By Peter Knegt | Indiewire August 29, 2011 at 3:39AM
The Venice Film Festival begins Wednesday 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 David Cronenberg, Roman Polanski, Steven Soderbergh, Sarah Polley and George Clooney, 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 "The Tree of Life" and "Midnight in Paris" to "Like Crazy" and "The Artist."
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 Clint Eastwood's "J.Edgar," Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" and "The Iron Lady," which surely will provide another powerhouse Meryl Streep performance.
And now, instead of rambling on like a rabid awards geek for another six paragraphs, indieWIRE will now offer 10 such possibilities 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 this chart 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. How many nominations could George Clooney receive?
Nominated five times previously (for acting in "Syriana," "Michael Clayton" and "Up In The Air" and for both writing and directing "Good Night, and Good Luck.") and winning once ("Syriana"), Clooney could double that impressive record with two films debuting on the fall festival circuit: Alexander Payne's "Sideways" followup, "The Descendants" and Clooney's own "The Ides of March," which he wrote, directed, produced and stars in.
The former sees Clooney playing Matt King, a land baron trying to reconnect with his daughters after his wife slips into a coma. The latter has him starring opposite Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei (who have eight Oscar nominations between them) in a political thriller he co-wrote with Grant Heslov. We'll see which one is his MVP (or if they both are) when "Ides" debuts in Venice and "Descendants" takes Toronto.
2. Is "The Artist" as likely a contender as some out of Cannes led us to believe?
A black-and-white film with no stars and no dialogue, Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist" emerged out of Cannes as the most unlikely of Oscar contenders. But Harvey Weinstein saw the film's golden potential. France-produced but Hollywood-set, the film takes place between 1927 and 1931 and focuses on a declining male film star and a rising actress as silent cinema grows out of fashion. It could appeal very much to industry folks as it pays homage to an era in Hollywood history. The film will get its largest audience yet when it makes its way to Toronto and reaction could confirm whether "The Artist" is the sure-fire bet some think it is. If things go well, it could be come the first black-and-white best-picture nominee since... George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck."
3. Are Roland Emmerich and/or Madonna really capable of directing Oscar-worthy films?
Roland Emmerich and Madonna are not exactly filmmakers you associate with awards season; Madonna's not exactly someone you associate with filmmaking. But both are bringing their latest works to the fall fest circuit. Madonna's time-shifting romantic drama "W.E." was picked up by The Weinstein Company, while "2012" director Emmerich's Shakespeare-themed drama "Anonymous" has surprised everyone by gaining considerable buzz leading up to its release. In less than two weeks, we'll know whether one or both are really heading award season's way.
4. Whats up with "50/50"?
Summit Entertainment has been screening Jonathan Levine's cancer dramedy all summer in hopes of gaining Oscar traction leading into its Toronto debut; so far. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anna Kendrick and Anjelica Huston (in what is said to be film's most Oscar-bait role), the film is loosely based on screenwriter Will Reiser's real-life battle with cancer in his 20s. After several name changes (it had previously been "I'm With Cancer" and "Live With It"), "50/50" will suggest its chances at Oscar when reviews start coming out of Toronto.
5. David Cronenberg, Steven Soderbergh and Roman Polanski: On which side of Oscar-friendly do their latest films lie?
All three often-controversial directors have made Oscar-friendly fare and Soderbergh and Polanski have even won a golden guy, but for every "A History of Violence," "Traffic" and "The Pianist" there's a "Crash," "The Girlfriend Experience" and "The Ninth Gate."
In the next week, Venice will give us an idea as to which side of that equation the trio's latest films -- Cronenberg's Carl Jung-Sigmund Freud drama "A Dangerous Method," Soderbergh's apocalyptic thriller "Contagion" and Polanski's parental blowout "Carnage" -- lie. Combined, the directors have an impressive array of actors backing them up: Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet (twice!), Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard and Jude Law. For those counting, they have 21 Oscar nominations and 7 wins between them.
