Looking for Oscar

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

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
. 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
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
 — has broken the sophomore jinx with Little
, 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
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

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
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
. 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


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