Off the Carpet: Venice and Telluride signal the starting gun

I came into this year's Telluride Film Festival feeling like the upcoming awards season looked a bit thin. I'll be leaving it excited for its potential and eager to see it take further shape. Seeing some of the films helps, yes, but there's also a context that begins to surface around this time, when strategies start clicking together and you can sense who has the goods, and who has a steep climb ahead of them.

For instance, early reviews for “Wild” were pretty positive, but ask around this fest – which has a pretty solid Academy demographic – and you quickly notice there are a great many left cold by the film or outright put off by a personal drama that never quite touched them in any profound way. Maybe Fox Searchlight can get the film to a number of nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Or maybe it's all about Reese Witherspoon at the end of the day. I'm thinking the latter.

Sony Pictures Classics, meanwhile, has one of the year's most expertly realized dramas in “Foxcatcher,” a movie that can and probably will get significant love from critics groups at year's end. But as much as I worship that movie, I can't help but pause at the idea of the Academy warming up to it. Just last year we had a rather cold and masterful display in the Coen brothers' “Inside Llewyn Davis” go from Cannes to Telluride, skip Toronto and head on into New York, garnering supporters every step of the way. But in the end, something about it kept voters at arm's distance. There's no question support for “Foxcatcher's” performances will be in the cards, but beyond that? A sweep of major categories like Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay? It unequivocally deserves it but I wouldn't place a confident bet at the moment.

Then there is, for lack of a better term, the classic awards bait. And when it really works, that can be exciting. Say what you will about Best Picture winners like “The King's Speech” and “Argo,” but they were well-oiled machines that were immensely satisfying, and The Weinstein Company has another such contender with “The Imitation Game.” I had my doubts about director Morten Tyldum going in but they went away pretty early in my screening. The various elements – featuring, by the way, fantastic work from the composer (Alexandre Desplat) and editor (William Goldenberg) of “Argo” – come together in such a precise package that it will be difficult for the Academy to deny its effects. This is the film that got the most significant boost out of Telluride this year, I feel, and it will be interesting to see what sort of divide there is between critics and heart-following voters.

One note here: Despite a tepid reception from most of the critics who saw it early and published reviews ahead of its premiere, “Rosewater” was another big hit here. I won't see it myself until Monday afternoon, but audiences embraced it wholeheartedly here, whereas a number of critics have been banging the “unremarkable” drum. So what avenue is available to it now? Can Open Road and the hardworking strategists behind it find a way into the race, or will it go to Toronto and sort of fade away after the intimacy and passionate welcome here? It has a unique profile after this weekend, I have to say.

Then, of course, there's “Birdman.” Some are wondering if it will connect. Others see it as something the industry can really sink its teeth into. There's no confidence for that position on either side, so there's some excitement in the air around it. The strategy is specific so far. Venice, Telluride, skip Toronto, close New York. So between now and NYFF's wrap-up on Oct. 12, the genie sort of goes back into the bottle. Is that wise? Would TIFF have been too much exposure, or would going and screening for most of the international press that missed Venice and Telluride have helped stave off the envy-turned-dispassion that can erode delicate pushes like this one? It's an interesting question.

So things feel very much alive at this point. So things feel very much alive at this point. Yes, a number of these films saw their big coming out in Cannes, but it's increasingly clear that Cannes reactions can be an odd barometer. Roadside could be chasing a wild goose with the Hilary Swank/”Homesman” push based on great reaction to her work there. Don't forget last year's elation for “Inside Llewyn Davis” and dismissal of “Nebraska” on the Croisette. It's not that Cannes doesn't produce awards players. It obviously does. But it's not until the late summer and fall that additional perspectives really begin to contextualize what premieres there.

Running a comb through the Contenders section this morning, it occurred to me that there will very likely be a lot of stiff competition for the limited number of slots in this or that category this season. And it'll be piecemeal from here. Toronto doesn't have a lot of mysteries to reveal outside of things like “Men, Women & Children” and “The Theory of Everything.” New York will add “Gone Girl” and “Inherent Vice” to the equation and then soon after, “Interstellar” and “Fury” will become known commodities. After that, for a number of weeks, those films will occupy the same air as the wait for latter year entries – “American Sniper,” “Big Eyes,” “Into the Woods,” “Unbroken” – will signal a dividing line in the year's race. And then another evolution will take shape.

That's the Oscar season for you. It's never one thing, whether throughout or certainly at the outset, which is where we are now. I'm excited to take that dive now, whereas I really wasn't a week ago. So thanks for the boost, Telluride.