Venice And Telluride Updates: The Best And Worst Of The 2021 Festival Scene

The refrain I’ve been hearing for a few weeks now from festival insiders and fellow critics is that this was going to be the most stacked festival season in recent memory. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, considering how many big names were delayed because of Covid, and how absolutely dismal the first half of this year has been. But even so, it’s hard to get over just how exciting the news out of Venice and Telluride has been, with one film after another dazzling crowds, building hype, and placing themselves on the map in the awards race. And I’m here with the general consensus on all the films that premiered this weekend, so you can enter the season knowing what’s supposed to be good, what’s supposed to be bad, and everything in between.

Since Venice began on Wednesday, I think it’s only fair that we start with their big films first. I’d say three of the biggest names so far have to be the first three films to premiere: The Power of the Dog, The Hand of God, and Parallel Mothers. Starting with Dog, it appears that Netflix has a real winner on their hands, thanks to Campion’s direction. Critics loved the film’s tone, direction, and especially the performances from Dunst, McPhee, and especially Cumberbatch, who has emerged as one of three Best Actor frontrunners (we’ll talk about this more in a bit). While there were some detractors of the film’s cold narrative and the slow pace, the film is in a pretty good position for the coming Oscar race. Meanwhile, legendary filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar seems to have reclaimed his mojo. After a mixed last decade that culminated in his beloved Pain and Glory, Almodóvar has made what critics are calling “his best film this century” with Parallel Mothers, a drama about two mothers who cross paths in the maternity ward. Critics have praised the screenplay, direction, and Penelope Cruz’s performance, and it’s hard not to view this as a potential International Feature frontrunner. And then there’s The Hand of God. Another Netflix film, this time by Italian legend Paolo Sorrentino, The Hand of God is one of several “autobiographies” gracing the festivals, telling the story of Sorrentino’s coming-of-age in Italy during the 1970s. And…yeah, it’s supposed to be fantastic. From the writing to the acting to the direction to the crafts, this one has received the most acclaim across the board. Netflix likely bought it as a potential International Feature play, but who knows? They play their cards right, and it could be a major player in other categories, too.

Of course, films made by legendary filmmakers being good really isn’t news. The real juicy gossip is about the unknown properties – the potential blockbusters and indie darlings. So let’s talk about Dune and Spencer. Look, I’ll be honest. I probably should not be reporting on Dune to you all. It’s not that it’s not a big talking point, or that there’s no news, or anything like that. It’s just that the reactions are…well, they’re a lot. Sure, there’s a general consensus: that Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic is technically flawless whilst simultaneously suffering from script issues and in execution of the story. But for the most part, critics just couldn’t stop with the hyperbole. On the one end of the spectrum, haters called it a “soulless failure” and “the worst movie ever made.” This would be unnecessarily cruel and aggressive if the other end of the spectrum wasn’t, and I quote: “This must be how they felt when they saw 2001 in 1968.” God, the film’s not even out yet and I’m already tired of the discourse. Thankfully, we have the perfect palette cleanser: Spencer. I’ve been very skeptical of the phrase “Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana by the Jackie director.” Turns out, I was needlessly worried. Spencer is supposed to be marvelous. Praise has been doled out for the setting/costume design, the screenplay, the direction, and especially Stewart’s central performance. It’s very clear that Spencer is going to be one of the toasts of festival season, and while its Best Picture chances will remain in question, I’d say Spencer is likely a major contender for Best Actress – a nice capstone on some interesting work the last few years.

