“Sex is back,” Julie Huntsinger, executive director of the Telluride Film Festival, told a packed house of festivalgoers as they took in the newest effort from Yorgos Lanthimos at the 50th anniversary edition. A pre-screening convo and tribute was moderated by director Karyn Kusama, as the two discussed Lanthimos’ filmography, including his early works “Kinetta” and “Alps.”
In the audience were Oscar winners like director Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) and actor Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”), and they, along with the rest of the crowd, devoured the audacious, Frankenstein-esque tale.
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After bowing at the Venice Film Festival, Lanthimos brought his eccentric cinematic style to the Colorado mountains with the sci-fi dramedy, the first movie among this year’s sensational Telluride lineup that feels like a potential best picture winner.
Based on the novel by Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, it tells the story of a young woman named Bella Baxter (Stone), who is brought back to life by a scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). She chooses to explore the world when she falls for a slick lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), and begins to explore the continents, seeking sexual liberation and equality.
Halfway through Lanthimos’ wickedly twisted world, it was abundantly clear this was an across-the-board awards contender with which Searchlight Pictures should be able to go far.
A best actress winner for “La La Land” (2016), Stone delivers the type of performance that could bring a second statuette. Stone is very popular among her acting colleagues, managing additional noms for supporting actress — “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” and Lanthimos’ “The Favourite.” On “Poor Things,” she also serves as a producer alongside Lanthimos, Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe. If nominated for best picture and actress, she would be another woman in the race this year seeking double recognition. Others include Natalie Portman (“May December”) and Margot Robbie (“Barbie”). Only one woman has been nominated for both categories in the same year, Frances McDormand for “Nomadland” (2020), who won both.
Dafoe and Ruffalo, coincidentally best known in pop culture for their “green” characters in the MCU (Dafoe as Green Goblin and Ruffalo as Hulk), have been Academy favorites with multiple noms during their careers, though neither has made a trip to the podium.
Ruffalo is downright hilarious, with one-liners that will be quoted for years. It very well stands as one of his finest of his career. A three-time supporting actor nominee for “The Kids Are All Right” (2010), “Foxcatcher” (2014) and “Spotlight” (2015), he’s well-respected within the Actors Branch and could be within reach of walking away with the prize (with the right campaign). It’s noteworthy that supporting actor category is already stacked with Robert DeNiro (“Killers of the Flower Moon”), Ryan Gosling (“Barbie”) and another MCU buddy of Ruffalo’s, Robert Downey Jr. (“Oppenheimer”). With an added boost, the Emmy winner of HBO series “I Know This Much is True” (2020), also has Netflix’s “All the Light We Cannot See” later this year.
Dafoe, a revered character actor for over four decades, has accumulated noms for “Platoon” (1986), “Shadow of the Vampire” (2000), “The Florida Project” (2017) and “At Eternity’s Gate” (2018). The veteran has some standout moments, and depending how much the Academy falls for the film, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him alongside Ruffalo.
Greek auteur Lanthimos is a polarizing filmmaker — where some adore his eccentric takes, others can be turned off by them. That hasn’t stopped his movies from garnering Oscar noms — “Dogtooth” (2009) in international feature, “The Lobster” (2015) for original screenplay and “The Favourite” (2018) which landed an impressive 10 noms including directing and best picture. This is his most confident vision, and one the Directors Branch would likely want to recognize. Whether or not he can beat the veteran masters in the race such as Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and others, remains to be seen.
As expected, Lanthimos assembles a talented team of artisans who will likely be in the conversation –notably, Robbie Ryan for cinematography, Yorgos Mavropsaridis for editing, Holly Waddington for costumes and Shona Heath and Zsuzsa Mihalek in production design. They’ll all be easy checkboxes, in addition to possibly makeup and hairstyling, sound, visual effects and score.
Penned by Tony McNamara, the movie creates its own language. Adapted screenplay has another potential winner in its midst.
But I don’t want to be too overconfident. “Poor Things” is a hyper-sexualized and graphic film that will test the limits of industry voters, who have a wide range of ages and sensibilities. Nonetheless, “Poor Things” brought the house down in Colorado. A preferential ballot voting system will be an ally on the circuit.
It’s shaping up to be an incredible year for movies, and we still have four months left.
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