By Peter Knegt | Indiewire August 30, 2012 at 12:59PM
The Venice Film Festival is off and running and that's as good as a starting gun: It means the awards season is here.
Over the next three weeks, Venice, Telluride and Toronto will offer the first look at dozens of films that may or may not factor into this year's race. From new work by Terrence Malick, Ben Affleck, David O. Russell, Paul Thomas Anderson, Joe Wright 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. Earlier this summer, this column surveyed the chances of a number of awards-worthy films that have already screened at festivals or in theaters, from "Beasts of the Southern Wild" to "Moonrise Kingdom"
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 Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" and Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables," each by an Oscar-winning filmmaker. There's also a trio of films that are waiting a few weeks to debut at the New York Film Festival instead: Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," David Chase's "Not Fade Away" and Robert Zemeckis's "Flight."
Keeping that in mind, Indiewire will now offer 10 possibilities as to what the next three weeks can indeed tell us in this first official edition of our weekly awards column. This column will continue -- for better or worse -- through all awards season ups and downs, leading up to next February'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.
It's had a few screenings already (and a few mostly ecstatic reviews as a result), but the true test of Paul Thomas Anderson's thinly veiled take on Scientology, "The Master," will be its official debuts in Venice and Toronto.
The film -- which recently moved up its theatrical release date to September 14th (before Toronto even ends) -- has been viewed by many as the film to beat going into the season, but reactions from critics at these festivals will be crucial in confirming whether or not that's an actual reality. Anderson has been nominated for five Oscars (three for writing "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood," and another two for producing and directing the latter), which is a pretty excellent track record considering he's only made five feature films so far. But if all goes well, "The Master" could be his first chance at actually winning, even if that's an outcome that wouldn't exact please Tom Cruise and company.
And if the early reviews calling him "a revelation" are warranted, the film is also the best shot Joaquin Pheonix -- making his first feature film appearance in four years (save "I'm Still Here," of course) -- has ever had at taking home the gold himself.
2. Does Summit Entertainment have a Oscar-worthy duo on its hands?
Before The Weinstein Company's back to back best picture wins these past two years, it was the story of a little distributor that could when Summit Entertainment's "The Hurt Locker" topped the box office juggernaut that was "Avatar." Other than being the distributor of "Twilight," that's been Summit Entertainment's only really other major claim to fame... Until now?
Summit has two of the most buzzed about films heading into the Toronto International Film Festival: Juan Antonio Bayona's narrative depiction of a family's struggle in the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami, "The Impossible," and Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his own 1999 coming-of-age novel, "The Perks of the Being a Wallflower."
Chatter from advanced screenings has been through the roof, and Toronto will make it clear whether its warranted. "Perks" is clearly the longer shot of the two (teen dramas are rarely a big Oscar sell), but "The Impossible" potentially has what it takes to be a major player: A heart-wrenching true-life drama. Naomi Watts seems like the safest bet of the cast (which other than Watts and Ewan McGregor, mostly consists of kids) to get a nom, and with a wide-open best actress field, Toronto might give us a good inkling as to whether that could even be a win.
From "The Hangover" to "The A-Team" to well, "The Hangover, Part II," Bradley Cooper has never exactly seemed destined for Oscar glory. But two films premiering at the Toronto Film Festival could potentially change that: David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" and Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Behind the Pines."
Both Russell and Cianfrance saw their last films -- "The Fighter" and "Blue Valentine" -- boast acting nominations ("The Fighter" even had two wins), and Cooper has juicy roles in both their films. He plays a cop-turned-politician on a collision course with Ryan Gosling in "Pines," and a mentally unstable man whose forced to live his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver) in "Silver Linings."
The former doesn't have a distributor, while the latter -- clearly the meatier part -- is set for release in November and has the backing of Harvey Weinstein. So the parts are in place in regard, now Cooper just needs Toronto audiences and critics to give him a push.
4. What's up with "Cloud Atlas"?
Perhaps the most ambitious film set to premiere on the fall fest circuit, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski's "Cloud Atlas" is a 164-minute, $100 million adaptation of a best-selling book that many felt might be unadaptable. But the fact that distributor Warner Brothers is willing to even give it a festival slot suggests they have some faith in it. The six-minute trailer they released last month definitely had some of the book's fans finding faith in it as well.
