Fall film festival ushers Oscar season



“The Power of the Dog” earned the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.


The month of September often signifies the start of a new football season. At both the professional and collegiate levels, teams start a grueling months-long campaign in the hopes of winning a national championship.

Another industry that kicks off its regular season in the fall is the Academy Awards. From large blockbusters to microscopic indies, dozens of films with Oscar aspirations start their path to success at a major film festival. Sundance and Cannes (of which I attended) act as a strong pre-season launching pad for more artistic and international films. But the Oscar season officially starts at the trifecta that is the Venice Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, and Toronto International Film Festival. This trio commands the biggest stars and crowds, with critics voicing their opinion on who’s the best of the bunch. With Venice and Telluride concluded, and Toronto winding down, here is my report for who is in and who is out this coming awards season. 

Netflix sat out last year’s festival season due to COVID-19 precautions. Now they’re back at full strength with a bevy of top contenders. “The Power of the Dog” (Dec. 1) completed the grand slam by appearing at each of the festivals, taking the Silver Lion for Best Director at Venice. Jane Campion’s slow-burn western should be a major all-around contender, especially with Benedict Cumberbatch’s lead performance. 

Also competing at Venice was Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God” (Dec. 15) which tells the autobiographical story of his childhood in Naples. Netflix will try to emulate the success they had with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” in 2018. Kenneth Branagh is in the same boat as Sorrentino with his autobiography in the lighthearted “Belfast” (Nov. 12), which received strong buzz from Telluride and Toronto. 

Netflix still has some cards up their sleeve with Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” (Dec.  24), starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut “Tick, Tick… Boom!” (Nov. 19). Both will try to crash the party later this season. 

Apple stands to compete with Netflix with Joel Coen’s radical adaptation of “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” which will open this year’s New York Film Festival. Denzel Washington stars in the titular role, with Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. 

Along with Washington, Cumberbatch’s biggest rival in the lead actor race will be Will Smith, who received rave reviews at Telluride for his performance as Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena Williams, in “King Richard” (Nov. 19). “Game of Thrones” alumni Peter Dinklage will also be in the mix as he stars in the famed role in Joe Wright’s “Cyrano” (Dec. 24). Similar to the technique used in “Les Misérables,” Dinklage and the rest of the cast sing the musical numbers live, giving extra juice to their Oscar narratives. 

In the Best Lead Actress field, Kristen Stewarts seems to be out in front with her portrayal of Princess Diana Spencer in “Spencer” (Nov. 05). Director Pablo Larraín previously had success with Natalie Portman in “Jackie,” so the path for Stewart has been laid out before her. Hot on her heels will be recent winner Olivia Colman in “The Lost Daughter” (Dec. 31) and Penélope Cruz in “Parallel Mothers” (Dec 24), who picked up the best actress prize at Venice. Someone with an outside shot is Jodie Comer in Ridley Scott’s medieval epic, “The Last Duel” (Oct. 15), which premiered to generally favorable reviews at Venice. Scott also has “House of Gucci” coming this Thanksgiving, with Lady Gaga ready to steal the spotlight. 

With this many winners, there’s bound to be just as many losers whose hopes have most likely been dashed. “Dear Evan Hansen” (Sept. 24), with 27-year-old Ben Platt reprising his Broadway role, was met with harshly negative reviews when it opened Toronto. Edgar Wright had moderate Oscar success with “Baby Driver” in 2017. He’s gone more into his genre roots this year with “Last Night in Soho” (Oct. 29), which seems to be cited as a weaker entry in his filmography. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (Sept. 17) got mixed reviews out of Toronto, with Jessica Chastain’s lead performance being the film’s only hope. 

Along with Netflix’s wild cards, there are still a few big names that skipped the festival circuit entirely. Oscar perennial and king of Hollywood Steven Spielberg will have his remake of “West Side Story” (Dec. 10). Bradley Cooper will appear in two top-tier contenders, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” (Nov. 26) and Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” (Dec. 17). There’s also the late-breaking blockbusters of “No Time to Die” (Oct. 08), “Dune” (Oct. 22), and “The Matrix Resurrections” (Dec. 22). 

It’s an exciting time for the film industry as the competition runs hot. Nearly every week sees one or more contenders bow in theatres in the hopes of capturing the hearts and minds of audiences. Some will succeed and some will fail, with all contributing to what will be a very unforgettable race.