Each year over Labor Day weekend, well into the first weeks of September, many of the year's prestige pictures are unveiled for circumspect audiences of festival attendees, industry titans, film journalists and critics who aren't shy about voicing strong opinions.
Consensus could help navigate the awards path for a film like "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," starring Brad Pitt. Thus far, critical reaction has been strongly divided. Is the period movie "magnificent," as Variety claims? Or is it so awful that once it opens in theaters, "word of mouth may kill the movie faster than Robert Ford killed Jesse James," according to the Hollywood Reporter.
In a similar case, Variety went wild over director Sean Penn's "Into the Wild," a painstaking account of a real-life tragic adventure. Conversely, the Hollywood Reporter bashed it -- with abandon.
Meanwhile, the Hollywood Reporter loved Brian De Palma's new "fictional documentary" about Iraq, calling it "sensational," while also hailing Paul Haggis' drama about Iraq, "In the Valley of Elah." The trade paper called "Elah" "a deeply reflective, quietly powerful work that is as timely as it is moving."
Variety pooh-poohed both.
But there is some consensus to be found. Critics gushed about "Atonement," the movie that opened the festivities in Venice last week. Director Joe Wright's romantic epic starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy now appears poised to claim one of the five best-picture slots at the next Oscar derby.
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Last year, "The Queen" was the breakout hit of Venice and later made it into the Oscar high five. Ditto for the festival darling of the previous year, "Brokeback Mountain." Last year, Telluride informed Oscar watchers that "Little Children," "Babel," "Venus" and "The Last King of Scotland" were derby players -- and that "Fur" was not.
Below is a breakdown of the latest festival buzz:
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford": Variety calls it "a ravishing, magisterial, poetic epic," but the Hollywood Reporter says it's "smothered in pointlessly long takes and repetitive scenes."
"Atonement": Fest-goers adored director Joe Wright's saga of lovers doomed by a false allegation. "The film goes directly to 'The English Patient' territory and might also expect rapturous audiences and major awards," says Hollywood Reporter.
"Cassandra's Dream": Woody Allen's tale of Cockney brothers (Colin Farrell, Ewan McGregor) who become embroiled in crime is "a humorless misfire," according to the Hollywood Reporter. Variety adds that it "sends out more mixed signals than an inebriated telegraphist."
"The Darjeeling Limited": Wes Anderson "has the attitude for comedy, but not the aptitude," says Time magazine while dissing the director's latest pic about three estranged brothers who reunite for a soul-searching trek across India. Variety blasts it too: "Anderson's arch, highly artificial style gets in the way of character and emotional development, rendering pic piquant rather than profound."
"The Hunting Party": Richard Roeper of "Ebert and Roeper" raved about "The Hunting Party," starring Richard Gere and Terrence Howard as snarky journalists tracking a Bosnian war criminal. However, Variety and Hollywood Reporter had mixed reactions.
"In the Valley of Elah": The Hollywood Reporter maintains that Paul Haggis, "the director and co-writer of the Oscar-winning 'Crash,' has returned with another bona-fide contender," but Variety disagrees.
"Into the Wild": Variety says director Sean Penn does a "compelling" job telling the true, tragic tale of a rebellious college grad who starved to death while recklessly pursuing his romantic dream to explore the Alaskan wilderness. Hollywood Reporter calls it "unfocused."
"Juno": Most viewers agreed with Variety's enthusiasm for Jason Reitman's "Juno," which it called "an ultra-smart-mouthed comedy about a planned adoption that goes weirdly awry."
"Lust, Caution": "Too much caution and too little lust squeeze much of the dramatic juice out of Ang Lee's 'Lust, Caution,' " reports Variety, describing it as "a 2½-hour period drama . . . of a patriotic student who's willing bait in a plot to assassinate a high-up Chinese collaborator in Japanese-held WWII Shanghai."
"Margot at the Wedding": This "serio-comedy" about sparring sisters (Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a madcap family "should gain some serious awards season traction ahead," promises the Hollywood Reporter. However, Variety doesn't believe it succeeds as a film.
"Michael Clayton": Nearly all film critics praise the performance of George Clooney as "a 'fixer' for a large corporate law firm -- the kind of can-do guy whom colleagues bill as a 'miracle worker' but who, in world-weary fashion, describes himself as 'a janitor,'" notes Variety.
"Rails and Ties": Well, it doesn't look like Clint Eastwood's daughter Alison will be sweeping the Oscars anytime soon like her dear old dad. Her directorial debut, "Rails and Ties," is a "dramatically flat portrait of a couple grappling with tragedy," says Hollywood Reporter.
"Redacted": Hollywood Reporter says, "De Palma's filmmaking skills have seldom been as razor sharp as they are in his sensational new film about members of a U.S. Army squad who rape and murder a 15-year-old Iraqi girl and slay her family." But Variety claims, "The bullet veers far off the mark."
"Sleuth": Nearly all critics took out long knives to attack Kenneth Branagh's remake of the classic murder mystery.