As the biggest Festival weekend of the year comes to a close, we finally have an idea of how the awards season will shape up. We’ve seen several shocks, surprises, and disappointments, including both the rise of Downsizing at Venice and its cool-down at Telluride, putting it in a precarious position for the Oscars. Perhaps most exciting of all, I was proven wrong in my predictions for the female acting performances. When I ran my predictions for Best Actress, I noted that this seemed to be a weak year overall for the field after last year’s tough race. This no longer seems to be the case, as no less than seven of the awards movies premiering this weekend demonstrated female talent of the lead, supporting, and directing variety. I’ve never been happier to be wrong. So, without further ado, let’s get down to brass tacks and explore the films that will make this a winter to remember.
Far and away, the biggest success of the festival was Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Having excited people with its bizarre, wonderful trailer, the film has delivered and then some, with many people calling the dark fairy tale the best film the Mexican auteur has ever made, including his famous horror trilogy that culminated in Pan’s Labyrinth. The film is described as a wonderful fairy tale about loneliness, with several metaphors for the treatment of queer and interracial relationships. People have praised del Toro’s direction, the screenplay he wrote with Vanessa Taylor, the score, the production design, the cinematography, and the performances of Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, and especially Sally Hawkins, who many people think could be the new frontrunner for Best Actress. Expect this film to be a major player at the Oscars going forward, and at the very least, expect it to be on most critics’ Top Ten lists at the end of the year. This just skyrocketed on my list of anticipated films, and I’m sure it will on yours as well.
Only slightly less beloved is Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. Wright has always been an auteur inside the classical style, as can be seen in his previous works Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. He’s apparently at the top of his game with his biopic of Winston Churchill, and a great deal of that is because of the star. Gary Oldman has had a legendary career, including Sid and Nancy, The Professional, and Immortal Beloved, but he is supposedly never better here, disappearing into the role with a fiery passion, and drawing comparisons to Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. It seems unanimous that he will waltz to the Best Actor Oscar with relative ease. The film also received high praise for its directions, screenplay, production design, score, and performance by Ben Mendelsohn (Kristen Scott Thomas received some acclaim, but not to the extent of the other two). The film should be a big Oscar contender, and, considering it takes place at the same time as Dunkirk, an interesting counterpoint to the Oscar contender.
While not quite an Oscar contender, most critics unanimously enjoyed Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird. The film is a semi-autobiographical look at Gerwig’s senior year at a Catholic school in Sacramento (“the Midwest of California”) with her family as she looked to write her way out and all the way to the East Coast. The film has been described as an honest, entertaining coming-of-age film in the vein of John Hughes and The Edge of Seventeen, and features one of the best ensembles in the year with Saoirse Ronan, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Laura Marano, and especially Laurie Metcalf as Ronan’s combative, but loving mother. I wouldn’t expect this film to make a big play outside of screenplay and maybe Supporting Actress for Metcalf, but this may be a film that sneaks onto many critics’ Best Of lists, including my own.
One of the festival’s biggest joys was the success of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes. Expected to be a slight little end-of-summer indie, the film has proven itself to be a major Oscar contender. Leading people to believe it would be the humorous but uplifting story of the famous tennis match between feminist icon Billie Jean King and chauvinist former champ Bobby Riggs, the film really functioned as a King biopic, telling the story of her fight with an openly sexist sports industry that was willing to openly explain to her that women don’t deserve to earn the same as men because they’re just better athletes. She started her own league and agreed to compete with the showboat Riggs to prove that women were just as good as men (and perhaps even better), and all while struggling with her own realizations about her sexuality, which could be career suicide in the 1970s. The film has been called a winning triumph, the kind that can compete in several categories the same way films like Silver Linings Playbook, Philomena, and The Big Short once did. Emma Stone in particular has received acclaim for her performance, with many calling it better than last year’s Oscar winning role in La La Land, and the general consensus being that she will be nominated, and would win if she hadn’t won last year (and still might, pulling off a Tom Hanks or a Katherine Hepburn). Whether it’s just an audience crowd-pleaser or an Oscar contender, this will definitely be one to look forward to later this month.
One of the festival’s biggest surprises was Scott Cooper’s Hostiles. Cooper has had a very high-and-low career, starting with the Oscar-winning film Crazy Heart before moving on to the polarizing Out of the Furnace, and most recently released the fairly simplistic Johnny Depp vehicle Black Mass. However, he’s apparently made his magnum opus with Hostiles, a Revisionist Western epic telling the story of a brutal racist Army Captain (Christian Bale) who is instructed to escort an Indian War Chief to his people’s burial ground. Along the way, his team encounters a woman (Rosamund Pike) widowed during an Indian raid, and she joins them on their quest. The film is apparently brutal and honest, with a performance that moves people to tears. It is doubtful that the film will be a major Oscar contender – we don’t even know if it’ll come out this year – but I would expect this to be the type of film that goes down in the history books as one to study.
