TELLURIDE AND TORONTO

The 88th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 28, 162 days from today.

Telluride

Telluride is a small city in Colorado, founded by miners in the second half of the 19th century looking for gold. But its population of 2,000 quadruples every Labor Day when film stars and film buffs come to sniff out gold of a different sort altogether. To say that the Telluride Film Festival is influential in the Oscar race is a significant understatement — six of the last seven Best Picture winners debuted there, including Birdman, Argo and 12 Years a Slave. The lineup, announced just before the festival begins, is always hugely anticipated; the reviews, beginning the Oscar season, can jumpstart a film’s chances or doom it from the get-go.

We’ll have a better sense about what will stick in the next few weeks, but here are five films that stood out from the crowd at Telluride:

  • Spotlight (RT: 94%, directed by Tom McCarthy, out November 6): Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into its city’s Catholic Church sex scandal. Heavy? Sure, but also, according to the reports, the “modest” front-runner in this year’s Oscar race. The ensemble is large and talented (Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci and more) and, according to Vulture, “It also has the sort of social significance that Oscar voters like from their Best Picture winner: You can pat your back for putting it on your ballot.” Kyle Buchanan wrote that “it’s not a showy, bombastic picture — it has that in common with the journalists it portrays, who are mostly concerned with ducking their heads down and doing the work — but it’s so assured, so deft, and so satisfying that I think it’s destined to go far with Oscar voters of just about every demographic.”And Awards Daily points out that it sits where Argo was in its year: “Most are underestimating its Best Picture chances but EVERYONE is saying they like it. That makes it a flying under the radar threat.” It’s certainly a film to watch out for, both for its (can we say likely?) Best Picture nomination and a potential Supporting Actor nom for Michael Keaton. (The Hollywood Reporter thinks he may win it.)
  • Steve Jobs (RT: 90%, directed by Danny Boyle, out October 9): Remember Jobs, the widely panned 2013 flick where Ashton Kutcher thought he could play Steve Jobs? Now Kutcher has been replaced by Magneto (er, Michael Fassbender). And Danny Boyle, who won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire (which also premiered at Telluride) has the legendary Aaron Sorkin writing the script. Many reviewers have sung its praises and called it a major heavyweight, but according to the Hollywood Reporter, the audience response was “appreciative but not ebullient,” leading Scott Feinberg to consider it “on the bubble” for the major awards, such as Picture, Actor and Supporting Actress (Kate Winslet plays marketing exec Joanna Hoffman).
  • Carol (RT: 96%, directed by Todd Haynes, out November 20): Based off a 1952 lesbian romance novel, Carol is not necessarily the typical Oscar story. But when you add in six-time Academy Awards nominee and two-time Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett and a breathtaking opening at Cannes earlier this year (Rooney Mara, the other lead, won the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actress), the movie starts to become something to take seriously. (Bizarrely, Mara was given a career achievement award at Telluride even though she is only 30.) Feinberg said that the film was greeted “warmly, if not effusively … like most of Haynes’ works — the most celebrated examples being 2002’s Far from Heaven and 2007’s I’m Not There — it is about mood and style as much as, if not more than, plot.” It seems that the big question now is whether Blanchett and Mara — who are both leads — will compete in the leading or supporting categories. Either way, Mara, at the very least, is a threat.
  • Beasts of No Nation (RT: 100%, directed by Cary Fukunaga, out October 16): A surprise hit from Telluride was the first Netflix original motion picture, starring Idris Elba. According to Google, it follows a fierce warlord (Elba) training a young orphan (Abraham Attah) to join his group of guerrilla soldiers in an African civil war. (At the Venice Film Festival, Attah won the Marcello Mastroianni Prize for Young Performer.) Reviews have been glowing, (Sasha Stone wrote, “History will eventually declare this film one of the best of all time”) though not necessarily in the Oscar-bait way. Netflix is still looked at somewhat skeptically and Fukunaga, who won an Emmy for helming the first season of HBO’s True Detective, is not a famous film director. Telluride gave Beasts its buzz — now we get to see if it can hold onto it.
  • Room (RT: 100%, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, out October 16): Room was another surprise, though perhaps it should not have been considering Brie Larson’s star turn in 2013’s Short Term 12. It tells the story of a mother forced to raise her child (played by eight-year-old Jacob Tremblay, another standout) in a single room. Another smaller film with excellent reviews and very possible acting/picture nominations. I know very little about it, but it sounds fascinating and something well-worth watching when it comes out in a month.

