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Why This Year’s Cannes Lineup May Be Too Edgy for Oscar

For me, tweeting praise for a film at Cannes tends to elicit a two-tiered response from excited movie fans far away from the Croisette. First, quite understandably, come the general exclamations of euphoria and relief that a beloved director or star hasn’t dropped the ball. For days, my mentions will be full of vicarious celebration and can’t-wait-to-see-this buzz from devotees of Sofia Coppola (on wicked form with “The Beguiled”) and Robert Pattinson (hitting a career peak in “Good Time”), which is as it should be. At the same time, however, the good news is met with a more complicated query, usually worded along these lines: “Glad to hear it’s great! Oscar chances?”

As I wrote in my festival preview, Cannes is a festival of mixed fortunes for awards-season geeks: Though it occasionally mints a future titan like “The Artist” or “No Country for Old Men,” its programming is dominated by international art films by auteurs for whom an Oscar is the farthest thing from their minds. In this world, it’s the Palme d’Or, rather than a little gold man, that represents the apex of possible achievement. Now, two days before Cannes’ final prize-giving ceremony, the Palme speculation game is dominated by subtitled titles that are 99 percent certain not to end up in next year’s Best Picture roster — unless Academy members develop a sudden taste for, say, surreal Russian allegory or brittle Scandi art-scene satire.

Even when it comes to more accessible acclaimed English-language titles at Cannes, the answer to the “Oscar chances?” query is usually a benign “who knows?” or “too soon.” Pundits who confidently predict best picture nods based on Cannes reviews are burned more often than not — “Carol” and “Loving” have the scars to prove it. This year, however, even such nebulous prospects have been thin on the ground; the “Oscar chances?” query can usually be answered with a flat “no chance in hell.”

Which isn’t to say it’s an off year: For this critic, it’s been a thrilling festival for cinema, and the quietest one for Oscar buzz in the eight years I’ve been attending. In competition, I’ve been left exhilarated by the intricate procedural snapshot of French AIDS activism in Robin Campillo’s “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” the puckish, careering male-crisis comedy of Ruben Östlund’s “The Square,” the savage domestic horror of Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s hard, huge, hope-starved divorce nightmare “Loveless,” among others. These are major, muscular works that have prompted lively discussion and debate among critical and industry peers on the Croisette, yet how many Oscar nominations any of them will land has not been a topic of conversation.

Perhaps the only competition film to inspire even a light flurry of awards-season talk has been Todd Haynes’ whimsical children’s film “Wonderstruck.” Reviews haven’t been as uniformly ecstatic as those for Haynes’ “Carol” — sometimes critical consensus shifts in the months after Cannes, while American films can land differently at home than abroad — but it has been warmly regarded, while lavish craft contributions from the likes of composer Carter Burwell and costume designer Sandy Powell are positioning it as, at the very least, a below-the-line contender. (I’d say the same for the gorgeous pastel artistry of “The Beguiled,” if voters’ memories stretch back to its summer release.)

Conflicting assignments prevented me from seeing “Wonderstruck” myself, as they did for “Tangerine” director Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” — a unanimously adored breakout from the festival’s Directors’ Fortnight sidebar that, if some trusted colleagues are to be believed, could prove an indie sleeper in the “Beasts of the Southern Wild” mold. And under normal circumstances, Noah Baumbach’s cheerfully received human comedy “The Meyerowitz Stories” would be deemed enough of a success to push Baumbach and some of its stars (including Adam Sandler, a legitimate possibility for best actor at the festival) into the Oscar frame. But its new-model Netflix release throws that into doubt.