Another major surprise was the success of Angelina Jolie’s Netflix project First They Killed My Father. Based on the book of the same name, the film tells the story of Loung Ung’s coming of age during the Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia. She made the film for her adopted son, as a testament to his heritage, and the word out there is that it is a major success, brutally honest in its wordless portrayal of the atrocities, accompanied by gorgeous cinematography by Anthony Dodd Mantle and a wonderful score by Marco Beltrami. The film could be a Best Picture contender, and word on the street is that Cambodia will be submitting it as their Foreign Language Oscar contender, but we’ll be able to judge for themselves on September 15th, when the film drops on Netflix.
One of the films I was most looking forward to from the festivals was Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. A dark comedy about a woman’s quest to force the police to properly investigate the rape and murder of her daughter, the film is supposedly a wonderfully written testament to the way hate begets hate, and unchecked bigotry in any circumstance can result in unspeakable violence. The film is described as wonderfully made and perfectly written, but two cast members in particular have received relative acclaim and Oscar buzz. Obviously, there is no topping the wonderful Frances McDormand, who brings the hurt, the tenacity, and the fire needed for the lead role, but the bulk of reviews seems to be focused on the game-changing performance by Sam Rockwell. Both could be major Oscar contenders going forward, and I can’t wait to see what McDonagh’s twisted mind brings us next.
On the more underwhelming side, we have Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool. Critics seemed to like Annette Bening’s Gloria Grahame romance, but they didn’t love it the way many of us wanted them to. That being said, the film did garner buzz for its performances. Bening is supposedly phenomenal as usual, and could garner her fifth Oscar nomination. Love interest Jamie Bell, whom I loved in Billy Elliot before he sagged into a series of terrible performances, has supposedly never been better. And Julie Walters shows up to steal the show, as she does. This could be a big Oscar contender or a big bust, but either way, you should see every Bening performance, so go anyway.
Hopping over to Venice, George Clooney launched the premiere of his Coen Brother project Suburbicon. The final result is a little mixed overall. It seems that the film is a litmus test for fans of film noir. Those who are well-versed in its lore, from Double Indemnity to Blood Simple to Fargo, seem to be big fans of the final product, from the direction to the screenplay to the performances by Matt Damon and Julianne Moore and especially Oscar Isaac. However, those who aren’t as steeped in the genre seem to have a distaste for the film, confused by its tone, filmmaking, and overall message. It has created a bit of a split amongst the critics, but while this may hurt its chances come Oscar season, I for one, am still anticipating the combination of Clooney’s flair and the Coens’ mind.
On the lighter side of things, reviews have been rolling in for Stephen Frears’ Victoria and Abdul, and they are mixed. People seem to have enjoyed the performance of Judi Dench, and they all seem to appreciate the film’s attempt at a warm story, but for the most part, people found it fairly formulaic, unoriginal, and basic. However, the people that enjoyed it definitely felt a passion, so I wouldn’t take this one off the table, even if it only ends up being an audience favorite like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
And finally, we have the Venice premiere of the bombastic new Vince Vaughn thriller Brawl in Cell Block 99. Vaughn has been trying to turn his career around after his comedy career started to go south (after some truly great turns in Old School, Dodgeball, Anchorman, and Wedding Crashers). He’s been trying to reinvent himself as a “serious actor” by taking on smarmy or self-serious characters, like True Detective and Hacksaw Ridge. In Cell Block 99, Vaughn plays a former boxer-turned-drug runner who ends up in a prison battleground. The film is a departure from Vaughn’s usual works, and from the early reviews, that sounds like a good thing. Most critics have been unanimous in their early praise of the film, with even the most uptight, respectable critics praising its 70s schlockfest ultraviolence and Vaughn’s commanding performance. A few critics even said that Vaughn’s commitment to this role was similar to that of Matthew McConaughey’s recent career revival. Who knows; if this film is a hit, perhaps we’ll be hearing the phrase “Oscar-Nominee Vince Vaughn” in a few years.
That does it for this year’s Venice and Telluride updates. I’ll provide more coverage on Venice as it continues, especially with mother! premiering later this week. Until then, you can watch some of the trailers to these films below, including Darkest Hour, Battle of the Sexes, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Hostiles and Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool. If you need me, I’ll be planning out my month of Oscar viewing and counting down the days until The Shape of Water.