Thursday, February 29, 2024

Where The Awards Season Stands After The 2023 Venice Film Festival

The 80th Venice International Film Festival has boarded an elegant gondola and rowed off into the sunset, and with it, the last major awards opportunity (with the exception of Toronto’s Audience Award) before the critic group blitz. Although the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike threatened to cast an unavoidable pall over the proceedings, things went relatively smoothly, give or take the unfortunate presence of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Film festivals in general – and Venice in particular – have become overly glitzy, star-studded affairs in recent years, and while it’s a travesty that the AMPTP won’t give actors and writers the money and security they richly deserve, it was nice to have most of the attention focused on the cinema and not the red carpet.

Prognosticating the Oscars based on the Venice Awards is a risky endeavor; a festival jury, after all, is a very different beast from a wider voting body like the Academy, and there is never one-to-one overlap in their taste (As it should be, of course: film festivals are more interesting when they’re not trying to appeal to Oscar voters). But of the major European film festivals, Venice has had the most crossover, and a particularly strong – or a particularly weak – showing at the Lido can cause distributors to reconsider their award-season priorities. It’s worth taking a look around and seeing what has and hasn’t changed after Saturday.

“Poor Things” Strikes It Rich
The opinions of a film festival audience do not necessarily overlap with the jury – recall Cannes in 2016, where jury president George Miller hated the raved-about “Toni Erdmann” and refused to give it a single award – but that was clearly not the case today. “Poor Things,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ “unique and gleefully macabre Victorian-era parable” about a horny Frankenstein woman played by Emma Stone, was received with unanimous praise and tipped as an early favorite for the Golden Lion, and it seemed Damien Chazelle and co. heartily agreed. It’s Lanthimos’ third major prize at Venice, following his Golden Osella for the screenplay of 2011’s “Alps” and his Grand Jury Prize for 2018’s “The Favourite.”

What does this mean for March or whenever the AMPTP decides to buck up and pay the talent what they’re worth? Recall “The Shape of Water:” a Golden Lion-winning fantasy by a respected international auteur, distributed by Searchlight, that won big at the Oscars despite worries that it was too out there for the Academy. If a movie about Sally Hawkins shtupping the Creature from the Black Lagoon can win Best Picture, there’s no reason why “Poor Things” can’t. With “Magazine Dreams” dead in the water and the buzz for “Next Goal Wins” considerably more muted than “Jojo Rabbit’s” ever was, “Poor Things” can comfortably slot alongside “All Of Us Strangers” on Searchlight’s priority list. It’s far too early to say that it’s the one to beat – “Oppenheimer” still looms large, to say nothing of “Killers of the Flower Moon” – but it’s undeniably in the top five.

How Venice Affects The International Line-Up (And How It Doesn’t)
The one-film selection model for the Best International Feature award at the Oscars is outdated and limiting: it kneecaps the chances of every other film from a given country. It injects petty politics into a process that should be exclusively focused on merit. The fact that Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “simple but engrossing” Grand Jury Prize winner, “Evil Does Not Exist,” will not represent Japan at the Oscars is understandable, as its release date renders it ineligible. But consider “Green Border,” Agnieszka Holland’s searing drama about desperate refugees and their perilous journey across the Polish border, which won the Special Jury Prize and would more than deserve international recognition. However, “Green Border” has already attracted intense controversy in Poland, with the Minister of Justice for the incumbent right-wing government comparing Holland’s film to Nazi propaganda; suffice it to say, her film is not likely to be selected.

Nor will Pablo Larraín’s “El Conde,” which won the Golden Osella for Best Screenplay. Although his films have been selected by the Consejo de Arte four times, with 2012’s “No” receiving an Oscar nomination, Larraín’s films are typically received more coolly in his home country than abroad. It’s easy to understand why the Consejo de Arte might balk at a horror-comedy that depicts brutal military dictator Augusto Pinochet as an immortal fascist vampire. Still, directors have to battle enough gatekeepers already (Chile’s selection, incidentally, is Felipe Gálvez Haberle’s “The Settlers”). As for what could still be selected from the Venice official competition, there’s “Io capitano,” Matteo Garrone’s Silver Lion-winning tear-jerker, which could be in play for Italy, as well as Nikolaj Arcel’s “The Promised Land,” which has been shortlisted by Denmark’s selection committee.

Spaeny Makes A Splash
As soon as the embargo dropped for Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla,” Cailee Spaeny became the immediate favorite for the Marcello Mastroianni Award, an acting prize for young emerging talents. But the jury did her one better and gave the “The Craft: Legacy” and “Mare of Easttown” star the Volpi Cup, a prize usually given to more established actors (Seydou Sarr ended up winning the Mastroianni Award for “Io Capitano”). Giving Spaeny the Volpi Cup is a massive vote of confidence, and most will agree that it’s a richly deserved honor for her “truly captivating” performance as Priscilla Presley.

Does this make her a Best Actress frontrunner? It sure doesn’t hurt. There may not be a one-to-one correspondence between the Volpi Cup and the Oscars, but having one under the belt can add rocket fuel to an awards campaign: just look at Vanessa Kirby for “Pieces of a Woman” or Penelope Cruz for “Parallel Mothers” (Or indeed, Emma Stone, whose journey to her “La La Land” Oscar started with a Volpi; were “Poor Things” eligible for other awards aside from the Golden Lion, she could have easily won her second). Considering the fact that A24 is showing early signs of confidence in “Priscilla” and has moved the release date to November 3rd, we may very well see Spaeny in the mix.

Where Does “Maestro” Go From Here?
One film conspicuous in its absence at Saturday’s awards ceremony was “Maestro,” Bradley Cooper’s hotly anticipated film about Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre. For the most part, it was well-received: Cooper received praise for his direction and performance as Bernstein, and even critics who were lukewarm about the film applauded Carey Mulligan’s turn as Felicia. But the jury gave it nothing: not the Golden Lion, Silver Lion, or Volpis for Cooper or Mulligan. In fairness, neither Cooper nor Mulligan were in attendance, to begin with, due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, but it’s doubtful that that factored into the decision-making process; after all, they wouldn’t be the first people to win awards in absentia.

If “Maestro” won a major prize at Venice, it would undoubtedly be the start of a full-court press from the Netflix award campaigners: the film has long been seen as a potential awards juggernaut, and it will almost certainly stay in the conversation with or without a trophy from the Lido. But it’s worth wondering if “Maestro” is quite as ironclad as it first appeared. Some may argue that the film’s support base will be more populist than the typical Venice jury member, but is that necessarily the case? Whatever else one wants to say about “Maestro,” it doesn’t lack ambition: its directorial flourishes and highbrow subject matter suggests that it’s not content to be a cynical FYC package like “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” It is absolutely aiming to impress the kind of voters who balk at obvious Oscar bait (note the press material’s avoidance of the word “biopic”). It certainly impressed some of them, but while it received a warm audience reception, the raves were hardly unanimous. People seem to like it – but will they like it enough?

What are your thoughts on the winners from the Venice Film Festival? Do you think any of them will translate towards an Oscar nomination or win? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out our latest Oscar predictions here.

You can follow Joe and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @HoeffnerJoe

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