It’s that time of year, folks! When critics much higher than me get invites to Venice and Colorado to see some of the year’s hottest commodities before anyone else, as well as spark Oscar buzz not only for us pundits, but for Academy members following along for the juiciest new titles to peruse (many Academy members actually attend Telluride for this very purpose). This year, more than any, has proven the brilliance of 2019 as a cinematic achievement, as most films were released to critical acclaim and gushings from audiences. As Awards Daily writer Sasha Stone recently mentioned on Twitter, “I’ve yet to see a dud here at Telluride.” So, knowing that Venice and Telluride can be a major force for the Oscar race…what’s good? What’s bad? What’s controversial? And how does it shape the Oscar race? I’ve got all the news for you right here, in one convenient article!
So let’s start with the most talked-about film out of the festivals this weekend: Joker. Todd Phillips’ take on the legendary Clown Prince of Crime had its premiere in Venice on Saturday, and it’s already messing with people’s minds. Joker has proven to be a rather complicated project for critics to review. Objectively speaking, it’s ballsy and audacious. It takes some dark, interesting twists with the character that pay homage to the Scorsese days of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. And while it’s generally considered to be “generally fine” in the filmmaking department, everyone’s talking about how truly remarkable Joaquin Phoenix is in the titular role, a man with unidentifiable mental disorders that gets driven to the edge by a city overrun by crime and a greedy, disinterested upper class. But despite all these appraisals and positive attributes, audiences in Venice were left a little shaken. The film plays so fast and loose with Arthur/Joker’s morality that it never takes a solid enough stance on the violence. And when films don’t take a solid enough stance on a character’s psychopathy, you get generations who grow up admiring Travis Bickle or Tony Montana, viewing the racism, sexism, and violence as “a glorious means to an end.” And in an era when groups of people are convinced a frog is telling them to kill women and minorities because they’re taking their jobs/won’t sleep with them, perhaps a lax stance on a complicated character isn’t the best idea. That being said, most critics are still champions of art, in all its forms, and they cannot deny the film’s impactful nature. It should make for an interesting release come October.
Now that we got the biggest name out of the way, let’s talk about the films everyone’s adoring. Far and away the greatest winner of the week has been Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. Already a major Oscar contender, Marriage Story received acclaim from critics, actors, and even Martin Scorsese for the its direction, acting, writing, and filmmaking. Some have gone as far as to call it a “modern day masterpiece.” The reaction out of both Venice and Telluride is perhaps the most vocally powerful I’ve heard in any awards race I’ve covered – including last year’s Roma. You can color me excited for this one, and I’ve taken the liberty of switching Adam Driver and Laura Dern in my Best Actor and Supporting Actress lineup from their other films to this one. It’s gonna be big, folks. Meanwhile, also having a big weekend is James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari. Heralded as a “movie movie,” the film had the same style of acclaim as Argo, cornering an adult market with a fast-paced, entertaining piece of cinema. Special praise was leveled as the direction, the performances of Matt Damon and especially Christian Bale, Tracy Letts in an Alan Arkin-esque supporting role, and particularly the score, sound, and editing, which has been hailed as “top notch.” Unless this ends up becoming the next First Man, you can look for this one in the Oscar race – and possibly my Top Ten list at the end of the year.
Of course, while those were the two loudest hits of the festival, they aren’t the only hits. While it didn’t excite the same kind of energy as Marriage Story, one film critics couldn’t stop talking about was Waves. Directed by Trey Edward Shultz (Krisha, It Comes At Night), Waves is a slow, intelligent drama exploring the intimate struggles of a family living in a Floridian small town. The performances have been praised across the board, and while I’m not sure it sounds like an “Oscar movie” yet (it sounds kind of similar to The Florida Project in that regard), it does sound like the eventual critical favorite of the year. I can’t wait to see it when it comes out. And in perhaps the biggest shock of the weekend, one of the most delightful hits amongst critics and Academy members happened to be The Two Popes. Written by beloved hack Anthony McCarten, The Two Popes follows an alleged conversation between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) during the period when Benedict was considering stepping down and letting the popular Francis take over the Vatican. Apparently the film walks the line of comedy and drama perfectly, as the two holy men joke, drink beer, eat pizza, and above all, debate their views on Scripture, the Church, their own past failures and what they learned from them, and more, ultimately changing the Church’s trajectory in the years to come. Audiences are raving about the screenplay and particularly Pryce and Hopkins’ performances, and it’s become an unlikely favorite amongst Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Atheist viewers alike. Look for this one in key Oscar categories, especially as a Best Picture dark horse.
