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The Films to Watch as the Fall Festivals Kick Off Another Weird Oscar Season

The Venice, Telluride and Toronto fests will still be affected by the pandemic, but a robust selection of contenders will be jockeying for momentum

AWARDS BEAT

For the second consecutive year, the fall film festivals will begin under the shadow of COVID. And that means that just as in 2020, the 2021 awards season will get an uncertain launch from the Venice Film Festival, which begins on Wednesday, Sept. 1 and runs through Sept. 11; the Telluride Film Festival, which kicks off its four-day run two days after Venice; and the Toronto International Film Festival, which launches the following week, on Thursday, Sept. 9 and runs through Sept. 18.

If you thought last year brought a weird awards season, with virtual premieres and awards shows and an elongated schedule, welcome to another COVID awards season kicked off by another group of festivals unable to act as if business is anywhere close to usual.

Last year, Venice was scaled down, Telluride was canceled and Toronto was a virtual event for everybody except Canadian residents. And unlike most years, the majority of the films that went on to land Best Picture nominations at the Oscars did not premiere at any of the big three fall fests: Aside from “Nomadland,” which debuted in Venice premiere and “Sound of Metal,” which first unspooled in Toronto back in 2019, the field was made up of four Sundance premieres and two Netflix films that didn’t play any festivals at all.

The scarcity of fall-festival movies hardly came as a surprise after the way the pandemic changed last year’s awards season, with the Oscar calendar elongated by two months and films allowed to qualify without any theatrical exhibition at all. But even with a dismal showing compared to a usual year, the fall festivals’ 14-year streak of showcasing the eventual Best Picture winner held strong with Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland.”

So maybe – probably? – the next Best Picture winner will be one of the films that will be unveiled in Venice, Telluride and/or Toronto over the next 22 days. Venice will be bigger than it was in 2020, and it has a robust slate of potential awards contenders; Telluride is back, at least for the fully immunized, and ready to unveil some of its own heavy hitters; and Toronto will welcome out-of-town press and guests even as it retains the virtual component that worked well for it last year.

Those three festivals, followed a couple weeks later by the New York Film Festival’s world premiere of Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” will likely give us a look at a significant slice of awards season –– perhaps not as big a slice as in the pre-pandemic days, but bigger than last year.  

And if that’s the case, we can hazard a few guesses about what movies might come out of the festivals with awards momentum.

Venice, which in recent years has launched launched “Birdman,” “Spotlight,” “The Shape of Water,” “Joker” and “Nomadland,” has an extremely strong lineup and will host the world premieres of Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” (Warner Bros.), his large-scale adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, and Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” a drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst that will play nearly all of the fall festivals prior to its Netflix debut. (Last year, Netflix kept all of its films out of festivals; this year, it’s back at festivals with some of its starriest contenders.)

Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers” (Sony Classics), with Penélope Cruz, will open Venice, while Cruz also stars in “Official Competition,” a Spanish comedy directed by Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn that also stars Antonio Banderas. And Chilean director Pablo Larrain, whose previous English-language film was “Jackie,” with Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, returns with another (presumably adventurous) biopic of an iconic woman, “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana. (Neon and Topic Studios are handling the U.S. release.)

Ridley Scott will also have a Venice premiere for “The Last Duel” (20th Century), a period drama co-written by and starring Matt Damon that will serve as the first of the director’s two 2021 films, to be followed by the fact-based Lady Gaga vehicle “The House of Gucci” (United Artists Releasing), which has yet to announce its premiere. Edgar Wright also has two films this year: The first was his Sundance documentary “The Sparks Brothers,” and the second will be “Last Night in Soho” (Focus), a psychological horror film with Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy. And Focus will showcase “The Card Counter,” a gambling drama starring Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish that’s written and directed by Paul Schrader, whose last film, 2017’s “First Reformed,” was one of the best of his lengthy career.

The Telluride Film Festival doesn’t announce its lineup until the day before it begins, asking film lovers to take it on faith that the two or three dozen films it selects will represent the cream of the crop. But the Hollywood rumor mill works overtime in the weeks leading up to Telluride, and this year it suggests that the festival’s premieres may well include the Joaquin Phoenix drama ‘C’mon C’mon” (A24) from “Beginners” and “20th Century Woman” director Mike Mills; “King Richard” (Warner Bros.) with Will Smith starring as Serena and Venus Williams’ father; and “Cyrano” (United Artists Releasing), Joe Wright’s adaptation of the 2018 stage musical version of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” starring Peter Dinklage.

(But check back on Sept. 2 to see if those are indeed Telluride premieres, and to know the full lineup.)

As usual, Toronto will be the biggest of the three festivals, and it will screen a lot of the films that have premiered in Venice and Telluride. The Canadian fest’s world premieres include Stephen Chbosky’s opening-night film of the Broadway smash “Dear Evan Hansen” (Universal); Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” (Focus), a coming-of-age story set in 1960s Northern Ireland; Michael Showalter’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (Searchlight), with Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Baker; Barry Levinson’s “The Survivor,” with Ben Foster as real-life Auschwitz survivor Harry Haft; and Antoine Fuqua’s “The Guilty” (Netflix) with Jake Gyllenhaal and Ethan Hawke in an adaptation of a 2018 Danish thriller that takes place inside a single room.  

Some of those films will likely be in the thick of the Oscar race for Best Picture; others, maybe most of them, will fall by the wayside before awards voting begins at the end of the year. They’ll be facing a few films that have already been released, including “CODA” (AppleTV+) and Cannes releases from Wes Anderson (Searchlight’s “The French Dispatch”) and Tom McCarthy (Focus’ “Stillwater”).

And once again, all the contenders will face a long and confusing period given the uncertainty around live events, virtual screenings and Q&As and a season that won’t end until late March. That’s a month later than usual, even if it is a month earlier than the 2020 season.

So here comes the 2021 awards season. We know it’ll be another weird one — but at least we can hope it won’t be quite as weird as 2020, can’t we?