As a whole, it seemed like almost everything from Venice opened to strong reviews. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter received a good deal of acclaim for its exciting thriller-like execution. Gyllenhaal’s direction received a great deal of acclaim, as did the screenplay, but the bulk of the praise went to Olivia Colman’s commanding central performance as a mother with a secret. Releasing on Netflix near the end of the year, this could make a splash in a few different categories – and Colman could be looking at her third Oscar nomination in four years. We love that for her. Meanwhile, Penelope Cruz’s second film at the festival, Official Competition, also opened to excellent reviews, serving as a biting satire of the film industry at large, and featuring two killer performances by Cruz and Antonio Banderas. Oh, and then there’s Edgar Wright’s new film, Last Night In Soho. Soho has been an interesting project for two years now – it’s Wright’s first film to not be a straight-up comedy/parody (even Baby Driver was a comedic take on the crime thriller). And he’s dabbling in a genre that is…highly polarizing, to say the least: giallo, a blend between the psychological thriller (i.e. Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby) and the slasher. And so it shouldn’t be a surprise that early reviews have, themselves, been highly polarized. Critics either love it or hate it, with little in between – which at least indicates a big swing on the director’s part, so I’m here for it. Oh, and it appears they’re giving a full Oscar push to the late legend Diana Rigg, which I wholeheartedly dig (she’s been in my predictions since last year).

Meanwhile, over in Telluride, there are three films that have quickly become the talk of the festival. The first, and most obvious, is King Richard, the feel-good story of the Williams family’s rise to dominance in the tennis world. Critics were won over by the uplifting story, terrific sports drama, and the performances. While everyone in the cast received praise, it should come as no surprise that the bulk of the acclaim has gone to Will Smith, whose commanding leading performance has propelled him to the front of the Best Actor race. He’ll face stiff competition, both from Cumberbatch as well as the leading man from another Telluride smash: Peter Dinklage in Cyrano. Director Joe Wright was reportedly nervous when first debuting his splashy musical take on the classic tale. As it turns out, he needn’t have been. Cyrano was the surprise smash of the festival, with audiences praising the cinematography, the direction, the execution, and especially Dinklage’s heartbreaking central performance. Wright can be a hit or miss director, but this will certainly be one to look forward to this December. And then there’s Belfast. When Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical tale first premiered on Friday, the early word was fairly mixed. As it later turned out, the screening was only modestly attended, with most audiences at Cyrano and Richard. Over the course of the weekend, Belfast became the word-of-mouth sensation. By Saturday night, it was the biggest hit of the festival, with audiences praising the direction, cinematography, acting (particularly by DornanDench, and Balfe), and screenplay. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re hearing the first buzz of a future Best Picture winner…

However, not everything could meet with effusive praise. Some filmmakers managed to earn more balanced reviews, like Mike Mills, whose simple road trip movie with Joaquin Phoenix earned calls of “good, not great.” Similarly, Cumberbatch’s otherTelluride film The Electric Life of Louis Wain delivered on whimsy, but not much else. And some films saw their expectations tempered after earlier festivals, like Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, which made a surprise appearance at Telluride that ended up backfiring when critics derided it as “style over substance.” Riz Ahmed released a thriller titled Encounter, which was not without its fans but was mostly rejected as “nothing special.” Still, it fared better than Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter. Oh, The Card Counter. Despite almost unanimous praise for the first act and Oscar Isaac’s performance, the film was mostly criticized for muddled themes (especially weird attempts to get political) and Schrader’s tendency to give in to his own worst impulses. Yet despite these rare misses, it is hard to deny that the bulk of the praise has been extraordinarily positive. Even the documentaries are landing – the biggest name so far has been The Rescue, the newest documentary by the Free Solo crew, although there’s also been love for the Julia Child documentary, despite its overall lighthandedness.

So what’s the takeaway from this year’s festival season? We know that Belfast and King Richard are going to be hunting for Oscar glory. We know that critics are going to adore The Power of the Dog and Spencer. And we know that there’s going to be major talk all season for Smith, Cumberbatch, Dinklage, and especially Stewart. Telluride ends later tonight, while Venice will continue throughout the week. They have yet to debut The Last Duel and Halloween Kills, although I likely won’t write about them unless they are exceptionally good or exceptionally terrible. And we haven’t even reached Toronto yet. This is all very good news, folks. Buckle up for a wild, wild season.

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