Friday, April 19, 2024

The Big 2023 Awards Season Takeaways From Venice, Telluride & TIFF

Pending new negotiations between studios and the WGA, there’s still a better than zero percent chance most of the films at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto these last few weeks will be kept from general audiences until 2024. But on the off chance a further altered awards season is still avoidable, and these festival hits all stay in 2023, these last few weeks have already offered big lessons about how the rest of the season can and perhaps will go.

Here are the biggest things we learned from the fall festival season, with New York still pending for extra credit of its own.

No “Bardo” Or “The Son” Diasterous Collapses
Last year’s fall festivals were defined by their high-profile collapses as much as their hits. As such, it was easy to suspect one or two projected contenders would fall apart entirely with festival audiences, like “Bardo,” “The Son,” and to a lesser extent, “Blonde” and “Empire of Light” did a year ago. Yet since most of the early Oscar favorites premiered before the festivals, like “Oppenheimer,” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Past Lives,” “Anatomy of a Fall,” and “Barbie,” the fall lineups had fewer high-profile world premieres than usual anyway.

But this year, the premieres with high Best Picture hopes all did what they needed to do and more, like “The Holdovers,” “Maestro,” and Venice Golden Lion winner “Poor Things.” And even though films like “Ferrari” and “Saltburn” fell down the Best Picture charts after their premieres, it wasn’t because of savage “The Son” or “Blonde” like review scores at all. In fact, there were barely any widely panned major fall fest premieres, and those that did have loudly adverse reactions like “Next Goal Wins,” “Nyad,” and “Pain Hustlers” weren’t high up on early Best Picture projections to start with.

Maybe last year really was an anomaly in its major fall festival bombs, or perhaps it doesn’t matter since the early-season films have a stranglehold on the race anyway. Yet either way, festival audiences had much more to collectively rave about – or less to be bitterly disappointed about – than they did 12 months ago.

Searchlight Is Back With A Vengeance
Searchlight Pictures didn’t exactly go away from the Oscars, yet last year was ultimately their worst Oscar season in a long time – if only because it was the first time since 2016 that it didn’t win a single trophy. But that was credited more to the once-in-a-generation sweep of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” than the failures of “The Banshees of Inisherin.” Either way, it left the most prolific Oscar-winning studio of the post-Weinstein era with a lot to prove.

That seems precisely what Searchlight is poised to do, with perhaps the two most highly rated movies of the fall festival lineup. While its top Oscar season priority is now clearly “Poor Things,” it also has a potential second Best Picture nominee in “All of Us Strangers” after its powerful raves at Telluride. If they both gather up more critical champions in New York before their wider releases in December, Searchlight could snatch up two Best Picture nominees for the first time since 2017.

Of course, that all depends on whether Searchlight even releases them in 2023, to begin with – a decision Disney could spare it from by just getting strikes settled well before the holidays. Even if that happens, “All of Us Strangers” would still have a much harder road ahead on the Best Picture bubble, unlike Searchlight’s more secure contender – and best hope to continue its pattern of Best Picture victories every three years.

The “Stones” Are The Actress Frontrunners
Thanks to “Poor Things,” we now officially have a Best Actress frontrunner – and one with half the last name of the other presumed leader in an Actress category.

Since Cannes, Lily Gladstone has been the unanimous Best Supporting Actress favorite for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” And now, since Venice, another Stone – in this case, Emma Stone – has become the near-unanimous leader in the Lead Actress field. Though, unlike Gladstone, Stone is used to being an Actress Oscar leader after a splashy festival premiere, as she was for “La La Land” after Venice seven years ago.

But at this time last year, Cate Blanchett was the past winner, seemingly inevitable for yet another Best Actress Oscar, after her own major Venice premiere for “TAR.” And at this time last year, Best Supporting Actress seemed like nothing more than a coronation for its unanimous leader then too, in that case, Michelle Williams for “The Fabelmans.” Yet a month later, when Williams was bumped up to Lead, and when we knew that Michelle Yeoh would be neck and neck with Blanchett all year, two seemingly suspense-free Actress races got far tighter real quick – something to remember for October and beyond this season.

The Male Acting Categories Are Tightening Up
When the festivals started, the near-unanimous consensus lineup for Best Actor consisted of Cillian Murphy, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bradley Cooper, Colman Domingo, and Paul Giamatti. And once Cooper’s “Maestro,” Domingo’s “Rustin,” and Giamatti’s “The Holdovers” premiered, little about the raves for their performances suggested they would fall off too far.

As for Best Supporting Actor, three spots have been locked up for Robert Downey Jr., Robert De Niro, and Ryan Gosling pretty much ever since July. And once Mark Ruffalo received his own rave reviews for “Poor Things,” it became clear that every other supporting actor is now fighting for just one available spot. In fact, a case can be made that it is the only spot in a male category unclaimed right now.

Then again, between “Rustin” getting limited raves beyond Domingo, Giamatti having been snubbed for an Alexander Payne film before, and DiCaprio having been overlooked for a Martin Scorsese frontrunner before, maybe Best Actor still has some wiggle room ahead of it. In addition, the likes of “American Fiction’s” Jeffrey Wright, “All of Us Strangers'” Andrew Scott, “One Life’s” Anthony Hopkins, and “Saltburn’s” Barry Keoghan emerged from the fests to be next in line, with Joaquin Phoenix in “Napoleon” still waiting on deck.

