By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 21, 2011 at 7:04AM
The trick with the fall film festivals is to gauge expectations going in vs. what was actually achieved. Various distributors launched their fall slates, and watched with pleasure or horror at how their movies were received by audiences and critics. Oscar contenders either moved forward in the awards race, or were pushed back. Other indies hoped their films would be picked up by the right distributor in time for this year's Oscar race. Some were, some weren't. It's tough for films that have already debuted at other festivals to pick up new momentum, although the press will bank features for release. The biggest noise goes to the new players, always.
Fox Searchlight came out ahead with Alexander Payne's four-hankie family comedy The Descendants, which should earn multiple nominations (think Terms of Endearment, a cancer drama that makes you laugh and cry), from Oscar perennials Clooney and Payne to TV actress Shailene Woodley in supporting. As Payne points out--and 50/50 also demonstrates--studios have been depriving audiences audiences of something they love--a movie that touches their emotions.
The Artist.Telluride and Toronto crowds ate up the French/English hybrid, and so did the media. This movie will be a hit and a soft lob down the middle for Academy voters, who will love the silent period black-and-white Star is Born romance. But campaigning for it will be The Weinstein Co.'s challenge. While French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius speaks charming English, TWC's main obstacle will be landing an Oscar nomination for charismatic French comedian Jean Dujardin, who won best actor on his home turf at Cannes. When Marion Cotillard won her best actress Oscar for La Vie en Rose, she worked hard to improve her English and moved to Los Angeles to work the campaign trail. So did Spain's Penelope Cruz, who won best supporting actress for Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I watched Dujardin in action in Toronto with his translator at his side. It was a struggle.
The popular star, who was memorably tributed in Telluride (where folks like me got some welcome face time) is a lock for a best actor nomination for The Descendants, but it remains to be seen where his directing effort The Ides of March, a pointed political drama based on the play Farragut North, winds up. Some thought debuting the film in Venice might have been a mistake; but it didn't wow the hordes in Toronto, either. I missed the press screening, which was on opening day, and scored a ticket to a public screening, only to discover that it had taken place two hours earlier. Whoops.
The movie played like gangbusters. And it's tracking. Despite all the sturm and drang that went into its production, Bennett Miller, returning to the director's chair after a long hiatus after 2005's Oscar-winning Capote, steered the ship into harbor. The populist, up-the-establishment baseball movie looks like a hit. But it's not this year's A Social Network, just because Sony, producer Scott Rudin and writer Aaron Sorkin are involved, nor is it another Michael Lewis phenom like The Blind Side, even though he wrote the non-fiction baseball expose. Miller, Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, working together, have fashioned a character study with baseball as its setting. It's about an original thinker (Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane) who singlehandedly changed the way the game is played. Will the movie garner a best picture slot? Will Brad Pitt's easygoing, naturalistic performance earn him another nomination? This movie could help push Pitt into contention for The Tree of Life; Fox Searchlight is bizarrely campaigning him for best supporting actor. He is totally the star-dominating lead in the Malick movie. Who else? Why play these games? Let the best performance win. I'll be curious to see how SAG and the Golden Globes handle this issue. Moneyball is not necessarily an HFPA-friendly movie.
Toronto audiences cheered Jonathan Levine's 50/50 (September 30), which is another weepie that earns its applause via laughs, tears and authenticity. Gordon-Levitt gives an awards-worthy performance in Will Reiser’s semi-autobiographical script about his battle with cancer opposite producer/actor Seth Rogen, basically playing himself, who tries to keep his best chum laughing as he undergoes chemo and an operation, losing his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) as well as his hair. Anjelica Huston is the mother he does not want to share his illness with, and Anna Kendrick his neophyte shrink.
Coming out ahead thanks to two well-reviewed leading roles is Gosling. Both Drive, which opened well right after getting yet another media boost from Toronto (following Cannes and the LA Film Fest), and Clooney's political drama The Ides of March are boosting Gosling into a bonafide movie star.
The actress went to Toronto, the crucible of fall entertainment media, to talk up her Cannes best-actress-winning role in Melancholia, happy indeed that Lars von Trier was nowhere in sight. (He did his damage in Berlin and on the phone to GQ, instead.) Will all that controversy turn the Magnolia film into a must-see for Oscar voters? (Maybe.) Will Dunst be rewarded for her brilliant performance? She's due. But Magnolia will need to push. Will they? It's not their usual territory.