Toronto

Where Telluride is small and intimate, the Toronto International Film Festival is large and frantic. Tickets to Telluride are expensive, so only some critics and fewer fans can attend; TIFF is full of Canadians. This year,  more than 300 films from 60 different countries were screened over a span of 10 days, according to Awards Daily. Perhaps unlike Telluride, though, success in Toronto is not necessarily the path to the Dolby Theater — last year’s darling, Top Five, was nominated for a grand total of zero Oscars.

Sure, Toronto has picked on Telluride in the past. According to the Hollywood Reporter, last year TIFF banned movies that screened at Telluride from its opening weekend, and this year, those that screened at Telluride can’t play in one of the marquee venues of the festival. But despite the David-and-Goliath rivalry, Toronto and Telluride (as well as Venice, which has finished, and New York, which is still to come) cultivate a flock of films that make autumn one of the most exciting times to be a moviegoer.

(Stephen Galloway recently lamented the summer movie: “All the serious-minded movies come tumbling out in the fall, then the rest of the year it’s comic-book pictures. Which is exactly why I’m dying to see a good film now. I’ve wandered through the summer desert and I’m parched. Other than Straight Outta Compton, I can’t think of any recent film I fell in love with and believe should get a best picture nomination.”)

Again, here are four films to put on your radar:

  • The Danish Girl (RT: 76%, directed by Tom Hooper, out November 27): In a sense, this biopic of an artist in 1920s Copenhagen who was born a man but comes to identify as a woman sounds like an internal monologue where Eddie Redmayne tries to figure out how to out-Oscar playing Stephen Hawking last year in The Theory of Everything. But mostly, this is a brilliant, timely piece handled, by all accounts, in a very moving and beautiful way. The film (which won the Queer Lion Award when it premiered in Venice) is getting less attention than the two actors, Redmayne as Lili Elbe and Alicia Vikander as her wife. Redmayne may be gunning for his second Oscar in a row (the last actor to do that was Tom Hanks in the 1990s), and Vikander (also in this year’s stellar Ex Machina) has put herself squarely in the Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress race.
  • Sicario (RT: 92%, directed by Denis Villeneuve, out October 2): Starring Emily Blunt as an “idealistic, reserved FBI agent” on a task-force against the drug war (as well as Benicio Del Toro as a “haunted Mexican national”), Sicario “may be too brutally violent, and lacking in star-power, to snag the same number and caliber of Oscar noms that Traffic did,” according to Feinberg. The movie played Cannes, but Blunt and Del Toro are getting far more attention in Toronto, and supporters hope that this “TIFF buzz has caught fire.” The question is whether Blunt, who has five Golden Globe nominations but no luck with the Academy, can distinguish herself from a crowded pack of Best Actress hopefuls.
  • Martian (RT: 95%, directed by Ridley Scott, out October 2): Director Ridley Scott has helmed science fiction (Alien, Blade Runner), Oscar fare (Thelma and Louise, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down) and anticipated let-downs (pretty much everything in the past decade), but this time he tells the story of astronaut Matt Damon who gets left behind on Mars. There is a large amount of diversity, there is no villain and there is Kristen Wiig. People are talking up Scott, but Damon himself seems like a contender if the film takes off.
  • Our Brand Is Crisis (RT: 43%, directed by David Gordon Green, out October 30): To those who grimaced at the Rotten Tomatoes score, hear me out. The reviews are not very strong so far, except for those about Sandra Bullock. What I want to highlight is that this was a role originally written for a man. George Clooney, who produced the movie, told the story at TIFF: “Sandy called and said she wanted to do the role that was originally developed for a man to do, and once we realized that you could change it really easily, it made you realize that there are an awful lot of women’s roles that could be out there if people just started thinking in this way.”

