Well, the good news is we haven’t been wiped out by nukes….yet.
Still, I’ve sequestered myself in a bunker of sorts ever since February 27, the day after The Oscars Heard ‘Round the World. It was a ceremony that unfolded precisely how one might imagine the first Oscars in Trump’s America would: disastrously, the night’s culmination such a wreck that it simultaneously derailed the moment for both front-running films. The joyous history of Moonlight’s Best Picture win was blunted, and the exultation-leavened-by-reality theme that defined La La Land could never have been proven truer.
But, hell, we could do worse than dissecting the aftermath of the fate of two great films. And, in fact, we have done much worse in the intervening months, reckoning with the ongoing ramifications of being under the authoritarian rule of a reality television star. American readers will identify with this depression; readers from other countries, bless you all, will only be able to identify via graceful sympathy.
These past several months have been pretty dark. The movies, however, have done their part to shine some light over the course of the year. From nearly the start of 2017, when Get Out kick-started the Oscar conversation in February, on through to a summer season that offered staggering works of all scopes and sizes – Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, The Big Sick, War for the Planet of the Apes, Detroit, and, of course, Dunkirk – the earlier seasons have made a solid attempt to steal Fall’s thunder in terms of the prestige film conversation. And in so doing, they lifted our collective spirits when it seemed the universe was otherwise conspiring to keep them down. Now, on the strength of what we’ve seen so far and on the promise of what’s still to come, there’s no better time to emerge from the bunker than for the start of festival season.
Festivals run all the way through November and films will be premiering, all with the hope of vying for Oscar glory, throughout. But the next six months of Oscar conversation are powered by the tri-force of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. These three fests, which intertwine with one another over the first two-and-a-half weeks of September, combine to formulate the most propulsive influence for the remaining six months of the Oscar season. Think about it this way: the last time the eventual Best Picture winner didn’t premiere at either Venice or Telluride was 2011, when The Artist debuted at Cannes…but even then, the film rebooted its Oscar campaign at Toronto. And the year before that, The King’s Speech premiered in Telluride 2010. And while the Best Picture winner from 2009, The Hurt Locker, bowed in theaters in July of that year, it actually premiered at Venice…in 2008. You get the idea: the eventual Best Picture winner is likelier than not to show itself within the next couple weeks.
Or maybe it’s already shown itself. This year’s Venice fest kicked off yesterday, with Alexander Payne’s Downsizing as the Opening Night film, and the rapturous reviews have already started rolling in. Payne is a two-time Oscar winner for his screenplays, but this could be the year he brings home the Best Picture prize. Alternatively, maybe the Best Picture winner premiered today: Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water debuted in Venice earlier today, and buzz is building. Of course, Del Toro isn’t one to ever back into the middlebrow acceptability befitting most consensus Best Picture winners, so it’s hard to grasp the notion of the film carrying steam all the way to Oscar night. But it’s easy to see how it could rack up multiple nominations.
In the coming days, more contenders will bow in Venice: Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, George Clooney’s Suburbicon (featuring a screenplay with contributions from the Coen brothers), Martin McDonaugh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, and Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s Woodshock.
As for Telluride, per legend, its lineup remains a mystery until just before the fest begins. But of course, that’s why I like to wait until the last minute to post my inaugural Oscar piece each year: since the fest starts tomorrow, the program was released today. It’s populated with a typical handful of Venice holdovers, among them Downsizing and The Shape of Water. But there are always some major premieres among the Telluride slate, and this year is no different. The two that stand out among this group are Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, featuring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in a performance that could be spun into Oscar gold; and Battle of the Sexes, by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, featuring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs, in the true story of their famous tennis match in 1973. Both films were already slated to play in Toronto, but their places among the Telluride field signals that they want to jumpstart their buzz among the intimate and passionate atmosphere in the mountains of Colorado. Another big Telluride get is Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, which debuted in May at Cannes, but it surely rebooting for an awards run this fall.
How the next few days play out – as the first wave of Venice contenders debut and we witness the entirety of the weekend-long Telluride festival – will be revelatory for the next six months of Academy Awards hysteria. It’s become normal over the past several years for one or two major titles to latch on as the season’s standard bearers – like Moonlight and La La Land last year – and for that tandem to carry us forward, with the occasional late-season entry making a valiant attempt to throw us off (think American Hustle in 2013 or The Big Short in 2015). Time will tell – and by “time,” I mean a very short time, since festival buzz mounts quickly in one direction or the other – if the same holds true this year.
So begins Year Seven of Projection: Oscar, the first full season to take place in Trump’s America, terrain which remains quite dark, even outside the bunker. Here’s hoping the movies keep lighting us up.