It’s strange to think about, as this September still doesn’t feel right, but technically speaking, we are right in the thick of festival and awards season. After all, Venice wrapped up earlier today, and Toronto is currently well under way. And while I normally wait for the end of the festival run to do a big, massive write up for you all about the hits, misses, and Oscar chances to come, I thought I’d shake things up this year and write about the small ripples in the water that indicate a great awards season to come.
With a general lack of Oscar players with limited American films in the running, the Europeans made an attempt to run the table at the 77th Venice Film Festival. For the most part, this made for a slower, quieter festival – with a few key exceptions. The greatest foreign language hits included Japanise romance film Wife Of A Spy, the dystopian thriller New Order (a major contender for Best Foreign Language Film), and the Indian drama The Disciple, which has been making waves all around the festival circuit this fall. All three of these films received awards at the ceremony Saturday morning, alongside Special Jury Prize winner Dear Comrades, a Russian film about a famous KGB massacre of unarmed protesters, and cult conversation starter Mandibules by the Rubber filmmaker Quentin Dupieux.
However, despite a limited presence, it is hard to deny that the United States entries dominated the conversation, in ways both bad and very, very good. The week started off with Gia Coppola’s Mainstream, which was mostly written off as dumb and pretentious, yet received praise for an over-the-top Andrew Garfieldperformance. Meanwhile, the Hungarian-Canadian-American film Pieces of a Woman quickly became the hit of the festival. A searing knockout, the film follows a young couple played by Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf who find themselves in a painful legal battle after a terrible, haunting tragedy. The film has been praised for its impeccable, crushing, beautiful filmmaking, and Kirby has entered the Oscar race after winning the Volpi Cup for Best Actress.
But if there’s one film that’s on everyone’s lips after the Venice Film Festival, it’s Nomadland. I’ve already discussed Nomadland as a potential frontrunner for Best Picture, but I could never have imagined this level of success. Chloé Zhao’s modern day Grapes of Wrath has received acclaim across the board, thanks to its fearless direction, writing, editing, cinematography, score, and acting (mostly featuring the real-life people surrounding Frances McDormand’s leading character). The film received the top prize of the Golden Lion (which, alongside The Shape of Water and Joker, has officially ended the longtime drought American films have suffered at the festival), and is most likely your frontrunner at next year’s Oscars.
Meanwhile, Toronto has also gotten off to a strong start after Thursday’s kickoff. Beyond its inclusion of Nomadland, and a whole new wave of rave reviews (it currently sits at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes), Toronto also housed the debut of Spike Lee and David Byrne’s concert documentary American Utopia. The film has received positive reviews thanks to its uplifting message, spellbinding visuals and editing, Byrne’s remarkable songs (between SNL, the Broadway show, and his appearance in John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, the Talking Heads front man is slowly having a career renaissance). Seveal critics have marked that it’s the best concert documentary since 1984’s Stop Making Sense, and considering my love for that film and Byrne’s work, I can’t say I’m disappointed in this news.
Also receiving positive buzz is Regina King’s directorial debut One Night In Miami. Based on the play of the same name, the film follows the hotel room of Muhammad Ali in the aftermath of his crowning as heavyweight champion, as he celebrates with Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Malcolm X. While there have been some slight quibbles over the theatrical constraints of the story, the film has received acclaim for its sharp direction by King, the great filmmaking (specifically editing by Tariq Anwar and the score by Terence Blanchard), and the four actors (Eli Goree as Ali, Leslie Odom Jr as Cooke, Aldis Hodge as Brown, and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm).
And then…there’s Ammonite. Ammonite has been praised in recent months as a potential Oscar player, thanks to Francis Lee’s last outing God’s Own Country and the potential romance between Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. But while I couldn’t put my finger on it, I always felt something was…off. It seems there was something to that, as Ammonite opened to mixed reviews. While Winslet and Ronan are great, the story, score, and direction have been falling rather flat with audiences. It’s certainly not out of the Oscar running – it has its fans – but it is clear that it simply isn’t clicking with its core audience, and that’s a sign of rough waters ahead.
So that’s where we stand at the end of the first two weeks of awards season. Things will only pick up in the coming weeks – Toronto still has a few days to go, and New York is on the horizon. And speaking of New York, I have a special announcement: I have received accreditation for the New York Film Festival, and will have reviews posted in the coming weeks – including Nomadland! I’m excited by this late-breaking update, and look forward to sharing these reviews with you going forward. In the meantime, you can see the full list of Venice winners posted below, and I’ll be updating my awards predictions in reflection of this news. See you all soon, and remember: keep watching!
Golden Lion: Nomadland – Chloé Zhao
Grand Jury Prize: New Order – Michel Franco
Silver Lion For Best Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa – Wife of a Spy
Volpi Cup For Best Actress: Vanessa Kirby – Pieces Of A Woman
Volpi Cup For Best Actor: Pierfrancesco Favino – Padrenostro
Best Screenplay: The Disciple – Chaitanya Tamhane
Special Jury Prize: Dear Comrades – Andrei Konchalovsky
Marcello Matroianni Award: Rouhollah Zamani – The Sun
Special Golden Lion For Lifetime Achievement: Ann Hui & Tilda Swinton