In short, there are a lot of good movies coming out in the next month or two that debuted over the past few weeks, but the Oscar race is still far from over. There is no clear favorite as the season progresses, and it is still unclear whether something already seen will emerge as the frontrunner or whether we will have to wait until later in the year (like the New York Film Festival, beginning September 25, or Christmas’ The Revenant and The Hateful Eight) to talk more seriously of golden statues.

Spotlight on Johnny Depp

Every year, there’s a comeback. The articles roll in saying that it is some actor or actress’ turn to win an Oscar not just for whatever film they made this year but also for an entire distinguished or deserving career. That’s what happened to Matthew McConaughey and Mickey Rourke and Michael Keaton. (For a brutal takedown of the concept, read the Keaton section of this article.)

This year, it’s Johnny Depp. Depp was nominated for three Best Actor Oscars in five years (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003, Finding Neverland in 2004 and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 2007). He even won the SAG awards for Pirates. But after Sweeney Todd, his luck began to run dry. Movies he was in underperformed at the box office (did you see Mortdecai? No one saw Mortdecai) and were generally panned by critics (with the main exceptions of Into the Woods, where he dressed up as a wolf, sang a song and then died; and Rango, where he was animated). Here’s the full list of post-Sweeney flicks, courtesy of Box Office Mojo and Rotten Tomatoes:

Mortdecai (2015, lifetime gross $8 MM, RT: 12%)

Into the Woods (2014, lifetime gross: $128 MM, RT: 71%)

Transcendence (2014, lifetime gross $23 MM, RT: 19%)

The Lone Ranger (2013, lifetime gross: $89 MM, RT: 31%)

Dark Shadows (2012, lifetime gross $80 MM, RT: 37%)

The Rum Diary (2011, lifetime gross $13 MM, RT: 50%)

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011, lifetime gross $241 MM, RT: 33%)

Rango (2011, lifetime gross $123 MM, RT: 81%)

The Tourist (2010, lifetime gross: $68 MM, RT: 20%)

Alice in Wonderland (2010, lifetime gross: $334 MM, RT: 51%)

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009, lifetime gross: $8 MM, RT: 64%)

Public Enemies (2009, lifetime gross: $97 MM, RT: 68%)

But he is getting rave reviews for his role as Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, coming out today (September 18). According to the Hollywood Reporter, most people missed the first Telluride screening of Black Mass in order to catch Steve Jobs, but the film went over very well. Director Scott Cooper said, “I really had no interest in just making a film about criminals who just happen to be humans, but I wanted to make a film about humans who just happen to be criminals,” and it seems he succeeded. Depp seems like a “slam-dunk” for a Best Actor nom, and Awards Daily even contends that he may win it. I think that it depends on the narrative. If the critics and Oscar bloggers decide it is “his year,” he will have the momentum to push him to the front of the race; if they don’t (and decide, say, that it’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn for The Revenant), then Depp may just settle for a nomination — or fall out of the conversation entirely.

Spotlight on new Oscars producers

For the past three years, the Oscars were produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, a professional pair known for their work bringing Broadway to TV (Annie, Cinderella, Peter Pan Live!) and film (Chicago and Hairspray). They took their theater A-game to the ceremony, filling their shows with musical number spectacles, like the “We Saw Your Boobs” song and Lady Gaga inexplicably singing “The Sound of Music”. In Meron and Zadan’s first two years, Seth MacFarlane and Ellen DeGeneres delivered high ratings (40.37 and 43.74 million viewers, respectively), but a relatively weak show hosted by Neil Patrick Harris (37.26 million) left their legacy a bit less imposing and the producer slot open for new talent.

