As everyone knows, at least for the past several years, the fall festival circuit (Venice, Telluride, Toronto, NY) has been the quartet that sets the template for the movie awards season, leading all the way up to Oscar. It is known as the six-month season, a wearying ride for those in major contention. But the coronavirus pandemic has changed all the rules this season, upending the whole way these things work, and sending the 2021 Oscars to its latest date ever, April 25.
Eligibility now is 14 months, extending from January 1, 2020 to February 28, 2021, and also sending release schedules into an ever-evolving game of musical chairs. The Festivals, beginning with Cannes in May, have been shell-shocked, with both Cannes and Telluride forced to just issue press releases with the list of movies they had accepted but were unable to actually show because of the cancellation of both iconic fests.
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Venice, which will announce its winners this weekend, is the only fest to go whole hog cinema, while others, such as the hybrid model of Toronto now unspooling online and in person in Canada, and the upcoming New York Film Festival both allow press and industry members to sample their wares with links. The programming is largely the same across the board, as all the festival artistic directors have banded together in solidarity for the health of cinema and agreed not to compete. But what does this all do for the Oscar race? It changes things, bro.
For a multitude of things, no one is looking to an eight-month Oscar season. One obvious reason is studios and distributors do not want to stretch the budgets that far, so the normally all-important fall fest circuit, where the grand majority of contenders would likely play before heading to Oscar glory, is just a shell of its former self. In fact, this has been coming for a while. The most recent Best Picture winner, Parasite, actually started its journey in Cannes of last year, becoming the first film to match Palme d’Or and Oscar since Marty in 1955. This year, in terms of genuine Oscar contenders, it is slim pickin’s so far, and especially on this circuit.
Clearly, distribs are holding back, or perhaps using the festivals to strike a distribution deal and join the race before the late February deadline. That might be the strategy for a few movies I have seen head to Toronto this week that also either played Venice or were intended for Cannes and/or Telluride. These include the excellent Concrete Cowboy starring Idris Elba in a career highlight performance, and a host of pro and non-pro members of the cast of this story about urban horseback riding in the inner city of Philadelphia. Elba is superb, as are newcomer Caleb McLaughlin, Emmy-winner Jharrel Jerome (Moonlight), Lorraine Toussaint, and Method Man, among others. Lee Daniels and Tucker Tooley are among producers of the excellent film from director Ricky Staub. I actually saw it the first time several months ago and can’t understand why it is still without a domestic distributor. But it definitely should find one now, as real life events and the Black Lives Matter movement make the message of this terrific film even more pertinent and timely. Full reviews come Sunday.
I know at least one major buyer who is chomping at the bit to lock in the impressive, if very dark, drama Pieces of a Woman, which stars Shia LaBeouf, Vanessa Kirby, and Ellen Burstyn. It is the stark story of a pregnancy turned tragic, with the resulting trial of a midwife (Molly Parker) at the center of a devastating English language debut from Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo and a script from Kata Weber. The pair have made a deeply personal movie, set in Boston, that will knock you out. Mundruczo won the top prize at Un Certain Regard at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for his stunning White God, another remarkable movie centered on the revenge of a pack of dogs that simply blew me away when it saw it at the Fest that year. This one did the same thing, and any buyer who wins the bidding war will have certain Oscar nominations for Kirby and 88-year-old Burstyn, as good as both have ever been on screen. Kirby is a genuine contender for a prize at Venice. It plays TIFF this week.
For sheer heart, I loved Penguin Bloom, world premiering at TIFF, with an outstanding performance from Naomi Watts that with the right push from the right distributor, could land her a third lead actress Oscar nod, and her first since 2012’s The Impossible, in which she played a wife and mother whose vacation in Thailand turned tragic when a major typhoon hit the country. In this true story, just like that one, Watts plays a wife and mother whose vacation in Thailand turns tragic when she falls from a rickety roof railing and becomes paralyzed (maybe Watts ought to stay out of Thailand). The highly athletic Sam Bloom begins an excruciating journey back to some normality of life with the help of an injured Magpie bird that comes into hers and her family’s life at just the right time. The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln plays the husband. The bird is brilliant by the way, and the movie is heartwarming, humane, and a life-affirming story that is much needed right now. I believe this is the kind of film audiences would turn into a sleeper hit. For me, it is the best narrative film I have seen so far come from the fall fest circuit.
There is more to come in terms of good sales titles as TIFF continues and I am allowed to talk about them.
