Oh, what a difference a year makes. The Oscar hyperbole was so strong on the Croisette last year you couldn’t turn a corner without someone prognosticating that Todd Haynes’ “Carol” was a slam dunk Best Picture player, that George Miller would win Best Director for “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Amy” might go all the way and take Best Documentary. Even critics who usually avoid uttering the words “Academy Awards” were pondering whether “Son of Saul” or “Inside Out” could break out of the Foreign Language and Animation races and earn Best Picture nods like the other big boys. Nine months later all of those films except “Carol” took home major awards.
The 69th Festival de Cannes might have enjoyed its most balanced slate in some time, but outside of the predictable Foreign Language film contenders there were not as many potential awards season candidates as many prognosticators expected. The Competition jury’s head-scratching selections didn’t help matters (newsflash: Palme d’Or winner “I, Daniel Blake” is not going to earn director Ken Loach his first Oscar nod) and, moreover, the few English-speaking films that made an impact are likely more Independent Spirit Award than Oscar players. That being said, here’s a quick rundown of which Cannes selections are Academy Award contenders and which aren’t.
“Toni Erdmann” and “Elle” are early Foreign Language favorites
Shockingly, neither “Toni Erdmann” or “Elle” won a Jury Prize, but they are already two of the most critically acclaimed films to come out of Cannes. “Elle” still needs to be selected as France’s submission (no guarantee there with Cannes Best Director winner “Personal Shopper” also in the mix), but the crowd-pleasing “Toni Erdmann” has to be the frontrunner in the Foreign Language Film category and it should gain a ton of momentum when it hits the fall festival circuit (it screams Telluride). It’s also worth noting that with an American screenwriter, David Birke, “Elle” may have a shot in the Adapted Screenplay category. Other potential Foreign Language players to ponder include Asghar Farhadi‘s Cannes Best Actor and Best Screenplay winner “The Salesman” (Iran), Cannes Best Actress winner “Ma’ Rosa” (Philippines), “Aquarius” (Brazil), The Dardennes’ “The Unknown Girl” (Belgium), Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” (South Korea) and Pedro Almodóvar’s “Julieta” (Spain). Romania has a tough call between submitting Cristi Puiu‘s critics favorite “Sieranevada” and Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” which earned him tie for Cannes Best Director.
Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” will look for a lot more of it stateside
Frankly, this is not the reception Focus Features was looking for. Jeff Nichols’ civil rights drama “Loving” debuted at Cannes five months before its U.S. release and it was clear everyone involved was expecting very strong reviews. You simply don’t put a film in Competition at a festival like Cannes that early in a marketing campaign unless it’s going to be a positive long term. Instead, outside of significant praise for star Ruth Negga, the reaction was much more subdued than expected. Understandably, American critics were slightly more positive than their European counterparts but the specific, detached nature of Nichols’ direction diminished the emotional impact for many. Personally, I felt Nichols’ choice was a mistake until the end of the film when it cumulated in an emotional release that left me slightly shaken. The question for Focus is whether that experience will play better in the U.S. and what’s the best way to take advantage of the film’s strengths. Something suggests a full court press with SAG voters is the best way to go. The lowdown for now is “Loving” hasn’t faded away, but it isn’t the Best Picture lock many assumed it might be.
The Disney-Pixar machine has competition in “The Red Turtle”
The Walt Disney Company currently has three potential Best Animated Feature nominees this year: Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” Walt Disney Animated Studios’ “Mona” and their already impressive smash “Zootopia,” which was released this past March. The Disney and Pixar brands are so powerful within the Academy that they have won this relatively new category more than once even when they clearly shouldn’t have (we’re looking at you “Brave” and “Big Hero 6”). If enough critics give it the platform it deserves, Michaël Dudok de Wit and Studio Ghibli’s “The Red Turtle” could end that trend. You can be sure that “The Red Turtle” will absolutely make the final five, but the almost dialogue-less circle of life tale is so beautiful and touching that if distributor Sony Pictures Classics gets enough voters to actually watch it, there could be an upset on Oscar night.
Sonia Braga and Isabelle Huppert are in the Best Actress mix
One of the biggest shockers from the Cannes jury this year was when they awarded Jaclyn Jose Best Actress for “Ma’ Rosa.” Many expected Sonia Braga (“Aquarius”) or previous winner Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”) to take it. Braga could have used the prize to help “Aquarius” land U.S. distribution and Sony Pictures Classics is going to need Huppert to seriously campaign in the U.S. if she wants to finally land her first nomination. Neither contender has an easy road ahead of them, but they’ll both be in the mix for a good portion of the season.
Could “Paterson” finally earn Jim Jarmusch an Oscar nod?
The well-respected independent filmmaker has never earned an Oscar nomination (he’s also gone winless at the Spirit Awards seven times), but “Paterson” may be his best shot since 2005’s “Broken Flowers.” The Adam Driver-led drama went winless with the jury (a trend that indicates a badge of honor at this point) and now Amazon Studios needs to focus on getting it into the Original Screenplay mix. Sure, critics have rallied around Jarmusch’s previous work, but if this tale about a poet who simply writes for the love of writing is going to speak to anyone, it’s going to be the members of the writers branch.
“The BFG” will not become Steven Spielberg’s fourth Best Picture nominee in a row
Whether the idea to come to Cannes was Spielberg’s or not whoever signed off on it clearly made a mistake. The U.K. critics were kinder to Spielberg’s adaptation of native son Roald Dahl‘s classic tale than the rest of the world, but it still hit the festival like a lead balloon. No one doubts that the Walt Disney marketing machine can get an opening weekend out of “The BFG.” The question is will it actually have good word of mouth and find a way to recoup its production budget. Whatever the case, the picture isn’t special enough to even be in the Best Picture nominee conversation (unlike studio stable mate “The Jungle Book” for instance) and that will mean Spielberg’s streak of three straight nods will come to an end. And yes, it still has a shot in the visual effects categories, but that’s pretty much it.
Jeff Bridges is an early Best Supporting Actor player
CBS Films’ “Hell or High Water,” which played in Un Certain Regard, arrived completely under the radar and boy did that work to its advantage. Many people assumed David Mackenzie’s latest endeavor was just a modern day Western and to some extent it is. More importantly, it’s also much more of a poignant drama than a chase movie and that’s a very good thing. The picture features fine performances across the board (Chris Pine has never been better), but it’s Oscar winner Jeff Bridges who steals the movie. As a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement, Bridges gets to take the character in a number of unexpected directions and the role includes at least three textbook “Oscar moments.” The question is whether the studio’s plan to open the picture outside the traditional awards season window in August will hurt or help his chances. If their plan turns “Hell Or High Water” into a surprise late summer hit, it’s fair to assume the latter.
The “American Honey” question mark
A24 has something special on their hands with “American Honey.” Critics went gaga for Andrea Arnold’s depiction of a group of America’s underprivileged youth trying to survive by selling magazine subscriptions door to door and from city to city. The film took home the Jury Prize even though many believed Arnold would win Best Director or the picture might steal the Palme d’Or itself. That being said, along with “Toni Erdmann,” it is absolutely the most buzzed about picture from the festival. The mini-major believes they could have a potential art house breakout on their hands, but is it a real awards contender? Is this a movie the Academy would embrace? At this point you should assume it’s more of a Gotham Awards or Independent Spirit Awards player. Oscar recognition in the Original Screenplay and Cinematography categories may be a slight reach, but it’s certainly not out of the question.