“So far all of the reviews from T-Ride have every film running in the Oscar race….can they all be that good????!!!!,” was a question texted to me over the weekend from an Academy member far from the madding crowd of the Colorado Rockies. That’s where the 46th annual Telluride Film Festival closes tonight after a weekend orgy of movies, many of them contenders for Oscar’s Best Picture crown if you are to believe pundits (like me, yes) gathered here to write ad nauseam about the impact this festival, proven to be a strong harbinger of Oscar success, often has. But are some of these “contenders” actually pretenders to the crown?
Although eventual Best Picture winners like Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, Spotlight, Moonlight, The Artist and The Shape of Things all played in Telluride — many of them world premieres — last year provided some sobering truth that it doesn’t always work out. Yes, eventual Best Picture nominees Roma and The Favourite did make the trek straight from Venice to Colorado, and Fox Searchlight eventually got acting and writing nods for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but a lot of the other titles premiering here with fanfare as the Oscar race officially kicked off vanished quickly, not receiving a single Oscar nomination in the end: Boy Erased, Destroyer, Old Man and the Gun, The Front Runner, White Boy Rick. The list goes on.
At this point last year, one Telluride debut (after Venice), Damian Chazelle’s First Man, came in with the wind behind its back for Universal but in the end failed to get traction in any major category (it won Visual Effects); Universal though had a sleeper contender up its sleeve for Toronto just days later, and even they didn’t know it. Festival director Julie Huntsinger was quoted earlier this week saying that 2018 turned out to be something of an outlier in terms of Telluride’s stellar track record in the Best Picture race, but, while saying it is not something they consciously think about, she is certain that 2019’s Best Picture is playing here (though she didn’t say which one).
More than Venice, and more than the upcoming Toronto Film Festival that we all trek to next week, Telluride has a large, concentrated group of Oscar voters here over the Labor Day weekend, so it can be a good barometer of what is working and what isn’t in terms of eventual Oscar prognosticating. In fact the annual Academy members soiree that took place here eon Saturday afternoon was so crowded a lot of those members had to stand in line and wait until some people left in order to get in (Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne, good naturedly, among them).
So out of Telluride, and based on street and gondola buzz from the upscale movie lovers, as well as some select Academy members in casual conversations, what is popping Oscar-wise at this nascent point in the five-month race to the Dolby Theatre (two weeks shorter this year due to an earliest -ever Oscar show date of February 9)?
As I pointed out in my story yesterday about the streamer invasion, it has been a very good festival for Netflix, which maintained its Venice momentum for Noah Baumbach’s poignant, funny, biting and truthful Marriage Story. If the level of noise on that one wasn’t quite as deafening as it appeared to be in Italy, never mind: Redmayne, Adam Sandler and many others were blown away (or so they told me), and although I did hear a couple of naysayers, the overwhelming majority seemed very moved. The streamer has an embarrassment of potential Oscar riches however with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman still to come as the opener of the New York Film Festival on the September 27; Scorsese was here in town feting the late Agnes Varda, as was surprising Marriage Story and Amazon’s The Report star Adam Driver with a Silver Medallion at his Saturday night tribute. Netflix has to love the corporate synergy there. Driver, Scarlett Johansson and supporting contender Laura Dern along with Picture, Director, Screenplay and Randy Newman’s score, should do well come January when Oscar nominations are announced.
However, in terms of pure buzz among just about everyone I ran into, Netflix has a real Best Picture, Acting, Writing and Directing contender in an underdog sleeper entry enjoying its world premiere here and simply crushing it. Director Fernando Merielles and screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s The Two Popes came out of nowhere to get the kind of emotional, enthusiastic reception that makes me think of Green Book last year after Universal snuck it six days into Toronto and rode it to that fest’s often Oscar-predictive People’s Choice Audience Award. If any audience award were given in Telluride (it isn’t), I predict Two Popes would be your winner. Stars Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins enter the insanely crowded Best Actor race (how can you possibly separate them?) and make it even more insanely crowded. The only downside I see for this film is some Academy members’ stated resistance to the idea of handing a streaming movie Best Picture (i.e., see Roma), and the prospect of Netflix with three Best Picture nominees in one year is enough to send shockwaves through Hollywood and have AMC, Regal and Cinemark running for their exits.
In terms of audience satisfaction, there can also be no question that James Mangold’s Ford v. Ferrari got a roaring start in the (Oscar) race, and if it didn’t take pole position it could be the strong alternative for Academy members still queasy about streaming, and wanting to reward a superb example of motion picture craft and Hollywood filmmaking on a level we don’t often get to see as much anymore. Numerous nominations below the line — and above, including a Best Actor bid for Matt Damon and likely co-star Christian Bale, knocked down to supporting so as not to compete directly — are possibilities. Amazon’s fun family hot air balloon adventure Aeronauts could grab some below-the-line love too, but any chances beyond that are severely dampened by Amazon’s decision to rush this gorgeous-looking big-screen movie to their streaming service after just a couple of weeks in whatever theaters they can get to book it with that odd strategy.
