Oscar Race Heats Up Chilly Cannes Film Festival With Hot Prospects From Pitt And DiCaprio To ‘Rocketman’ And Almodovar

With the 72nd Cannes International Film Festival now winding down into its last couple of days before voting begins by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s jury to select the winner of the Palme d’Or and other prizes, there is lots of speculation about who will get them come Saturday night.  Knowing the completely unpredictable nature of past Cannes Festival juries I won’t engage in futile predictions. I never do. I mean, who knows which way those winds are blowing, but looking forward I can forecast some of the films coming out of this very good Cannes selection that might resonate all the way to the Oscars, and isn’t that what we really want to dish on? The weather may have been colder in Cannes this year, but the movies are already heating up the Oscar race.

In recent years, other than setting the table for the Foreign Language Film race (now called Best International Film), Cannes Film Festival’s mid-May berth hasn’t been exactly friendly to the agendas of most campaigns, and thus has lost steam to Venice which launches the more Oscar-centric Fall Festival season. That is where Roma, The Shape Of Water, La La Land and many others have chosen to open lately. No Palme d’Or winner has gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar since Marty in 1955, though I have a feeling Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, winner of three other key Oscars, came very close.

Cannes was really impressive in the foreign race, as it often is, in 2018 with debuts here of three of the five eventual nominees:  Capernaum, Shoplifters, and Cold War. Outside of that, last year’s Grand Prize (second place) winner Spike Lee’s  BlacKkKlansman did go on to six Oscar nominations including Best Picture with an Adapted Screenplay win. Not a bad showing for Cannes considering most of the goodies are held for fall and studios and distributors feel taking one of those to the South Of France in the spring is a little too risky. BlacKkKlansman was at Cannes because Lee wanted an early August release to coincide with the first anniversary of Charlottesville. Focus couldn’t travel the Fall Fest circuit so Cannes made sense and the film was remembered by voters.

The same thing applies to the highest profile Oscar contenders coming out of Cannes this year. Paramount used the fest to blast off Elton John biopic musical  Rocketman in advance of its May 31 domestic opening and got immediate awards buzz for lead actor Taron Egerton as a bonus. Sony brought in Cannes fave and former Palme d’Or winner Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood to hype its mid-summer launch July 26 and great reviews have helped put it instantly in the Oscar season game. Had the release dates for either of these films been in the fall I doubt we would have seen either one of them here, although Tarantino seemed hell-bent on celebrating the 25th anniversary on the exact day of the Cannes debut of his Palme d’Or 1994 winner Pulp Fiction in the south of France. You might recall that film went on to seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Director, and won for its Original Screenplay.

The race for the Best Actor Oscar is the one category that has really heated up here and gives us a good blueprint of at least four potential nominees. So let’s start with three of them from the highest profile Academy Award-friendly offerings Cannes gave us this year.

First up obviously is Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood which came in as the most anticipated film in this year’s Cannes competition and did nothing to harm its eventual Oscar chances or commercial boxoffice outlook. Sony tells me they are committed to a big Oscar campaign, and why not? An impressive three of the eight films Tarantino has written and directed went on to Best Picture nominations (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained) and there is no reason to believe at this point that his most personal yet can’t follow that trajectory, along with writing and directing nods for QT, no matter what happens here Saturday night awards-wise (a Palme Dog award for the mutt who plays Pitt’s best friend is what Tarantino told me he is really hoping for).

Both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio scored great reviews and are two of those four potential Best Actor nominees coming off Cannes. That is, if Sony doesn’t attempt to split them up and perhaps campaign DiCaprio in lead and Pitt in support (DiCaprio plays a fading TV star and Pitt is his stuntman and driver), but that isn’t where the thinking seems to be at this early point. I asked Sony Pictures chief Tom Rothman that very question at the film’s premiere afterparty on Tuesday night. “I think they are both leads, but we will see what the critics in the world  say. I personally think they are deserving , but then I am biased. Very,”  he laughed. Often these Solomon-like decisions are up to the talent themselves and their reps. Mahershala Ali could have gone lead along with Viggo Mortensen for Green Book but he felt he belonged in supporting and was proven right when he went on to win there in a very large role. Pitt delivers a career-best performance if you ask me. He has never won for acting despite three previous nominations. He does have an Oscar as a producer on 12 Years A Slave. DiCaprio won Best Actor for The Revenant, his last film before this one, after four previous nominations. His role as a struggling actor could really resonate with his colleagues in the acting branch who are the ones voting and no doubt will identify. Other possible nominations include Margot Robbie, lovely in support as Sharon Tate, and especially crafts categories like Robert Richardson’s Cinematography, the exquisite production design in recreating 1969 Los Angeles, costumes, editing, sound, etc.

Rocketman had a very successful Cannes launch , especially with Elton John’s appearance and wholehearted support of the warts-and-all approach of the film and his endorsement of Taron Egerton who not only wowed the Cannes crowd on screen by doing his own singing so well, but also even joining John on the title song at the beachside afterparty, a video that went instantly viral. Of course all comparisons are to recent $900 million dollar smash Bohemian Rhapsody which won a leading 4 Oscars including Best Actor for Rami Malek who brilliantly played Freddie Mercury, but unlike Egerton did not do his own singing.  The thinking is how can the Academy deny a nomination to Egerton who went the extra mile and embodied Elton John, musically and dramatically? Whether the film itself can join the Best Picture race remains to be seen after it opens and how well it does.  Bohemian was a November release so had the advantage of prime Oscar real estate theatrically that the summer musical Rocketman doesn’t. Golden Globe nominations are however assured.