Of course, not every film is “great” or “bad.” Some films are just good, or come close to greatness and veer off course at the last second. For example, Ad Astra, James Gray’s long-awaited space epic, opened to mixed-positive reviews. What that means is that everyone, for the most part, liked it, but those that really liked it viewed it as a masterpiece. So while audiences generally liked, say, Marriage Story or Ford v Ferrari more, the ones that liked Ad Astra were firmly in the “modern day masterpiece” mindset. Similarly, audiences had a split response of the Judy Garland biopic Judy. In terms of the film itself, most audiences found Judy to be a fairly predictable biopic, like My Week With Marilyn or Me and Orson Welles. However, no matter what they thought of the film itself, everyone has agreed on one thing: this is Renée Zellweger’s greatest work. Everyone is raving about what she accomplishes in the role, and she is a shoe-in for Best Actress. This is certainly going to be an indie moneymaker when it comes out at the end of September. And finally, we have The Laundromat. People are trying to figure out what to make of Steven Soderbergh’s Panama Papers satire. Venice generally liked it, but everyone admits it has problems. In terms of the good, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas are funny, and for most of the film, Meryl Streep is doing some of her best work in years (more on that in a minute). But despite the positives, there are a lot of issues making audiences hesitate to love it. For example, its condescending Big Short vibe is rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. And there’s a decision that comes in the third act that, if true, is perhaps the greatest misstep in modern cinematic history. I’m not kidding. It sounds truly awful. I’ll be reviewing this one in about a month’s time, so I won’t spoil it now, but it’s so bad, it turned audiences off from a Meryl Streep movie. Think about that.
And now that we’ve gotten through the good and the meh, let’s get to the Big Swings. As mentioned above, there were very few outright “terrible” films in contention this year – the biggest misses were Kristen Stewart’s biopic Seberg and Roman Polanski’s horribly mishandled An Officer and a Spy. But the biggest names to open to…lesser reviews start with The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems. Fresh off the success of Good Time, Uncut Gems boasts a career best performance from Adam Sandler as a Jewish jewel thief. The problem with Gems isn’t the execution of the film – it’s the film itself. They have taken a major swing here, and it’s not a film that’s going to be for everyone. I’ve heard it described as “if Good Time is what it’s like to do cocaine, then Uncut Gems is what it’s like to do meth.” The film has some fans – including Parasite director Bong Joon Ho – but it’s definitely not going to be for everyone. A similar case has been made with Motherless Brooklyn. The good news is early reports indicate that the Simple Jack-esque trailers are more or less misleading, and the film is not as insufferable as it looks. And Edward Norton has a clear command over the material, as both director and actor. That being said, it’s such a sprawling, slow production that it’s just not able to move the dial one way or the other. In short, it’s not Life Itself, but it’s not going to emerge from the festival circuit as a major contender either. And finally…there’s The Aeronauts. I’ve spoken with several critics who attended Telluride and they all hesitate to comment on The Aeronauts in detail. Some praise the score. Some say Felicity Jones gives an (unsurprisingly) great performance. They all quantify their takes with “Well, it looks good…” But at the end of the day, this one just doesn’t take off. It is as bad as that trailer appears. I’m not going to dance on a flop’s grave, especially not one directed by the fantastic Tom Harper, the man behind one of my favorite films of the year. But after the terrible Theory of Everything swept the 2014 awards season, I’m happy audiences have finally realized the Redmayne–Jones shtick just doesn’t work.
So that concludes the Telluride/early Venice roundup. Where do we stand in the Oscar race? Well, there’s a few changes on the horizon, and a few I’m waiting until after TIFF over. Marriage Story is more or less your frontrunner at the moment, in many categories. Christian Bale is now firmly in contention for Best Actor, as is Antonio Banderas, whose Pain and Glory racked up more stellar reviews out of Telluride. The Report will be dropping in my Oscar predictions after a tepid response from audiences, but it will be moving to my Best Original Screenplay predictions, upon news that it is not based on anything in particular. Similarly, keep an eye on Ford v Ferrari, which also may be considering an Original bid. And Bale and Banderas may be lucking out, Oscar-wise, as Tom Hanks officially prepares to run as a Supporting Actor in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. Oh, and don’t sleep on Joon Ho’s Parasite – audiences can’t stop raving about it, and could sneak into the Best Picture/Best Director lineup. But at the end of the day, all we know for sure is that there’s an exciting fall on the horizon cinematically. And I can’t wait to see it all take flight.