Telluride’s Women Take Charge as Oscar Race Takes Shape

Telluride's Women Take Charge as Oscar Race Takes ShapeEntertainment

As the Academy pushes for gender and racial diversity among its voting ranks, many have called for greater representation of women in front of and behind the camera. It’s fitting, then, that the tides of change have begun their swell at Telluride, particularly as strong female-focused titles storm the conversation out of the awards-positioning festival.

From directors (First They Killed My Father‘s Angelina Jolie, Lady Bird‘s Greta Gerwig, Battle of the Sexes co-director Valerie Faris, Faces Places‘ Agnes Varda) to stories primarily driven by strong female performances (The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, A Fantastic Woman, Battle of the Sexes, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool), women have made headway with critics at the annual Colorado-based event, earning reviews that are strong enough to carry them on to the next round of vetting at TIFF and the NYFF.

Of course, critical reaction at the festivals is only the first step in a many-tiered climb to Oscar glory, but making the grade with film journalists at this stage is key to laying the foundation for a successful award bid down the line. Reviews can make or break a presumably infallible contender at any stage of the game, and female actor-directors seem to be particularly vulnerable when they’re in the mix (Jolie’s own Unbroken was, on paper, the perfect contender, though it was derailed after lackluster reviews greeted it back in 2014). Though the Academy made great strides last year in anointing Moonlight, a queer-focused film with a predominantly black cast, as the best picture of 2016, a woman-led film hasn’t won Best Picture at the Oscars since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby. Despite featuring all men in its primary cast, the Kathryn Bigelow-directed The Hurt Locker did, however, win Best Picture at the 2010 ceremony.

With similar Oscar-hyping festivals just around the corner, that could change as the season progresses. Here’s a look at how Telluride and Venice have impacted potential Oscar contenders in the award race thus far.

The Shape of Water

Clocking in at an astonishing 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 8.8/10 from 20 reviews, Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy romance has made great strides with critics out of Venice, where it world-premiered last week. Telluride attendees carried the wave of anticipation across the pond over Labor Day weekend, calling the fantasy romance a return to form for the auteur, who’s had decently received films in recent years (Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak). However this “weird and wonderful” film, as EW’s Chris Nashawaty called it, about a mute woman who bonds with an aquatic creature has critics likening the work to del Toro’s last bonafide masterpiece, 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which earned three Oscars and a trio of additional nominations one decade ago.

The film is propelled by a well-received lead performance from Blue Jasmine Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins, who could find herself at the center of her first role with serious traction in the lead actress race since 2008, when Happy-Go-Lucky seemed destined to land the British performer her first Academy notice, which ultimately never materialized.

As is typical with del Toro’s work, the film’s production design and visual effects have also been singled out as top-notch, so even if the film can’t translate its positive reviews into Best Picture votes, it likely has a score of technical nods coming its way. Supporting actress Octavia Spencer, who last season became the first black Oscar-winning actress to receive a follow-up nomination, shouldn’t be counted out of the race, either – she could be taken along for the ride if the film nabs multiple nominations.

Darkest Hour

Long overdue for an Academy Award of his own, Gary Oldman might have finally found his prize winner in Joe Wright’s Winston Churchill bio-drama, which follows the iconic leader during his early tenure as Prime Minister, caught between riling his country to stand up against fascist forces or draft a peace agreement with Nazi Germany.

Telluride reviews have unanimously praised Oldman’s work in the lead role, calling him the clear-cut Best Actor frontrunner at this early point in the race. With a legacy narrative fueling his chances (he’s racked up nearly 100 credits across his 35-year career in movies), Oldman is a relatively unsung hero of quality cinema due for his day in the gilded sun. When it comes to men, Oscar voters have traditionally favored actors playing characters adapted from real-life figures; since 2013, three Best Actor Oscar contenders have debuted at Telluride — Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, and Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs.

The industry has come down with Churchill fever as of late, too, with everyone from John Lithgow (The Crown) to Brian Cox (Churchill) taking a stab at it. But it’s perhaps the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk that Darkest Hour can piggyback off most tangibly here, as that film ($180 million at the domestic box office and counting) was largely referenced in critics’ Telluride reviews, and has inspired resurged interest in the impact of the British leader.

Many critics have also trained on Dario Marianelli’s score and Wright’s direction as standouts in the film. Despite the Academy inviting diverse classes of 1,779 new members in the last few years, the group’s Anglophilia still shows, and Darkest Hour seems like the perfect crossover hit to scratch the itch of traditional voters while boasting enough directorial and performative flair to win over new members (particularly members of the acting branch, the Academy’s largest) as well.

Battle of the Sexes

As suggested by its September release date, Battle of the Sexes appeared to be perhaps a light jaunt back in time to one of the biggest pop cultural/sports crossover moments in history, when tennis pros Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs squared off against each other as the world watched back in 1973. Telluride critics have indicated the film is poised to reap more than just commercial benefits, however, as Stone has garnered speculation that she’ll receive her first post-Oscar victory nod in the months ahead.

