Monday, January 30, 2023

Oscars: Strong Awards Contenders Generate Buzz At Telluride -Smith, Branagh, Sorrentino, Colman, Cumberbatch And More


Slumdog Millionaire largely started the Oscar train out of the Telluride Film Festival in 2008 when it rode its World Premiere in this small Colorado town all the way to a Best Picture Academy Award sweep. It has happened numerous times since with the likes of Telluride premieres like The King’s Speech, Argo, 12 Years A Slave, and Moonlight, as well as for T-Ride North American premieres that went on to Best Picture – think Spotlight, The Shape Of Water, The Artist, and Parasite for example. Even last year when, due to the pandemic, the festival had to cancel their Labor Day weekend cinematic treasure chest, they hooked their wagons and rode to the Rose Bowl makeshift Drive-In in Pasadena to do a special “Telluride” presentation of Nomadland, which brought out Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhao in person, and of course went on to win Best Picture.

It is no wonder studios and distributors trek here now each year to launch their Oscar campaigns, and it is no different this year. Some like the Netflix trio of The Power Of The Dog, The Hand Of Godand The Lost Daughter, along with NEON’s Spencer made their first stop in Venice and my reviews of them were all tied to their premieres there. But this year we have seen successful World Premieres here in Telluride for Belfast, King Richard, Cyrano, and more that are igniting various degrees of Oscar buzz already, whether for the films themselves or performances in them. Nat Geo has been here betting on Telluride to create awards talk for four, count ’em, four awards prospects. Searchlight, a staple in Telluride each year, and of course a major Oscar player, is even here with their Cannes debut, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch which is showing several times as a “Sneak Preview”. The film was promised as a North American premiere for the New York Film Festival later this month but the studio just couldn’t pass up the chance to be in Telluride, so this was a way to do it and generate awards conversation closer to home just as their competitors are doing the same. A full contingent of Searchlight execs including new leaders Matthew Greenfield and David Greenbaum are in town, along with one of the film’s sterling ensemble cast, Jeffrey Wright who should be a Supporting Actor contender for his hilarious pitch perfect performance.

Focus Features

What Telluride also offers is a laid back atmosphere and lots of access in a very small town. There are always lots of Oscar voters roaming around and standing in line to see films, so as a launch for dreams of lasting the entire (this year seven long months) season it is a must stop on the circuit if you are ready in time. You can pretty much tell what is resonating just by all the talk up and down these quaint western streets, and on the basis of what I have been hearing you can pretty much guarantee that three of the Best Picture slots (we are back to a solid ten this year) already belong to Warner Bros. King Richard, Netflix’s The Power Of The Dog, and Focus Features’ Belfast. The latter, scheduled for its “official” World Premiere in Toronto next week is the name I hear most when I ask ‘what is your favorite so far’ here. Kenneth Branagh’s beautiful and personal coming of age in Northern Ireland family drama seems certain to be generating lots of awards talk before and after its November 12 opening. Former Academy President Sid Ganis who, as usual, is soaking up the cinema in Telluride told me he thinks it is one of the best films he has ever seen.

NEON’s Tom Quinn was saying similar things at Telluride’s Filmmakers reception Saturday about the tennis drama King Richard when he met one of its Executive Producers, Isha Price, who also happens to be one of the five daughters of Richard Williams, the determined father of Venus and Serena (also EP’s) who guided their way to the top of the tennis world in sometimes controversial ways. Though Quinn, whose company won the Best Picture Oscar for Parasite, has his own strong contenders like Spencer which has been creating Best Actress talk for Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana from the moment it hit Venice, he is generous giving props to films that aren’t his, which also speaks to the emotional impact of a a movie like King Richard which could be a massive crowd – and Academy – pleaser in the same way The Blind Side and Green Book were able to ride the Oscar waves. The Searchlight contingent, when I ran into them last night, were offering the same kind of admiration for The Hand Of God (a Netflix film) when I ran into them. It just shows no matter who competes with who, we are lovers of film in Telluride.

Director Jane Campion is getting much praise for her return to movies, her first in over a decade, with the, well, powerful and gorgeous The Power Of The Dog which wowed Venice, and seems to be doing the same here in Telluride with a western setting that is unquestionably perfect for this festival. She received a standing ovation at her Silver Medallion tribute last night, and this film is proof she hasn’t lost her touch. Netflix should be able to take it a long way as the nascent season gets rolling out of Telluride and on to Toronto where its star Benedict Cumberbatch is getting the Actor award and seems certain to be heading toward another Oscar nomination in this film which seemed to have elements of Hud to There Will Be Blood to Brokeback Mountain, but ultimately is its own dog in this hunt.

