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At The Movies: Awards Watch Focus on Venice and Toronto

Venice and Toronto are still major launching pads for Oscar hopefuls. Only one film released so far this year has a chance to go all the way, and it was launched, like Little Miss Sunshine last year, from Sundance. It is Once, the John Carney charmer that is managing to hang on long after it was released and long after it failed to make the requisite millions at the box office. The film stars Glen Hansard of the popular Irish rock band The Frames, along with Czech musician Markéta Irglová. While a Best Picture nod seems like a long shot at this point, plenty of “small” films have made it to the big show if enough people feel passionately about it, which many do, including Steven Spielberg who recently told USA Today, “A little movie called Once gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year.”

If Once does go all the way, it will no doubt raise Sundance’s Oscar profile, which can be a good thing since the Oscars usually focus on films released at Toronto and in the last third of the year.

Cannes has already delivered the news that the Coens’ No Country for Old Men is likely to be one of the best films of the year and, in this writer’s opinion, has one of the best shots of any film to secure one of the five Best Picture slots. But it has yet to be released and received here. The American public is the most unpredictable element in the Oscar race, if you count the process as having equal parts critical acclaim, public acceptance and the approval of industry peers, which manifests itself as guild awards at the end of the year. No Country will likely hit across the board. It is only a matter of whether it will be too disturbing for audiences.

Venice has an edge on Toronto lately because films can really gain steam there, as they aren’t judged so much purely on Oscar potential. There does seem to be more passion for great filmmaking, rather than films being delivered packaged and perfected for their winter Oscar run. Brokeback Mountain and Good Night and Good Luck were both strong Venice contenders the year before last and recently Helen Mirren and The Queen were major players.

This year, Venice will deliver Atonement, the Joe Wright-Keira Knightley pairing that is already garnering Oscar buzz on its pedigree alone. That is never a guarantee, of course. More promising is Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon, which already has the Internet abuzz with Oscar talk, which can mean something and can mean nothing. It still depends on how the film plays when it opens in the states. Funnily enough, Haggis will share the spotlight with Ang Lee, who won Best Director for Brokeback Mountain the same year Haggis’ Crash famously beat it for Best Picture. This year, Lee is bringing Lust, Caution to the Venice film fest but it probably won’t be Best Picture material, which should remove the conflict of Lee and Haggis squaring off again. It may sound silly but that is how the game is played.

Iraq is the subject of In the Valley of Elah, as well as the subject of Redacted, Brian DePalma’s new film which focuses on the recent events surrounding the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the killing of three of her family members by four U.S. soldiers.

De Palma will be using documentary footage, trial coverage, video from news broadcasts and viral video sources, along with excerpts from one of the soldier’s video blogs. It sounds impressive, to be sure, and the Italians in Venice will love it, being anti-war as they are. But it will no doubt be met with controversy here. Controversy and Oscar don’t go well together. Haggis’ film will probably be more emotionally devastating and less controversial, making it the more Oscar-friendly of the two.

Toronto, on the other hand, is the final hurdle for films wanting to be seen and reviewed before the Best Picture race is officially underway. It’s a risky endeavor, as a film can stumble and thus be knocked out early, like All the King’s Men last year. On the other hand, it can be great for a film that would otherwise slip through the cracks, like Julie Taymor’s complex and ambitious Across the Universe, which is a Beatles-inspired multimedia presentation that will have to be seen to be believed. And Woody Allen is back again with Cassandra’s Dream, which also plays Venice. Allen’s films are hit and miss, but perhaps better to know early if it’s a miss, and if it’s a hit, the sky’s the limit.

Venice begins August 29 and Toronto on September 6.

Sasha Stone is also the editor of awardsdaily.com, a blog dedicated to covering the Oscars.

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