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‘A Star Is Born’ and ‘First Man’ Are Big Contenders, But Current Oscar Favorite Is ‘The Favourite’

TIFF has many world premieres, including "Beautiful Boy" with Timothee Chalamet, but current Oscar favorite is "The Favourite," which will likely premiere in Telluride.

“The Favourite”

What didn’t go to Cannes is showing up at Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York, along with a stack of would-be awards contenders from other festivals. That means fall moviegoers can sample a wide selection of riches, but not all will make the Oscar cut.

It’s clear that fall awards campaigners are making carefully calculated assessments of their movies’ strengths and weaknesses, and where to take their best shot. In today’s delicate marketplace, there’s no margin for error.

Truth is, at this stage the list of new movies with real Oscar potential is small. There’s a bunch no one has seen yet, from Adam McKay’s “Backseat” (December 14, Annapurna) to Bob Zemeckis’ “Welcome to Marwen” (December 21, Universal). Some fall festival movies are still in the editing room, including Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to “La La Land,” Venice opener “First Man” (Universal).

TIFF announced Barry Jenkins’ anticipated period adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” (Annapurna) as a world premiere — a surprise, since it was expected to play Telluride (where Jenkins is a longtime contributor and theatre host) as well as New York. Annapurna is also booking Jacques Audiard’s English-language western “The Sisters Brothers,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, and John C. Reilly, into Venice and Toronto. (Telluride does not play the World Premiere game, announcing its official selection at the last minute.)

“Roma”

Courtesy of Carlos Somonte / Netflix

Also building strong awards buzz is Alfonso Cuaron’s black-and-white 70 mm autobiographical Mexican film “Roma,” which is a classic case of a challenging (Spanish-language) movie with no stars that conventional theatrical distributors were afraid to release, but Netflix was willing to back. And so is Paul Greengrass’ terrorist thriller “22 July” (formerly “Norway”) which will play Venice and TIFF, but not Telluride or New York. (Word is, it’s a tough sit.) “Roma” could also be a foreign-language submission from Mexico.

Many questions are on the table. Will Netflix change their usual minimal theatrical-release strategy for “Roma,” which is playing as many festivals as possible — Venice, Telluride, and Toronto — before its Centerpiece Gala in New York? TIFF’s Cameron Bailey booked “Roma” into the Bell Lightbox, which can display it in 4K and Dolby Atmos, after Cuaron asked them to screen it “in the best possible circumstances,” Bailey told IndieWire. “It looks amazing. There is so much remarkable detail. It’s as if Gregg Toland were working today. The sound mix is remarkable, very different from most commercial films.”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Saci/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5858774a)Orson Welles, John HustonThe Other Side Of The Wind - 1972Director: Orson WellesSaciUSA/FRANCEOn/Off Set

Welles and Huston on the set of “The Other Side of the Wind” in 1972

Saci/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Netflix is also expected to take to Venice and Telluride producer Frank Marshall’s finally completed Orson Welles film “The Other Side of the Wind,” along with Morgan Neville’s Welles documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” which were pulled from Cannes, before they hit New York.

Nicole Holefcener’s suburban drama “The Land of Steady Habits” (Netflix) starring Ben Mendelsohn, Connie Britton, and Edie Falco, will be a Toronto gala. Holefcener also wrote Fox Searchlight’s Toronto entry “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” directed by Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”), which showcases popular comedienne Melissa McCarthy in a dramatic turn as a down-and-out writer turned con artist. This is expected to screen in Telluride.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Searchlight has given glossy period comedy “The Favourite” to New York for opening night, even though it will likely already have played Venice and Telluride. Yorgos Lanthimos’ royal intrigue pits Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone against each other as they court favor with crazy Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). This has deep potential through the Oscar categories, including cinematography, costumes, production design, and direction as well as acting. “‘The Favourite’ is a lot of things at once, each of them perfectly meshed,” stated New York Film Festival director Kent Jones, “an historical epic; a visual feast; a wild, wild ride; a formidable display of the art of acting from Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and Olivia Colman, abetted by a brilliant cast; a tour de force from Yorgos Lanthimos. And … it’s a blast.”

In other words, ladies and gentlemen, right now it’s the Oscar frontrunner.