Paolo Sorrentino in Telluride

Netflix’s Italian language The Hand Of God is, like Branagh’s Belfast , another personal memoir from a celebrated director, this one being Paolo Sorrentino who made this film to reflect his own story as a teenager growing up in Naples where he found the first seeds of his eventual calling as a filmmaker. In my review after its Venice premiere I called it “beautiful and lilting” and , also like Belfast. it seems to be a film that hits people right in the heart. I haven’t talked to anyone here who has seen it who hasn’t praised it to the skies.  Emotional responses to films can go a long way at the Oscars, and this one has it. It would seem to me the Italian selection committee would be missing a major bet if this movie is not chosen as the official entry from Italy for Best International Film. Of course local politics sometimes gets in the way, but Sorrentino’s films have been chosen before to represent Italy. The Great Beauty proved to be a wise one for the country as it not only went on the be nominated, it also won the Foreign Language Oscar. I think this one could do that as well, but first it has to be chosen. Beyond that category though, I can tell the movie has the kind of passionate response that could actually propel it into the Best Picture race, even if it doesn’t getting the blessing of Italy. After its reception though in Venice, and now here (Sorrentino is in Telluride with a full contingent from the film including breakout young star Filippo Scotti) I think its Oscar prospects are bright in many categories, international and beyond.

A Hero

And speaking of prospects for International Film, Iran would be crazy not to submit Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero which was a prize winner in Cannes and is making its North American premiere in Telluride, the same festival that did so much for his breakthrough movie A Separation, and where I first met him. I think this is his finest since that film, a riveting movie that must be seen. Amazon Studios is going to put their full weight behind it, and like The Hand Of God, it could resonate well beyond just the International Film category which by the way Farhadi has won twice. 

Telluride has also proven to be a smart starting point for Joe Wright’s terrific musical version of Cyrano with Peter Dinklage in the title role. This is an enormously entertaining, smart, and touching film that doesn’t open until the last day of the year. If MGM and United Artists Releasing run a big campaign (and they plan to) it could land multiple nominations since it is the kind of film that can also fill crafts categories.


And speaking of Dinklage, count his name in for the Best Actor race which is heating up here with Cumberbatch (who also has the quirkily fun and charming The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain premiering here)  and Smith also certain to land nominations, even at this early point in the game. Smith may be an instant front runner in fact since he transforms into King Richard and has never been better in anything, even his Oscar nominated Ali. I really liked Jamie Dornan in Belfast, but it depends where he is campaigned. Young Jude Hill is a wild card too for that film depending where voters want to put him. You never know with kids. Depending on how it develops Scotti should be considered for Hand Of God but faces stiff competition from the bigger names coming in the next few months.  For Supporting Actor I think Telluride is putting a few names on the map as well including Jon Bernthal’s lively turn as the coach for Venus Williams in King Richard and Ciaran Hinds as the grandfather in Belfast. And that’s just for starters.

The Lost Daughter

“The Lost Daughter”
Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix

In the Best Actress race there can be no question that Olivia Colman is heading for yet another Oscar nomination for her tour de force turn in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s superb directorial debut, The Lost Daughter. You can take that to the bank. Stewart as Diana in crisis mode is another good bet for Spencer , and is on her way to landing her first Oscar nomination. Based on how much heat Belfast can continue to generate Caitriona Balfe might have a shot, and of course don’t count out Dame Judi Dench as the grandmother in that as well for supporting actress. Haley Bennett is generating buzz for her performance in Cyrano  but that might have been more likely to gain needed traction in the Comedy and Musical category for the Golden Globes, but alas in a huge year for movie musicals there are no Golden Globes to be won this year. Let me predict right now that Aujanue Ellis will be a slam dunk Supporting Actress nominee as wife and mother in King Richard, and may be joined by Kirsten Dunst who has her finest role in years in Power Of The Dog. Having just caught French Dispatch here I have to throw in the irresistible Tilda Swinton who is a total hoot in that movie.

The list actually goes on and fortunes may rise or fall, but there is no doubt it is once again, after a year off, Oscar business as usual in Telluride and this festival remains a very important cog in the Academy Award machine.



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