Wednesday 25 April 2018

Festival double sets scene for the Oscars

The film festivals of Venice and Toronto are excellent Oscar predictors, writes our reporter, who picks out likely contenders

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in Victoria and Abdul
Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in Victoria and Abdul
Emma Stone and Steve Carrell in Battle of The Sexes
Harry Styles in Dunkirk
Matt damon and Kristin Wiig in Downsizing

Robbie Collin

You might not have noticed, but August 30 will be a pivotal date in cinema history. It's the furthest we'll ever be this year from the Academy Awards, with the 2017 and 2018 ceremonies lying exactly 185 days in either direction.

Except this coming Wednesday is also the opening night of the 74th Venice International Film Festival, which means the distance until next Oscar night is about to feel a lot shorter.

Both Venice and its sister festival, Toronto, which opens a week later, are about much more than the starting line for the annual Monte Carlo or Bust!-style pursuit towards the stage of the Dolby Theatre. But to comprehend the state of western film culture today, you need to decode the quietly extraordinary roles Venice and Toronto play in shaping the Oscar race - and in turn, the tastes of cinemagoers in Britain and the world.

The two festivals are by no means obvious bedfellows. Venice, the oldest festival around (it pre-dates Cannes by 14 years) is La Dolce Vita incarnate, with films at the Palazzo del Cinema 'til dusk, then laughter and the pop of Prosecco corks.

Emma Stone and Steve Carrell in Battle of The Sexes
Emma Stone and Steve Carrell in Battle of The Sexes

Toronto, meanwhile, is almost certainly the busiest: it's a bustling Where's Wally? tableau of modern movie going, with an annual attendance approaching half a million, and the most exhaustive approach to programming I've ever seen. The 2017 edition offers 305 features and shorts across 14 themed strands - and that's a thin year.

Yet between them, the two seem able to predict what's about to be hot in cinema.

Of the last 10 films to win Best Picture at the Oscars, from No Country For Old Men to Moonlight, every one of them played Venice or Toronto first - and in three cases, both. Certain berths have taken on a kind of talismanic significance: five out of the last 10 opening-night films at Venice have gone on to be nominated for Best Picture, and one, Birdman, won outright, while Toronto's Audience Award has pre-figured three Best Picture wins and a further five nominations in the last decade. This is, it should be pointed out, a fairly recent development. Scan the 10 Best Picture winners before No Country For Old Men, and you'll notice only two of them, American Beauty and Crash, came from Venice or Toronto.

Lots of factors are at play here, from shifting tastes to changes in key festival personnel. But there's no question that with more films for audiences (and awards voters) to chew on than ever before, having the right kind of launch, and tracing the right kind of arc, have become instrumental parts of being noticed.

An example for the ages was La La Land last year: the Venice opening night film and the winner of the Toronto audience award, it was the presumed Best Picture front-runner right up until Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway tore open the envelope, and arguably for a few minutes after that.

True, it may not have actually won, but its commercial performance, built entirely on its must-see status forged at Venice and Toronto, presumably went some way towards making up for it. This independently-made musical took £350m worldwide - more than every blockbuster in the last four months, apart from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Dunkirk. All of which is to say that where the coming Oscar season is concerned, a shortlist of serious players is about to snap into focus.

Harry Styles in Dunkirk
Harry Styles in Dunkirk

Venice's opening film this year is Downsizing, a science-fiction-inflected comedy from Alexander Payne, the director of Sideways and Nebraska. Starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig and Christoph Waltz, it's about a married couple who have shrunk to pocket size.

Opening Toronto has historically been a less auspicious gig, but this year's sporting biopic Borg/McEnroe might change that - though I gather Battle of the Sexes, with Emma Stone and Steve Carell as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, is the 2017 tennis film to beat. (It's directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who made Little Miss Sunshine, and was written by Simon 'Slumdog Millionaire' Beaufoy.)

The films screening at both festivals are often the ones that have awards watchers bristling with anticipation, and none look bristlier than Mother! - a thriller from Darren Aronofsky, with Jennifer Lawrence as a housewife whose home is invaded by a series of odd visitors, seemingly with the consent of her husband, who's played by Javier Bardem.

Striking a different tone, you'd imagine, is Stephen Frears's Victoria and Abdul - perhaps a spiritual sequel to John Madden's Mrs Brown, with Judi Dench reprising her Bafta-winning role as Queen Victoria, now platonically besotted with her young Indian attendant Abdul Karim. Both are currently scheduled for a UK release on September 15, capitalising on festival buzz.

Andrew Haigh will bring the follow-up to his superb 45 Years, a horse-training drama titled Lean on Pete, to both festivals - and Martin McDonagh, director of In Bruges, will do likewise with his dark comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, featuring Frances McDormand as a grieving mother who goes to war with her local police.

Joe Wright's Churchill biopic Darkest Hour, Andy Serkis's Breathe, Clio Barnard's Dark River and Armando Iannucci's political comedy The Death of Stalin are all Toronto-only, as is The Breadwinner, the latest animated feature from the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, whose previous film, Song of the Sea, also surfaced at the Canadian festival. Both Barnard and Iannucci's films will play in the Platform strand, which last year burnished its credentials by playing host to Moonlight.

It's only fair to note that Moonlight actually showed up first at Telluride, a four-day "boutique festival" sandwiched in between Venice and Toronto. Think of the Colorado mountain town rendezvous as the organic veg box of film culture: the programme isn't announced beforehand, and the delicious and the binnable tend to feature in roughly equal measure.

One likely dead cert for Telluride is The Shape of Water - a Gothic fantasia from Guillermo del Toro, in which a mute charlady, played by Sally Hawkins, befriends an amphibious humanoid held captive in a laboratory.

George Clooney's Coen brothers-penned satire Suburbicon, and Paolo Virzi's The Leisure Seeker, with Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as an elderly couple on a life-crowning road trip, probably won't make a stop in Colorado, though that's not necessarily a sign of trouble.

Nor is the appearance of a Netflix film, the Robert Redford-Jane Fonda reunion Our Souls at Night, at Venice: this venerable festival has embraced television, online streaming and even virtual reality with a warmth those mediums have yet to encounter at Cannes. Of course, the full picture won't fuse until after the festivals themselves have faded from view.

One of the presumed-heftiest Oscar contenders-in-waiting, Steven Spielberg's Nixon-era newsroom thriller The Papers, seems unlikely to screen anywhere until December. Paul Thomas Anderson's 1950s fashion-world drama Phantom Thread, another December release, features what will reportedly be Daniel Day-Lewis's final screen performance.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk has already set a nosebleed-inducingly high bar for the 2018 battle for Best Picture. But few things are less gripping than a foregone conclusion, and the race is about to get interesting.

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