The triple threat of film festivals that end off the summer - Telluride, Venice and, especially, Toronto - are an unofficial trinity kicking off awards season. Fall schedules are finalized and 'For Your Consideration' campaigns are set in motion, and from that point on awards prognosticators scurry to keep up with constant shifts in buzz. But inklings of what's to come can often materialize much earlier.
Take last year. Sure, all five of the best picture nominees were released in November and December, only one of which - "Slumdog Millionaire" - received significant festival play beforehand. But in many of the other major categories, there were already some big clues around this time of year. In the acting categories, both supporting actress winner Penelope Cruz and actress nominee Angelina Jolie were from films that screened at Cannes, while Melissa Leo and Richard Jenkins both got nods for Sundance entries. The best original screenplay category had a whopping four of five nominees from films seen pre-July: "Happy-Go Lucky," from Berlin, "In Bruges" and "Frozen River," from Sundance, and "WALL-E," which was released in theaters in June. And looking back at best picture line-ups from years prior, 2008 comes up as a bit of a rarity: 2007 winner "No Country For Old Men" screened at Cannes, as did 2006 nominee "Babel." "Babel"'s competition "Little Miss Sunshine" came from Sundance, while in 2005, winner "Crash" had been around since the previous year's Toronto International Film Festival.
It's very likely many have seen at least one 2009 best picture nominee, or maybe even the winner. And now that Cannes is only a memory, it's time to shuffle through the possibilities before the onslaught of Venice, Telluride and Toronto speculation.
The most obvious category that Cannes should affect is best foreign language film. Last year, Oscar nominees "The Class" and "Waltz With Bashir" both started their buzz on the Croisette (and ended it with the word "Departures" being announced on the Kodak stage), and this year it's likely there will be a redux with a few nominees (though ask IFC, and they will tell you there's no such thing as "likely" when it comes to the foreign language film nominations). Sony Pictures Classics - which distributed both "The Class" (winner of last year's Palme d'Or) and "Waltz With Bashir" - has a mighty trio of possibilities: Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or winner "The White Ribbon" (Germany), Jacques Audiard’s "A Prophet" (France), and Pedro Almodovar's "Abrazos Rotos" (Spain). Whether they make the cut depends not only on the often clueless Oscar voters but also the respective countries' selecting committees, but I'd be surprised if these are not their choices (though the French have quite the variety of selections, from another SPC title "Coco Before Chanel" to Cannes entry "In The Beginning").
It's possible any of the noted foreign films could spill over into a few other categories. Perhaps Penelope Cruz has an outside shot at best actress for "Rotos" (though the film's relatively mild reception doesn't bode particularly well), as does non-Cannes foreign entry "Coco Before Chanel"'s lead Audrey Tatou (the film has already opened in France, where it's been a huge success). Screenplay, and occasionally director, have always had a tendency to be supplementary gifts for foreign language films, so if "Ribbon" or "Prophet" in particular really take off with critics this fall (which I'm sure they will), it could happen. But for the major categories, one should always look to the English language, as that's how Oscar voters tend to like their movies.
Jane Campion's "Bright Star" is probably the most likely film from the Cannes competition to make inroads with awards season. Campion is one of only three women to be nominated for a best director Oscar (for "The Piano," back in 1993). And while her "Bright Star" didn't win over the Cannes jury, it's got the Academy written all over it: Brit-produced, beautifully shot, romantic period piece that's likely to be a big hit with critics. Stars Ben Winshaw and Abbie Cornish seem like they have shots at lead acting nods, Paul Schneider has been singled out for his supporting performance, and art direction and costume design nominations seem as likely as "Up" getting an animated feature nod at this point. If the film takes off when it's released this fall, denying Campion nods for her screenplay and perhaps even directing might be hard for a group that has vastly under-rewarded women in these categories.
But shockingly, Campion might even have some female competition. Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" (which premiered in Toronto last year, and is being released next month by Summit Entertainment) and Lone Scherfig's "An Education" (which premiered at Sundance, and is being released by Sony Pictures Classics in the fall) were both very well received in their fest debuts, and look like strong possibilities for Oscar buzz. "Locker" is definitely the least likely of the two - the Iraq war-themed film Oscar nod count isn't exactly high - but if it manages to rise above its predecessors (and it's going to have the reviews to help it do that), technical nods are certainly possible, and Bigelow could be a strong candidate for the lone director slot. "Education," meanwhile, might give "Bright Star" a run for its Brit-produced, beautifully shot, romantic period piece money. Up-and-coming star Carey Mulligan was whispered as a best actress contender from the second the film hit Sundance screens, while Alfred Molina is a potential best supporting actor contender and the screenplay by Nick Hornby is a pretty sure bet.
Other possibilities have sprinkled themselves throughout Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, and even Tribeca: Cannes opener "Up" is 1000% certain to become Pixar's latest best animated feature nominee, and almost just as likely the winner (I'm sure there will also be a push for a best picture nod, but history has shown that's probably not going to happen); Berlin premiere "Cheri" might find Stephen Frears directing both Michelle Pfieiffer and Kathy Bates to their fourth nominations; Tribeca opener "Whatever Works" seems like it has an outside shot of giving Patricia Clarkson her second acting nod, and Woody Allen his 15th screenplay nod; "Inglourious Basterds" and Cannes best actor winner Christoph Waltz might be a fun long shot for supporting actor contention; Sundance is sure to offer a documentary nominee or two - "The Cove" being the most obvious, but who knows...
But it's Lee Daniels' "Precious" that might be the best positioned of all. The film roared out of Sundance with intense acclaim and major awards, only to be met with a slot in Cannes' Un Certain Regard lineup, and a huge distribution deal with Lionsgate that involves Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey, it should be remembered, was credited with playing a little role in "Crash"'s success at the Oscars - a film also released by Lionsgate. At this point, the film's screenplay and Mo'Nique's performance seem like givens, but perhaps it could push even further? It's set for an early November release, following a similar strategy to what "Slumdog" used last year. It's bound to be a crowd pleaser, and find some serious love from critics. If it manages to get a best picture nod, it would be the first film in history directed by an African-American to be nominated for best picture. And he's openly gay to boot. Calling "Precious" a frontrunner for this kind of success seems extremely premature, but when factoring everything into its future, one can't help but ponder the possibilities.