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Argo and The Master off to strong start in awards season

Jeremy Kay analyses how the awards race is shaping up after Venice, Telluride and Toronto.

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The early autumn festivals are done and dusted and it’s time to focus on the months ahead, in particular an aspect of the industry that will capture the public imagination and hold it in a vice-like grip through the end of February. I refer not to the second annual Hero Dogs Awards, laudable as that enterprise may be. We salute canines everywhere. No, our thoughts must remain rooted in human endeavour as the awards season behemoth awakens from its slumber, blinks in the early morning light and yawns.

The Lido gave us the first bona fide hottie of the autumn term in the form of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a work of such splendour that it positions worldwide rights holder Harvey Weinstein at once among the early race leaders - yet again. It’s an absorbing tale about authority and faith, but on a more intimate level plays like a dark bromance between two lost souls struggling to embrace and resist each other’s gravitational pull.

The Master’s trophy cabinet is already filling up. The movie won the Venice Silver Lion for best director while Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix shared the Coppa Volpi for acting. And already there’s controversy. The jury was reportedly prevented from bestowing the best film prize upon The Master because Venice rules forbid any entry from earning more than two prizes. If the movie has detractors they were the viewers who expressed confusion over the lack of conventional story structure. To those people I say, hold on! Fear not! Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days will be available to rent on DVD soon. The Master is in it to win it.

Venice attendees got to see another unconventional slice of cinema and generally liked what they saw. Focus Features’ Anna Karenina reunites director Joe Wright with his frequent collaborator Keira Knightley and the strong suits here appear to be the crafts. Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman was a whole lot more conventional despite the presence of the brilliantly oddball Michael Shannon in the role of real-life Richard Kuklinski, a devoted family man who moonlighted as a prolific hitman. Solid across the board but perhaps a wee bit small, The Iceman may struggle to maintain traction as the season slides along. The Millennium team is looking for a domestic buyer and may end up distributing the movie itself. Sister company Nu Image handled international sales.

I did not attend Venice and have not seen Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder, but from what I read and heard critics and audiences were divided between those who dismissed it outright and those who emerged bewildered and a little heartbroken. CAA is holding out for a US sale and FilmNation, Malick’s go-to sales agent these days, has licensed international rights.

Telluride taught us that when Ben Affleck isn’t delivering no lines in To The Wonder he’s busy polishing his burgeoning reputation as a director. The cozy Colorado setting is where the industry’s favourite sons and daughters go to become anointed as the buzz of the season and everyone who saw Argo lapped it up. The hostage crisis true-story is a fine piece of entertainment and should be a major contender across the board for worldwide distributor Warner Bros.

The word on Hyde Park On Hudson is that while it is charming and features a good performance from Bill Murray as Franklin D Roosevelt it lacks the must-see buzz. Focus Features holds worldwide rights. Sony Pictures Classics’ The Gatekeepers was the documentary everyone was talking about and features startling revelations from former Israeli security chiefs.

Toronto fulfilled its function as the leading North American awards season launchpad. The Master and Argo consolidated their status as contenders while David O Russell’s The Silver Linings Playbook - another Weinstein movie - emerged as the biggest crowd-pleaser of the festival and there is talk already of a supporting actor nod for Robert De Niro.

Warner Bros premiered Cloud Atlas, a mesmerising and unique yarn spanning several centuries, places, genre and gender. Focus Features licensed international rights to the adaptation of David Mitchell’s bestseller. It’s complex, admirably ambitious stuff and deserves to be in contention for major honours. Fox Searchlight rolled out its Sundance acquisition The Sessions (formerly The Surrogate) starring John Hawkes as a bitingly funny disabled man who wants to have sex with someone. Eight months on from Park City and the movie hasn’t lost its magic. This must surely be the year Hawkes gets his first lead actor nomination.

Over the course of the season this awards blog will pause to consider the prospects of a menagerie of contenders from individuals to Beasts Of The Southern Wild to the animation hopefuls. And of course there is a handful of expected heavyweights that few have seen at this stage: Fox’s Life Of Pi from Ang Lee opens the New York Film Festival on Sept 28 while Paramount/Universal’s Flight by Robert Zemeckis closes the event on Oct 14.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln from DreamWorks and Fox stars awards season deity Daniel Day-Lewis and will premiere as the closing night movie at AFI FEST on Nov 8, one week after the world premiere of the festival’s opening night film Hitchcock from Fox Searchlight, directed by Sacha Gervasi and starring Anthony Hopkins. Universal’s Les Miserables from Tom Hooper is set to open on Dec 25, the same day as The Weinstein Company opens Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (a combined effort from Warner Bros, MGM and New Line but surely too soon for major awards, it being the first in a trilogy) opens on Dec 14. This beast of an awards season has put its glad rags on and is ready to play.

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