Well, with the arrival of the Venice and Telluride film festivals, it's time to round up some of the early Oscar contenders that made their debuts at one or both of these. Remember, the Best Picture winner has been seen at one or both of these festivals for the last eight years and counting, so judging by this year's buzz, I kind of think we may be able to call it early this year.
Yup, this is the one. Damien Chazelle (director of Whiplash) has apparently delivered a perfect crowdpleaser in La La Land, an original musical that everyone simply loves, which got a standing ovation in Venice and again at Telluride, with the consensus being that it's both a throwback and love letter to movie musicals from Hollywood's Golden Age, but with enough originality and style to stand on its own. The admiration appears to be unanimous from the critics to the festival goers (which include many Academy members at Telluride, which is why the perception there is so predictive of success). Emma Stone is now the frontrunner for Best Actress, as the movie appears to be all about her and she completely steals the show. This kind of across the board love reminds me of The Artist, which wound up sweeping the season in 2011- we could be in for another one of those sweep years, I'm thinking. It's plenty early and there's lots of movies to come, but the acclaim is pretty overwhelming, and most importantly, it's paired with real passion and love from people who've seen it. Crowdpleasers like this (and about Hollwyood, no less, one of their favorite topics as we've seen from The Artist to Argo and Birdman) are traditionally hard to overcome.
"'La La Land' is both a love letter to a confounding and magical city and an ode to the idea of the might-have-been romance, in all its piercing sweetness. It’s a movie with the potential to make lovers of us all. All we have to do is fall into its arms." (Time)
"'La La Land' wants to remind us how beautiful the half-forgotten dreams of the old days can be – the ones made up of nothing more than faces, music, romance and movement. It has its head in the stars, and for a little over two wonderstruck hours, it lifts you up there too." (The Telegraph)
"For Chazelle to be able to pull this off the way he has is something close to remarkable. The director's feel for a classic but, for all intents and purposes, discarded genre format is instinctive and intense." (The Hollywood Reporter)
"I was utterly absorbed by this movie’s simple storytelling verve and the terrific lead performances from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone who are both excellent – particularly Stone, who has never been better." (The Guardian)
La La Land is the big across the board Oscar contender to emerge here, while other films that premiered were seen to have some raves and some drawbacks, but could be potential players if the cards stack up right. One of them is Arrival, Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi drama, which is being lauded as an intelligent, cerebral effort that plays up the emotion, wonder and awe of life in the universe. It also comes with another fantastic performance from Amy Adams, who will likely earn her sixth Oscar nomination, along with acclaim and consideration for the movie in at least many tech categories. Some reviews were a little muted, but I'm certainly detecting plenty of passion for this film as well, so it may turn out to be a bigger player than in the end than it looks right now. I personally can't wait to see it, as the comparisons to Contact and Close Encounters definitely make it seem like my kind of sci-fi movie, as opposed to more obvious big audience ones like The Martian and Interstellar.
"Anchored by an internalized performance from Amy Adams rich in emotional depth, this is a grownup sci-fi drama that sustains fear and tension while striking affecting chords on love and loss." (The Hollywood Reporter)
"'Arrival,' the shimmering apex of Villeneuve’s run of form that started back in 2010 with 'Incendies,' calmly, unfussily and with superb craft, thinks its way out of the black hole that tends to open up when ideas like time travel, alien contact and the next phase of human evolution are bandied about." (The Playlist)
"'Arrival' becomes an unexpectedly moving rumination on life’s bigger questions by its end. While it looks to other worlds, its main pleasure turns out to be the most intimate of questions." (Screen International)
Another film that showed at Telluride that could get some traction is Moonlight (below), from independent director Barry Jenkins, about a man struggling with his masculinity and sexuality. This is a small indie that will be distributed by A24, but critical acclaim is through the roof, so that could help it find an audience and possible awards love, if critics remember it at the end of the year, especially in categories like screenplay and supporting actress for Naomie Harris.
"Like 'Brokeback Mountain' a decade ago, 'Moonlight' is a piece of art that will transform lives long after it leaves theaters." (The Playlist)
"It’s a thrilling, deeply necessary work that opens up a much-needed and rarely approached on-screen conversation about the nature of gay masculinity." (The Guardian)
"A socially conscious work of art as essential as it is insightful." (Variety)
And finally we have Sully, Clint Eastwood's latest starring Tom Hanks as Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who pulled off the "Miracle on the Hudson"- the reviews are very solid, even if the story itself might not BE much of a story, outside of the actual event. And only solid reviews won't necessarily make for an Oscar contender, unless the movie does huge business, like American Sniper did a couple years ago. The movie actually opens this weekend, so we'll see, but for now it's a fringe contender, with Tom Hanks as a possible nominee for turning in yet another lived-in, unactorly performance. We ought to be calling him 'Ol Reliable by now, right?
"The movie is economical and solid, and generally low-key when it’s not freaking you out. That it unnerves you as much as it does may seem surprising, given that going in, we know how this story ends. But Mr. Eastwood is also very good at his job, a talent that gives the movie its tension along with an autobiographical sheen." (New York Times)
"'Sully' is a classy, enormously satisfying ode to simple competence. To paraphrase the title character, it’s just a movie doing its job. And amen to that." (Washingon Post)
"Efficient and effective in Eastwood's experienced hands, 'Sully' has interwoven a crisp and electric retelling of the story of the landing we know with a story we do not." (Los Angeles Times)