With the last gasp of the Toronto International Film Festival now upon us (it officially closes Sunday,) the Oscar race has become further defined, particularly with input from Venice and Telluride. Until that fall fest trifecta, only IFC’s summer phenomenon Boyhood and perhaps Sony Pictures Classics’ Foxcatcher could realistically be thought to be in serious contention for Best Picture consideration. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel has been mentioned in some quarters, but that movie came out in March, and when was the last time a March release made the list of Best Picture nominees?
But with these early fall fests, Hollywood has trotted out at least three additional films that seem like sure shots to add to the list: Focus Features’ Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory Of Everything, with certain lead actor and actress bids for Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones; The Weinstein Company’s very fine The Imitation Game, which also promises to put Benedict Cumberbatch (playing troubled genius Alan Turing) in the hunt for lead actor and his co-star Keira Knightley a near-certainty in the Supporting Actress contest; and Fox Searchlight’s Birdman, which started this all off by opening Venice and then slaying Telluride. Although it skipped Toronto in favor of a later berth closing the New York Film Festival, this very New York movie is likely to be a favorite of the actors and directors branches, and they can push it into Best Picture contention. Michael Keaton’s tricky performance should land him a first-ever Oscar nom for lead actor, and in support there’s a good chance for Edward Norton and Emma Stone, both exemplary. It also would be hard to imagine directors overlooking the high-wire risk-taking work of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. It will be interesting to see the commercial fate of a movie so showbiz-centric, but Fox has been down this path before. All About Eve, anyone? That New York theater-set classic swept the 1950 Academy Awards, but it is rare for this kind of film to triumph at the Oscars.
Of all the distributors this year, none seems more Oscar-hungry than Sony Pictures Classics, which has had a year where it really seems to dominate much of the conversation starting with Sundance, where it picked up that January festival’s big prize winner, Whiplash, and then to Cannes, where SPC unveiled more prize winners in Foxcatcher and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (with a great Timothy Spall lead performance), among many other films. Then SPC took its act to Telluride, where co-President Michael Barker told me the company broke its own record by bringing in seven films to the Rockies. And a few days later at Toronto, they added even more and ended the fest by buying Still Alice, a movie about the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease that has brought four-time Oscar bridesmaid Julianne Moore some of the best reviews of her career. And deservedly so. In fact, SPC’s press release about the acquisition calls it “her finest performance to date”. That might be overstating it a bit, considering the rich screen work she’s done in the past, but there is no doubt this one is Oscar bait, and SPC really jumped on it. None of its other contenders has a Best Actress contender. Moore also could find herself competing in Supporting Actress for her Cannes-winning performance in David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars if distributor Focus World chooses to give it a qualifying run ahead of its planned 2015 release. All it would have to do is send DVDs to the actors branch. Like Keaton’s role, Moore’s portrayal of an aging actress would be catnip to those voters.
I was at the Monday afternoon World Premiere, and there was a heartfelt standing ovation for Moore (sitting in the audience) immediately as the credits rolled on this excellent (if by its very nature depressing) film from directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, who scored a buy at last year’s TIFF with The Last Of Robin Hood, now in release. This directing pair’s story would make a hell of a movie itself. At a recent screening I did of Last Of Robin Hood, starring Kevin Kline and Susan Sarandon, Glatzer was supposed to join his life and career partner Westmoreland onstage with me but he had a setback and instead was in the hospital. “Richard has been living with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) for four years, and we’ve both been dealing with it,” Westmoreland said. “When he got it, we had to make a lot of decisions. It came first as a lisp on his tongue, and then within a year he lost his ability to speak and then he had to use an iPad. It’s like, at that point, what are we going to do with our lives? And at that point, we hadn’t made a movie in six years. I asked him if he just wanted to travel and see amazing things while we still have this time, and he said, ‘No, I want to make movies.’ And I said, ‘Yes, but that isn’t easy; it isn’t always possible,’ and he said, ‘No , I want to make movies.’ Well, since then we’ve made two feature films back to back in two years with some of the greatest talent in America. So something must be going right for us. Richard directed both movies using an iPad with an iSpeak program, and he would type the instructions and take them to the actors.” If Moore’s performance wasn’t remarkable on the surface, the story of how the movie was made would be just as extraordinary. Westmoreland mentioned they were hoping that Glatzer could make it to Toronto, but it wasn’t to be.
As for other movies unveiled this month that we might be hearing about all the way to February, certainly Reese Witherspoon’s fine work in Searchlight’s wilderness story Wild should put her in Best Actress contention again. The Daily Show host Jon Stewart made a very impressive writing and directing debut with the political drama Rosewater. Despite mixed reviews (I really liked it), opening-night film The Judge yielded very strong performances from Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall, and they deserve Academy consideration to be sure. My biggest guilty pleasure in Toronto was seeing Nightcrawler, featuring a creepy, dead-on turn from Jake Gyllenhaal as a freelance TV news cameraman who shoots grisly crime scenes and sells them to an unscrupulous L.A. news station director expertly played by Rene Russo. It’s one to see when Open Road opens it October 30 (it also has Rosewater opening the next week — an impressive one-two punch for the young company run by Tom Ortenberg). Any movie that keeps me wide awake during this annual sleep-deprivation fest is a winner with me! And if Oscar is in a “feel good” mood this year, Toronto offered up several movies including the wonderfully entertaining St. Vincent with Bill Murray; CBS Films’ Cannes pickup Pride; Warner Bros Sudanese refugee drama The Good Lie, which won a major standing ovation on its TIFF debut; and Relativity Media’s crowd-pleaser Hector And The Search For Happiness with Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike.
Of course, Toronto is full of films just looking for a home, not necessarily an Oscar (though that would be nice). It’s one of the great things about this festival to go from screening to screening and see so many terrific movies with big stars from veteran directors that you think would have an easy time finding the right distributor. But it’s not always easy in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle era. Peter Bogdanovich’s new screwball comedy She’s Funny That Way is a real return to form for the director of What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, among many others. With a cast to die for, the film debuted in Venice and quietly snuck into Toronto unannounced this week for private buyers’ screenings. I am told there are several offers on the table, but the trick is finding the right distributor with the passion to really bring it to audiences. It definitely could be a winner for someone. I had a great time with She’s Funny That Way. It’s worth the price of admission just to see Austin Pendleton do his thing again. Rain Man Oscar winner Barry Levinson talked about the changing nature of the business during our TIFF Master Class session last week. It was eye-opening. Levinson is hoping to sell his latest, The Humbling, with wonderful performances from Al Pacino and Greta Gerwig. He made it for $2 million and even shot some of it in his Connecticut home to save money. Changing times indeed.
At festival’s end, only Still Alice, among films for sale with Oscar aspirations this year, had announced a distribution deal. Still waiting — and itching to get into the race — are Black And White, with an award worthy turn from Kevin Costner and another from Octavia Spencer. In fact, this is Costner’s best work in years. Jennifer Aniston (who’s also in the Bogdanovich film, and very funny) made a big splash, winning a standing ovation after the first screening of her touching new film Cake, which features a transformative performance from the star that could earn her awards buzz if it can quickly land a distrib deal and get into theaters by the end of year. And 99 Homes, an edge-of -your-seat drama about dirty dealings during the 2008 housing crisis, features Oscar-level work from Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield. I know for a fact there’s major distribution action around this one. A rep of one major indie distributor told me it was sending its whole team to the Toronto premiere just to make an impression (99 Homes also played Venice and Telluride, picking up heat along the way).
And so the long season begins. Thus far it’s a promising one, with much more to come. Next stop: New York, with the September 26 debut of David Fincher’s Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck.