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Oscars: ‘Florida Project,’ ‘Lady Bird’ Stand Out From Reigning Champ A24’s Slate

Reigning best picture champ A24 is hitting the festival circuit hard this month. Having already world-premiered new films in Venice (Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete,” Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s “Woodshock”) and Telluride (Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”), the New York-based distributor heads to Toronto now with five — count ’em — five movies to showcase in four days.

The Florida Project,” from “Tangerine” director Sean Baker, lands once again Sunday after first unspooling at the Cannes Film Festival four months ago. Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” will also resurface following a Cannes bow, while James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” — about the making of Tommy Wiseau’s cult-favorite “The Room” — will play in the Midnight Madness sidebar after first screening as a work in progress at the South by Southwest festival in March. “Lean on Pete” (expected to be a 2018 release) and “Lady Bird” will transition to Toronto as special presentations as well. “Woodshock” heads out into release on Sept. 22.

It’s as eclectic a slate as you would expect from a company that has turned films like “Ex Machina,” “Room” (Lenny Abrahamson’s film, not Wiseau’s), “The Lobster,” and, of course, “Moonlight,” into unlikely Oscar success stories. And the devil-may-care attitude about the circuit emanating out of A24 is a refreshing change of pace from some of the sweatier campaigns that manifest this time of year; they’re happy to see what happens and welcome the happy surprises, just like last time.

There will be more to write about this slate in due time, but for the moment, Baker and Gerwig’s films appear to have the biggest Oscars headwind.

“Lady Bird,” perhaps my favorite film from the Telluride lineup, is a gem. It finds Gerwig confidently telling a personal story, drawing compelling performances out of both Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. Even fleeting moments with Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”) and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts (also in “The Lovers,” another A24 film this year) register deeply.

Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Men”) — a notable purveyor of original cinematic voices, from Gerwig to Wes Anderson to Noah Baumbach — will no doubt be passionately pushing the film behind the scenes. Nominations for best picture, director, actress, supporting actress, and original screenplay are absolutely on the table, while one hopes the film’s boldly clipped and smartly calibrated editing will find a few champions.

The Florida Project,” meanwhile, is guaranteed to capture audiences’ hearts. It may even be a threat for Toronto’s People’s Choice Award, which frequently goes to films that land best picture nominations (like A24’s own “Room”). Much of the attention out of Cannes was on actor Willem Dafoe, and no question, as an Orlando motel manager and father figure of sorts to some of its residents, he delivers the kind of anchor performance you need in a freewheeling movie like this. But I can’t help but wonder whether A24 can build a wave of lead actress support behind 6-year-old Brooklynn Prince, who plays a precocious youngster oblivious to some of life’s harsher realities, though perhaps too familiar with others. It’s a performance as heartwarming as it is, ultimately, heartbreaking.

When Fox Searchlight nabbed Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, few questioned whether the studio could take young Quvenzhane Wallis all the way to a nomination. She was such a force of nature, and it was such a fierce portrait in a film that obviously found its mark. Prince is equally stunning, even if — like Zeitlin and “Beasts” — plenty of credit is owed to a director working so wonderfully with a child actor and capturing the right moments … but certainly not all the credit.

Also bearing more than a mention is Bria Vinaite, a first-time actor who plays Prince’s mother, shouldering responsibilities that sometimes get the better of her. She deserves supporting consideration, and as I’ve written before, the ensemble performance is so well-wrought you have to figure the Screen Actors Guild’s nominating committee will take notice. Ditto “Lady Bird.”

(Fingers crossed the whole “Florida Project” team can make it up to Toronto for the fest. Florida air travel has been shut down with Hurricane Irma bearing down, and last I checked, some of the cast was planning to drive out of the state in order to catch a flight.)

And those are only two pieces of the A24 puzzle this year. Who knows how well Lanthimos’ latest esoterica could land with an increasingly internationalized Academy, or how much Franco’s look at a filmmaker’s passion will resonate with an organization of artists. David Lowery’s towering “A Ghost Story” will probably have to make do with Spirit and/or Gotham Awards recognition at best, but it and films like “It Comes at Night,” also at A24, remain some of the year’s very best regardless.

It’s an awesome slate. Because of course it is.

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