As we write this, we're somewhere over the Alps, flying back to London after an exhausting, rewarding week at the Venice Film Festival. Meanwhile, our editor-in-chief just returned from the mountains after an equally busy weekend at the Telluride Film Festival. Festival season is only just getting underway, with TIFF kicking off as we speak, and Venice doesn't wrap up til Saturday. But even so, it's true that the first salvo of the awards race have been fired in both Italy and Colorado, so it seems like a good time to run down which films have found themselves in a promising position after the last ten days or so, and which fizzled as soon as they arrived.
Venice has a fairly good record of digging up Oscar potentials -- "The Hurt Locker" premiered there in 2008 (though didn't win an Oscar til 18 months later), and "Black Swan" opened the festival in 2010, but last year didn't see much Academy love for the line-up, bar some scattered nominations for "The Ides Of March" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Certainly, this year saw a number of American movies with no chance of fitting into the conversation. To be fair, no prognosticators really had "Disconnect" or "The Iceman," which screened out of competition, on their radars, and the reason became clear when they screened -- the former is a fairly awful, if well-acted, cautionary tale, the latter isn't terrible, but it's mainly a commercial proposition. The best it could probably hope for is an Independent Spirit nod for lead Michael Shannon, though we'd argue he's given many, many better performances in the past.
In smaller categories, Israeli pic "Fill The Void" is one of five that's vying to be the country's foreign language entry this year, and while we weren't especially enamored of it, it's one of the serious contenders for the Golden Lion, which would certainly help its chances. It's the kind of picture that the Foreign Language branch eat up, and if it beats out its compatriots, we can absolutely see it ending up among the five nominees. One to watch in the doc category is Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell," a beautiful, personal bit of autobiography from the actor/director. The film's widely loved, but feels too small and intimate to get up a Best Picture head of steam, but a doc nomination could certainly be feasible. Of course, it'll have to clear the torturous eligibility rules of the category (there's a certain amount of manipulation and reconstruction in the film), and needs a distributor and release date first, plus it's not the kind of film that the doc branch typically reward. Our gut says it's the kind of popular success -- like "Senna" or "Project Nim" last year -- that gets overlooked, but we've got our fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, a film that could be a player, albeit not this year, is "At Any Price" (which like "Stories We Tell" and 'The Iceman" also played Telluride). A step up to the big leagues for director Ramin Bahrani, the film, an old-fashioned Arthur Millerish rural melodrama, may be too divisive to get real attention on the Best Picture front, likely too blunt and unruly for some. But it's got serious prospects thanks to central performance of Dennis Quaid, who's never quite had a role like this one.
Even those who were cooler on the film raved about the actor's performance, and as such, there could certainly be a Best Actor campaign in the future for him. Sony Pictures Classics, who picked the film up about six weeks back, have said that it isn't planned for release until 2013, which is probably a smart plan given how outrageously competitive the category is this year. Whether Quaid can get a foothold next time around will depend on what else he's up against, but it's certainly the actor's best ever shot.
Looking less good is "To The Wonder," the latest from Terrence Malick, whose "The Tree Of Life" got director and picture nominations last year. We liked the film a lot, more so than its predecessor, but we were decidedly in the minority: it's arguably the director's most tepidly received picture, and without the universal critical support of last year's film, will struggle to feature into the Best Picture conversation, unless North American critics respond more favorably in Toronto. That said, when it finds a distributor (it's still looking), and gets a release date -- unlikely to be until 2013, so not figuring into this season's race -- it does a stand a very strong chance at a Cinematography nod for the still unrewarded Emmanuel Lubezki, and, if it's very lucky and the field is weak, maybe another for Javier Bardem's faith-stricken priest.
Of course, the big news in Venice, although it had screened multiple times already, was the 'official' unveiling of Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master." While we had more reservations about the film than some, it's undeniably a hugely impressive piece of work, and having seen it, we're pretty sure it'll make it in to one of the Best Picture slots. But we're less confident that it has a chance of winning. Early on in the film it felt like a home run, but it gets more difficult and button-pushing as it goes on, and we're not sure we can see the voters who went for "The Artist" and "The King's Speech" responding to it, no matter how hard Harvey pushes it.
That said, it should make it through to the "Tree Of Life" slot, and we can certainly see it being, like "There Will Be Blood" before it, among the most nominated of the year. Nods for Picture, probably Director, Original Screenplay, Production Design (and maybe costume...) Cinematography, Editing and Score all feel like they're in the bag. Joaquin Phoenix is a mortal lock in Best Actor (and is a serious front-runner to win at this point), while the only reason that Philip Seymour Hoffman might miss out is if the Weinsteins campaign for him alongside Phoenix in Best Actor, rather than Supporting, and given their general Oscar-campaigning canniness, we can't imagine they'll do so unless Anderson insists. Amy Adams should get a nomination too, though could fail to win once again -- she's superb, but it's not an especially Oscar-friendly role. Between all of that, all it needs is a Sound nomination or two, and it'll land among the most nominated films in history. Unless we're very wrong about all these extra nods, we can't see the film missing out on a Best Picture slot, and the momentum could even be enough to push it on for a win.