Of course, there’s also the expected handful of potential national submissions for the foreign-language Oscar, though even then, there isn’t an obvious frontrunner in the vein of “Son of Saul” or “Amour” among them. The latter’s director, Michael Haneke, has split critics with his spry, nasty social comedy “Happy End”; Austria may submit it on name value alone, but I’d be surprised if voters bit. Sweden could well plump for “The Square” if its English-language portions don’t exceed the Academy quota. If Zvyagintsev can once more bypass Russian selectors’ political bias, as he did with eventual Oscar nominee “Leviathan,” “Loveless” could make the grade. And France has unveiled a wealth of possible selections: the aforementioned “BPM”; Francois Ozon’s sleek, kinky “Amant Double”; Laurent Cantet’s tense, politically infused return to form “The Workshop,” a standout in this year’s quieter-than-usual Un Certain Regard program; and Claire Denis’ delightful, bittersweet romantic comedy “Let the Sunshine In,” among others.

And there the regular Oscar conversation stops — at least, so far as our longstanding understanding of the Academy goes. After all, the reigning Best Picture winner, “Moonlight,” is a film that in past years many of us would have assumed was way outside voters’ wheelhouse, both thematically and stylistically. Things are changing: concerted efforts to broaden the demographic diversity and internationalism of the Academy’s membership are arguably beginning to bear fruit.

With that in mind, perhaps distributors are now willing to test voters’ limits. Even major, Academy-friendly outfits have shown their riskier instincts in Cannes. Sony Pictures Classics made a bold move in acquiring another Directors’ Fortnight sensation, Chinese-American director Chloe Zhao’s exquisite docu-fiction “The Rider” — a moody character study set on the South Dakota rodeo circuit, drawn from the real lives of its ensemble. It’s the kind of title that would usually be picked up by a smaller boutique company, so I’m intrigued to see what Sony has in mind.

But it’s A24 — the distributor that, with “Moonlight,” just rewrote the Oscar rulebook — that has come to Cannes with the gutsiest slate. John Cameron Mitchell’s jaunty comedy “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” may have tanked with critics, but their other three titles hit hard: the aforementioned “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” the Safdie Brothers’ electric heist thriller “Good Time” and Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s rough, tough, astounding Muay Thai prison drama “A Prayer Before Dawn.” If there’s a diagrammatic opposite of so-called Oscar bait, these three excellent films jointly constitute it. Sauvaire’s punishing, pummeling film, which resembles the furious spawn of “Midnight Express” and “Only God Forgives,” is primarily destined for midnight-movie slots. The Safdies’ genre head-rush is a little more mainstream, with a terrific turn from Robert Pattinson to draw eyeballs, but remains a hard-boiled gutter trip. This is the cool, on-edge fare on which A24’s reputation was built — but not the type of cinema that saw them cross over into the major players’ pool.

But what of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” you ask? What indeed. A tar-black suburban twist on Greek tragedy starring Colin Farrell and the currently ubiquitous Nicole Kidman, this second English-language outing from Greece’s premier provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos had been earmarked sight-unseen by Oscar-watchers as one to keep an eye on. After all, A24 steered Lanthimos’ wildly eccentric comedy “The Lobster” to an against-the-odds screenplay nomination earlier this year, and their scheduled early-November release date for “Deer” suggested they might have their eye on bigger prizes this year.

All this makes sense on paper. But after leaving the film’s first Cannes screening in a shaken daze as gauche booing echoed around the theater, it seemed an impossibility in practice. Tracing the destruction of a well-to-do Cincinnati family in surreal, breathtaking violent fashion, it’s graced with Kubrickian formal heft, an aggressive, despairing worldview and piercing performances from its leads — a film that makes “The Lobster” look as cute as Sebastian the crab. It is, I think, the best film I’ve seen in this year’s competition, and one I can foresee winning a prize from Pedro Almodovar’s jury.

But Academy members aren’t Cannes jurors, and I struggle to think of any precedent for a film this frostily nightmarish getting through to them. A24 must know this. Their positioning of the film smack-bang in the fall prestige window smacks of provocation, an extension of their desire to shift the parameters of an Oscar-season picture can be. To borrow the words of Beyonce, they didn’t come to Cannes to play.

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