After its smash international World Premiere in Venice, director Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes — an absolutely riveting drama about the 2008 home foreclosure crisis — had its North American premiere here at the Telluride Film Festival, and it has set this place ablaze. Despite lots of interest, as there should be, from domestic distributors, Bahrani told me immediately after this morning’s screening that the financiers behind the film are waiting until its Toronto debut next week to finalize anything. Starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in career-best performances, this movie is not only a no-brainer for a quick distribution deal, it could be the rare — here comes that five letter word you hate so much, studios — drama that also could be a commercial powerhouse. Few films I have seen in recent years have cut so close to the bone as this one does. Americans, in particular, will respond strongly, and if ever there was a word-of-mouth movie, this is it.
I asked Bahrani if he wants 99 Homes out in time for this year’s Oscar race, and he said yes. “Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon will get nominated, so it has to be,” the filmmaker said. He cites the example of The Wrestler, which Fox Searchlight picked up after Toronto in 2008 and turned around quickly for a December debut and Oscar-qualifying engagement. Of course, Mickey Rourke went on to win a Golden Globe and BAFTA Award as well as a Best Actor nomination. If things come together for this film in similar fashion, it could upend the Oscar race as we currently see it. Bahrani is right when he says both of these actors should be nominees. Although they have wildly different acting styles, they mesh perfectly. Although the Best Actor race is impossibly crowded already — just including films seen this weekend in Telluride, we have Michael Keaton in Birdman, Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner, Gael Garcia Bernal in Rosewater — it would be hard to imagine Garfield’s work overlooked. And Shannon would instantly become the one to beat for Supporting Actor. He’s just masterful as a crooked and opportunistic real estate broker who evicts Garfield and his family only to later seduce him into becoming his protégé in his dirty dealings. In other word, he makes a deal with the devil in order to survive. And Laura Dern as Garfield’s mother (also seen at Telluride in Wild) will be a very good bet for a Supporting Actress nom. She has a couple of killer scenes, particularly when the family is being evicted.
Any distributor looking to jump into the race at this late date should look no further. Your ticket to the Dolby just arrived. And awards possibilities for this edge-of-your-seat “humanistic thriller,” as Bahrani quoted one review out of Venice saying, also include his original screenplay written with Amir Naderi and Bahareh Azimi, Directing and Picture. This is the first major movie to deal with this financial catastrophe, and its sheer topicality would thrust it into the race, even if the filmmaking here weren’t as first-rate and assured as it is. It is a major leap forward for the North Carolina-born Bahrani (his father hailed from Iran) since his last visit to Telluride with At Any Price two years ago. That film failed to ignite. This one is on fire, and it’s a true breakthrough for the writer-director of some lesser-known gems as Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. The movie was dedicated to Roger Ebert, who befriended Bahrani and counseled him early in his career. The filmmaker said that when he visited Ebert in the hospital, he told him of this film’s story; it’s a shame Ebert didn’t live to see it. The dedication to the film critic is a classy move.
At the post-screening Q&A moderated by Werner Herzog (who has appeared in shorts directed by Bahrani), the director said he was trying to avoid being overtly political and wanted a more human approach to a crisis that so deeply affected so many Americans. “The story and the subject and the setting itself, I think, is political enough. I think to add to it would be like putting sugar on a sundae,” he said.
Bahrani said that while writing the film, he went to foreclosure hearings in Florida (where the movie is set, though it was shot in New Orleans for tax purposes). “With realtors I went on evictions, with wildly rich hedge fund managers and crooks and thieves and hoodlums and swindlers. I remember I would go to foreclosure court with Lynn Szymoniak, who is a fraud attorney, and they tried to foreclose on her home and then she ended up leading a lawsuit against the banks to the tune of $90 million and won. Now she uses the money for charity work. They would call these courts the ‘rocket dockets’ because the cases happen in 60 seconds flat,” he said.
“If you don’t speak English and you are Hispanic, the judge would say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have time for that,'” he continued. “After a while, the people started winning, and I turned to Lynn and asked, ‘What is going on?’ and she said, ‘The judge is seeing you with a yellow legal pad taking notes, and he thinks that because you are with me you are a reporter for the New York Times, so as long as you sit here people will win.’ After about an hour, I had to go to the next place to continue doing research, but I couldn’t go because I continued seeing another homeowner coming in, and I knew they would lose if I left. So I ended up being stuck there the whole day, conning the judge into thinking I was going to write a story.” As he points out , he did write a story, and it’s all up there onscreen now.
Distributors, start your engines.