definitely use some success. And she has three films premiering on the fall festival circuit that could aid in that: The aforementioned "Inherent Vice," Philippe Falardeau's "The Good Lie," and Jean-Marc Vallée's "Wild." The latter two are interestingly both based on real-life events and directed by French-Canadians, one of whom just led Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Oscar glory. In "The Good Lie," Witherspoon plays an American woman assigned to help four young Sudanese refugees who win a lottery for relocation to the United States. In "Wild," she plays a woman who takes a 1,100-mile solo hike as a way to recover from a recent catastrophe. Both definitely sound like meaty roles, though clearly Witherspoon has let us down with just that in the recent future. But come a few weeks from now, we'll know whether that's the case this time around.
8. Is "Gone Girl" a commercial genre film, or an Oscar contender (or both?).
There's no doubt that "Gone Girl" has a lot going for it. From its celebrated director David Fincher to the fact that its adapted from a huge bestseller to its hotter-than-ever leading man Ben Affleck, it seems poised to make a lot of money. But is it poised to make its way to the Oscar race, which isn't often the case for thrillers? The fact that its opening the New York Film Festival sure bodes well in that regard. "Captain Phillips," "Life of Pi" and Fincher's own "The Social Network" all world premiered in that slot in the last few years, and all went on to best picture nominations.
9. How's the foreign language film race stacking up?
The last five winners of the foreign language Oscar have all made their North American debuts at the Toronto Film Festival, which suggests this year's lineup could very well have our next winner in the mix. Canada's own "Mommy" (Xavier Dolan), "Two Days, One Night" (Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne), "Three Hearts" (Benoit Jacquot), "Phoenix" ( Christian Petzold), "Eden" (Mia Hansen-Love), "Winter Sleep" (Nuri Bilge Ceylan), "Leviathan" (Andrey Zvyagintsev) and "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" (Roy Andersson) are among the dozens of potential foreign language films making their first North American appearances at TIFF.
10. Is any film without distribution about to enter the Oscar race?
There's loads of films that could get picked up out of Venice or Toronto for awards season contention, perhaps most notably Thomas McCarthy's "The Cobbler" and Ed Zwick's "Pawn Sacrifice." Both filmmakers have made it into the conversation before, and could again here if their films get picked up for 2014 release. The former doesn't exactly sound like Oscar fare. It stars Adam Sandler as a shoe cobbler who stumbles upon a magical heirloom that allows him to step into the lives of his customers and see the world in a new way. But director McCarthy has never offered up a bad film (see "The Station Agent," "The Visitor" and "Win Win") so we have to remain hopeful. "Pawn Sacrifice," meanwhile, is a lot more obviously Oscar fare. It stars Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer as he prepares for that legendary chess match-up against Russian Boris Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber).
Either one of these films (or one of the many other examples) could be the next "The Wrestler," "Rabbit Hole" or "A Single Man." Though one of them could just as easily be the next "Trust." (Remember that film? 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.