This year, the Academy tapped Reginald Hudlin and David Hill to produce the ceremony. Hudlin is an Oscar-nominated producer — according to the Hollywood Reporter, “he became only the fourth black person ever to receive that distinction when Django Unchained was nominated in 2013.” He also has directed film and TV, served as a “top-level exec,” produced the NAACP Image Awards since 2012 and acted as a voice for diversity within the Academy. Hill, the former chief of Fox Sports, spent his career in the world of television, where he apparently pioneered the continuous onscreen clock and scoreboard and later won an Emmy for Outstanding Live Sports Special as exec producer of the 2011 World Series. Though he admits his knowledge of film is “at best, sketchy,” he has a strong understanding of what makes TV watchable.

What can we expect from them? Scott Feinberg predicts they might add a storytelling element to the show’s duller moments. (“Nobody knows anything about most of the players in a professional football or hockey game or the competitors on American Idol when they first tune in, but they quickly are familiarized with and made to care about them through prepackaged videos that synopsize their personal journey and stats and figures that place their professional accomplishments in context. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see below-the-line categories preceded by just that sort of thing, rather than the time-honored tradition of zoned-out celebs unconvincingly reading from a cue-card about the importance of those arts and crafts.) Feinbeing is also hoping they turn the Oscar nominations into a “primetime special,” something that hasn’t been done since the 1950s. (The reason it failed then? No celebrity wanted to go to a ceremony and look dumb when their name wasn’t called.) Probably Hudlin and Hill’s biggest decision is choosing an Oscar host — or hosts, as Hill informed Entertainment Weekly they were planning on having two people host the show. That announcement has led to a lot of speculation (Tina and Amy?! Key & Peele?!) but don’t expect an announcement anytime soon.

One goal for Hill at least: ending on time. “I’ve always prided myself on getting my shows off on time,” he said, “and I don’t see why this one should be any different.”

Other News

  • Where have all the young actors gone? This excellent Vulture piece tries to answer why Hollywood is facing a leading-man drought. Only three men (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain in 2005 and Ryan Gosling for Half Nelson in 2006) have been Oscar-nominated for a role they filmed while 25 or younger in the past decade; for women, there were 17. Definitely read it yourself, but it argues that recent movies have been casting young women with older men (think Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper), that there are few roles for men outside of young adult franchises (and little respect once they go down that path) and that American boys are steered away from acting. The quote of the article: “Kids who want to do theater, or study acting, well, they’re immediately labeled ‘wimps,’ or worse, ‘fags.’ Whereas in the U.K., that’s absolutely not the case: It’s not considered weird to act and play soccer over there, or to sing and play rugby. By the time some of the better-looking, more rugged American guys who’ve been, say, modeling decide maybe they’re interested in acting, it’s too late: The U.K. guys have had so much more and so much better training, it’s not even a fair fight. Our guys don’t stand a chance.”
  • Malala: The documentary He Named Me Malala premiered at Telluride (given the opening “Patron’s Preview” slot) and got good reviews. From what I’ve read, people are not sure where the film lands between “portrait of a young activist” to “Lifetime movie about how amazing Malala is”; it seems to inform rather than surprise. May still be worth seeing.
  • Lobster: According to Awards Daily, “the film stars Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. Recently separated, Farrell’s character goes to a secluded hotel where he and other hotel guests have 45 days to find a new mate. If they fail, they are transformed into animals.” The film won the Jury Prize at Cannes. Weird premise? Watch the trailer.
  • $traight Outta Compton: The N.W.A. biopic has now made almost $160 million in the box office, putting its international total at $180 million. It should still be part of the conversation.
  • Blank Space for EGOT? Taylor Swift won an Emmy and is just an OT away from the most prestigious set of awards in the industry. It’s a love story; Oscar just say yes.
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