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The State of the Race: How Telluride Shapes the Oscars

Every year after Telluride there is the sense that bigger, better movies could still come along that might overtake the race. I remember this most profoundly in 2012 when Argo came, was very popular at Telluride but didn’t really pick up its major Best Picture heat until the one-two punch of Affleck and Argo winning the Golden Globes and Critics Choice just as Ben Affleck received his Best Director snub. That the movie wonlo those two significant awards could have meant the movie was destined to win no matter what. But the Globes aren’t the best or most reliable barometer to predict Best Picture, even if the Critics Choice often are. It was the Affleck snub that set up the much-needed narrative giving the film’s general likability a much-needed sense of urgency. That was also the first time the Oscar ballots for Best Director were turned in before the DGA announced. Last year and this year will also see that same scheduling shift but the Affleck snub was perhaps one of the most surprising things I’ve ever seen happen at the Oscars. It ended up having a profound effect on how the Oscar voting is conducted, because now it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary to split Picture and Director. Now we can look at a movie like Birdman and comfortably say “it could win Best Director even if it doesn’t win Best Picture.” The unity of picture and director has been severed both by Affleck’s snub, and by the number of Best Picture entries compared to the smaller number of entries for Best Director.

Remember, from 1931-1943, back when the Academy had more than five Best Picture nominees, the only film that ever won Best Picture without the director at least being nominated, was Grand Hotel — a situation so strange in retrospect it looks like a slip-up. So it was highly unusual that Affleck carried his film to such a successful win without getting a director nomination, or perhaps because of the lack of the best director nomination. Either way, in 2012, after Telluride, Argo was mostly regarded as a well-liked film but not the one everyone was thinking would win Best Picture.

Now we find ourselves at the end of Telluride with a similar dynamic in play. Everyone is looking forward to the upcoming films that haven’t yet been seen — Fury, Gone Girl, Unbroken, Men, Women & Children, Interstellar, Into the Woods, Inherent Vice. Telluride, right now, feels like it always does when it ends. Somehow though, in recent years, the eventual Best Picture winner does turn out to be a film that was seen in Telluride — just not overhyped or overpraised, thus making it a target.

Even still, I can’t say there was any film I saw this week that seems like the winner. We don’t know how it will all play out. We don’t know what combination of films will barrel toward the finish line, so we can’t see which one isn’t like the others. Not yet.

The actors have to like it. Oldish people have to like it. It has to have “gravitas” to win. Directors have to respect it. You have to be able to sit anyone down in front of it and they will get it, if not love it. It has to be a movie that isn’t divisive. In an era of bravura filmmaking and risk taking that usually leaves the winning film to the most conventional, at least these days, perhaps unless they go back to five.

Still, in order for a film like The Imitation Game to win — right now the only movie that played here that seems like it has the stuff — the other movies upcoming will have to stumble. That sometimes happens when expectations are raised too high — thus backlash takes hold. It’s hard for a movie like The Imitation Game to attract backlash because no one is really expecting it to win. That gives the film a huge advantage over the films that have to carry the frontrunner albatross. It is also the one movie no one is going to hate. And that is often what defines a modern Best Picture winner in the era where everyone has a voice, a twitter, a tumblr, etc. Big Oscar Movies are often attacked simply because they seem like a movie that could win.

The Imitation Game backlash would only then come from those who perceive it as Oscar bait, an attitude I’ve seen already crop up on Twitter.

Your three best bets for Best Picture out of Telluride:
The Imitation Game
Birdman
Foxcatcher

Beyond Best Picture, though, what else took hold? In the Best Actress race, Reese Witherspoon and Hilary Swank emerged strong for Best Actress contention. They are putting themselves out there early and both came to Telluride to help promote their films.

Benedict Cumberbatch, Steve Carell and Michael Keaton are the three strongest Best Actor contenders right now.

Mommy, Leviathan, Wild Tales all came out of Cannes and all seem to be very promising in the Best Foreign Language category.

Other performances that remain standouts would include Laure Dern, a supporting contender for Wild, Channing Tatum for Foxcatcher, though Best Actor is already so crowded it’s likely only Carrel will get in. Mark Ruffalo will have a place in line for supporting for Foxcatcher. Keira Knightley is a strong bet for supporting for The Imitation Game, along with Emma Stone for Birdman.

The Imitation Game is the only film that really popped exclusively here in Telluride, being seen for the first time as Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech all had been. Birdman was a Venice get already and landed at Telluride with extremely high praise to live up to.

With The Imitation Game here in Telluride we have our introductory sentence to the longer piece that will be written about this year. As it always is with the Labor Day end to the festival it feels like the best is yet to come. What is coming is the unknown. We don’t know how things will shake down. We wait. We wait.