When fall festivals introduce Oscar buzz, we learn not only which movies may make the cut but also the themes they create. This time last year, “The Power of the Dog” and “Belfast” launched dueling stories of troubled youth. This year, brace for it: Cancel culture is coming to Oscar season.
The undisputed victor of the Venice-Telluride dash is “TÁR,” which arrived in the Rockies from the Lido riding the waves of rapturous praise. The Telluride crowd confirmed that director Todd Field’s first movie in 15 years is a riveting cinematic journey into the downfall of a brilliant-but-troubled conductor whose career goes into a tailspin after a series of scandals. With Cate Blanchett’s fiery performance as celebrated composer Lydia Tár at its center, the movie barrels through nearly three hours of inquiries into personal and professional behavior, separating art from the artist, and social media snafus.
Field directs his immersive script as a taut psychological thriller and perceptive character study — think “Black Swan” by way of Frederick Wiseman — and doesn’t shy away from the most sensitive issues. Blanchett, the recipient of a Telluride tribute and an immediate Best Actress frontrunner, delivers an extensive speech in which her character confronts a BIPOC student at Julliard about his discomfort over Gustav Mahler’s personal life.
While no one says “cancel culture,” Field has constructed an angry response to the polarized climate that can ruin careers overnight. Field and Blanchett circulated at an intimate, off-the-record Telluride reception hosted by distributor Focus Features, where the challenge of discussing the movie’s most potent themes was still too raw for them. The impetus for the movie’s premise is poised to come up for frequently as “TÁR” has strong momentum for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Actress; Nina Hoss, who delivers an elegant performance of her own as the protagonist’s no-nonsense wife, may have a shot at sneaking into a busy Best Supporting Actress field.
That field is likely to be crowded by the cast of “Women Talking,” another movie finding its way into timely debates. Writer-director Sarah Polley, who also received a tribute at the festival, adapts Miriam Toews’ novel about a group of Mennonite women (though their religion is never named) who gather to discuss a response after they’re all drugged and raped by the men in their community. (Horrible, and also true.)
Polley has been candid about her own experiences with abuse and trauma. She recently wrote a book of essays, “Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations With a Body of Memory,” which includes her confrontation with director Terry Gilliam over the way he treated her on the set of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” Her “Women Talking” screenplay delves further into questions of forgiveness and varying degrees of transgressions. These nuanced debates, which put Polley at the top of the Best Adapted Screenplay race, will yield plenty of conversations about how the movie aims to address our polarized times.
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“I have a lot of really complicated feelings on both sides of that,” Polley told IndieWire in an interview after her tribute. “I think what’s most interesting to me is allowing us to have those really complicated, nuanced conversations.”
While the men in her film are irredeemable, she doesn’t believe in the extremes of cancel culture. “I think it’s really easy to get inflamed about cancel culture without realizing that some people are still working, they’re fine, they just had a bad moment on Twitter,” she said. “There’s such a thing as accountability. There is a fruitful conversation around what it means when people make mistakes. I’d love to see more complicated conversations about that.”
She wasn’t keen on rejecting the work of canceled artist, either. “In some cases, some of these people have said and done harmful things,” she said. “I’m not sure I’m willing to throw out the only good things they gave to the world. Because, like, this is what we got out of them. Let’s take the good because they sure left the world with a whole lot of bad.”
And then there’s “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s first movie since “The Revenant,” which appeared to overcome a mixed response in Venice after many of Telluride’s high-profile guests expressed their appreciation. The filmmaker’s personal look at the plight of an acclaimed documentarian who returns to his native Mexico includes several debates over whether he deserves his privileged platform. In one of the movie’s many engrossing sequences that veer into dreamlike absurdism, he’s confronted on a live TV show about the paradoxes of living a “bougie” lifestyle while attempting to chronicle the experiences of the underclass.
That scene and others register as a response to the idea that any public person is vulnerable to getting called out these days. “The world we are living in now is very polarized,” Iñarritu told IndieWire over the weekend. “It has become a very difficult landscape for every filmmaker to navigate that vulnerable space where you can be lynched by anyone anytime without any real basis for it.” Iñarritu has a good shot at getting nominated for Best International Feature once Mexico selects “Bardo,” but as he campaigns for other major categories, such dicey questions are likely to come up again.
These conversations tend to make talent cringe and veer towards diplomatic answers in interviews, but given the nature of Oscar season and the movies themselves, this Oscar season’s theme will make it difficult to play the avoidance game.