Oscars 2017: Top 5 takeaways from Telluride, Venice and Toronto film festivals

The Oscar season semi-officially kicks off every year with the three major September festivals — Telluride, Venice and Toronto — and the results this year have begun to provide a definite shape to the Oscar race to come. Telluride (which keeps its screening lineup secret until festival-goers actually arrive) and Venice have a reputation as being the birthplace of Best Picture winners —  except for 2011’s “The Artist” which premiered at Cannes, every Best Picture winner since 2008 has premiered at one of these two festivals, so it’s likely that we have seen this year’s Best Picture winner already.

What can we read out of these festivals?  Let’s look at the Top 5 takeaways from Telluride, Venice and Toronto:

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La La Land” is a major player 
Damien Chazelle‘s follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Whiplash,” the new musical “La La Land,” stormed through all three festivals, winning acclaim in Telluride, the Best Actress prize for Emma Stone in Venice, and the much-coveted Audience Award in Toronto. The Toronto award is particularly desired as it has been won by such Best Picture champs as “12 Years a Slave,” “The King’s Speech,” “Argo” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” as well as Oscar winners “Room,” “The Imitation Game,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Dallas Buyers Club.”

“La La Land,” which pairs Stone with Ryan Gosling in a kind of fantasy vision of Los Angeles, received such raves that it will may well encounter a backlash when it opens in theaters in December (not uncommon for Oscar front-runners). If the film can weather that storm, those involved with “La La Land” stand a good chance of winding up on the stage of the Dolby Theater in February. Added bonus — I suspect that, after “Birdman,” the academy is dying to give Stone an Oscar, and this appears to be the perfect vehicle.

On the other hand, there’s Amy Adams
If Stone has a strong backstory for her Oscar campaign, Amy Adams has an even more compelling one, which was certainly on display in Toronto. The perennial Oscar bridesmaid — five nominations, zero wins — headlined two films from major directors. The sci-fi thriller “Arrival,” directed by Denis Villeneuve (who, after “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” is way overdue for Oscar attention) stars Adams as a linguist who is able to communicate with aliens who make their presence known on Earth. Her performance garnered much praise.  Plus there’s her turn as a lonely art gallery owner in Tom Ford‘s film noir “Nocturnal Animals,” co-starring Jake Gyllenhaal, which has admittedly polarized critics after its premiere in Venice but could bolster Adams’ campaign for “Arrival,” should that be her campaign choice.

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But wait, there are even more contenders for Best Actress
Stone may have awards heat and Adams a compelling backstory, but these three festivals have revealed a number of strong potential contenders for Best Actress. We had already known about Ruth Negga‘s acclaimed performance in the interracial marriage saga “Loving,” which received Oscar-caliber reviews coming out of Cannes and was said to have played smashingly in Toronto, which certainly cements her spot as an Oscar contender. Also on the radar is French star Isabelle Huppert, who headlined three films including Paul Verhoven‘s “Elle,” which is being distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. That studio, one of the craftiest players in the Oscar race, is planning a big campaign on her behalf.  And then there is Oscar-winner Natalie Portman in “Jackie,” the first English-language film by Pablo Larraín, that chronicles Jacqueline Kennedy‘s life just after her husband was assassinated.

Moonlight” may be this year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
Every year, at least one independent film is able to maneuver its way through the Oscar maze and based on its showings at all three festivals, “Moonlight” may just be that film this year. Barry Jenkins‘ portrait of a young African-American through three stages of his life has some of the same appeal as “Boyhood,” although in this case, our protagonist, Chiron, is played by  different actors at each of three stages of his life. Chiron finds himself grappling with his identity as an African-American and, when he gets older, his sexual identity as well, which gives the film its heft. Many reviewers simply love this film, and it may be that passion that could lead it to an Oscar nomination.

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The Birth of a Nation” still has a rough road to Oscars
At this year’s Sundance festival, Fox Searchlight scored a major coup in buying the rights to distribute Nate Parker‘s much-acclaimed film about the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.  (Parker turned down a higher offer by Netflix, possibly because he recognized Fox Searchlight’s savviness in the Oscar game.) It was seen to have the upper hand in this year’s Oscar race. Then came the news that Parker, when he was a student at Penn State, had been tried, along with a friend, in 1999 on charges of rape. Parker was found not guilty, and his friend’s initial conviction was overturned. And we learned that the woman at the center of the case committed suicide in 2012. “The Birth of a Nation” played very well in Toronto, giving the studio hope that audiences and Oscar voters will keep an open mind and judge the film on its own merits.

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