But with multiple storylines, a challenging narrative featuring various name actors (four of them Oscar winners, notably) playing multiple parts, and a trio of directors who collectively miss as much as they hit, "Atlas" will be a question mark until its first TIFF screening. But if it goes over as well , it could definitely be a force to be reckoned with.
Terrance Malick's "The Tree of Life" definitely surprised a few people when it ended up getting nominated for best picture and best director last year, but it goes to show what a passionate base of fans he has in the Academy.
His follow-up, "To The Wonder," is said to be even more experimental than "Life," and is shockingly heading to Venice and TIFF (the director often averages a good decade between films). It doesn't have a distributor yet, but it seems hard to imagine that won't happen quickly. And if they end up releasing it by year's end, could Malick make it two a row? We'll have a much better idea when it premieres in Venice this Sunday.
6. Is "Quartet" the new "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"?
Another comedic drama about a group of British retirees starring Maggie Smith? That's the premise of Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut "Quartet," which stars Smith alongside Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly as a group of retired opera singers. Adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own play, the film could give 2012 a second senior-citizen cinema success story... or it could get lost in the shadow of the hugely successful "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."
But can lightning strike twice? Between those two films and "Downton Abbey," it could become the year of Maggie Smith, and "Quartet" -- in which she will campaign as lead (she'll be supporting for "Hotel") -- could be her best shot at a seventh Oscar nomination (she already has two statuettes). Who knows, maybe Oscar will even double up on the Dame.
Ben Affleck has certainly managed a successful directorial career thus far, with his "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town" each earning strong reviews and Oscar nods for acting (Amy Ryan and Jeremy Renner, respectively).
But with "Argo" -- a political drama about the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Iran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis -- he's made his most ambitious effort yet, and surely Affleck hopes it can propel him into the best picture and director categories for the first time. He also might have a shot at his first acting nod (potentially going up against BFF Matt Damon, whose "Promised Land" -- which co-wrote and stars in -- just got set for a December release).
"Argo" premieres in Toronto, followed by a October 12th theatrical release care of Warner Brothers.
8. Is "Anna Karenina" another "Soloist," or more like an "Atonement"?
For a bit there, Joe Wright had a near-perfect track record with Oscar. His first two films -- "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement" -- received 10 nominations between them, the latter making the best picture cut. But then came "The Soloist" and "Hanna." The latter did receive strong reviews but the former definitely did not, and neither brought Wright's work back into the Academy's shortlists. Perhaps a return to literary adaptations -- and Keira Knightley -- will change that trend?
"Anna Karenina" -- adapted from Leo Tolstoy's classic novel -- re-teams Wright with his "Pride" and "Atonement" star Keira Knightley (who stars alongside Jude Law, Aaron Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Matthew Macfadyen and Michelle Dockery). Like "Atonement" and "Pride," "Anna" is also having its North American premiere at TIFF (just after making its theatrical debut in Wright's native UK), which should let us know where "Anna" potentially fits in the Oscar's relationship with Joe Wright.
Kristen Wiig managed a well-deserved Oscar nomination earlier this year for co-writing "Bridesmaids," the film that propelled her into the A-list and paved the way for her to leave "Saturday Night Live" and focus her career on film full-time. While the first test of that trajectory comes with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's "Imogene," which premieres at the Toronto Film Festival. The film sees Wiig star as a playwright who stages a suicide in an attempt to win back her ex (Matt Dillon), only to wind up in the custody of her gambling-addict mother (Annette Bening).
It sounds like a great premise, but even if TIFF audiences agree, the film has one final hurdle before Oscar talk is even possible: It does not have U.S. distribution.
10. Is any other film without distribution about to enter the Oscar race?
Beyond "Imogene," there's loads of films that could get picked up out of Venice or Toronto for awards season contention.
Some examples: The aforementioned "To The Wonder," Brian DePalma's "Passion," Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Behind The Pines," Scott McGehee and David Siegel's "What Maisie Knew," Dante Ariola's "Arthur Newman," Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing," Neil Jordan's "Byzantium," Mike Newell's "Great Expectations," Nick Cassavetes's "Yellow," Henry Alex Rubin's "Disconnect," Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha," and Sally Potter's "Ginger and Rosa."
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.