'The Awards Pundits': Telluride's Highs and Toronto's Promise

La La Land - still 1 -VFF- H 2016
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

The Hollywood Reporter's awards analyst Scott Feinberg and executive features editor Stephen Galloway discuss the road to the Oscars.

GALLOWAY Scott, we’re on the plane about to leave Telluride. I want to start with two questions. First, what was your favorite moment of the festival?

FEINBERG The Patron Preview screening of La La Land at the very beginning of the fest. I first saw Damien Chazelle’s musical before Telluride in a small screening room, and it was immensely enjoyable then, but it was a different and better experience seeing it in the Chuck Jones Cinema with hundreds who were caught off guard by the charm of an original new 21st century musical, and by the excellent performances of Ryan Gosling and especially Emma Stone. We just haven’t seen anything like it in a long time, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if this film, which opened the Oscar season, also is the last one standing at the end.

GALLOWAY My own favorite moment was when I was on the gondola that brings festivalgoers down from the mountain and into Telluride. I met Clive Oppenheimer, the world’s greatest volcanologist. His business card actually says “Professor of Volcanology.” If only I had that on my card! He and Werner Herzog just made Into the Inferno, a new documentary I hope people will see. Which brings me to my second question: Which film got the biggest bounce here?

FEINBERG La La Land was the clear winner, but Barry JenkinsMoonlight wasn’t far behind, which is rather remarkable considering its budget (under $5 million), subject matter (the evolution of a young gay black boy into a man) and some steep marketing challenges: The closest thing it has to “name” stars are Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, both awards-worthy in supporting roles. I don’t think anyone didn’t like that movie.

GALLOWAY It’s my favorite film this year and the only one I saw in Telluride that moved me to tears. It also continues an amazing run for Plan B (Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Brad Pitt), who are likely to have a fourth consecutive best picture nominee (after 12 Years a Slave, Selma and The Big Short). From my point of view, it's difficult to see a film that moving and then rush off to something. What else went over well?

FEINBERG Sully, or at least Tom Hanks’ performance, also won nearly universal praise, and could bring Hanks his first Oscar nomination in 16 years. Most people, including me, also really liked Sundance standout Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s stark drama starring Casey Affleck

GALLOWAY — I’m a rare dissenter there, though I'm generally a Lonergan fan —

FEINBERG — and Cannes carryover Toni Erdmann, a German comedy that was a major crowd-pleaser (it reminded me of Zorba the Greek), but which I gather wasn’t your cup of tea.

GALLOWAY Actually, I walked out a bit before the end — and ran straight into its distributor, Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, in the lobby. What can I say? A lot of people loved it. I didn’t. But I did like the leading actress, Sandra Huller. Do you think she stands a chance of getting nominated when so few actors in foreign-language films ever do?

FEINBERG She was great — and you missed her two best moments, one involving an unexpected musical performance and another a team-building gathering, both of which had the theater rocking with laughter — but I don’t think an acting nom is in the cards for her or her terrific co-star, Peter Simonischek. Interestingly, a number of other somewhat polarizing movies featured performances that were very special — among them Bryan Cranston as a man who ditches his family in Wakefield; Sally Hawkins as a physically disabled painter in Maudie; Miles Teller as an ill-fated boxer in Bleed for This; and Amy Adams as a linguist who converses with aliens in Arrival.

GALLOWAY Adams' work gets more subtle, more textured and more real as time goes by. But when a movie loses steam, it’s so hard for awards voters to separate the performance from the picture. I have another beef: that so many beautiful performances in quite small parts get forgotten.

FEINBERG Which, among this year’s offerings, do you admire and fear will be overlooked?

GALLOWAY Several in Sully alone. One thing that’s marvelous about Clint Eastwood is his ability to find top-notch actors who give nuanced performances in these tiny roles — from Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn as a member of the committee investigating the plane crash, to Brett Rice, who just breathes life into a small scene without drawing attention to himself. It's actors like these who should be considered for supporting awards, rather than the quasi-leads who usually qualify. Kudos to them and casting director Geoffrey Miclat.

FEINBERG Aaron Eckhart was terrific, too, in both Sully and Bleed for This. But those two films already have distributors, so let’s talk about a few that don’t yet. I suspect Maudie will be among the first to get picked up, since some operation will want to buy its way into the best actress race (Hawkins’ physically demanding performance left a whole theater in tears), a la Julianne Moore in Sony Classics' Still Alice (I actually think Sony Classics would be a great fit for it). And I’d also bet that one of the streamers, Netflix or Amazon, will snatch up Wakefield — the victor could partner with another operation to give it an awards-qualifying run in the hope of landing a nom for Cranston (a nominee last go-around for Trumbo) and generating major interest on their platform (Breaking Bad only broke through once it hit Netflix).

GALLOWAY It’ll be fascinating to see if the streamers go on a buying spree at Toronto. I wrote recently that they’re changing the very structure of the business, cutting into the one edge the studios still have, which is their control of the means of distribution.

FEINBERG As you know, Telluride’s lineup consists of only a few dozen films, most of which already have a U.S. distributor, whereas Toronto’s features several hundred, many of which do not, so I do expect the acquisition floodgates to open there. The acquisition titles about which I’ve heard the most buzz include Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, Rob Reiner’s LBJ, Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest, Amma Asante's A United Kingdom, Adam Leon’s Tramps, Baltasar Kormakur’s The Oath, Terry George’s The Promise, Marc Forster’s All I See Is You and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune.

GALLOWAY There’s also a host of movies with distributors that skipped Telluride — voluntarily or involuntarily, we’ll never know — to head instead to Toronto: Ewan McGregor’s American Pastoral, Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, Mick Jackson's Denial, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Juan Antonio Bayona’s A Monster Calls, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (look out for my upcoming magazine profile of Ford), Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe and Garth JenningsSing.

FEINBERG And, let us not forget, the fest also will offer a first look at the upcoming Christmas release Hidden Figures (complete with a Pharrell concert) — and potentially a problematic look at Nate Parker, who may be put in the Witness Protection Program if his attendance steals headlines from his excellent directorial debut The Birth of a Nation.

For more discussion between THR's Awards Pundits please check out the archive.