Cannes Video: Feinberg Picks the Fest's Top Oscar Prospects

Only a couple of years ago, I was beginning to wonder if the Cannes Film Festival had become virtually irrelevant to the Oscar race. While only two Palme d'Or winners, both released over a half-century ago, have ever gone on to win the best picture Oscar -- The Lost Weekend (1945) and Marty (1955) -- the rest of the lineup, in most years since the fest's founding 67 years ago, has included at least a few titles that went on to strong Oscar showings.

But, heading into 2011, even that was no longer a given. Indeed, only two of the previous 30 best picture Oscar winners had even played at Cannes, Chariots of Fire (1981) and No Country for Old Men (2007), and only one of the previous 14 Palme d'Or winners had even been nominated for the best picture Oscar, The Pianist (2002). As a result of its May dates, Cannes seemed to be losing many top contenders to the Telluride and Toronto film fests, which take place in September, closer to the end of the year, when awards voters fill out their ballots.

The Telluride/Toronto route still seems to be the preferred one for most awards hopefuls -- Fox Searchlight, for instance, has reportedly completed and even received an MPAA rating for Twelve Years a Slave, but elected to skip Cannes and hold it for the fall fests -- but over the last two years something unexpected happened: Cannes became a player again. Three three films that wound up with best picture and best director Oscar noms, among others, premiered at the fest: The Artist (2011), which won both prizes, as well as The Tree of Life (2011) and Amour (2012), both of which also won the Palme d'Or.

True, two of the aforementioned three films are in the French language and therefore had backers who were probably particularly inclined to premiere their work at the historic French film fest. But, nevertheless, they and several other films that simultaneously played at the fest -- including Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012), both of which also scored major Oscar noms -- helped to restore luster to its image and influence.

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The fest's 2013 lineup looks, at least on paper, to be the deepest in recent memory, which has prompted many to debate which of this year's selections are likeliest to wind up as Oscar nominees more than a half-year from now.

Until we actually see the films -- and admittedly, I've thus far seen only Fruitvale Station (which played at Sundance) and The Great Gatsby (which has already opened in the U.S.), plus HBO's Behind the Candelabra and Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (both of which will air on TV in 2013 and are therefore ineligible for Oscar consideration) -- this is a somewhat silly exercise. But it is possible to formulate "educated guesses" about these films' future prospects, so that's what I have decided to do.

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In the video at the top of this post, you can find out which five films in this year's lineup strike me as the likeliest to go the distance. And below you can read my more extensive analysis.

The Already-Unveiled

  • Fruitvale Station, which marks the feature directorial debut of the 26-year-old filmmaker Ryan Coogler, was the consensus standout at January's Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Inspired by the tragic true story of Oscar Grant, a young black man who died in Oakland on New Year's Day 2009 as a result of police brutality, it focuses on the last day in the man's life and presents a troubling portrait of the many ways in which race still impacts and divides America. Most awards chatter pertaining to the film has centered around Michael B. Jordan's portrayal of Grant and Coogler's original screenplay. Actresses Melonie Davis and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer have also received strong notices for their supporting work. The film is following the same awards trajectory that worked so well for Beasts of the Southern Wild last year: Sundance to Cannes to a summer platform release, in this case starting July 12.
  • The Great Gatsby, meanwhile, opened in the U.S. last Friday, making it one of only a few Cannes openers to have already been screened before playing on the Croisette. Baz Luhrmann's take on the classic novel, which has been made into films several times before without much acclaim, is faithful to the plot but unconventional in its presentation, including a soundtrack coordinated by Jay-Z that features 21st century hip. Pairing Luhrmann with his Romeo + Juliet (1996) star Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire and Joel Edgarton, it has generated mostly mixed reviews and will probably be buried on its distributor's list of priorities by end of the year releases. It is most likely to be remembered for Catherine Martin's terrific costumes and/or production design, even if nowhere else, as was the case with Romeo + Juliet and Australia (2008).

