The Middleburg Film Festival (MFF) unveiled a remarkable lineup of movies at this year’s gala. Celebrating its 11th year, the festival has swiftly risen to compete with some of the most esteemed festivals worldwide. Their selection of movies caters to a diverse audience, featuring an array of international films, documentaries, works directed by women and people of color, award contenders and popcorn flicks. As the festival has continued to expand over the years, it now stands shoulder to shoulder with renowned events like Telluride, Venice, and Toronto film festivals. Middleburg has solidified its status as a must-attend festival on the awards circuit.
The highlight of the event for me this year was witnessing Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino (known for his work on LOST, The Batman, and Up) receive Middleburg’s “Distinguished Composer Award.” Approximately sixty members of the Loudoun Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kim Kluge, delivered a captivating performance of Giacchino’s film and TV scores. Along with the pleasure of hearing Giacchino’s familiar work, we were treated to a preview of his latest effort – the score from Spain’s official Oscar submission, JA Bayona’s Society Of The Snow. Giacchino stated we were the first audience to hear this incredible work. It was quite beautiful. It’s events like this that make Middleburg a magical place.
Several of this year’s top Oscar contenders graced the screens at MFF. I’ll focus on the films I personally viewed at Middleburg that have a potential presence on the red carpet this year, and I’ll seize the opportunity to revise my Good As Gold Oscar predictions.
Anatomy of a Fall – I had the privilege of seeing Anatomy in Telluride, and I absolutely loved it. A second viewing only reaffirmed my belief that this is one of the standout films of 2023, featuring one of the most outstanding performances of the year by Sandra Hüller. I maintain that the film is a formidable contender in the Original Screenplay and Lead Actress categories, and it shouldn’t be underestimated in the Best Picture and Best Director races either. Had France submitted the film as its entry for the International Feature category (they chose The Taste of Things instead), I believe Anatomy of a Fall could have given The Zone of Interest (The United Kingdom) a run for its money.
The Taste of Things – This is a wonderfully languid, quintessentially French film. Although I was initially surprised by France’s choice, I now can understand their decision to submit Taste over Anatomy in the International race. While Anatomy predominantly features French, it also includes substantial portions of English and German dialogue. The Taste of Things is unequivocally and exquisitely French. I see it primarily as a contender in the International Feature race, although Juliette Binoche delivers a consistently elegant and extraordinary performance.
Priscilla – Sofia Coppola’s film has unveiled a budding star to the world: the enchanting Cailee Spaeny. The radiating chemistry she and Jacob Elordi share on screen is nothing short of mesmerizing, and their performances are poised to take center stage in a slew of yearend Breakthrough Performance articles, including my own. Priscilla is graced with stunning cinematography, and makes a compelling case in Oscar categories such as Hair and Makeup, Costumes, and perhaps positions Spaeny as a dark horse contender for Lead Actress.
American Fiction’s unique appeal positions it favorably for a preferential ballot system, and as a result, I’ve elevated its status in my Best Picture predictions. Jeffrey Wright’s performance places him in contention for the Lead Actor category, but it’s an exceptionally competitive field this year, and some notable performances may go unrecognized due to the limited number of slots available. While preferential ballots eliminate the possibility of vote splitting, the Academy only applies this voting method to the Best Picture category. In the Adapted Screenplay race, it’s plausible that American Fiction could benefit from vote splitting between Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon, potentially leading to its victory.
As for Cord Jefferson’s prospects in the Director category, this presents the film’s most significant challenge. Jefferson would be up against strong contenders like Celine Song (Past Lives), Chloe Domont (Fair Play), A.V. Rockwell (A Thousand and One), and others competing for the Directors Guild’s Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First-Time Feature Film Director. This race, in itself, is bound to be highly competitive. If Jefferson secures a victory there, it could potentially bolster his chances in the Director Oscar race.
American Fiction emerges as a robust contender in the categories of Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Lead Actor, with a possibility in the Director category. The film’s trajectory bears an awfully familiar resemblance to another recent Best Picture winner from just a couple of years ago.
The Killer – David Fincher’s The Killer is a gripping, stone-cold thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. Fincher masterfully takes us into the psyche of a contract killer, a dark and haunting place that paradoxically exudes a sinister allure. While it might not fit the typical mold of an Academy Award-winning film, it would be unwise to underestimate the outstanding editing work of Kirk Baxter, who famously pulled off a surprise win in the category in 2011 for another Fincher project, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. As is customary with Fincher’s films, The Killer showcases meticulous craftsmanship. Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography injects just the right amount of enigmatic shadows into the narrative, while the sound design and film score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross add complex layers to the suspense. It wouldn’t be unexpected to see “The Killer” make its mark in several technical categories, even though it undoubtedly warrants recognition in various other aspects as well.
May December – May December is a captivating fusion of melodrama and camp, reflecting the allure of tabloid sensationalism. The film truly shines when it focuses on the intricate psychological tango between Natalie Portman (Lead) and Julianne Moore (Supporting). Their performances are bound to be formidable contenders in the acting categories. However, aside from their exceptional contributions, it’s uncertain whether Todd Haynes’ latest work will follow a strong awards trajectory; it doesn’t quite fit the conventional mold of award-worthy films.
Maestro – Congratulations Bradley Cooper, this year’s Lead Actor Oscar-winner. Maestro is a tenderly crafted cinematic memoir that should contend for all the major awards at Oscar. An ambitious portrayal of the American music icon, Leonard Bernstein, Maestro is poised to be a prominent contender for Picture, Director, Lead Actress (Carey Mulligan), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Costume, and Sound. It should also maintain a firm lead in the Hair and Makeup category, thanks to Cooper’s transformative, powerhouse performance and Kazu Hiro’s extraordinary makeup artistry. Cooper’s portrayal is nothing short of extraordinary; it’s the kind of career-best work that is undeniable. The cathedral scene, in particular (pictured), is a moment that will be talked about for years to come, much like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. He’s incredible throughout, but Cooper’s performance in that sequence will stand as an all-time moment in acting excellence.
I arrived home Monday morning and went straight from the airport to see Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon.
This sprawling epic, depicting the haunting tale of serial murders within the Osage Nation, left me deeply impressed. It stands as a remarkable achievement, not only in its grand scope and ambition but also in its meticulous craftsmanship – qualities synonymous with any Scorsese film. Despite its impeccable pacing and stellar performances, it may not quite reach the apex of Scorsese’s oeuvre, but even his second-tier work could easily surpass another director’s masterpiece.
The solemn narrative of the Osage Nation’s tragedy demanded telling, and Scorsese proved himself the ideal storyteller. Killers of the Flower Moon will be a strong contender if for no other reason than the respect it receives. Marty has earned that. However, I do worry about the passion votes that matter most on a preferential ballot. Many will admire, how many will love? Still, I anticipate it making a substantial play for numerous categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Actress (Lily Gladstone), Best Supporting Actor (Robert DeNiro), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design.
In light of the remarkable presentations at the Middleburg Film Festival, I’ve revisited my Oscar predictions. Check them out and let me know what you agree/disagree with.