In terms of the key films with distribution already that are using exposure on the fall fest circuit to jump into the Oscar race, beware. September is the new July as far as this Oscar season is concerned, and you have a very long road to travel if you want to be front of mind come the new year, when the season will really kick into gear. Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Frances McDormand, Regina King, Anthony Hopkins and maybe a few others are clearly on the trail. You can tell that already by the arranged awards already planned, or announced. In fact, Ammonite star Winslet, The Father star Hopkins, and Nomadland director Chloe Zhao were all tapped to receive Telluride’s Silver Medallion awards before that fest was canceled, and the trio are also the main honorees of the Toronto Film Festival Tribute Awards being presented on Tuesday. Their films are undoubtedly the most Oscar-baity on view in a thin fall fest year. I am embargoed from saying much about Ammonite until after the screening ends at 8:15 PM tonight. But I have seen it and the combination of Winslet and Ronan in director Frances Lee’s arthouse drama that NEON releases later this year should be a draw, especially when word gets around about the scene. It is a deliberately paced slow-boiling period drama with two actresses who have 11 Oscar nominations between them and are always worth watching. It will be compared to last year’s brilliant French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire (also released by Neon). But this one might as well be called Brood Is The Warmest Color. Interestingly, it has been a frustrating ride, as it was originally selected for competition in Cannes, and then a North American debut in Telluride. Both festivals didn’t happen, so now Toronto finally gets to show the world what Lee has in store for them (check out the review from my Deadline colleague Todd McCarthy later tonight). Whether there are good Oscar chances for Winslet (in Lead Actress) and Ronan (in Supporting), only time will tell. But the Academy has proven without a doubt both are favorites.
I have to say some of my awards pundit colleagues have been redefining the word “hype” in describing the Oscar chances of Fox Searchlight’s lovely road picture, Nomadland, and Amazon’s One Night In Miami, that marks awards magnet Regina King’s impressive directorial debut. If you were to believe that hype, these two movies have about 20 nominations already locked up between them, Frances McDormand is winning her third Oscar, and no one else need apply. Over the top predictions at this point do neither of these fine, independently made smaller films a bit of good. Building sky-high expectations now is ridiculous, but I guess the year has been so weird there is just the need for those who do this for a living to sell the Oscar dream.
Nomadland which premiered earlier today in Venice, and Toronto, and is the beneficiary of a “Telluride In Los Angeles” Drive-In event tonight at the ash-laden Rose Bowl Parking Lot in Pasadena (where both McDormand and Zhao appear to introduce the L.A. debut) is on a par with the director’s beautiful southwestern picture The Rider (which Oscar completely ignored) and is paced in a similar way, with McDormand’s character taking to the road after her husband dies, and living the life of a Nomad (check out McCarthy’s review on Deadline). McDormand looks likely – at least at this early point – to grab some awards love again for a deeply authentic, low-key look a woman who is searching to find her life again after her own town goes belly up.
It is unmistakably the work of Zhao and, at the very least, is the kind of movie that will make its mark at the Independent Spirit Awards. This is a film that defines independent spirit. The best scenes involve the real life nomads Zhao has cast. They are excellent and lots of fun to watch. McDormand joins a growing list of Best Actress contenders that also should include Vanessa Kirby if Pieces of a Woman gets a distributor who promises to release her film in time for this year’s Oscar consideration. But as I have said it is early, and I can tell you this week I got a preview of another surefire contender that may well blow the top off the Actress race later this fall, so stay tuned.
One Night in Miami, which Amazon has not yet dated but which is definitely in the race this year, provides Regina King some juicy material for her directorial debut, and this three-time Emmy-winning and Oscar-winning star proves really adept in giving her actors room to deliver powerful turns in the dialogue-heavy story of a meeting of four Black icons in 1964 the night of Cassius Clay’s defeat over Sonny Liston to become Heavyweight Champion of the World. Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Clay all meet in a hotel room and discuss many topics related to their responsibility in standing up for their race in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement. It is based on Kemp Powers inventive stage play and the playwright also got to adapt it, a drama that imagines the conversation between the four icons who really did meet that night in Miami. The next day Clay joined the Islamic religion so this was obviously a momentous gathering, and kudos to Kemp for discovering it and its rich dramatic possibilities.
The streamer Amazon is the perfect place to help it find the audience it deserves, and in terms of Oscar potential we will have to see how far it can go. For my money, Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. steals the show as Cooke, the 33-year-old singer who was tragically murdered just a few months later at another motel (oddly the film’s coda, while mentioning Malcolm X’s assassination the next year, does not say anything about what happened to Cooke). He does his own singing and you would swear it’s Cooke himself. I would love to see him do a biopic on Cooke alone.
Eli Goree as Clay and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X are excellent, even if not reaching the heights of the more in-depth turns by Will Smith and Denzel Washington in past biopics of the pair. Aldis Hodge, an actor I think has been superb in movies like Brian Banks and Clemency, plays football great and actor Jim Brown, but probably has the least interesting role. Brown is the only member of the quartet still living, but doesn’t seem to have been involved in consulting on this. It would be interesting to hear the now-82 year old Brown’s take. He was a real activist then, but as recently as last month professed his intention to vote for Donald Trump. This is certainly a film with food for thought, so we will see what kind of traction it can get when the awards season really gears up down the long road to Oscar. It won high praise in Venice, and now hits TIFF.
Finally, whatever happens to all the above, let me make a sure-fire prediction right now. Anthony Hopkins will be among the five Best Actor nominees when Oscar nominations are announced come March 15. As a man drifting into dementia, and fighting the demons therein, Hopkins gives one of his greatest performances, an astonishing look at a downhill spiral of a human being who isn’t aware of the vagaries of age now hitting him. Olivia Colman plays his daughter and she is fine, but this film belongs to one of the all-timers in film acting, and there is probably no scenario this past Best Actor winner doesn’t land his sixth Oscar nomination. That is my gift to all the early hype. The Father premieres at TIFF later this week.
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