Off the Carpet: Eastwood crashes the season as Telluride gears up for another edition

It's been an interesting run of films for director Clint Eastwood in the 10 years since his “Million Dollar Baby” crashed the 2004 Oscar party and ran away with the gold. I say “interesting” because, at least in awards season terms, it's been a run particularly notable for lots of revving but nothing that ever materialized as a significant player.

Right after “Baby” it was the one-two punch of “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” in 2006, a bold play for the then-75-year-old filmmaker. While developing an adaptation of John Bradley's book for the former, Eastwood felt a perspective from the Japanese side of the WWII equation was warranted, so he quickly developed the latter. And it was “Letters” that felt like it had more on its mind, yielding surprise (for some) nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well an Oscar for Best Sound Editing. (“Flags” was nominated for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing.) This was the year DreamWorks' “Dreamgirls” crashed and burned in the top categories, and just like 2004, Eastwood was there with another option.

But after that, as the legend moved further into a drab and meticulous design aesthetic, it was a little difficult for him to get arrested. “Changeling” brought three nominations, for Best Actress (Angelina Jolie), Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. “Gran Torino” (supposedly Eastwood's final acting vehicle under his own direction) brought none despite a lot of noise around his never having been recognized by the Academy for acting. “Invictus” netted a pair for actors Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. “Hereafter” was surprisingly singled out by the visual effects branch and “J. Edgar,” despite looking like a bona fide player on paper, turned out a goose egg (with lots of attention paid to poor makeup).

So that's 12 nominations across seven movies, which, granted, is a pretty top-tier showing for any filmmaker. Nevertheless, outside of the late “Letters” barrage, nothing has warranted much consideration beyond this or that element. And the critics haven't really been there to push the issue, either, as each of the films since “Letters” has been met with a lukewarm reception. “Jersey Boys,” meanwhile, released this summer, cost Warner Bros. a chunk of change and was pretty widely dismissed as well, leaving little doubt that it won't be finding any traction in the season.

And now, “American Sniper,” which was announced last week as a Dec. 25 platformer with a wide release in January.

What can you really expect at this point? Certainly not a big Oscar player on the face of it, but Eastwood is as uneven as they come so you can't really know until you, well, know. “Sniper” will be one of a number of films hitting the scene very late in the game this year, along with Ava DuVernay's “Selma” (which won't be ready for AFI Fest as previously assumed) and Universal's “Unbroken” (content to be the last film to drop until Warner Bros. crowded their space with the “Sniper” move).

But who knows? Eastwood works swiftly and is a very economical director, so the film could well be close to finished. WB took “J. Edgar” to AFI Fest and there certainly appears to be an opening there with films like “Fury” off the table and others like “Unbroken” and “Selma” unlikely to go that route for either strategic or practical reasons. So maybe keep an eye on that.

Whether it's actually an awards film or not, we'll have to wait and see. Sometimes you drop a title late into the season, whether it's a real player or not, in order to get a whiff of Oscar on it to help push the box office in January. Universal did that with “Lone Survivor” last year (which also went to AFI). Maybe that's the ultimate goal here, too. But Bradley Cooper is coming off two-straight years of Oscar recognition in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.” Maybe he's eager to stay in that game, particularly with Sony recently shuffling Cameron Crowe's latest to 2015 and “Serena” all but announced as a dud that is still waiting to see the light of day.

Lots of questions. But plenty of excitement, too. It's good to have a bit of mystery lurking in the season, especially this season, which just looks incredibly lackluster from afar (hardly a unique opinion, I'm finding).

Next week, Telluride unfolds. Expected selections include Cannes players “Foxcatcher,” “Mr. Turner,” “Leviathan,” “The Homesman,” “Wild Tales,” “Two Days, One Night” and “Red Army.” Others I'm betting on include the Venice-bound “99 Homes” and “The Look of Silence,” as well as Toronto selections like “The Imitation Game,” “Wild” and “Rosewater.” Werner Herzog's “Queen of the Desert” is out, but Telluride has other regular filmmakers who often turn up there whether they have a film in play or not. So keep folks like Ken Burns (“The Roosevelts”) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman”) in mind.

Don't bet on J.C. Chandor's “A Most Violent Year,” which is still cooking and won't be ready until mid-September or so. “Fury” never had festival premieres in mind, I'm told (beyond the London closer that comes two days after the film opens stateside), and as previously noted, Jason Reitman is skipping the fest this time around in favor of an early Toronto slot for “Men, Women & Children.”

All of that leaves a place for someone to surprise with a big official bow. Tim Burton's “Big Eyes” with a Medallion tribute for the director? I would dig that. And the early Oscar buzz would be fully dominated by Harvey Weinstein if he brought both that and “The Imitation Game” to the Rockies while others are balancing the politics of where to go – Venice, Toronto or Telluride – and when. But I don't even know if that one's ready yet. And I'm not greedy. If we get the expected titles, then as a non-Cannes-goer looking to catch up, I'll be plenty pleased.

So how's that for a deep pre-season breath? We'll be in the thick of it before long and the landscape will slowly begin to reveal itself over the next couple of weeks. Get your popcorn ready.