So now we have a potential Best Actor race already with Pitt, DiCaprio, and Egerton.  The fourth most assuredly is a likely first ever Oscar nomination for Antonio Banderas giving the performance of his career as the director (an alter ego of Pedro Almodovar) in the very personal Almodovar masterpiece, Pain And Glory, which Sony Pictures Classics will open stateside in October. It is already buzzed to deliver big rewards from Cannes, but that won’t matter either way. Almodovar is an Oscar favorite, having already won a couple and this film, in many ways autobiographical, is his masterpiece. It should gather Oscar support not only in the International Film category, but also for Banderas,  possibly past winner Penelope Cruz as his mother, and Almodovar himself for writing and directing. Banderas had a heart attack a couple of years ago, but during a press lunch in Cannes told me Almodovar told him to use that acting-wise in his highly emotional and moving performance. He did. That kind of story can go a long way in an Oscar campaign.

Another potential performance getting buzz for attention this coming season was not in the official competition or Un Certain Regard, but rather Robert Pattinson in the Directors Fortnight entry, The Lighthouse in which he co-stars with an equally fine Oscar magnet Willem DaFoe. The latter would be lead but a longer shot, but Pattinson’s off-the-wall revelatory turn would be in support. With reviews proclaiming it is his finest moment on screen to date, A24 can take this and run with it. Voters love it when they see something completely unexpected from an actor, and that is what he delivers here.

Of course there are many, many films that will figure from here into the Best International Film race, but that depends on the countries that choose to enter them. France would have a very good bet for the first time in years if they choose the pulsating drama Les Miserables from hot new talent Ladj Ly. It’s about a corrupt street crimes unit patrolling the more troubled areas in the city and was picked up by Amazon which plans a full bodied campaign (the Ly-directed short from which it was taken won a Cesar Award). Neon and Hulu have an equal shot for their pickup of the other madly acclaimed possible French entry, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire from Celine Sciamma. South Korea has a surefire contender with Boon Jong Ho’s terrific Parasite, a terrible English translation title for a powerful dramedy about the collision of two families from very different classes. I would also give a vote to Canada’s Matthias Et Maxime, the latest and I think most impressive work yet from wunderkind and multiple past Cannes winner Xavier Dolan starring in and directing a moving story about two young men in denial about their feelings for each other after acting in a film in which they must kiss.

Rival distributors I talked to were shocked at the price Fox Searchlight, now under the umbrella of Disney, paid for Terrence Malick’s three hour A Hidden Life picked up for reportedly $12 to $14 million depending on who you believe.  Searchlight rode The Tree Of LIfe to the Palme d’Or for Malick and then on to a Best Picture nomination, but many doubt lightning will strike twice in that way.  The film earned raves as a “return to form” for Malick  but others were mixed. Reaction seemed divided down the middle after its premiere. Expect a robust campaign for the WWII set drama.  You can never underestimate Searchlight based on its enviable track record, but….

Oscar winner Asif Kapadia’s (Amy, Senna) out of competition documentary on Diego Maradona got waves of support and could land in that Oscar race, as could another film for the Animated Feature race in the wonderfully clever and touching grown up ‘toon from France, I Lost My Body, about a severed hand looking to reunite with its true owner.

A longer shot might be veteran two-time Palme d’Or winner Ken Loach’s  searing  and depressing drama, Sorry I Missed You about the downside of Britain’s new gig economy and the effect it has on one family. At 83 Loach is remarkable, working at the top of his game with movies of great meaning for today’s world. With the right distributor perhaps it could get attention.  Despite success at Cannes, Loach has never been nominated in any Oscar category, but has had great luck with BAFTA. Maybe a little of that could rub off on the Academy’s Board Of Governors when they meet to determine this year’s winners of Honorary Oscars for the Governors Awards. No one is more deserving.

And though you don’t have to count on Claude Lelouch’s sweetly nostalgic return to the 1966 classic, A Man And A Woman bringing him back for another round at the Academy Awards where he won both Foreign Film and Original Screenplay in ’66, this new look, The Best Years Of A Life, at the aging pair, now octogenarians, played by Anouk Aimee and Jean Louis Trintignant had me in tears when I saw it here in an out of competition slot (the original won the Palme d’Or). Both stars are luminous (Aimee has stopped time), and the movie which is a melancholic look at the ravages of aging, at least for the growing dementia of Trintignant’s one-time star race car driver, is very moving to see as it is expertly integrated with footage from the first film.

How about Trintignant for one of those Honorary Oscars? He has never been nominated , yet was instrumental in nominations for stars opposite him like Aimee with a 1966 Best Actress nod for A Man And A Woman, and Emmanuelle Riva  up for Best Actress in 2012’s Oscar winner Amour, another film about the heartbreak of getting older.

All in all this has been an up year movie-wise, if not otherwise for the world’s most famous film festival. We will see what Oscar voters think.




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