News in 2008
Cin-E-File: Darryl Macdonald dishes the Fall buzz
Palm Springs International Film Society
An extended version of Darryl Macdonald's Director's Chair article from this month's Cin-E-File:
The race for year-end gold heats up as the serious movie and festival season kicks into high gear. It's finally feeling distinctly Fallish, and along with the moderate temperatures comes a surge in the number of films with quality scripts, top-notch performances and more thoughtful themes that emerge each year on the Fall festival circuit, beginning with the back-to-back Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals. These festivals have become the prime U.S. industry launching pads for a flotilla of Oscar hopefuls – both studio prestige pictures and the dark horse indy pics (think Juno, Crash, et al) that gain early buzz.
So what's getting the buzz this year? The silly season really began back in May with the Cannes Film Festival unveiling a few sure contenders for Oscar consideration. Remember that the 2007 Cannes Festival gave us No Country for Old Men, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Persepolis, among others, each of which went on to take several year-end awards, so expectations were naturally heightened this year. By the end of the 2008 fest, three pictures emerged with big Oscar buzz: Clint Eastwood's Changeling, with a tour-de-force performance by Angelina Jolie that is certain to deliver her another Oscar nomination; Woody Allen's return to form with Vicky Christina Barcelona, featuring a great script and a performance by Penelope Cruz that has her as the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress; and Waltz with Bashir, which will probably gain nominations in both the Best Animated Feature and Best Foreign Language Film categories.
Highest hopes at Cannes were pinned on Steven Soderbergh's Che, but the epic, two-part film received a very mixed reception there despite Benicio del Toro's subsequent Best Actor award. Count on Che's distributor to push hard for a nomination here. The film gained a much more favorable reception at the Toronto Film Festival, causing some to wonder if the advance hype was the main cause of the less than enthusiastic response at Cannes. Toronto has become a major launch pad for the Fall Oscar hopefuls over the last half-decade, with both East and West Coast media having a major presence there as studios parade their big stars and talent through the town's hot spots and trendy festival parties.
The Venice, Telluride and Toronto fests essentially overlap, and as a result at least two inevitably share a number of the same films with the film's producers or studios hoping to get twice the buzz for the buck, as happened with a few of the breakout hits of this year's festival trifecta. Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler -- starring a dissolute Mickey Rourke as an over-the-hill mat jockey -- took Venice by storm, winning the festival's Golden Lion and heaps of praise for both Rourke and director Aronofsky. It then moved on to Toronto, where the rapturous reception was repeated, and the film sparked a bidding war by U.S. distributors. It's worthy of all the acclaim, and I say that as someone who couldn't have been less interested in either wrestling or Rourke prior to seeing it. I'm now an enthusiastic convert, and the film will garner a slew of nominations come awards season.
Even more dazzling was Danny Boyle's (Trainspotting) Slumdog Millionaire -- the unlikely tale of a young, lower caste Indian man who wins a fortune on the Indian equivalent of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." Hugely inventive and raucously entertaining, the film delivers a mini-history lesson, a love story, a wry comedy and a thriller, all rolled into one. Miss it at your peril!
Jonathan Demme returns to his independent roots with Rachel Getting Married, an engaging new saga of familial dysfunction surrounding the ultimate family function: a wedding. In this case, an occasion that threatens to go off the rails when youngest daughter Kym (Anne Hathaway) is let loose from her umpteenth go-round in rehab to return to the family home for her sister's big day. Bedlam ensues. Hathaway is a revelation here, providing an Oscar-worthy performance as the outrageously needy, in-your-face Kym, who nevertheless utterly engages our empathy and understanding. The cast, which includes Bill Irwin, Deborah Winger and Rosemarie DeWitt (as the long-suffering Rachel), is uniformly wonderful, as are the wall-to-wall musical set-pieces, camerawork by Declan Quinn and Demme's off-the-cuff directorial touch, which infuses the film with an effervescent energy that transcends the storyline’s potential for pathos.
Sisterhood seemed a recurring sub-theme among this Fall's Oscar-buzz films. Kristen Scott Thomas is getting major awards hype for her amazing performance as a woman reuniting with her long-estranged sister after a fifteen-year absence in Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long – reason enough to see the film, though the story's steadily escalating revelations give the film a somewhat choppy, episodic feel.
Sisterhood of a different sort is the theme of The Secret Life of Bees, a sweetly moving tale that weaves the themes of racism and the Civil Rights Movement into the fabric of its coming-of-age story about a young white woman (terrifically played by former child star Dakota Fanning) who, together with her family's maid, Rosaleen (Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson), seeks freedom from their oppressive home life by hitting the road and heading for a small town in South Carolina where they are taken under the wing of a determined black business woman (Queen Latifah) and her two equally strong sisters.
Missing in action at Toronto, Venice and Telluride were a handful of the most eagerly anticipated upcoming releases getting early Oscar buzz. Gus Van Sant's Milk, about the openly gay San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by Twinkie defense madman Dan White. The film, director Van Sant and stars Sean Penn and James Franco (who plays Milk's lover, Scott Smith) are all getting major Oscar buzz, though the film's been kept under tight wraps as Van Sant works on the final edit.
Equally strong buzz is being accorded David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which features Brad Pitt as a man who ages backwards over the course of 80 years, spanning the end of World War I through the early 21st century. Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, James Flemyng and Elias Koteas co-star in this highly anticipated film, based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, which is getting massive pre-Oscar hype.
Two other films are attracting similar buzz. Sam Mendes'(American Beauty) Revolutionary Road reteams Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet in a 50s-set story based on Richard Yates' eponymous novel about a young couple coming to grips with the contrary demands of family and self-fulfillment.
Equally compelling is perennial Oscar favorite Ed Zwick's new film, Defiance, which teams Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell as three Jewish brothers who escape Nazi-occupied Poland and attempt to set up a safe haven for others fleeing the Nazis on the Belarusian front during the war. Zwick, whose previous films as a director include Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond and as a producer include Shakespeare in Love and Traffic, has an equally impressive track record for eliciting Oscar-worthy performances from his actors, so Defiance has to be looked at as a strong potential contender.
Of course, the foreign language and documentary Oscar contenders were out in full force at the Toronto and Venice Festivals as well, but given the fact that many of them will be showcased at the Palm Springs International Film Festival (Jan. 6-19, 2009), we'll save a rundown of those for upcoming Cin-E-File issues. Meanwhile, a number of this year's Oscar hopefuls will be featured free for members at upcoming Film Society screenings, so be sure your membership is current and happy viewing!