Warner Bros debuted Joker over the weekend in Venice and continues to draw strong Best Picture talk out of Italy for that disturbing and dark DC comic origin movie, but got less of that talk in Telluride for the debut of Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, which the actor directs, writes, produces and stars in to strong effect. It drew a standing ovation for Norton at the Palm here and played to packed houses, but it may be more uphill without the kind of super buzz films need coming out of Telluride in order to gain early momentum in the Oscar race. It has stayed with me, particularly Norton’s and co-star Alec Baldwin’s performances, so let’s see how it progresses. This is just the starting gate for Norton’s ambitious passion project, one well worth seeing. Getting people into theaters will be key for its future – Oscar-wise.
A24, adding to a very good year already with movies like The Farewell and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, debuted three more films slated for fall 2019 release here (I didn’t catch First Cow). Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, the story of an African American family in turmoil, drew raves for its cast particularly Sterling K. Brown as the father, and two young stars who deliver knockout performances in Kelvin Harrison Jr and Taylor Russell, both breakouts to be sure. It is heavy going for much of it, and defines the word intense, but still is deeply affecting and could gain traction once it opens November 1.
Speaking of intense, that is just one word that might describe Benny and Josh Safdie’s wild, wild ride of a noirish thriller Uncut Gems, also from A24. It is relentlessly paced like no other movie I can recall, starting at decibel 10 and going up from there with no relief. There is no question these brothers are superb filmmakers, but it might not be for everyone. The Academy’s CEO Dawn Hudson was just one person though who couldn’t stop praising it. Sandler as a NYC jewelry store owner in way over his head delivers a remarkable, non-stop portrayal of a compulsive risk-taker on a whirring spiral that never quits. Sandler is a revelation here, and if Oscar voters warm to the film at all, he could stand a shot at landing a Best Actor nomination, although again that race is insane. He was in Telluride with the film and getting lots of love for what he has accomplished here in a movie he actually turned down 10 years earlier when the Safdies first came up with it. Timing is everything, and he will get lots of buzz.
Also getting buzz is Renee Zellweger, whose astonishing take on Judy Garland’s final months in Judy is the kind of performance that screams “Oscar!” So let me join in and shout from the mountaintops here at Telluride that she truly deserves that kind of buzz. This is no attempt at copying Garland, but rather putting herself deep into the troubled star and making her sing — in more ways than the obvious. Doing her own vocal work and staying away from prosthetics or any kind of impersonation attempt, Zellweger gets right to the essence of the great star, pushed so many ways from child stardom to her final moments onstage that she could not ultimately survive, and creates a personal triumph that not only makes her an early front-runner in the Best Actress race but also also a highly deserving one. At last night’s Q&A, she told the audience that she doesn’t think of herself as a singer. Think again, Renee. You are, and you prove again you are one hell of a actor. By the way, director Rupert Goold’s movie is very well made, deviating from the complete downer source material of the play, End of the Rainbow , on which (thankfully) it is only very loosely based.
As usual, Telluride provides a further great showcase from titles that triumphed at earlier festivals — notably Cannes, like Palme d’Or winner Parasite, which made its North American launch here this weekend with the intent of beginning a full-force Oscar campaign, and not just for Best International Picture (formerly Foreign Language Film) but also Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, etc. It was very well received, as was another International contender, Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, which also figures in numerous Academy categories including Best Actor (did I say that was an insane race?) for Antonio Banderas, the Cannes winner who was here representing the film since Almodovar didn’t make it to Telluride. Sony Pictures Classics next takes it to TIFF and then opens in early October. SPC also made a splash here with another Cannes acquisition, the crazy comedy The Climb, which could figure in the Original Screenplay category for Michael Covino and Kyle Marvin, who also both star.
Sundance breakout The Report, starring Driver, picked up way back in January in another mountain town, might also figure in some categories including Annette Bening’s striking and understated supporting turn as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, as well as for director Scott Z. Burns’ first-rate script. It too next goes to TIFF. Amazon also plans just a two-week initial theatrical release for this film before streaming on the service day-and-date with theaters.
There were also a number of potential nominations for documentaries too numerous to mention here, but one I caught called Tell Me Who I Am still haunts me. It begins on Netflix October 18 and has qualified for Academy Docu Feature consideration. The story of a twin whose memory is completely knocked out after a motorcycle accident, but is brought back in selective ways by his twin brother who is the only person or thing he can recall from his previous life. However there are certain details that brother leaves out — deeply dark secrets even he has tried to erase. It is mind-boggling stuff from director Ed Perkins and producer Simon Chinn. In some ways and style it recalls last year’s Three Identical Strangers, which ultimately failed to make the Docu Feature finals but certainly deserved to. Maybe a different Oscar fate awaits this one. By the way, The Two Popes screenwriter McCarten told me he is currently adapting Three Identical Strangers as a narrative feature with the idea that it will have one star in all those roles.
On to Toronto as the Oscar season officially kicks off. In the end, who will still be standing?