Venice Joins Oscar Race With ‘Philomena,’ ‘Gravity’

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in Stephen Frears' 'Philomena,' pictured above

Four days ago, the 2013 Oscar race was mostly a matter of crossed fingers and speculation, but things have quickly shifted into high gear. The Venice Film Fest has served up two home runs in its first few days: Warner Bros.’ “Gravity” and the Weinstein Co.’s “Philomena.”

Add in a few other strong possibilities here — including Sony Pictures Classics’ “Kill Your Darlings,” starring an outstanding Daniel Radcliffe, and “Tracks,” the John Curran-Mia Wasikowska drama — plus Telluride’s enthusiastic reception for Fox Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave” and WB-Alcon’s “Prisoners,” and it’s already shaping up to be a hot year.

Gravity” was stirring up buzz here in Venice even before it opened the fest Aug. 28, but it’s still generating talk, even after many other films have opened and would theoretically suck up some of the “Gravity” energy. And “Philomena” got an enthusiastic reception at Saturday’s press screenings.

Both films seem likely contenders in multiple categories. The first is a dazzling showpiece for its director and below-the-line workers, while the latter is a great vehicle for Judi Dench. But as the season progresses, strategists will need to remind voters that these films are much more than that.

Technically, “Gravity” is a groundbreaker, as much as “Avatar,” “Hugo” and “Life of Pi.” Like those pics, it’s garnering praise for the director, in this case Alfonso Cuaron. But even more than the earlier 3D trio, this one in inspiring awards talk for its script (by Cuaron and his son Jonas Cuaron) and the acting. There is bravura work by Sandra Bullock, at a level not usually seen in “tech movies,” and George Clooney, even with limited screen time, proves that nobody can play certain roles as well as he can. (Perverse question: It’s got a small cast, but everybody does great work, so would SAG voters consider this for an ensemble award? Just asking…)

After two morning screenings for the media, “Philomena” had an SRO press conference, with journos stumbling over themselves to praise the film as they asked silly questions. One reporter asked director Stephen Frears if he thought this film could repeat the path of his “The Queen,” which bowed at Venice and went on to Oscar glory. He gave a rumpled, deadpan stare and said simply “I’ve no idea.” Steve Coogan, best known as a comic actor, not only was a producer and writer of the film, onscreen he holds his own with Dench (no small feat).

A lot can happen between now and March 2, but the crystal ball looks very good for both film at this point.

Daniel Radcliffe is the main attraction in “Kill Your Darlings,” proving again that he’s not just a star, but a real actor. Below the line here is also impressive, re-creating the world of young Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. It might be a challenge to market, but the SPC gang love good challenges.

And the big question with “Tracks” is its release date. So far, the film doesn’t have a U.S. distrib. But since it’s here, in Telluride and Toronto, a domestic buy seems imminent. The only other question is whether it will be released this year or next.

On the fall fest circuit, Venice is not as kudos-centric as Telluride or Toronto. But given the strong showings here and in Telluride, and a jaw-dropping lineup for Toronto, this is shaping up as an exciting, and crowded, year.

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