Looking for Oscar

S.B.’s Film Fest Head Honcho Gives the Lowdown on Toronto and Telluride

by Roger Durling

The Telluride and Toronto film festivals have become launching pads for films wanting to be considered serious Oscar contenders. After American Beauty premiered in Toronto in 1999, that fest’s fate was sealed and its momentum was unstoppable. Last year, Telluride was the place, giving filmgoers the chance to see Capote, Walk the Line, and Brokeback Mountain for the first time. But it’s not all benefits, for these festivals are also the place where Academy Award hopefuls can be shot down by critics, shattering any hope of glory.

This year, that fact was especially the case for several high-profile films. On paper, All the King’s Men looked like it could be one of the year’s best. The remake of an Academy Award winner of the same name, it was directed by Steven Zaillian, who won the Oscar for writing Schindler’s List, and its cast of Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, James Gandolfini, and Kate Winslet seemed bulletproof. But many critics questioned the need for a new version when the old one is considered a classic. This adaptation meanders and never finds a cohesive tone, and the performances range from mediocre to scenery-chewing. The unveiling at Toronto proved to be disastrous.

Infamous, directed by Douglas McGrath, covers the same territory as Capote: Truman Capote’s struggles to write In Cold Blood. It’s a good film, and it wasn’t harshly received, but one couldn’t evade a sense of déjà vu.

Another disappointment was Fur, starring Nicole Kidman. A fictionalized version of the life of Diane Arbus, the noted 20th-century photographer, the film is flawed, tedious, and pretentious — but beautiful to look at; Kidman, although miscast, proves to be a fearless performer.

On the positive end, Babel was the one film that picked up a tailwind and surged as a likely nominee for best picture this year. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros and 21 Grams), Babel is a monumental accomplishment that pierces the heart. Dealing with how a single act of violence can echo on four continents, it boasts an international cast led by Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Gael García Bernal. I cried while watching because I knew I was watching a masterpiece.

Todd Field — the acclaimed director of In the Bedroom — has broken the sophomore jinx with Little Children, one of the best American films of 2006. The film is an insightful look at suburbia, much like American Beauty, but it cuts deeper and more poignantly. The cast is led by my favorite actress working in cinema today — the great Kate Winslet, who is bound to get nominated a fifth time for her portrayal of an adulterous mother.

In the more than 20 years I have been attending Telluride, I have never seen a more rapturous reception than the one given to the documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon. People were on their feet, crying, applauding, and hollering at director John Scheinfeld’s (Who Is Harry Nilsson?) superb look at Lennon’s calls for peace amid the Vietnam War.

Emilio Estevez’s Bobby covers the last day of Robert F. Kennedy as seen through the eyes of several people at the Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was assassinated. The film seems wrong-footed at the beginning — reminiscent of The Love Boat with its cavalcade of stars including Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, William H. Macy, Lindsay Lohan, Laurence Fishburne, and Anthony Hopkins among many others — but it gathers really strong steam, and the last 20 minutes are gut-wrenching and utterly unforgettable.

Forest Whitaker looks Oscar-bound for his fierce portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. The best individual performance by far was the one by Peter O’Toole, who should finally be given an Academy Award (after seven nominations) for his towering role in Roger Michell’s Venus. The movie is about an older man having one last crush on a young woman. O’Toole’s performance is magnificent — he does Shakespeare, he dances, he flirts, and ultimately breaks your heart.

As for foreign films, three sensational features rose to the top of the heap. Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, Volver, has a breakthrough performance by Penélope Cruz, who channels past earthy performances by Sophia Loren and the late Anna Magnani. Expect Cruz at the year’s end on a short list of best actresses. Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Cronos) proved with his Pan’s Labyrinth that he can be the next Peter Jackson. The film mixes fantasy, drama, and heart — and should be nominated for best foreign film. And The Lives of Others, about East Germany’s Stasi police, was a knockout, and stands as Germany’s official entry in the Oscar derby.

Among the other fare was the controversial Death of a President. It’s interesting for the shocking and daring premise of a fictionalized assassination of President George W. Bush — but it doesn’t amount to more than that. And I’d be silly not to point out that Stranger than Fiction, which will have its U.S. premiere in Santa Barbara on November 5 as a fundraiser for our own film festival, was a crowd-pleaser. But when it comes to popular films, none comes close to Borat, starring British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (TV’s Ali G) as a village hayseed sent to the U.S. on a discovery tour by his impoverished ex-Soviet country. It is the funniest movie of the year.

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