The Best Bets

  • Nebraska, writer/director Alexander Payne's follow-up to The Descendants, which was an Academy favorite, seems to be more in the vein of his earlier efforts About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004), in that it is, at its heart, a road movie. Like Sideways, this one revolves around an oddball couple: 76-year-old Bruce Dern, who is best known for the Oscar-nominated supporting performance he gave 35 years ago in Coming Home (1978), and SNL alum Will Forte, whose most noted film credit thus far is the unmitigated bomb MacGruber (2010), as a father and son who embark on a journey to collect lottery winnings. People raised eyebrows when Payne cast journeymen actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in Sideways, but Church wound up with an Oscar nom and Giamatti came pretty close, so it's probably wise not to bet against his tastes. This one may be a slightly tougher sell, though, in that it's being released in black-and-white. Rumor has it that veteran character actress June Squibb (who played Jack Nicholson's wife in About Schmidt) is a major scene-stealer in this film and a possible best supporting actress threat.
  • Inside Llewyn Davis is a small-scale film from the Coen brothers, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, but that shouldn't impact its awards prospects one way or the other, since the Academy likes their films big (i.e. True Grit), medium (i.e. No Country for Old Men) and small (i.e. A Serious Man). Taking place against the backdrop of the 1960s New York folk music scene, it revolves around a Bob Dylan-esque character and stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman, among others.
  • All Is Lost is writer/director J.C. Chandor's sophomore effort, coming on the heels of his critically acclaimed Margin Call (2011), for which he received a best original screenplay Oscar nom. That one was celebrated for its fast-paced wordiness; this one is virtually wordess, featuring Robert Redford, in his first solo starring role in years, as a man who is shipwrecked and tries to survive at sea. It seems like a less obvious awards play for Chandor in the original screenwriting race, but certainly something that offers enough meat for a popular actor like Redford to crack into the best actor field, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000).
  • The Immigrant appears to be the most ambitious work yet by writer/director James Gray, an American filmmaker who is infinitely more popular in France than in his home country. Gray's films are usually set in the present, but this one unfolds in the early 20th century. Oscar winner Marion Cotillard plays a Polish immigrant who arrives at Ellis Island in 1920, only to be separated from her family and fall into misadventures with characters played by Oscar nominees Jeremy Renner and Joaquin Phoenix. It could be a nice vehicle for Cotillard to return to the best actress Oscar race, which she won six years ago for La Vie En Rose (2007), but from which she was snubbed last year for Rust and Bone (2012).
  • The Past is the first film after a widely-heralded one for writer/director Asghar Farhadi, who won the best foreign language film Oscar for Iran's A Separation (2011); actor Tahar Rahim, who is best known for the Cannes hit A Prophet (2009) and is coming off the widely acclaimed Our Children (2012); and actress Berenice Bejo, who was a best supporting actress Oscar nominee for her last high-profile film, The Artist (2011). This film, like A Separation, deals with marital strife; in this case, an Iranian man leaves his French wife, who then fights him for the custody of their child. Interestingly, that may not be the only custody battle associated with the film: Farhadi, who co-wrote and directed the film, is Iranian, but virtually everyone else associated with it is French, it is in the French language, and it was shot in France, so it's unclear which country, if either, will claim it for the best foreign language film Oscar race. Foreign language films rarely contend in the other major categories -- Amour being a noteworthy exception last year -- but anything is possible.


  • Only God Forgives reunites the writer/director and star of the critically acclaimed Drive (2011), Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling. It could be the sort of thing that the Cannes jury goes for, but, like Drive, it's probably too "genre" for the Academy's tastes. Interestingly, that is something that has been overcome in the supporting actress category in recent years -- see Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom (2010), among others -- which could bode well for the prospects of Kristin Scott Thomas, who is said to be very good at being very bad as Gosling's godfather-esque mother in the crime-thriller, which unfolds in the Bangkok underworld.
  • The Bling Ring is the latest film from writer/director Sofia Coppola, who won the best original screenplay Oscar for Lost in Translation (2003) -- which also received three other Oscar noms -- but has otherwise made films that failed to click with the Academy: The Virgin Suicides (1999), Marie Antoinette (2006) and Somewhere (2010); those three collectively received one Oscar nom, best costume design for Marie Antoinette, which it won. This one, which is based on the true story of a recent string of high-profile robberies of celebrity homes, stars a talented ensemble of young actresses including Emma Watson and Taissa Farmiga, and will be released in the U.S. on June 14. Its subject matter sounds a bit too trivial for the Academy, which generally responds to matters of larger social significance, and its early release date won't help either.
  • The Congress is writer-director Ari Folman's first film since Waltz with Bashir (2008), the semi-animated/semi-doc film that the Israeli filmmaker made about his country's 1982 war with Lebanon. This one, which is adapted from a novel, is also partially animated and stars Robin Wright, Danny Huston, Harvey Keitel and young Sami Gayle. Wright plays an aging, struggling actress who takes one last job.
  • As I Lay Dying, an adaptation of a 1930 William Faulkner novel, marks the latest effort of Hollywood's ultimate multi-hypenate, James Franco, who wrote, directed, and stars in it. The intense, wordy story apparently employs extensive voiceover by Franco and his costars, including Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins.
  • Venus in Fur is Oscar winner Roman Polanski's first feature since Carnage (2011), which marked something of a setback for the legendary filmmaker, who won the best director Oscar for The Pianist (2002) and rave reviews for The Ghost Writer (2010) in recent years. This one, a French-language adaptation of a 2010 two-person Tony-nominated play of the same title, reunites The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) stars Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner. Hopefully it's a better adaptation of a theatrical performance than Carnage was!