By Peter Knegt | Indiewire September 1, 2010 at 4:06AM
The kick-off of the Venice Film Festival today marks the annual turning point for the fall awards season. Over the next 19 or so days, Venice, Telluride and Toronto next week will offer both industry and - in Toronto's case at least - the public, a glance at dozens of films that may or may not factor into this year's big race. From new work by Sofia Coppola, Darren Aronofsky, Danny Boyle, Julian Schnabel and Julie Taymor, to films that could rocket out of nowhere to feature prominently during awards season, these festivals should give a decent clue about what has so far been mostly speculation. Awards season is basically here, and it's up to these next few weeks to get the ball rolling.
Granted, this year has already offered some clues. Last week, this column surveyed the chances of a number of awards-worthy films already released, from "Inception" to "The Kids Are All Right" to "Toy Story 3." But buzz surrounding any of those titles could get drowned out by shiny and new contenders. 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" or "The Wrestler." And even those newbies could find themselves in, and then out, of the race.
While there's still murkiness left after these fests come and go - a laundry list of possibilities remain, from Joel & Ethan Coen's "True Grit" to David O. Russell's "The Fighter" to Terrance Malick's will-it-or-won't-it-be-released "The Tree of Life" - it's likely that 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 ten such possibilities:
1. Should Annette Bening, Jennifer Lawrence and Julianne Moore be worried?
As noted in last week's column, the best actress category is already pretty crammed, with the leading ladies from summer hits "The Kids Are All Right" and "Winter's Bone" leading the pack. But those actresses have five more months to maintain their buzz, and if the women of Venice and Toronto prove a strong force, doing so is going to get harder. Their worries may begin today when Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" opens Venice, and a lucky few get their first taste of what Natalie Portman has brought to what looks like an intense, juicy role. And then they'll certainly continue as the likes of Helen Mirren ("The Tempest," "The Debt" and "Brighton Rock"), Hilary Swank ("Conviction"), Diane Lane ("Secretariat"), Freida Pinto ("Miral"), Carey Mulligan ("Never Let Me Go"), Nicole Kidman ("Rabbit Hole"), Jennifer Connelly ("What's Wrong With Virginia"), Sally Hawkins ("Made In Dagenham"), and Robin Wright ("The Conspirator") all rear their heads before Toronto closes up shop. This could be an amazing year for female performances, which is great audiences, but might not be so great for Bening, Lawrence and Moore.
2. Are "Blue Valentine" and "Another Year" the real deal?
Both Derek Cianfrance's "Valentine" and Mike Leigh's "Year" debuted to raves and Oscar buzz at festivals earlier this year. That buzz was perhaps strongest with regard to their lead actresses Michelle Williams and Lesley Manville, which adds even more to the pile discussed above. But on a different note, it'll be interesting to note how the reaction of both films in Toronto next week compare to their premieres at Sundance (where "Valentine" debuted) and Cannes (where "Year" debuted). Oscar buzz is a hard thing to hold on to all year, and using Toronto as a way to reignite the flame can prove very successful (see "Precious" last year). But it can also make clear that early word wasn't as suggestive as it seemed (see "Bright Star" last year). "Valentine" and "Year" both seem like they have what it takes to be real contenders, but Toronto should make that much more clear.
3. Are the Brits about to invade awards season?
"Another Year" is one of a good half dozen British films that have strong awards buzz leading into the fall, and while it's a given that it could be a contender, the rest of them are as-yet-unseen. That's about to change. Between Venice and Toronto, the likes of Tom Hooper's King George VI biopic "The King's Speech" (starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter), Rowan Joffe's crime saga "Brighton Rock" (starring Helen Mirren, Sam Riley and John Hurt), Nigel Cole's 1960s women's rights chronicle "Made In Dagenham" (starring Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins and Rosamund Pike) and Mark Romanek's sci-fi infused boarding school drama "Never Let Me Go" (starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield) will all make their debuts, and if they all go over well, Oscar's top ten - and its acting categories - could all of a sudden look very, very British.
4. Can Colin Firth and Christopher Plummer do it again?
Last year, for "A Single Man" and "The Last Station," respectively, Firth and Plummer received their first ever nominations after lengthy careers (Plummer's obviously much more lengthy... he's 81 years old). They ended up losing, but it seems 2010 might offer them a quick second chance in "The King's Speech" (where Firth portrays a stuttering King George VI) and "Beginners" (where Plummer portrays a dying man to decides to finally come out to his son). Oddly enough, it's a pretty direct role reversal. Firth got nominated last year for portraying a gay man dealing with the death of his lover, while Plummer could get a nod this year for playing a gay man dealing with his own impending death. On the flip side, Plummer got a nod last year for playing a real-life historical figure from the late 1800s (Leo Tolstoy), while Firth could get a nod this year for playing one from the early 1900s.