The film’s treatment of King’s life has been hailed as a timely reflection on feminism and equality, especially following an election year that saw Hillary Clinton become the first female presidential nominee of a major political party. For its themes’ relevance to culture today, prominent awards prognosticator Sasha Stone currently has the film at the top of her Best Picture predictions list. “It’s a sensitive story about the internal life of a woman getting to know and accept who she really is. Rather than take a familiar path well-traveled, it heads down unexpected roads, at once seductive and melancholy, occasionally confrontational and political,” she writes. “Battle of the Sexes is by no means a feminist screed. It won’t make you angry if you’re a man and it won’t make you feel alienated from white feminism if you’re a woman of color. The reason being this isn’t really a film about feminism – it’s a film about love. That is the most surprising thing about it.”

Co-directed by Jonathan Dayton and Faris, Battle of the Sexes seems headed for a strong performance at the box office with an appealing cast and effective marketing (the trailers are stunning), and money talks throughout awards season. By all accounts, Battle of the Sexes is a universal project that should be able to maintain its grasp on critics and audiences as the film expands to Toronto next week.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Another sturdy contender with a strong female character at its center, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has been raved out of Telluride and Venice, with many singling out Frances McDormand’s performance as a grieving mother taking local law enforcement to task over the mishandling of her daughter’s murder case. In addition to McDormand’s performance, supporting actor Sam Rockwell – yet to receive a single Academy nod – could also be heading for Oscar recognition, with IndieWire’s Ben Croll as one of many praising his work, noting in his review that the actor “shines here, taking a meaty part and broadening it into a four-course meal.” Given McDonagh’s track record with Oscar voters (he was nominated for writing 2008’s In Bruges and won for Best Short Film for 2004’s Six Shooter) and McDormand’s status as a prior winner, Three Billboards could be looking at a banner year with a trio of above-the-line nominations.

Downsizing

Any time an Alexander Payne film hits the fall festivals, it’s wise to not bet against its Oscar chances. Since 1999’s Election, Payne has won two statuettes, and each of his subsequent feature directorial efforts has garnered at least one Oscar nod. This year, Downsizing continues the director’s trend of launching critic-friendly pieces on the awards circuit, with the sci-fi satire registering warm reception for its performances (particularly Hong Chau, who could become the first Asian actress to win in the Best Supporting Actress category in six decades) and Payne’s ambitious story about a couple who decide to shrink themselves down to five inches tall as the world combats overpopulation and environmental crises.

Lady Bird

Telluride's Women Take Charge as Oscar Race Takes ShapeEntertainment

Telluride's Women Take Charge as Oscar Race Takes ShapeEntertainment A24

Emerging as a skilled director on her solo directorial debut, Gerwig has let Lady Bird fly, and critics have largely accepted the Saoirse Ronan-fronted drama with open arms. Gerwig has long awaited a breakout on the awards trail, simmering under the surface with writing credits (Frances Ha) and performances (Jackie, Mistress America, 20th Century Women) that haven’t yet earned her a spot among Academy nominees.

Variety‘s Peter Debruge notes that after a decade of being a mumblecore muse, Gerwig has “found her voice” as a director, calling Lady Bird a “miraculous low-budget gem” that recalls Gerwig’s own early life with refreshing honesty and candid observations about adolescence, maturity, and artistic ambition – sentiments his colleagues’ reactions have echoed, meaning the film could finally see Gerwig scoring her first nod for drafting the film’s script.

If all else fails, Ronan has rocketed into the Best Actress conversation in her first role since 2015’s Brooklyn. By the time she was 21, Ronan had scored two Oscar nods, an achievement which can’t be ignored when gauging her standing in the current race. Laurie Metcalf, who plays Ronan’s onscreen mother, could also find herself in contention in the Supporting Actress category, as critics are calling this her meatiest role since Roseanne.

Time will tell if A24 chooses to make this their top priority when it comes to campaign dollars, as they also have The Disaster Artist, The Florida Project, and (potentially, with a 2018 release possible) Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete to worry about. The Disaster Artist seems like it could be a play for its male contributors (particularly James Franco), and The Florida Project‘s best bet, at this point, seems to be either Sean Baker’s direction or Willem Dafoe’s performance, meaning Lady Bird could be A24’s focus in the women-only acting categories, with Gerwig a potential breakout for her writing and direction.

First They Killed My Father

Despite garnering commercial success with Unbroken, her first major studio film as a director, Jolie has struggled to win critical fans across her filmmaking efforts. That changed this weekend as her latest film, First They Killed My Father, was hailed as her best work to date, a solid film with a refined focus on a difficult subject.

An adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir of the same name, the film follows a young girl’s struggle for survival throughout the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime, responsible for the class-driven murders of millions of Cambodians between 1975 to 1978. Jolie has long been a supporter of humanitarian efforts in the region, having worked as a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. and, later, as a Special Envoy for the UNHCR, and the film seemingly blends her personal passions with her directorial vision, culminating in a piece with an assured voice that packs an emotional wallop, as many audience members were reported to be wiping away tears at its Telluride world premiere. With a young, inexperienced actress (Sareum Srey Moch) at its center, the film’s reception also recalls the positive reception enjoyed by Beasts of the Southern Wild, which led to young Quvenzhané Wallis’ first Oscar nomination at the age of nine.