This movie proved a surprise crowd-pleaser. The John Orloff script was well-regarded until Shakespeare in Love knocked it out of the water. Well, Sony recognized its commercial possibilities and Roland Emmerich, a gifted cinematic craftsman when given the right material, delivers a rich, atmospheric (VFX-enhanced), entertaining period tale of an alternate reality, explaining the mystery of who was William Shakespeare. According to Oxfordians, it's Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, played with great charisma by Rhys Ifans and young Jamie Campbell Bower. Joely Richardson plays his great love, the young Queen Elizabeth, while her mother Vanessa Redgrave is powerful as Elizabeth in her dotage, who still has a sparkle in her eye for the works of her once-beloved Edward. The movie is suffused with the love of Shakespeare: with Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance on hand, what's not to like? Is it an Oscar contender? Production design and costumes, yes, and possibly Orloff, although a subplot in the third act takes an unfortunate melodramatic turn. Redgrave is a strong contender for supporting actress for another film, Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus (TWC), so another standout performance won't hurt.
The actress starred in three films at the fest, two ensembles--360 , Fernando Meirelles and Peter Morgan's reworking of La Ronde, which is seeking U.S. distribution, and David Hare's well-mounted but routine spy thriller, Page Eight (upcoming on PBS)--and one outstanding lead, in Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea. She's magnificent as a woman in post-Blitz London consumed by love for a young aviator (Tom Hiddleston). Music Box will give the film an Oscar shot.
Michael Fassbender. Much as it did with The Wrestler, Searchlight acquired Steve McQueen's Shame, which played well in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, and generated much talk about Fassbender's heartbreaking, no-holds-barred performance as a sex addict. The question is, which of the year's four Fassbender performances will win the day? Fox's X-Men: First Class provided a star-making role in a genre film likely to be dismissed by the Academy actors' branch. But Focus Features has every intention of fighting for a nomination for Fassbender as Mr. Rochester in the well-reviewed literary costume drama Jane Eyre, which is right up Oscar voters' alley. It will be tough to bring that movie back--but BAFTA could play a vital role in that effort, much as BAFTA helped Focus score nominations with another period drama, Atonement.
For its part, Sony Pictures Classics nurtures high hopes for David Cronenberg's brainy period biopic A Dangerous Method, which is my favorite film of the season so far. Fassbender plays Karl Jung as an upstanding professional who wrestles with new ideas about psychoanalysis and the nature of sexual desire from not only his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) but his patients (Vincent Cassell and Keira Knightley). Where Fassbender winds up will depend on such variables as the distributors, whether audiences and critics embrace the films, and the Academy itself, which finally, against some expectations, did not balk at the intensity of Black Swan last year.
Sony Pictures Classics.
It was a big year at Toronto for SPC co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, who celebrated their 20th year at the specialty label with a Jonathan Demme Q & A, their annual low-key dinner (where I got to hang with David Cronenberg, Keira Knightley, Agnieszka Holland, Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon) and a blow-out party. SPC is still steady as she goes with a theatrically-driven agenda, as opposed to the more VOD-oriented Magnolia and IFC. SPC pushed for more attention at the fest for Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, featuring a stunning performance from Shannon (who is also terrific in Marc Forster's Machine Gun Preacher), Holland's bleak holocaust drama In Darkness, which is Poland's Oscar entry and a shoo-in for a foreign nomination, and Asghar Farhadi's critically-hailed A Separation, which is Iran's official submission for the Oscars. Israel's likely Ophir winner will be Cannes' rival father-son academics drama Footnote, which will then make it the official entry. Making a smaller splash were two Cannes holdovers, Gus Van Sant's romantic trifle Restless and Pedro Almodovar's kinky The Skin I Live In, along with Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, a charming whimsy ably carried by Greta Gerwig.
The AMC-owned indie distributor came into the festival with 11 entries, including German Oscar entry Pina, directed by Wim Wenders, tough murder documentary Into the Abyss, directed by Werner Herzog (one Telluride high point was having an impromptu lunch with the two old chums), the Dardenne brothers' The Kid with a Bike, which continued to play well (a Toronto highlight was sitting with the delightful Dardennes at IFC's annual dinner) and Joshua Marston's admired Albanian-language drama The Forgiveness of Blood. IFC and sibling division Sundance Selects also acquired a few films, including Christophe Honore's Cannes entry Beloved, Michael Winterbottom's Trishna, starring Freida Pinto and Your Sister's Sister, actress-writer-director Lynn Shelton's anticipated follow-up to Humpday. She continues to do wonders for Mark Duplass's acting career. (He and writer-director brother Jay's studio effort, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is a lackadaisical and flat family comedy starring Jason Segal, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon and the ubiquitous Judy Greer that almost pulls itself out at the end.)
Pick-Ups: The festival boasted that this year's market saw a 20% surge in global film deals as of Friday, with some 20 sales so far. A rash of films were seeking distribution in Toronto, many of them hoping for a shot at the awards season. To that end, Luc Besson's The Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh in a moving true romance opposite David Thewlis, was acquired by new indie distributor Cohen Media Group, while Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea scored a year-end slot from Music Box Films, making its first move into English-language fare, much less Oscar territory. Oscilloscope scooped up Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights, Magnolia's genre label Magnet grabbed Bobcat Goldthwait's scathing God Bless America and Goldwyn nabbed fashion biodoc Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel.