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6. Which Shakespeare-related film is Vanessa Redgrave most likely to be nominated for?
One of the earliest performances to earn Oscar buzz this year was Vanessa Redgrave's work in "Coriolanus," Ralph Fiennes' adaptation of Shakespeare's play. The film premiered in Berlin back in February, and Redgrave earned raves for her work as Volumnia, Coriolanus's mother. While that film (picked up by The Weinstein Company) will be making its North American debut in Toronto, it will be joined by the world premiere of the aforementioned "Anonymous," which Redgrave is also getting buzz for.
This time, instead of an adaptation of a Shakespeare play, the film takes on Shakespeare himself as it questions whether Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was the actual author if Shakespeare's work. Redgrave plays Queen Elizabeth I (a role that has already earned Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench Oscar nominations), and is said to be fantastic. At 74, and nearly 20 years after her last nomination (for "Howards End"), Redgrave could quite be the player in this year's Oscar race if both films go over well in Toronto.
7. Can Gary Oldman finally get that Oscar nomination?
It's shocking, but Gary Oldman has never been nominated for an Oscar. Not for "Sid and Nancy," not for "Prick Up Your Ears," not for "Dracula," not even for "The Contender." This year, that could change. Venice premiere "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" has Oldman taking on the juicy role of George Smiley, a man who comes out of semi-retirement to uncover a Russian agent. Buzz for his performance and for the film, directed by Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson ("Let The Right One In"), has been impressive. Sentimentality will be on his side, so if reviews out of Venice are as strong, Oldman could very well lose his arguable title as the greatest actor never nominated for an Oscar.
8. Can Glenn Close finally get that Oscar win?
From 1982 to 1988, Glenn Close received a stunning five Academy Award nominations over seven years. But she's never won. She probably came closest in 1987 and 1988, but her work in "Fatal Attraction" and "Dangerous Liaisons" lost to Cher ("Moonstruck") and Jodie Foster ("The Accused"). Some 25 years after her last nomination, Close could very well be back in the mix care of "Albert Nobbs," a passion project if there ever was one. Close first played the titular character (a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to survive in male-dominated 19th century Ireland) in a 1982 stage production and has been trying to turn it into a film ever since. It finally happened via director Rodrigo Garcia, with Close co-writing the script and producing. It's an admirable feat that could go over very well with the Academy... if the film is good. We'll find out when it premieres in Toronto.
9. Steve McQueen, Oren Moverman and Sarah Polley: One-trick ponies or sophomore sensations?
"Hunger" director Steve McQueen will bring us "Shame," the story of two very troubled siblings (Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan); "The Messenger" director Oren Moverman will bring us "Rampart," a police drama starring Woody Harrelson and Ice Cube; and "Away From Her" director Sarah Polley will show us "Take This Waltz," an adultery dramedy with Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen. All three projects have considerable potential and could very well end up in the award season mix (Moverman and Polley have been there before), but all three have one final hurdle before that's even possible: None have U.S. distribution.
10. Is any other film without distribution about to enter the Oscar race?
Beyond "Shame," "Rampart" and "Take This Waltz," there's loads of films that could get picked up out of Venice or Toronto for awards season contention.
Some examples: Bruce Beresford's "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding," which stars Jane Fonda, Catherine Keener and 2011 indie it girl Elizabeth Olsen; Oscar-winning screenwriter Dave Hare's "Page Eight," with Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes and Judy Davis; Luc Besson's epic "The Lady," which finds Michelle Yeoh taking on the role of a woman at the core of Burma's democracy movement; Fernando Meirelles' "360," featuring an Oscar-friendly cast in Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins and Rachel Weisz; Fred Schepisi's "The Eye of the Storm," an adaptation of Patrick White's novel starring Geoffrey Rush ad Charlotte Rampling; and Lasse Hallstrom's "Salmon Fishing In Yemen," featuring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. 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.