By Peter Knegt | Indiewire August 27, 2013 at 11:29AM
The Venice Film Festival kicks off tomorrow 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 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 Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Greengrass, Ron Howard, Jason Reitman, Paul Haggis and Spike Jonze 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 week, this column kicked off by surveying the chances of a number of awards-worthy films that have already screened at festivals or in theaters, from "Blue Jasmine" to "Fruitvale Station" to "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
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 David O. Russell's "American Hustle," Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" and George Clooney's "Monument's Men," each by a very Oscar-friendly filmmaker.
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 "12 Years A Slave" continue what has already been a banner year for black filmmakers?
Only once in Oscar's 85 year history has a film directed by a black filmmaker been nominated for best picture ("Precious") and only twice has an African-American been a best director nominee (with Lee Daniels for "Precious" as well as John Singleton for "Boyz N The Hood"). 2013 is already shaping up to be a banner year when it comes to black filmmakers with Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" and Daniels again with the officially titled late summer hit "Lee Daniels' The Butler." And it seems like a third contender could very well join them in British filmmaker Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave." McQueen's follow-up to "Shame," "12 Years" is on paper McQueen's most Oscar-friendly film yet. Based on the autobiography by Solomon Northup, it follows a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Premiering in Toronto, it also stars Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o, who could be a formidable contender in the best supporting actress race. And if it ends up being as good as distributor Fox Searchlight surely hopes it will be, then this year stands the best chance ever for two (or three!) black filmmakers to make Oscar's big race.
2. Which film is The Weinstein Company's MVP this year?
Though it's directed by a white filmmaker (as most Oscar-nominated films dealing with black characters that have in the past -- see "The Color Purple," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Ray," "Beasts of the Southern Wild"), it should be noted with regard to the previous discussion that Justin Chadwick's Nelson Mandela biopic "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom" is also premiering at TIFF, and could make the presence of stories featuring prominent black characters even more considerable during awards season. And it -- like "Fruitvale Station" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler" -- has Harvey Weinstein and his recent Oscar hot streak in its favor. "Mandela" joins John Wells' extraordinarily star packed (Meryl AND Julia) adaptation of the Pulitizer Prize winning play "August: Osage County" and Stephen Frears' Judi Dench-led "Philomena" on the fall festival circuit as Harvey's potentially mighty trio. But it's highly unlikely that all of them -- especially with "Fruitvale" and "The Butler" already contenders, and "Grace of Monaco" (another Weinstein release) potentially joining them in November -- will end up awards season MVPs. So which film is Harvey's best bet to continue a recent track record that includes two best picture winners in three years and nearly half last year's Oscar nominees? The money's on "August: Osage County," but in a few weeks time we'll have a much better idea as to whether that's actually true.
3. Which actress is "August: Osage County"'s MVP?
Speaking of "August: Osage County," it has an internal battle of its own given its remarkable (and huge) cast that includes Oscar winners Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Chris Cooper, Oscar nominees Juliette Lewis (it's true!) and Abigail Breslin, not to mention Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson and Margo Martindale (in a role that won Rondi Reed a Tony on Broadway). Focusing on the 6 actresses on that list (who generally have the best roles), which ones will end up getting awards season buzz. There were unconfirmed reports that Roberts will be the only one campaigned as lead (even though Streep's role is nearly as large -- not to mention top billed), which would leave Martindale's showy true supporting role to compete against three-time Oscar winner Ms. Meryl. And Breslin, Nicholson and Lewis would be likely be campaigning as well. On September 9th in Toronto, lucky audiences will be much less confused than you probably are reading this, as they will have seen first hand who deserves Harvey's biggest pushes, and in which category.
4. Will "Labor Day" be more of a "Young Adult" 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." But with "Labor Day," he's going back to the circuit, confirmed to hit Toronto and likely previewing in Telluride beforehand (given that festival happens on Labor Day, it couldn't be more appropriate). Does this mean he has another best picture contender on his hands? A cast including Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin and Tobey Maguire certainly bodes well. Based on Joyce Maynard's novel of the same the name, the film follows a divorced, depressed single mom (Winslet) who -- when clothes shopping with her 13-year-old son -- encounters a man who is bleeding badly (Brolin). The source material suggests it will be Reitman's most dramatic film yet, and its also the first truly leading role (save HBO miniseries "Mildred Pierce") for Winslet since she won an Oscar for "The Reader."
5. Is "Gravity" the real deal?
The first film out of the gate on the fall festival circuit, Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity" will open the Venice Film Festival Wednesday night. The very ambitious film stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as surviving astronauts in a damaged space shuttle. Budgeted at $80 million and being released in 3D, Warner Brothers surely hopes it will be this year's "Life of Pi" or "Hugo" -- both of which seemed like risky propositions before turning into major Oscar contenders. Early word is extremely strong for both the film and Bullock's performance (which could garner her a second Oscar nod after winning on her first time out for "The Blind Side"), which bodes well. But we'll know for sure in a few days if Cuarón's first film since 2006's critically acclaimed "Children of Men" (which got Oscar nods for best adapted screenplay, best cinematography and best editing, but missed the cut for the big prize) is the real Oscar deal.