Among the more commercial indie offerings, Jennifer Westfeldt's rom-com Friends with Kids went to Lionsgate/Roadside, while Lionsgate took horror comedy You're Next). Suburban family comedy The Oranges went to ATO Pictures, Australian wilderness actioner The Hunter starring Willem Dafoe, went to Magnolia, Brit haunted house thriller The Awakening went to Cohen Media Group, and Lasse Hallstrom's Ewan McGregor-starrer Salmon Fishing in the Yemen proved the festival's biggest sale, $5-million, to hungry CBS Films, which has recently moved into aggressive acquisitions mode. Mickey Liddell (Biutiful) also paid millions for William Friedkin's thriller Killer Joe, starring Matthew McConaughey, with a releasing partner still to be announced.
Still in negotiations are Oren Moverman's tough L.A. cop noir Rampart, starring Woody Harrelson, Hungarian Oscar entry The Turin Horse, directed by Bela Tarr, and the festival's surprise audience winner, Nadine Labaki's Where Do We Go Now, the official submission from Lebanon, among many others, from well-received Sarah Polley drama Take This Waltz, starring Michelle Williams, to Tanya Wexler's Victorian drama Hysteria, about the invention of the vibrator, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones and Hugh Dancy, which four buyers are reportedly chasing. (Brit ingenue Jones had a good festival; she also stars in Paramount Vantage's Sundance pick-up Like Crazy.)
Judging from the word-of-mouth on the street, the biggest bombs in Toronto were Francis Ford Coppola's horror film Twixt, which the director will self-distribute, Joel Schumacher's Cage-Kidman starrer Trespass (Avi Lerner's Millennium Films) and Derick Martini's Las Vegas-set Hick, which is still seeking a distributor.
The Weinstein Co.
While The Artist scored off the charts, Madonna's period romance W.E. played badly in Venice and Toronto (here's IW's Madonna interview), and political satire Butter also failed to score with critics in Telluride and Toronto (although it played better with audiences), forcing Weinstein to issue a challenge to Michele Bachmann to attend the premiere. Luckily TWC has plenty of movies in play; still to be heard from is Phyllida Lloyd's The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, although it must be said that Lloyd did directMamma Mia!. And TWC has been effectively building buzz for another Williams-starrer, My Week with Marilyn, which debuts at the NY Film Festival.
The NYFF launches September 30 and will reprise a selection of Cannes, Venice and Toronto titles. Still to be decided is how SPC's Carnage will play stateside. It got some reviews in Venice, but opening night in NYC will tell the tale. I wondered if The Descendants might not have made a better opening than a closing for the NYFF, after they couldn't get Gary Oldman and Tom Hardy, stuck shooting The Dark Night Rises, to attend Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. We will soon find out.
This is my particular Toronto slice, the movies that managed to get my attention by virtue of their award season or acquisition promise, or screenings that I slipped into just because I felt like it. You never know what you might find. I still have screeners in the pile.
Toronto Oscar Hopefuls:
50/50 (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Summit)
Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Roadside)
Anonymous (Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Columbia)
The Artist (Jean Dujardin, TWC)
Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, vanessa Redgrave, TWC)
A Dangerous Method (Michael Fassbender, SPC)
The Deep Blue Sea (Rachel Weisz, Music Box)
The Descendants (George Clooney, Shaileine Woodley, Fox Searchlight)
The Lady (Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis, Cohen Media Group)
Melancholia (Kirsten Dunst, Magnolia)
Moneyball (Brad Pitt, Columbia)
Shame (Michael Fassbender, Fox Searchlight)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Tilda Swinton)
Ten Best of Fest (new films):
1. A Dangerous Method
2. The Descendants
8. The Deep Blue Sea
9. Into the Abyss
Good Not Great (alphabetical):
Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo Garcia, Roadside Attractions)
Friends with Kids (Jennifer Westfeldt, Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions
The Island President (Jeff Shenk, ITVS)
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Mark and Jay Duplass, Paramount Vantage)
The Lady (Luc Besson, Cohen Media Group)
The Last Gladiators (Alex Gibney)
Machine Gun Preacher (Marc Forster, Relativity Media)
Americano (Mathieu Demy, MPI)
Barrymore (Eric Kanuel)
Butter (Jim Field Smith, TWC)
George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese, HBO)
My Worst Nightmare (Anne Fontaine)
The Oranges (Julian Farino, ATO)
Page Eight (David Hare, PBS)
The Artist (TWC)
Drive (Film District)
Habemus Papam (IFC)
Le Havre (Janus)
The Kid with a Bike (IFC)
Like Crazy (Paramount Vantage)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Fox Searchlight)
The Skin I Live In (SPC)
Sleeping Beauty (Sundance Selects)
Take Shelter (SPC)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Oscilloscope)