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Oscar Watching: Previewing the 69th Venice Film Festival

Surprise, surprise: The Dark Knight Rises (already discussed) was the champion at the U.S. box office for a second weekend in a row, and neither of the new wide releases, Step Up: Revolution and The Watch, came close to ending its reign. Even when combining their weekend grosses, the dance flick and sci-fi comedy didn’t cross the $25 million mark, and their combined approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 51%. It’s safe to say that neither film will have much of a presence in the Oscar race.

At the specialty box office, there’s some hope for Ruby Sparks, the quirky romantic comedy helmed by Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The Fox Searchlight title, which stars Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, and Annette Bening, might make the cut in Original Screenplay if it does well in the coming weeks and months. There are also the documentaries Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Searching for Sugar Man, which might pop up in the Documentary Feature category.

However, none of this weekend’s releases feel like Oscar certainties, so let’s talk about two upcoming events primed to shake up the awards season: the 69th Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. We now know the lineup for the former and know many of the films that’ll play at the latter, which means that the awards season will be here before we know it. Although the Cannes Film Festival is the most prestigious of the annual film fests, Venice and Toronto tend to be more crucial in determining Oscar players.

The 69th Venice Film Festival (check out the fest’s full lineup here) kicks off on August 29 and ends on September 8, while Toronto runs from September 6 through September 16. Since Venice begins first, we’re discussing the Lido players that might become major award contenders, starting with the most likely of the bunch and making our way down the list, this week. No likely Oscar players are hitting theaters this upcoming weekend, so we’ll tackle Toronto next week.

The Master (Competition) – With a story that may or may not derive from the highly controversial belief system known as Scientology and principle cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master might be the one to beat at the Oscars. Depending on Adams’ category placement and how well the film plays throughout the season, this upcoming Paul Thomas Anderson film – his first since 2007’s There Will Be Blood – might even be the fourth film to take “the Big Five” – Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay – and first to do so since 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. It doesn’t hurt that The Weinstein Company, which released the last two Picture winners, will distribute the film in the States. Being an early frontrunner doesn’t always pay off (Nine, Revolutionary Road, etc.), but only time will tell if PTA’s highly anticipated feature will be a contender. The Master gets a limited release on September 14, 2012 with an expansion the following weekend. The film will also play at Toronto.

To the Wonder (Competition) – Though his 1978 film Days of Heaven won a Cinematography Oscar, legendary auteur Terrence Malick still doesn’t have an Oscar to his name. With the welcome-back love for The Tree of Life last year, is it possible that he’ll get his due for To the Wonder? Led by Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, and Javier Bardem, the film focuses heavily on relationships, and while it tells something of a dysfunctional love story, it apparently carries some political and economic themes as well. It still doesn’t have a distributor, but that’s likely to change once it hits the Lido. Even if Wonder becomes an awards favorite, don’t expect any of its actors to be in the running for Oscar gold: no Malick film has ever received an acting nomination. Still, Malick might pull off Original Screenplay and/or Directing nods, and the film will surely be a contender for Cinematography thanks to DP extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki. Wonder will also play at Toronto.

The Company You Keep (Out of Competition) – Could this thriller from Robert Redford make waves with the Academy? The iconic star also leads the film as a civil rights lawyer who leaves his home when his identity as a former radical, who is wanted for murder, is revealed. While this sounds like a mainstream hit that might have crossover Oscar success, Redford’s last three directorial efforts – The ConspiratorLions for Lambs, and The Legend of Bagger Vance – failed to earn nominations. 1998’s The Horse Whisperer was his last film to even pick up a nomination, and that was in the Original Song race. Redford hasn’t been at the helm of a true Academy hit since 1994’s Quiz Show arrived almost twenty years ago. Even with a stellar ensemble cast – which includes Shia LaBeouf, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, and Susan Sarandon – it’s difficult to imagine this happening. Company is without a distributor, but assuming that a studio picks it up, the film might be an Adapted Screenplay contender if it plays well with audiences and critics. The film will also play at Toronto.

Passion (Competition) – Noomi Rapace leads this remake of the 2010 film Love Crime as a wronged businessperson who seeks revenge on her boss, played by Rachel McAdams, for stealing her ideas. While this thriller doesn’t sound like the typical prestige film, its bow at Venice likely stems from director Brian De Palma’s strong relationship with the fest: his film The Untouchables, for which Sean Connery won a Supporting Actor Oscar, played at the fest, as did Raising Cain, The Black Dahlia, and his last feature Redacted. This Oscar season marks the twenty-fifth year since a De Palma film scored a major nomination, so the big question here is whether this is a throwaway thriller or a genuinely captivating one. No one has stepped up to the plate to pick up the film for stateside distribution, but if it does hit U.S. theaters before the year’s end, we probably won’t be talking about Passion aside from the performances of Rapace and McAdams – if we’re even talking about the movie at all.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Opening Film; Out of Competition) – While Mira Nair’s drama about post-9/11 tension sounds promising, it is admittedly difficult to discuss it in terms of Oscar. Led by Riz Ahmed and Liev Schreiber, the film doesn’t exactly sound like Oscar bait, but it certainly sounds like a film that the critics might get behind. Like The Company You Keep, Passion, and To the Wonder, a distributor has yet to lock this film down for U.S. release. If Fundamentalist hits U.S. theaters before the end of 2012, the adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel might be a formidable player in the Adapted Screenplay race, but we’ll probably be talking more about Kate Hudson’s return to serious acting for her supporting turn as Ahmed’s love interest. Fundamentalist will also play at Toronto.

Read more Oscar Watching columns here.


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Donovan Warren

Donovan Warren

Donovan Warren loves the wonderful world of film and all that comes with it. He specifically loves long takes, fabulous actresses, and keeping up with the Oscar season - even when it's far too early to make sense of anything.