Toronto, Venice, Telluride Fest Wrap-Up: 'Silver Linings', 'Argo', 'The Master' Are Clearly Early Best Picture Contenders

With today’s wrap of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, the Fall festival trifecta of Venice, Telluride and Toronto officially kicked off the six-month movie awards season. What does it say, if anything, about where the race for Oscar is at this early point? As it turns out, quite a bit. It is very early in the game. And we also have to remember there is one more key early Fall festival on the horizon when the New York Film Festival kicks off September 28th with Ang Lee’s much anticipated Life Of Pi and closes October 14th with Robert Zemeckis’ Flight starring Denzel Washington. These two Oscar-winning directors have much buzzed-about new films so obviously the race is still taking shape. But Toronto, for instance, has featured six of the last seven Oscar-winning Best Pictures in its lineup, an impressive feat.

Coming out of Venice with media spotlight blazing was Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a multi-award winner there (although in a bit of controversy not the top Golden Lion). The Weinstein Company film also played well in Toronto and has now opened this weekend to a record-breaking limited release gross, something that won’t harm its Oscar chances down the line. But only if it can sustain critical and box office momentum.

Roaring out of Telluride, and later Toronto, was Ben Affleck’s much-admired Argo (October 12th – Warner Bros) which has also established itself in this year’s Oscar race with a Best Picture nomination assured and in multiple other categories as well. To say the reception at these fests for Affleck’s 3rd directorial outing was enthusiastic is a gross understatement, and  Argo is the kind of finely crafted, studio-bred, highly topical film which Oscar voters usually embrace.

Then sneaking up on just about everyone in Toronto by over-performing initial expectations was another Weinstein entry, David O. Russell’s highly acclaimed and popular comedy, Silver Linings Playbook with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. It had critics and awards pundits doing backflips and today was named winner of the potentially telling BlackBerry People’s Choice Award at TIFF. (Argo was first runner-up.) That’s a distinction that has gone to such past Oscar-winning Best Pictures as The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire and American Beauty. A harbinger of good things to come? It sure can’t hurt. And it immediately sets up Silver Linings as a real contender for the gold as the season moves forward.

These three films seem to be the ones that benefitted the most from the early season Fest exposure. And in a year that had not produced any surefire Best Picture contenders before the fests began, that’s significant. In fact, in the first eight months of 2012, only Fox Searchlight’s Beasts Of The Southern Wild and possibly the older-crowd- pleasing The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel will qualify. Focus Features will try to turn the indie success of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom into something other than just a contender for Best Original Screenplay. Harvey Weinstein is going to push the long-running success of The Intouchables as hard as he can. But if France enters it in the Foreign Language race, that’s probably its best shot. Warner Bros has The Dark Knight Rises but how much was it hurt by the Aurora tragedy? There are other films from the first eight months that could figure in individual categories, but in terms of Best Picture the real momentum just started this month with Silver Linings Playbook, Argo and The Master clearly in the early lead for Best Pic nominations.

Among other films unveiled during these fests, Focus has two figuring in the race. Joe Wright’s ravishing-looking Anna Karenina won high marks for its production values but mixed critical response for its content after its TIFF debut. The lower-key Hyde Park On Hudson played both Telluride and Toronto and won its highest praise for Bill Murray’s smart, unexpected turn as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Voters love to see actors play real people, and especially love it when someone like Murray steps out of his comfort zone. “I don’t think I ever thought of myself as FDR. I was a little surprised to be asked. I thought they’re reaching here maybe, but then I read  the script and thought ‘you know, I can do this’,” Murray told me last week in Toronto.

Summit’s high-class disaster drama The Impossible had a very impressive debut in Toronto and won lots of praise for director Juan Antonio Bayona. Also for the stunning special effects in re-creating the Thailand tsunami of a few years back and also for the human element of a single family’s efforts to survive — as well as performances from stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. Bringing that emotional human core could impress Oscar voters when the film opens in December. “In most disaster movies it’s hard to believe the situation, but in this case it’strue and it’s driven by a personal story of one family, and that’s what got me,” Watts said when I sat down with Bayona and the cast at TIFF.

In addition to Argo, Warner Bros brought the nearly 3-hour epic Cloud Atlas (October 26th) to TIFF. The film received a standing ovation for directors Tom Twyker and the Wachowski siblings along with stars including Tom Hanks and Halle Berry (who both play multiple roles). Reaction to the dense and complex century-spanning storyline was mixed – but those who love it, really love it, one Warners exec told me.  Oscar voters may appreciate its scope and production values, but some are likely to be scratching their heads just trying to keep up with it. My suggestion is to read the book first. This one will be interesting to watch but so far it has not emerged in the first tier of Best Picture contenders.

The gritty inventive LA cop movie End Of Watch (September 21st) from writer-director David Ayer and starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena received a very enthusiastic reception and standing ovation at its Toronto debut. Open Road Films President Tom Ortenberg says, “We truly feel like the film is nicely positioned both as a terrific, affecting action picture as well as the first really well-reviewed, commercial film of the Fall season.” Its violence could be problematic for more sensitive Academy voters, but it comes well pedigreed: Ayer wrote Training Day which won the Best Actor Oscar for Denzel Washington).

As for comedies, Quartet is Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut (at age 75) and starsg a cast of British acting veterans led by Maggie Smith. It was hugely received with a long thunderous standing ovation, and it looks like the kind of movie the Weinstein Company really knows how to push to Oscar voters. Best Picture? More likely at the Golden Globes in the comedy category, but it could be an Oscar sleeper if its light tone isn’t held against it. It faces direct competition from other older demo-targeting The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which also features Smith. And Fox Searchlight is hoping the ecstatic reaction to its sex surrogate comedy The Sessions, which earned three standing ovations at the screening I attended in Toronto, will help take this Sundance pickup into the thick of the Oscar race when it opens October 19th. Certainly stars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt stand good chances of landing acting nods.

Millennium is hoping to parlay the strong showing of the crime drama The Iceman into a year-end awards contender – but is still trying to decide whether to go out through another company or self-distribute. It played successfully in Venice, Telluride and Toronto — the rare title to hit all three fests this year — and features a dynamite star turn from Michael Shannon.

Several foreign-language films to be released through Sony Pictures Classics are making waves: Amour with Jean Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, Rust & Bone with Marion Cotillard, and No starring Gael Garcia Bernal. They further solidified their Cannes success from May with strong fest debuts. Acting nods could be a significant factor.

Finally, if producers of Terrence Malick’s latest To The Wonder, which debuted in Venice and Toronto, were hoping to use the fests to begin to replicate last year’s The Tree Of Life for Best Picture and Director Oscar nominations, they can probably forget it. Reception was weak, critical response unenthusiastic, and pic is still searching for a distributor.

Sometimes the greatest effect of these Fall film festivals is just simply to separate the winners from the losers as we march into awards season.

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