With Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” set for an Aug. 29 opening-night bow at the Venice Film Festival, this year’s film awards season is ready for liftoff. The 75th annual Biennale will kick off months of festival premieres after studios and filmmakers spent the summer jockeying for position, zeroing in on the right strategy for launching their Oscar hopefuls.
Films such as “Gravity,” “Birdman,” “Spotlight” and “La La Land” began their journeys in Venice, as did last year’s best picture victor, “The Shape of Water.” This year, the Lido will again host an early look at much of the season’s landscape.
Chief among the world premieres might be Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” with Lady Gaga, the third remake of William A. Wellman’s 1937 classic. Curiously, though, the film will not be screening in competition. And Warner Bros. has opted out of a presence for the pic at the Colorado-staged Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend, aiming its second dip instead at Toronto. (Side note: This story of a woman’s fame outshining the man who discovered her has seen somewhat trying times at the Oscars over the years, with just three prizes to show from the previous three versions. Only one, Wellman’s original, received a best picture nomination.)
Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” one of three Netflix competition titles in Venice, could draw the most hosannas. A neorealist, black-and-white rendering of the filmmaker’s 1970s childhood experience growing up in Mexico City, it’s one of the year’s most anticipated players. Among other things, Netflix will be gunning for supporting actress recognition for Mexican star Marina de Tavira, but critics and observers alike will be keen to see how Cuarón follows up 2013’s “Gravity,” which netted seven Oscars including best director.
The Coen brothers’ darkly comedic western “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” also from Netflix, will no doubt be a curiosity, given that it was initially announced as a television series that ultimately took the form of an anthology film. Yet in terms of awards launches, the Coens are hit-and-miss with festivals. “Burn After Reading” unspooled in Venice 10 years ago, while “Inside Llewyn Davis” transitioned from Cannes to Telluride, but neither made much of an Oscar dent. Best picture winner “No Country for Old Men,” however, bowed in Cannes before screening at the Toronto and New York fests. This one boasts a colorful cast of supporting players that could tickle the Academy acting branch’s fancy.
Other Venice films to keep an eye on include Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” with Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh; Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo,” centered on the 1819 massacre in Manchester, England, over parliamentary reform; another western, Jacques Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers,” featuring one of John C. Reilly’s finest performances; Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” a period-piece follow-up to “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz; and Paul Greengrass’ “22 July,” about the 2011 Norway terrorist attacks and, more importantly, their aftermath.
Just as Venice gets under way, Telluride will rev its engines in the Rocky Mountains for a four-day sprint. Programmers traditionally keep the lineup secret until the eve of the fest, but as usual, announcement language associated with films playing at other festivals suggests they’ll premiere in Telluride.
Three will come from Fox Searchlight: “The Favourite,” David Lowery’s “The Old Man & the Gun” with Robert Redford, and Marielle Heller’s Lee Israel biopic “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” with Melissa McCarthy. Other expected bows include Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner,” with Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart during the politician’s failed 1988 presidential nomination bid; Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer,” featuring a heavily buzzed lead performance from Nicole Kidman; and Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased,” also starring Kidman, with Lucas Hedges as a young man forced into gay conversion therapy. (Hedges has a big year ahead with this and two Toronto bows, Jonah Hill’s “Mid90s” and his father’s “Ben is Back,” with Julia Roberts.)
Telluride has become a crucial stop on the festival tour. The motion picture Academy throws an annual party there, and countless Oscar voters flood the event. Meanwhile, nine of the last 10 best picture winners have screened there, five of them world premieres — noteworthy for a festival that has room for roughly only 30 titles.
Many of these and more will drop at the Toronto Film Festival, still a significant launch pad with a huge lineup. Unexpectedly, Barry Jenkins will debut his “Moonlight” follow-up, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” in Toronto rather than Telluride, where he is a favored son after years of short-films programming. That might be a strategic decision, though, to reduce the pressure and avoid screening exclusively to the awards-chattering class (ahem). Nevertheless, performers to keep an eye on include Kiki Layne, Stephan James and Regina King.
Toronto world premieres will otherwise include Felix Van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy” with Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, based on a pair of memoirs chronicling a family coping with addiction; Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book,” starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in what promises to be the feel-good race-relations drama of the season; and Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” a commercial play from Fox with Viola Davis front and center.
Finally, there’s New York, which not long ago was establishing itself as a viable premiere platform for serious best picture contenders like “Life of Pi,” “Captain Phillips” and “Her.” But recent selections, like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “The Walk” and “Wonder Wheel,” have veered off course. This year, the event’s three prime slots — opening (“The Favourite”), centerpiece (“Roma”) and closing (“At Eternity’s Gate”) — went to films that will have already been seen and assessed elsewhere by the time they get to Manhattan.
Other festivals, still, will get in on the action, hoping to attract films and talent to their bubbles of Academy voters. Mill Valley, for instance, has staked a piece of October real estate for showcasing players. This year’s event will feature a conversation between “Wildlife” director Paul Dano and star Carey Mulligan, a potential lead actress naominee. Also in October, the London fest will open with “Widows” and close with the world premiere of “Stan & Ollie,” with Reilly and Steve Coogan as famed tandem Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. San Francisco, meanwhile, initiated an early-December “awards night” last year to precede its April festival (North America’s longest-running) with honors for Kate Winslet, Kathryn Bigelow and “The Big Sick” scribes Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. This year that event will fall on Dec. 3, with honorees to be announced.
Many more, from the Hamptons to Savannah to Rome and the L.A.-based AFI Fest will add to the mix with their own programming in due time. At some point, however, the dust will settle and the season’s cream will rise, as it always does.
So take a deep breath. This is the quiet before the storm.