Beyond Emma Stone, Best Actress Is A Free For All
Any Best Actor chaos pales to the madness lying ahead in Best Actress, where Stone is seemingly the only secure nominee in a crowded field. Beyond that, as many as eight other actresses, if not more, have cases to join her, though it wouldn’t be surprising for any to miss completely.

The closest things to locks besides Stone may be Sandra Huller for “Anatomy of a Fall” and Carey Mulligan for “Maestro,” though they could look shakier if their movies start to slip down the Best Picture ranks. Greta Lee has been a critical favorite for “Past Lives” since Sundance, yet fears of that movie being forgotten or overlooked by Academy voters have grown as the months go by. Venice put “Priscilla’s” Cailee Spaeny squarely into the race with a surprise Volpi Cup victory. However, will Academy voters shoo her in as easily as they did Austin Butler for last year’s Elvis movie?

Past winner Natalie Portman and long considered overdue Annette Bening join Mulligan as Netflix’s big Best Actress hopes, but Bening’s already divisive “Nyad” and Portman’s blackly comedic “May December” might not wind up making the best cases for them. And time will tell if “Barbie’s” mega-hit status is enough to push Margot Robbie into a nomination or if billions in box office won’t be sufficient like it ultimately wasn’t for Tom Cruise last year.

Right now, the whole race is in a holding pattern, waiting for “The Color Purple” and Fantasia Barrino to possibly upend it on Christmas. Unfortunately, releasing that film on Christmas – which would mean settling the strikes by Christmas – may still be the last thing WB CEO David Zaslav wants to be forced to do.

“The Holdovers” Isn’t The Awards Season Villain…Yet
With a 95% Tomatometer score, an 8.4 avg, and an 82 on Metacritic, “The Holdovers” doesn’t sound like a typical Film Twitter award season villain – but neither did “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” or “Belfast” or “The Fabelmans” when they were deemed frontrunners.

If “The Holdovers” had won the TIFF People’s Choice award as it was favored to do, it would have automatically leaped into the top 3 or 4 for Best Picture as the “meat and potatoes” alternative to more experimental online approved darlings like “Oppenheimer,” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Poor Things” and “Barbie” – and then the arguments over it would have stretched out all season.

But as merely the first runner-up, “The Holdovers” is back to being a near-certain Best Picture nominee yet not a threat to win, with box office results and further reviews pending. As such, once the knives inevitably come out for it, they won’t be as sharp as they could have been – unless it becomes a real threat to win something. Since it is still a favorite in Best Original Screenplay, against what may be up to three or four female nominees from “Barbie,” “Past Lives,” “Anatomy of a Fall,” and maybe even “Saltburn,” its backlash may be contained.

Nonetheless, every Oscar season still needs a sanctioned “villain.” If that isn’t “The Holdovers,” then “Maestro” may leap back into frontrunner status after already sparking vociferous backlash over its prosthetics. Even if that fades, Bradley Cooper and/or Mulligan becoming the next Al Pacino and Jamie Lee Curtis – in winning acting Oscars mainly for being overdue – may spark enough rants to fill the gap.

Usually, the TIFF winner becomes enough of a villain on its own, though it seems the surprise winner “American Fiction” doesn’t fit the bill of a “Green Book,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Belfast” or “The Fabelmans.” Then again, now that it isn’t under the radar anymore, the arguments over its racial satire and deliberate stereotypes may have only just begun – to say nothing of backlash, whether it’s from Black or white audiences.

“Poor Things” Is The Academy’s First Post “Everything Everywhere All at Once” Test Case
For at least the rest of the decade, the best case for every outsider at the Oscars will be if “Everything Everywhere All at Once” could sweep – despite its multiverses and butt plugs – no film is too weird for Oscar voters anymore. Now, after Venice, we know “Poor Things” will be the first film to test that theory seriously.

Before “Everything Everywhere All at Once” – and surely before “Parasite” and “The Shape of Water” too – it would be a stretch to think the Academy could choose a fantastical, feminist, Yorgos Lanthimos-directed fever dream with a headline-making amount of sex and nudity as the Best Picture winner. Nonetheless, “Poor Things” is now considered the fall festival film with the best chance – if not the only one with an opportunity – to defeat both “Oppenheimer” and “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Thanks to “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” no seemingly way too out there film can be written off automatically anymore. Yet despite the Academy’s newfound history of expanding its tastes, there has been a limit to how far they’ll go two years running.

After the wild genre-bender “The Shape of Water” won, voters retreated to the far more conventional “Green Book” the very next year. Then, when the wild genre-bender “Parasite” won the year after that, voters dipped their toes back in calmer waters with the more grounded “Nomadland” and then “CODA.” By this pattern, voters should not be expected to go from the wild genre-bender “Everything Everywhere All at Once” to an even more colorful, even more graphic and sexualized, and even more feminist movie like “Poor Things” the very next year.

But if they do, it may signal a bigger voter seachange than the others since 2016. And if it becomes only the second fall fest premiere to win Best Picture since 2018 – and the first Best Picture winner to come from a typical fall fest season since “Green Book” – “Poor Things” will define the 2023 fall festivals more than it already has.

What were your big takeaways from Venice, Telluride and TIFF this year for the Oscar race? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account and check out our latest Oscar predictions here.

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