6. Is Ben Stiller capable of directing a best picture contender?
Could one of this year's best picture nominees be directed by... Ben Stiller? His previous directorial efforts -- "Reality Bites," "The Cable Guy," "Zoolander" and "Tropic Thunder" -- weren't exactly Oscar fare (though the latter did get Robert Downey Jr. an acting nod), but his fifth time out could be a much different ballgame. World premiering at the New York Film Festival (which is generally curated quite carefully -- a good sign), "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" finds Stiller directing himself as an office worker who sets off a global journey to try and save the jobs of both himself and a romantic interest (Kristen Wiig). Based on James Thurber's 1939 short story of the same name (adapted once before in a 1947 film starring Danny Kaye), the film looks like the kind of crowd-pleasing fare that Oscar eats right up. If it's even half-decent (and then goes on to make some money when its released on Christmas Day), watch out.
7. Will Bill Condon be able to return to award seasons' good graces after directing two "Twilight" films?
Bill Condon won an Oscar back in 1999 for writing "Gods and Monsters," and followed that up with 2004's "Kinsey" and 2006's "Dreamgirls," both of which managed major Oscar nods. But then he went all "Twilight" on us, directing the series' final two films to huge box office but poor critical reception. Now he's returning to potentially more respectable circles, directing the anticipated WikiLeaks biopic "The Fifth Estate," which will open the Toronto International Film Festival next week. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange and Daniel Brühl as WikiLeaks' former spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the film is based in-part on Domscheit-Berg's book "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World's Most Dangerous Website," as well as "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy," by journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding. Its a timely topic that if pulled off well could definitely make its way into Oscar's mix. We'll have a much better idea come TIFF opening night.
8. Is Matthew McConaughey finally gonna get that Oscar nomination?
Snubbed last year despite some of the best reviews of his career for "Magic Mike," "Bernie" and "Killer Joe," Matthew McConaughey has a very good shot at making up for it come this Oscar season. He's already got the indie box office hit "Mud" as one of the year's earlier contenders (where he's campaigning for supporting), while a reportedly scene-stealing small role in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" is still en route. But come TIFF we'll get a look at his best shot at a lead actor nom with "Dallas Buyers Club," where McConaughey depicts the true story of a man dying of AIDS who begins smuggling unapproved, life-saving drugs from Mexico. He lost 38 pounds for the role, a tactic that Oscar voters have, uh, eaten up in the past. But the film still needs to be good, and Toronto will let us know that on its first Saturday night.
9. How's the foreign language film race stacking up?
Last year all 5 of the foreign language film contenders had their North American premieres at TIFF, which suggests this year's lineup could have quite a few contenders in it as well. Canada's own "Tom at the Farm" (Xavier Dolan), Czech Republic's "Burning Bush" (Agnieszka Holland), Chile's "Gloria" (Sebastián Lelio), Bosnia and Herzegovina's "For Those Who Can Tell No Tales" (Jasmila Žbanić), Italy's "The Great Beauty" (Paolo Sorrentino), Venezuela's "The Liberator" (Alberto Arvelo), Japan's "Like Father, Like Son" (Hirokazu Kore-eda), Iranian filmmaker (but France/Italy-produced) "The Past" (Asghar Farhadi), France/Morocco's "Rock The Casbah" (Laïla Marrakchi), Japan's "Unforgiven" (Lee Sang-il), Sweden's "You Are The Best" (Lukas Moodysson) and France's "Young and Beautiful" (François Ozon) 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 Jonathan Teplitzky's World War II-themed "The Railway Man," starring Oscar winners Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. The film tells the potentially epic true story of Eric Lomax (Firth), a British Army officer who is tormented as a prisoner of war at a Japanese labour camp during World War II. Decades later, Lomax discovers that the Japanese interpreter he holds responsible for much of his treatment is still alive and sets out to confront him. Sounds right up Oscar's alley if it gets picked up and released by year's end.
Some other examples: Joel Hopkins's "The Love Punch" (starring Emma Thompson and Pierce Brosnan), Daniel Schechter's "Life of Crime" (with John Hawkes, Tim Robbins and Jennifer Aniston), Fred Schepisi's "Words and Pictures" (with Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen), John Ridley's Jimi Hendrix biopic "All Is By My Side" (with André Benjamin as Hendrix), Kevin Macdonald's "How I Live Now" (starring Saoirse Ronan), "Once" director John Carney's "Can a Song Save Your Life?" (with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo), Liza Johnson's Kristen Wiig-starrer "Hateship, Loveship," Atom Egoyan's "Devil's Knot" (also starring Colin Firth, this time alongside another Oscar winning actress in Reese Witherspoon), and Ned Benson's epic two part "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her," starring Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Viola Davis, Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt.
One of these 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? I didn't think so.)
Check out Indiewire's latest chart of Oscar predictions here.
Peter Knegt is Indiewire's Senior Writer and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.