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After Telluride and Venice, the Oscar Best Picture Race Remains Wide Open

People couldn't stop debating “TÁR" and there was a lot of talk about "Women Talking," but the race remains up for grabs.

393902 01: Crowds gather for opening day of the 28th Telluride Film Festival August 28, 2001 in Telluride, CO. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The Telluride Film Festival

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Is this what normal looks like? A year after Telluride launched “King Richard,” “Belfast” and “Power of the Dog,” the festival was a quieter affair with fewer stars and more challenging movies. It’s also the year that the Academy reinstated its theatrical requirement for Oscar eligibility — and in 2022, it’s harder than ever to bring theater audiences to challenging movies.

Existential challenges aside, the festivals are already finding their favorites and several titles will continue to build their presence with stops in Toronto, New York, London, and more. Here are some of the key narratives that will grow in the coming weeks.

Best Picture Is Wide Open

A year ago, the one-two punch of Venice and Telluride launched “The Power of the Dog,” “The Lost Daughter,” “Belfast,” and “King Richard.” Eventual winner “CODA” lurked in the background as Apple prepared to reintroduce the movie that won Sundance earlier in the year.

This year’s leaders include Todd Fields’ “TÁR,” which had a rapturous Venice premiere and became the most widely discussed and debated movie at Telluride. Audiences couldn’t stop scrutinizing this layered, slow-burn look at the downfall of a privileged artist. Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” was also well received, if not as widely embraced, for its intelligence and immersive portrait of religious women debating whether to flee from the men who raped them. These movies are not passive viewing experiences, but will gain traction in major categories from their screenplays to their stars.

“The Whale” premiered in Venice to a rapturous response for its star Brendan Fraser, but Darren Aronofsky’s film received a more muted response. Still to come are “Till” and “She Said,” both of which premiere at the New York Film Festival. Another dark-horse potential contender is A24’s The Inspection,” which premieres in Toronto.

Steven Spielberg’s personal saga “The Fabelmans” also surfaces at TIFF next week, and Damien Chazelle’s Jazz Age drama “Babylon” still doesn’t have a festival date ahead of its December 25 release. David O.Russell’s “Amsterdam,” slated for wide release October 7, is skipping the festival circuit altogether.

Academy voters seeking a more accessible crowd-pleaser of the “CODA” variety may have to look to early favorites and box-office hits “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” This fall will also see Disney’s “Wakanda Forever” in November followed by “Avatar: The Way of Water” in December.

“Don’t Worry, Darling” may have a shot at box-office success thanks to the viral coverage of its multiple internecine feuds, but it’s a mess that may be most remembered for the visible tension between its cast at their seats at its Venice premiere. That said, its craft contributions remain impressive and Florence Pugh deserves accolades for turning in a solid performance under awkward conditions. She stands a better chance at awards recognition for director Sebastian Lelio’s period drama “The Wonder,” an elegant, small-scale Netflix drama unlikely to crack the Best Picture race.

“TÁR”

Cate Blanchett Dominates the Best Actress Race

There could have been no better subject of the Telluride tribute this year than Cate Blanchett, whose startling turn in “TÁR” is an indisputable masterwork that had the festival buzzing for days. The festival may have introduced other Best Actress contenders (see: Olivia Colman from “Empire of Light”), but no one made as much of an impression as Blanchett’s collaboration with Todd Field. Capturing the audience’s attention for a two-hour and 38-minute tour-de-force is a singular achievement and Blanchett benefits from letting the role speak for itself. As the movie deals with dicey contemporary issues like cancel culture, it will be a promotional minefield that the actress must navigate delicately in the months ahead.

Category Confusion Is Inevitable

Women Talking

“Women Talking”

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Both “Women Talking” and “The Banshees of Inisherin” were celebrated as acting showcases; they also raise questions of where they belong in the acting categories. If Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, and Claire Foy all have to campaign for Best Supporting Actress, it could leave one of the most enlightened films about women this year without a Best Actress contender. There are enough singular moments for Mara to justify Best Actress contention, but distributor United Artists Releasing would have to make that determination in a cast comprised of deserving women.

The two-hander of “Banshees” could justifiably posit Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason for Best Actor nominations, but that category is already heavy with competition from the likes of Brendan Fraser in “The Whale” and potentially Hugh Jackman in “The Son.” (If a choice had to be made, Farrell might be most appropriate for Best Actor, with Gleason aiming for supporting.) “Empire of Light” newcomer Michael Ward is in a similar predicament: He’s technically the male lead, but may stand a better chance at a nomination if he went for supporting.

Streamers Are Unlikely to Dominate

Apple won its first Best Picture Oscar and became the first streamer to do so in 2022; it’s unlikely that any streamer will repeat the achievement for 2023. Apple has no obvious Best Picture contenders in its slate, and while Netflix put on a good show for Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s “Bardo” and opened Venice with “White Noise,” each received mixed reactions.

This year, traditional theatrical releases like Focus’ “TÁR” and United Artists/Amazon’s “Women Talking” have the upper hand. The Disney-owned Searchlight looked more like its old self as it launched familiar Oscar-friendly work like Sam Mendes’ wistful movie theater romance “Empire of Light” at Telluride and Martin McDonagh’s fierce black comedy “The Banshees of Inisherin” at Venice.

The Banshees of Inisherin

“The Banshees of Inisherin”

Searchlight Pictures/screenshot

Focus may eventually bring all of its titles to Peacock, but “TÁR” and “Armageddon Time” are primed for arthouses and traditional theatrical windows. MGM/UA is still sorting out its identity under new Amazon ownership, but for now, it’s positioning “Women Talking” and Luca Guadagnino’s cannibal romance “Bones and All” as conventional releases. Sony Pictures Classics revved its engines by reintroducing “Living,” with Bill Nighy making the Telluride rounds. These entities seem more likely to hold onto their prominence in the weeks ahead.

Documentary Will Get Heated

Laura Poitras’ rousing portrait of artist and activist Nan Goldin became a fast frontrunner for Best Documentary when it premiered in Venice competition before sneaking into a single morning TBA screening at Telluride. The Neon/Participant release could make Poitras the first filmmaker to win the Best Documentary for a second time in over 30 years, but the category is going to be a tense one.

The movie will face off against the likes of National Geographic’s “Fire of Love,” which just crossed $1 million at the box office, and HBO Max’s timely look at a Russian dissident, “Navalny.” Amazon doubled down on its commercial NASA documentary “Good Night Oppy.” A range of critic- and audience-friendly movies in contention make the future unpredictable.

Best International Film Needs a Few More Weeks

Telluride screened many international films with potential to remain a part of the season, but most countries have yet to make their official selections. While SPC’s delicate Mia Hansen-Love drama “One Fine Morning” played well at Telluride, the new French selection committee could just as easily go for Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Other’s People’s Children,” which just premiered in Venice. (It will make its selection later this month.)

“Holy Spider” takes place in Iran, but was shot in Jordan; its Danish producers hope the movie will make the cut there. Bittersweet coming-of-age drama “Close” was expected to nab the Belgium submission over Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “Tori and Lokita.” (Both played Telluride ahead of the Belgian decision in a few weeks.) Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Broker” seems unlikely to be selected by Japan; it takes place in Korea, which has already selected Park Chan-wook’s noir “Decision to Leave.” That film won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival and will next play TIFF (but wasn’t invited to Telluride). Poland already announced donkey drama “Eo” as its selection.

The list keeps growing. TIFF will introduce more titles to the equation and even include a special conversation with potential Indian selection “RRR.” Telluride raised the profile of several potential international submissions, but this category remains wide open with no definitive frontrunner.

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