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5. Is Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" a "Lost In Translation" or a "Marie Antoinette"?
In 2003, Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" garnered four major Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director. Her follow-up, 2006 critically divisive "Marie Antoinette," took only one (for best costume design). "Somewhere," which follows a hard-living Hollywood actor (Stephen Dorff) who gets an unexpected visit from his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) which shakes everything up, looks like it will be much more similar in tone to "Translation" than "Antoinette" - but will it be as well-received? Support from critics was key to "Translation"'s awards campaign, and would likely be necessary for "Somewhere" as well.
7. Is "Black Swan" too dark for Oscar?
The trailer for Darren Arofonsky's film had many folks proclaiming actresses Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey as sure-fire fixtures in this year's awards race. But does a violent, sexual, psychological thriller set in the world ballet really stand a chance with Oscar? "Swan" looks much darker than Aronofsky's Oscar-nominated "The Wrestler," and might be a bit much for Oscar voters to handle (though Ellen Burstyn did get a nod for Aronofsky's difficult to swallow "Requiem For a Dream"). But, it's tough conclude for sure until there's a sense of the reaction from today's screening of the film in Venice and its subsequent screening in Toronto.
7. James Franco, Oscar nominee?
That could very well be the case if Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" proves popular during its Toronto (and likely Telluride) screenings. The story of Aron Ralston (Franco), the American mountain climber who amputated his own arm to free himself after being trapped by a boulder, the film finds Franco in nearly every scene, many of which include no dialogue. It's a very challenging role, but the type that Oscar loves to reward if done right. And considering Franco gained awards traction recently for his work in Gus Van Sant's "Milk" (but didn't get a nomination), perhaps the Academy might find it time to reward him.
8. Was "The Tempest" worth the wait?
After what seemed like years of delays, Julie Taymor's adaptation of the Shakespeare play will finally debut as the closing night film of the Venice Film Festival. Following Prospera (Helen Mirren), a woman who finds herself stranded on society-less island, the film offers an all star cast in Mirren, David Strathairn, Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand, Alfred Molina and Ben Whishaw, and is sure to give film-goers some of Taymor's trademark visual innovation. But the director is very hit-and-miss when it comes to awards contention, with most of her work honored in the artistic categories but ignored elsewhere (save "Frida," which did manage acting nominations). Will "The Tempest" be an exception?
9. Is Ross from "Friends" capable of directing an awards-buzz worthy film?
David Schwimmer is set to premiere his film "Trust" at the Toronto International Film Festival, and there's already whispers that it could end up a surprise entry in this year's race. Following a suburban couple (Clive Owen and Catherine Keener) who discover their teenage daughter has been chatting online with a serial pedophile, the film looks like it offers both Owen and Keener juicy material to work with. Currently without a distributor, if "Trust" does in fact end up going over well, it would make for a good addition to a number of distributor's awards contender-lite slates.
10. Is any other film without distribution about to enter the Oscar race?
While many of the films discussed have been on many folks' awards radars for some time, there's a number of mostly distributor-free films no one's really heard much about that could come out of the next two weeks with a distributor in tow and an awards campaign in the making. Beyond the Schwimmer's "Trust," there's Dustin Lance Black's "What's Wrong With Virginia," featuring Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris in what both could be juicy roles; Robert Redford's "The Conspirator," featuring Robin Wright Penn as a woman charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln; Abe Sylvia's "Dirty Girl," an indie comedy with a screenplay once featured on the Black List (which honors the best unproduced works); Kelly Reichart's "Meek's Cutoff," a Western starring her "Wendy & Lucy" star Michelle Williams; Larysa Kondracki 's "The Whistleblower," a political thriller starring Rachel Weisz; Richard J. Lewis's "Barney's Version," starring Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman in an adaptation of Mordecai Richler's book; Mike Mills' "Beginners," noted earlier with regard to potential contender Christopher Plummer; Dan Rush's "Everything Must Go," with Will Ferrell in a dramatic role (from another Black List-ed screenplay); and John Cameron Mitchell's Nicole Kidman-Aaron Eckhart drama "Rabbit Hole," based on David Lindsay-Abaire's award-winning play. That's a lot for distributors to potentially work with.