Tugging heartstrings often results in the all-important passion vote, which greatly favors films with an emotional appeal on the weighted ballot (emotional support often translates to more No. 1 placements). First They Killed My Father’s Telluride bow has given Jolie the most prominent positioning on the fall festival scene of her career, as her previous efforts debuted at AFI Fest later in the year. Still, Netflix has yet to prove it can generate Oscar heat outside the documentary categories in recent years, though First has a theatrical, Oscar-qualifying run planned to coincide with its streaming debut on Sept. 15.

Jolie’s pull with Oscar voters is also essential to identifying the film’s standing in the race, with her philanthropic endeavors bagging her the honorary Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014 on top of the competitive victory she scored for 1999’s Girl, Interrupted. The Academy has been waiting for another chance to lift her up, and this could be their time to do it.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Telluride's Women Take Charge as Oscar Race Takes ShapeEntertainment

Telluride's Women Take Charge as Oscar Race Takes ShapeEntertainment Sony Pictures Classics

Paul McGuigan’s Gloria Grahame biographic romance has been compared (unfavorably) to 2011’s My Week with Marilyn, but that doesn’t mean Bening and her costar, Jamie Bell, can’t wiggle their way into the acting races.

Bening has a long track record of snubs (she failed to earn a nod just last year for 20th Century Women, a performance many had hailed as one of her best), and before the film had been seen, many had pegged Film Stars to finally be her ticket to Academy glory after four nominations. Critical reaction at Telluride seemed to shut down the notion that the film could be a play for anything other than its stars, though that doesn’t necessarily hurt its cast’s chances as they’ve been noted as highlights in an otherwise standard production.

The film could also hit with the actors branch for its romanticizing of a prior Oscar winner’s life, its production design, score, performances, and fantastical, memory-based narrative style all recalling Hollywood works of yesteryear.

A Fantastic Woman

Best Actress often exists unto itself, with the Best Actor race closely mirroring races for Best Director and Best Picture. That leaves more room for fringe contenders like Daniela Vega, the transgender first-time actress at the center of Sebastián Lelio’s dramatic thriller A Fantastic Woman, to enter the conversation, as she has done following universal acclaim out of the film’s world premiere showing in Berlin earlier this year. Continuing through Telluride, A Fantastic Woman hits Toronto next week, with a swell of enthusiastic praise calling for Vega’s performance to be recognized by the Academy this year.

It’s often essential for foreign language contenders to show face along the festival trail (Marion Cotillard Two Days, One Night hit Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, New York, and AFI in 2014), and A Fantastic Woman will sizzle its way to Toronto and London by year’s end, though Vega’s standing in the race will largely depend on how many precursors she can land with — including year-end critics circles, which typically elevate under-the-radar performances like this — as Sony Pictures Classics readies a campaign and settles on a release date.

Faces Places

Women have traditionally fared better with the Academy in the documentary categories than they do above-the-line, but renowned filmmaker Agnès Varda – best known for her contributions to the world of fiction as part of the French New Wave – isn’t one of them. She’s directed various nonfiction works over the years, though her latest, the self-reflective Faces Places, which debuted at Cannes to raves earlier this year, has broken through in a huge way, continuing to hold its 100 percent fresh (average 8.3/10) on Rotten Tomatoes following its Telluride showing this weekend. Never nominated for any of her previous works, Varda could be looking at a legacy nod coming her way among the Documentary Feature set for her highly personal work here.

Wonderstruck

Though not as enthusiastically championed as his 2015 masterpiece Carol, Todd Haynes’ new film Wonderstruck, based on Brian Selznick’s novel of the same name, sailed through Telluride over the weekend as well and the film seems bound to generate heat for its technical elements, primarily Ed Lachman’s cinematography and Carter Burwell’s score.

Suburbicon

George Clooney hasn’t landed on Academy radar as a filmmaker since 2011’s The Ides of March, and it doesn’t look like his 1950s-set thriller Suburbicon will change that. The film has seemingly divided critics at Venice, some of whom praised Clooney’s attention to detail when it comes to the performances of his all-star cast (including Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, and Matt Damon), though others have criticized the film’s script (written by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and the Coen brothers) as being too brash, brutal, and otherwise muddled to justify the participation of its makers’ talents.

On the fringe…

Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, starring Christian Bale, has yet to nab a distributor though the film has been lightly praised, particularly for Bale’s performance. Whether it will be released this year to qualify for Oscar consideration remains to be seen. The same is the case for A24’s Lean on Pete, Andrew Haigh’s well-received theatrical directorial follow-up to 45 Years which earned Charlotte Rampling her first Oscar nod in 2016. We hear a 2018 release date is potentially on the table, though nothing has been confirmed yet.

Source: ew.com