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The State of the Race: Telluride and the Best Picture Oscar Race

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Over the past few years, Telluride has become the launching pad for Oscar contenders and winners. You’d probably had to have been watching the race evolve over the past 15 years to understand why. Back before they changed the date for Oscar, roughly 2003, the Oscars were held in March. That meant, awards madness really didn’t start until January or so. Funnily enough, I remember the days when December wasn’t the most heated time. As the years wore on, everything was pushed back so that now, September and October are the key months for herding the contenders into the pen.

When the Oscars were held in March we had a situation we don’t have now: the ability to reflect on the films of the year. I can’t say that the films chosen now are better than the ones that came before it. I can’t even say that the Academy’s recent decision to expand the Best Picture nominees from five to ten, then from ten to a random number based on favorites, makes for a better Best Picture lineup. What I do know about then and now is that the Oscars are no longer decided after the public gets a crack at it. They are now decided by the much more insular industry group, with some prodding from the critics and bloggers. Once the PGA announces their winner, it feels like it’s all over but the shouting. That might change — so far, it doesn’t look likely. We now have a monolith club who decide what ought to be Best Picture of the Year.

That’s why the sooner your contender runs the gauntlet the better. Late comers haven’t really won Best Picture since … I can’t even think of the last time. Million Dollar Baby strikes me as one of those because it came in after the two favorites — The Aviator and Sideways — and cleaned their clocks. Of course, history was made to be broken and that is never more true than in the Oscar race.

The festivals give critics and muggles alike an opportunity to see the films. It was clear two years ago that everyone loved The Artist. It was all anybody could talk about. If you keep your ears open you will hear what people who aren’t critics, just festival goers who love movies, think. All I heard that year was The Artist, The Artist, The Artist. It didn’t matter what movies grew around it, that was going to be the one to beat. The next year, there was no denying Argo’s popularity. It was admired by nearly everyone in audiences that saw it early. Few Oscar bloggers and critics, thought it was strong enough to be the winner. A solid contender for sure, but it didn’t seem big or serious enough. Turns out, that worked in its favor as it went up against emotionally wrenching films like Life of Pi, dark and complicated films like Zero Dark Thirty, and intellectually challenging films like Lincoln.

This year, I have been keeping my ears open listening to festival goers. Here is what I’ve heard so far.

At the Herzog someone asked an older man what his favorites were so far. His answer? Nebraska and Labor Day.

On the way to a bar I heard a woman talking enthusiastically about a movie she just saw. I asked her what it was: All Is Lost, she said.

A woman at the Telluride thrift store recommended the best movie she’d seen so far to another woman. That movie: Prisoners.

The one I keep hearing about from critics, bloggers and festival goers as powerful and solid thumbs up: 12 Years a Slave.

The festival, I’d say, has gone mostly as expected except that 12 Years a Slave really got the “Argo slot.” It was the one that swooped in when no one was looking and slam dunked its arrival. It helped that Brad Pitt was here.

I haven’t heard anyone but bloggers and critics speak enthusiastically about two films I think are seriously Oscar-bound, not yet anyway, and those are Inside Llewyn Davis and Gravity. Both films really have Best Picture buzz. Gravity is emotionally challenging. Llewyn Davis is intellectually challenging. For your winner, remember, you’re usually looking for the one that isn’t challenging at all.

I still have a sneaking suspicion Nebraska might be one of those, even though Payne tends to make challenging movies. So let’s look at the slate and divide them up into challenging and not challenging. This will sound condescending, but I am always watching the Oscar race bring the horse to the water but being unable to make it drink. The unchallenging tends to trump the challenging.

Challenging


Inside Llewyn Davis – You really have to be thinking about it while you’re watching it. It helps to know about the era, and the Coens, and T-Bone, and Bob Dylan, and if you know about Dave Van Ronk, you’re almost home.

All Is Lost – This is a metaphysical films as well as a survival film. Apparently there are debates about whether Redford lives or not. To me, it’s plainly obvious. To some, there is an open question. And I would bet dollars to donuts it will depend on whether you are an atheist or a person with the God gene.

Blue is the Warmest Color – Will make some women uncomfortable, though the Academy is ruled by men.

Hovering on the middle ground between challenging and not challenging:

Labor Day – It requires suspension of belief and the ability to juggle a metaphor. But once you accept it and go with it, you might be overtaken by emotion.

12 Years a Slave – Yhere are likely two reactions to this one. You are moved deeply by it or you are put off by the graphic violence. There is no question as to whether it’s a good movie. Most will respond to it in the intended fashion.

Prisoners – While it’s a fairly typical crime story like Law and Order SVU or Criminal Minds, it is also very very violent and hard to take at times. That means many older voters will cover their eyes and wince.

Not Particularly Challenging

Gravity – This movie takes over for you. It doesn’t need you to think about it at all while you’re watching it. It is loud, however.

Nebraska – The only challenging thing about this story is that it’s filmed in black and white. Otherwise it’s a movie you could sit anyone down in front of and they would get it if not love it.

For Telluride, I think that about sums it up. If I had to choose the winner right now I’d say it was down to:

Nebraska, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave or Gravity.

But I have no idea currently how it will play out once Toronto hits. There is also Captain Phillips which screens in Los Angeles ahead of the New York Film Fest, and Saving Mr. Banks which should start screening sooner rather than later.

Still to come: August: Osage County, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Fifth Estate, etc.

Top Five Best Picture rankings for me right this moment of films I’ve seen (from what I think has the best chance right now):

1. Nebraska
2. The Butler
3. 12 Years a Slave
4. Gravity
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
And in the hunt for nominees:
6. Fruitvale Station
7. Labor Day
8. Blue is the Warmest Color
9. Before Midnight
10. Prisoners

I’m one of the few Labor Day supporters so I really hope that makes the cut. I am also hoping Fruitvale Station makes the cut.