Searchlight is also playing David Lowery’s “The Old Man & the Gun” at Telluride and Toronto, an amiable romantic caper starring Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, and Casey Affleck.

Steve Carell, Maura Tierney, TimothŽe Chalamet, Oakley Bull, and Christian Convery star in BEAUTIFUL BOY

“Beautiful Boy”

Francois Duhamel

Other Toronto galas include likely Amazon Studios contenders “Beautiful Boy,” the true-life addiction drama starring Steve Carrell and Timothée  Chalamet, as well as mainstream family drama “Life Itself” from “This Is Us” series creator Dan Fogelman, starring Antonio Banderas, Oscar Isaac, Samuel L. Jackson, Olivia Cooke, and Olivia Wilde. While the former is a more likely Oscar contender than the latter, Oscar perennial Mike Leigh’s fourth period drama “Peterloo” is one to watch. It will debut in Venice.

Lady Gaga, 'A Star Is Born'

Lady Gaga in “A Star Is Born”

Warner Bros./YouTube

Studio contenders

Universal gave Venice the opening slot for Neil Armstrong mission-to-the-moon movie “First Man,” which should also show in Telluride as well as Toronto. “Really gripping,” said Bailey. “It’s very different from what you’d expect. It’s a really interesting approach to the astronaut genre … it almost feels like cinema verite or dogma in the way he shoots his characters, but then it’s epic and gripping when it gets into the stratosphere.”

Both Venice and Toronto will showcase actor-director Bradley Cooper’s remake “A Star is Born” (Warner Bros.). This is a calculation. The studio that consistently avoids wearing its Oscar hopes on its sleeve is refusing to be judged in Venice Competition; and the Lady Gaga starrer is not going to Telluride to be judged by the Oscar pundits. Is this a sign of insecurity? More likely, the studio is confident of the film’s mainstream commercial bonafides, but is treading carefully where critics — and Oscars — are concerned.

For Bailey, “‘A Star is Born’ is an absolutely beautiful film, it’s really emotional and works on a gut level. Bradley and Lady Gaga are obviously great, but there are a number of terrific supporting performances as well.”

Suddenly, this year Telluride has become the Cannes of the fall film festivals. While many distributors once clamored to get in, now some are afraid to subject their films to harsh media scrutiny through the Oscar prism. That’s too bad; some of the more idiosyncratic and weird art titles, I hear, won’t show there for this reason. So far, Focus Features seems to be holding back Joel Edgerton’s conversion drama “Boy Erased,” starring Lucas Hedges and Nicole Kidman, as well as two December releases, “Mary, Queen of Scots” starring Saorise Ronan and Margot Robbie, and Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones, from the fall fray.

All of which is to the benefit of Venice and Toronto, both of which are bigger, broader, and more diverse in their programming. At Telluride, attendees expect all movies to meet a very high standard.

The Hate U Give

“The Hate U Give”

Fox, meanwhile, is hoping that Toronto will elevate “Widows,” Steve McQueen’s drug-world thriller starring Viola Davis, and “The Hate U Give,” George Tillman, Jr.’s heart-tugging inner-city teen drama. Tillman previewed footage at CinemaCon and Fox is already screening it, confident that they have the goods. Adapted from Angie Thomas’ book, the movie stars Russell Hornby and Common as two fathers dealing with the untimely death of an 18-year-old boy shot by police. Discovery Amandla Stenberg stars as Star Carter, a young woman with two personas, one for her neighborhood and another for her mostly white private high school. Anthony Mackie and Issa Rae costar.

Sony offers TIFF a pickup from Toronto homeboy Jason Reitman, “The Front Runner,” the true story of Senator Gary Hart’s abortive run for the presidency, starring Hugh Jackman; that should also play Telluride, which debuted “Juno” and “Up in the Air.” And Yann DeMange, whose “’71” played Telluride, is expected back with his long-awaited follow-up, “White Boy Rick,” a father-son true story starring Matthew McConaughey and newcomer Richie Merritt which bears some resemblance to “The Fighter.”

While these are the likeliest of the Oscar possibles in the festival lineups so far, there’s much more to come, and always, a few surprises we weren’t expecting will slip through.

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