Oscar Beat: The Fall Festival Contenders

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It’s that time of year again, folks.  The explosion-filled summer blockbusters will soon be fading from multiplexes, and in will flow a number of smaller, more dramatic films poised to dominate the Oscar conversation as the awards machine gets up and running.  Some will meet high expectations, some will be disappointing, and some will come out of nowhere to take everyone by surprise.  We here at Collider ran a few awards-centric articles last fall that examined the Oscar race as it drew closer, but this year we’re happy to expand our awards coverage to a regular column titled “Oscar Beat.”

We’ll be covering anything and everything Oscar up through the 86th Annual Academy Awards on March 2nd, and if years past are any indication, there will be plenty to discuss.  In our inaugural installment of Oscar Beat, we’ll be taking a look at the upcoming Fall Film Festival circuit, which is where the heavy hitters of awards season traditionally premiere.  Hit the jump for more.

toronto-international-film-festivalAs I took point on last year’s Oscar coverage for Collider, I’m happy to be running the Oscar Beat column.  I’m eager to see what this year’s race brings us, and we’ll be hearing all about the “early frontrunners” next month when the festival season begins in earnest.

For those who don’t know, most studios use the fall film festivals as a kind of launching pad for their big awards contenders.  Argo made its debut at the Telluride Film Festival last year, The King’s Speech did the same at Telluride in 2010, and Slumdog Millionaire also kicked off its successful run at Telluride in 2008.  In fact, nearly every Best Picture winner in recent memory made its debut at one of the major fall film festivals.  As such, it behooves us to examine the announced lineups of 2013’s festivals in order to get a feel for what this year’s Oscar race might include.

Telluride (which kicks off later this month) doesn’t announce its full lineup until the festival actually begins, but we do have a list of films playing at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival, as well as a few films premiering at the New York Film Festival.

Toronto International Film Festival 

The so-called “granddaddy” of the fall festival season is undoubtedly TIFF.  Every single Best Picture winner from the last decade except The Departed, Million Dollar Baby, and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King played at the Toronto International Film Festival, so the odds are very likely that one of the films screening at TIFF 2013 will be our eventual Best Picture winner.  With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the more noteworthy films that will be screening at the festival next month:

  • twelve-years-a-slave-michael-fassbender-chiwetel-ejiofor12 Years a Slave – This one has been on the radar for a while and is one of TIFF’s more highly-anticipated premieres.  Shame director Steve McQueen chronicles the true story of a freed man kidnapped and sold into slavery, with Chiwetel Ejiofor taking on the starring role.  There have been whispers about a killer performance by Ejiofor, and the prospect of Michael Fassbender tackling the role of a terrifying slave owner is certainly noteworthy.
  • August: Osage County – Though director John Wells didn’t find much awards recognition for his last film, The Company Men, this one is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and boasts a magnificent ensemble that includes Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, and Benedict Cumberbatch.  The source material is decidedly dark, but this is the kind of character-centric drama that has the potential to land multiple acting nods.  At the very least, Streep’s a lock, right?
  • Dallas Buyers Club – The Oscars love themselves some “based on a true story” feel-good movies tinged with a little bit of tragedy, and Matthew McConaughey’s 1980s-set passion project fits the bill.  McConaughey plays an AIDS-ridden man who procured medications still restricted in the US to help treat fellow AIDS patients, and given that McConaughey has been on one hell of a hot streak as of late, I expect a big push for the Best Actor category is imminent (of note, though, is the fact that McConaughey could end up competing against himself for turns in Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street as well).
  • Devil’s Knot – This is another true story that could be bound for Oscar attention, as Best Actress winner Reese Witherspoon stars in the true story of the infamous West Memphis Three case.  Best Actor winner Colin Firth joins Witherspoon onscreen, and Best Director nominee Atom Egoyan takes the helm, so this one certainly has pedigree in its favor.
  • gravity-sandra-bullock-george-clooneyThe Fifth Estate – Director Bill Condon, who previously won an Academy Award for his Gods and Monsters screenplay and was nominated for scripting Chicago, returns to more serious material with this film about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl lead the impressive cast.  This will also be the festival’s opening night movie.
  • Gravity – Though the Academy rarely goes for sci-fi, director Alfonso Cuaron’s highly anticipated follow-up to 2006’s Children of Men may just be the kind of space film they could get behind.  The pic is essentially an acting showcase (buoyed by awe-inspiring visuals, natch), as Sandra Bullock carries the majority of the screentime alone as an astronaut stranded in space.  There is a great deal of hype surrounding Gravity, but if the finished film delivers the goods, the Academy could acknowledge the feature in more than just the technical categories.
  • Labor Day – Writer/director Jason Reitman has been in the Oscar conversation plenty of times before, landing screenplay, directing, and Best Picture nominations for Up in the Air, and he could be in the race again this year.  He takes on decidedly darker territory with Labor Day, as the intimate drama is essentially a two-hander between Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. Winslet plays a single mother who takes in a drifter over Labor Day weekend, only to discover that the man is actually an escaped convict.  Up in the Air played at TIFF in 2009 to great fanfare, so we’ll see if Reitman can repeat that success with Labor Day, although Up in the Air built up a significant amount of backlash towards the filmmaker as the Oscars approached.
  • prisoners-jake-gyllenhaal-hugh-jackmanPrisoners – After landing his first Oscar nomination last year with Les Miserables, Hugh Jackman could find himself back in the race again with this dramatic thriller from director Denis Villeneuve.  It’s tough to tell from the trailers whether the film is more thriller than drama, but regardless, Jackman appears to be doing some fine work.
  • You Are Here – Having hoarded Emmys over the past five years for his AMC drama series Mad Men, creator Matthew Weiner makes his feature directorial debut with this “contemporary adult comedy.”  Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Poehler lead the cast, and while it’s unclear whether this is a true awards contender or not, Weiner’s TV/Emmy track ensures that critics will definitely be paying attention.

