Inside the Early Awards Race: 'Argo,' 'The Master,' 'Silver Linings Playbook' Among Contenders

Thomas Weinstein Phoenix The Master H 2012
Getty Images

This story first appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Sometimes you win by losing. That, at least, was the tactic The Weinstein Co. used when The Master, one of its major fall awards competitors, failed to snare the Venice Film Festival's top prize. Sure, the jury honored Paul Thomas Anderson as best director for his Scientology-based character study about a rootless man (Joaquin Phoenix) and the charismatic leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who takes control of his life. But, as if the applause that greeted Master at the Toronto International Film Festival were echoing across the Atlantic, Venice jury president Michael Mann sounded almost apologetic as he explained that festival rules prevented him from crowning the film with both a Golden Lion and a shared acting prize for the movie's stars. "No, no, it's great. We think it's better," insisted TWC co-chief Harvey Weinstein as he faced down the Toronto media. "I'm thrilled with whatever they hand over."

PHOTOS: Venice Film Festival Days 4 Through 6: 'The Master,' 'Love Is All You Need' Premiere

Clearly, though, this year the fall trifecta of Venice, Telluride and Toronto had a lot of distributors anxiously checking reviews and reactions as the awards race began to take shape. Ben Affleck's hostage thriller Argo was the one film to break from the pack, gathering momentum at Telluride and Toronto. "You could feel the electricity in the theater," notes Warner Bros. marketing chief Sue Kroll, adding, "It's still the very early days of the campaign, but I think it's worthy of all the attention, and our hope is that it continues to be part of the conversation."

David O. Russell's crowd-pleasing dramedy Silver Linings Playbook was greeted with cheers in Toronto after it sat out the first two fests. But Terrence Malick's meandering love story To the Wonder met with boos in Venice and only perfunctory applause from the always-polite Canadians. Cloud Atlas, the six-ring circus of a movie from Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, received an extended standing ovation at its world premiere in Toronto, even as first responders online were decidedly mixed. Calling it "a film of limitless imagination, breathtaking visuals and fearless scope," critic Roger Ebert also confessed, "I have no idea what it is about."

As experts parsed the narrowing of the best picture race -- so long, David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis and Brian De Palma's Passion; can Joe Wright's Anna Karenina survive mixed reviews? -- certain performances started to win buzz. Marion Cotillard's brave turn as a woman confronting the loss of her legs in Rust and Bone, first seen in Cannes, was received warmly in Telluride, where she was feted with a special tribute. Ditto for Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva's work as a longtime couple facing death in Michael Haneke's Amour. At Toronto, John Hawkes reignited strong word-of-mouth as a man in an iron lung who sees a sex surrogate in The Sessions, which Fox Searchlight picked up at Sundance. "With so many new movies here, we wanted to remind everyone about our movie," says Searchlight president Nancy Utley.

STORY: Venice 2012: Jury President Michael Mann Explains 'The Master' Voting Decisions (Exclusive)

Even though the Telluride-Toronto double play has anointed the best picture winner three of the past four years by putting Slumdog Millionaire, The King's Speech and The Artist on base, this year, history might not repeat. Late September's New York Film Festival is set to premiere Ang Lee's Life of Pi and Robert Zemeckis' Flight, and several big awards contenders -- including Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, Gus Van Sant's The Promised Land, and Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey -- won't be seen by voters until later in the season.

Still, Venice and Toronto clarified the race. Summit's The Impossible, for instance, starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts in the true story of a family who survived the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, had viewers in tears -- especially after the real-life couple stood up at film's end to take a bow. But other movies left audiences scratching their heads. When it came to The Master, Phoenix and Hoffman were praised for the intensity of their performances, and Anderson's direction is nearly hypnotic. But it almost dares audiences to embrace it, which makes its best picture prospects problematic. Because it's juggling a jampacked fall slate, TWC is moving Master out first beginning Sept. 14, but that means it will face the challenge of staying in the awards conversation through the rest of the year.

Malick's To the Wonder, which hasn't yet secured a U.S. distributor, faces even more formidable hurdles. Even fans of his Oscar-nominated The Tree of Life last year were unforgiving in dismissing the love story. As one observer cracked, "You either hate it, or you hate it." Of course, the reclusive director wasn't on hand for the film's Toronto bow. More telling, neither was Affleck, ostensibly its male star.

STORY: Toronto 2012: Harvey Weinstein and Paul Thomas Anderson Respond to 'The Master' Venice Flap

It also became clear that while the actor field is crowded, the actress field is wide open. With only Cotillard and 8-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis of Beasts of the Southern Wild having thrown down real markers in the lead actress race, handicappers are having difficulty filling out their dance cards. While Bill Murray might prove a contender as Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson, Laura Linney's part as his woman-on-the-side didn't feel substantial enough for a lead actress run. And though Keira Knightley has the title role in Anna Karenina, Wright's approach to the Leo Tolstoy novel left some cold.

That opens the door for contenders like Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence and Sessions' Helen Hunt, who might have been relegated to supporting in a busier year but could move into the actress heat.