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Venice, Telluride and Toronto Set the Oscar Season’s Table

As usual, the September festival corridor has set the stage for this year’s Oscar season with a number of films looking for love over the next several months. What does the landscape look like now?

Beginning with an opening night bow at the Venice Film Festival, Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” has perhaps grabbed the pole position. A delightful musical infused with a dreamer’s spirit, featuring a performance from Emma Stone that is already an award-winner, this is sure to remain a major play throughout the season. The film transitioned to the Telluride Film Festival where it dazzled audiences, many of them packed with Oscar voters. With a big premiere set for Toronto Monday, it’s going to become a major threat for that festival’s audience award, which has been a best picture harbinger a number of times in recent years.

Also debuting in Venice was Mel Gibson’s big return, World War II drama “Hacksaw Ridge.” Ahead of time I was told it might be too violent for Academy tastes, but I’m inclined to disagree. If “Saving Private Ryan” didn’t put them off, nor did “The Revenant” just last year, this account of war’s hell shouldn’t have any trouble on that score. Andrew Garfield is captivating as Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who saved some 75 lives during the Battle of Okinawa, but he also has Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” on the way, so who knows how that will affect things. The movie becomes quite emotional as it turns to the real-life Doss and his colleagues in its final moments, so depending on how ready the industry is to accept Gibson back into the fold, it could connect. Below-the-line prospects, particularly in the sound categories, feel more likely.

A major Telluride debut was Clint Eastwood’s “Sully,” already out in the marketplace. A sturdy Warner Bros. drama with riveting moments depicting the successful water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in 2009, it did bang-up opening weekend box office, leaving industry watchers in awe of what Eastwood can still pull off at 86 years of age. But in truth, many are looking to another Warner Bros. title, Ben Affleck’s “Live By Night,” which seems primed for an Oscar qualifying run even if the studio isn’t ready to announce one just yet. But they’re giving “Sully” its moment in the sun as a result, and Tom Hanks and company are soaking it up.

Going back to Toronto’s audience prize, another contender for that is Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” Like “Sully,” the film began its journey in Telluride and was, in the view of Variety chief film critic Peter Debruge, the story of that festival. A moving portrait of a young man’s path through a troubled home life, his budding homosexuality and, above all, search for a connection in life, it’s a strong prospect for indie distributor A24, which shot out of Telluride last year with “Room” in tow.

After premiering in Venice, Paramount dropped Denis Villeneuve’s latest, “Arrival,” in Telluride as well, where the fest paid tribute to star Amy Adams. A smart piece of science fiction that has captured the hearts of critics, it will no doubt be unique in the spectrum this season. But the narrative also unfolds in a way that might confuse some viewers and may hold its emotional payoff at arm’s length. Paramount also has a host of other plays this year, including “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Allied,” “Fences” and “Silence,” but for now, the studio has done a good job of giving “Arrival” its space outside of that fray.

On to Toronto, Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” popped up there after a Venice bow, and speaking of Amy Adams, it could be an even stronger play for the actress than “Arrival.” But many will be talking about Michael Shannon’s scene-stealing work, and a year after landing everything but an Oscar nomination for “99 Homes,” he ought to have a lot of residual goodwill built up.

Garth Davis’ “Lion” has been met with tears and standing ovations in Toronto, but questions swirl around whether the Weinstein Co. can lock it into the race. The distributor has been bleeding personnel throughout the summer, just as other films and campaigns have been staffing up for the onslaught ahead. But it seems like Harvey Weinstein always has an answer when his back is to the wall. Nicole Kidman is a supporting actress contender for the film, and eight years after “Slumdog Millionaire” put him on the map, Dev Patel could be in the conversation for best actor recognition — or at least some more leading man gigs going forward. If the film claims Toronto’s audience award next weekend, that will be the surest sign that this film is appealing broadly on the level necessary to contend for Oscars.

Speaking of broad, Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” — a Toronto premiere that actually sneaked in Comic-Con back in July — might be the most un-Oliver Stone Oliver Stone movie to come along in quite a while. A slick piece of entertainment with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eponymous former NSA contractor, it has been met with a decidedly mixed reaction from critics, but that’s not keeping people from wondering what kind of chops it might have in the race. Open Road is fresh off a big win for “Spotlight” last year, and has Ben Younger’s “Bleed for This” (which bowed in Telluride) in the quiver as well. Whether “Snowden” has the stamina to stick around will largely depend on what else the season has to offer.

There are other Toronto plays worth mentioning, like “Denial,” featuring best actress hopeful Rachel Wesiz, or “A Monster Calls,” which left many teary-eyed. But the biggest impact the festival could have on the race before concluding next weekend is in the acquisitions space.

It’s rare nowadays for a studio to head into the Toronto market and come out with a contender ready to stuff into the season, rather than holding it for the next year. “The Wrestler” and “Still Alice” are two examples, but they’re few and far between of late. The buzziest title this year is Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie,” which features a turn from Oscar winner Natalie Portman that could leap into the best actress race with the right strategy. Other films looking for a home, including “The Promise” with Christian Bale, “LBJ” with Woody Harrelson and “A United Kingdom” with David Oyelowo, lack the same luster.

UPDATE: And like that, Fox Searchlight Pictures has acquired “Jackie,” thrusting Portman and company into the race.

And then there’s the elephant in the room: Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation.” Fox Searchlight mostly maintained the “Birth” scheduling in Toronto, and Parker mostly avoided questions about the controversy surrounding him and, by extension, the film. It goes out into release next month and the story there will be told in box office receipts. If the film is rejected by audiences, then there isn’t much to build an Oscar campaign on. But in my conversations, I’m noticing many Academy voters are more concerned with the art than the artist. Some pundits seemed eager to call the film D.O.A., but it’s entirely possible the storm was weathered early enough. We’ll just have to see.

Like “Birth,” another major player this season, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” began its journey at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has resurfaced in Telluride and Toronto. Similarly, Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” kickstarted in Cannes and popped back up in Toronto.

From here, the New York Film Festival will add to the equation next month with films like Ava DuVernay’s “The 13th,” Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women.” A month later, AFI Fest will play host to Warren Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply” and a handful of other debuts. And then the films that opted out of the festival circuit, or otherwise weren’t ready to engage, will jump into the fray.

But it’s these early looks that can really fortify an Oscar trajectory. Just look at last year, when “Spotlight” had enough time to be the early frontrunner, lose its grip as other contenders came on strong, and circle back to claim the prize in the end. Perhaps that’s why Fox decided Toronto was a good place to show off some footage from Theodore Melfi’s upcoming film “Hidden Figures,” which still hasn’t officially been granted a 2016 release date, but no doubt will soon enough. You need to plant your flag early and leave yourself enough track to finish the race.

That is, until you don’t. These paradigms are always shifting. It may have been over a decade since a film (“Million Dollar Baby”) won best picture without being a known entity before November, but all it takes is one.

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