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Meet Your New Oscar Contenders: Will Smith, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and So Many More

Don't forget Peter Dinklage, Olivia Colman, and the crafts of "Dune." Telluride and Venice have just begun, but awards season is already in full swing.

Will Smith in “King Richard”

Anne Marie Fox

King Richard” is ruling Telluride. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Warner Bros. biopic about Richard Williams, the hard-driving father of straight-outta-Compton tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, played to a packed house Friday afternoon, building Best Actor buzz for its star and producer, Will Smith. He held the reins on the tennis duo’s story, but it was Jada Pinkett-Smith who suggested her husband meet with Green after she served on the Sundance jury in 2018, the year that the young director broke out with “Monsters and Men.”

This full-bodied performance marks Smith’s best shot at an Oscar in years. He’s been nominated twice, both for roles in which he had to fully inhabit living, breathing people: Boxer Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s “Ali” in 2002, and Chris Gardner, a man who rose from homelessness to become a stockbroker and motivational speaker, in Gabrielle Muccino’s 2007 “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

Here, Smith presents Williams as vulnerable, complicated, and often off-putting, but with a love for his family and a commitment to his daughters that is undeniable. Green makes all of it feel authentic and gives quality time to Aunjanue Ellis as matriarch Brandi Williams (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) and Jon Bernthal (“Ford v. Ferrari”) as coach Rick Macci. Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena make convincing, believable athletes, but their characters are less deeply drawn than their father. This is the Will Smith show.

“Dune”

Venice Film Festival

Breaking at Venice was another Warners contender with Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” a superb epic entertainment that should play well on a global scale, especially on the big screen. Critics debate its merits, but the Academy crafts will sing the production design of the planet Arrakis, from nifty gadgets to giant sandworms, cinematography, costumes and Hans Zimmer’s lush score. This mother-son story focuses on the two leads, Timothée Chalamet as young Prince Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as his mother, who possesses magical powers that she passed on to her royal son. Both could score acting nods, but no one in the strong supporting cast gets enough meaty screen time. If the promised second installment comes to pass, Zendaya and Javier Bardem seem likely to be featured.

“Cyrano”

Also offering sumptuous visuals was the Telluride world premiere of Joe Wright’s stage musical adaptation “Cyrano.” MGM/UA was the only Hollywood studio willing to finance it, Wright said during the Q&A. Production took place during the pandemic on location in an ancient walled town in Sicily, along with the island’s active volcano Mount Etna. While the Academy crafts will embrace Wright’s swirling cameras and elaborate period costumes, actors will revel in this cast. Peter Dinklage movingly portrays the title character’s romantic pining for his unattainable love Roxanne (Hayley Bennett); supporting stars are Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (“12 Years a Slave”) as the soldier who relies on Cyrano’s wit to woo her, and the always-entertaining, mustache-twirling Ben Mendelsohn.

THE LOST DAUGHTER (L to R): OLIVIA COLMAN as LEDA, DAKOTA JOHNSON as NINA. CR: YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX © 2021.

Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson in “The Lost Daughter.”

YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX © 2021

Telluride also has Maggie Gyllenhaal’s masterful directing debut with her Netflix adaptation of the Elena Ferrante novel “The Lost Daughter.” The camera leans into the expressive face of Oscar-winner Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”) as a 48-year-old British professor vacationing alone in Greece. She reads, writes, bathes, drinks wine, and flirts with the local hotel help (Ed Harris and Paul Mescal). When she is jarred by a family that briefly loses a young child, she flashes back to her tumultuous time as a young academic (Jessie Buckley) raising two demanding little girls. Gyllenhaal builds mystery and atmosphere as we learn more about the source of the woman’s trigger issues. Much like Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” this auspicious new career path will bring actress-writer-director Gyllenhaal support on several Academy fronts (acting, writing, directing).

“The Lost Daughter,” “Cyrano,” and Kenneth Branagh’s auto-fiction “Belfast” offer three welcome swing-for-the-fences films at Telluride, all executed during lockdown. More, please!

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