Obviously TIFF is playing host to a large selection of films, and we could also see other movies break out in a big way.  From this vantage point, though, the aforementioned films seem like the main ones to keep an eye on.  The 2013 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5 – 15th.

Venice Film Festival

Another major festival of the fall season is the Venice Film Festival, which runs from August 28 – September 7th.  Venice will play host to a couple of films that are also playing TIFF, including Gravity, but it will see the world debut of Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem.  Gilliam himself hasn’t been in the awards race for some time, and he’s not exactly one to get cozy with Hollywood in the way that the Academy normally rewards, but Zero Theorem could be the source of some left field nods, especially when it comes to star Christoph Waltz.

New York Film Festival

the-secret-life-of-walter-mitty-ben-stillerAs for the New York Film Festival, we don’t have a full lineup just yet, but we do have the opening and closing films and one other premiere.  Last year saw Oscar heavyweight Life of Pi open NYFF, and this year director Paul Greengrass’ Somali pirate drama Captain Phillips has been given the honor.  The pic boasts one of two potential awards-worthy performances by Tom Hanks (the other being Saving Mr. Banks), and the latest trailer teased something quite a bit more thoughtful than a straightforward thriller.  Greengrass was previously nominated for Best Director for United 93 and Captain Phillips has him once again navigating timely material, so it’s possible that the film could draw multiple nods.  On the flipside, it’s also possible that Phillips could go the way of Greengrass’ dud Green Zone.

NYFF 2013 will also play host to the premiere of Ben Stiller’s latest directorial effort, the highly promising remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  The film’s trailer showcases something considerably more dramatic than Stiller’s previous directorial films, and comparisons are already being drawn to Forrest Gump.  Barring the film turning out to be a total stinker, Walter Mitty looks like it will draw serious attention during the coming awards season.

The closing film of this year’s New York Film Festival will be Spike Jonze’s romance Her, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with his operating system.  Jonze also has Academy history, having earned a Best Director nomination for Being John Malkovich and scoring multiple nods for Adaptation., including Best Picture.  Whether Her will be too “out there” for the Academy’s taste is unknown, but it’s not like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. are soft, familiar movies.

Closing Thoughts

As you can see, the next few months are a fountain of riches, and we should start to hear words like “frontrunner” and “crowd favorite” thrown around once the Toronto International Film Festival is off and running.  Last year’s TIFF was where David O. Russell’s little romcom Silver Linings Playbook suddenly became an Oscar heavyweight and launched Jennifer Lawrence into the Best Actress conversation.  That being said, the fall festival season is only the beginning of the Oscar race, so there’s surely plenty of drama to come, and we’ll be covering every meteoric rise and surprising snub right here on Oscar Beat.

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