The 89th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 26, 171 days from today.

Summer recap

The summer began with Cannes, the annual festival that took place from May 11-22 this year in the south of France. The official winner of the Palme d’Or was the British film I, Daniel Blake, which “follows two people caught in an uncaring welfare system,” but as no one really liked it (and journalists booed the choice), we are not going to talk about that anymore. We are also not going to talk about “the Craziest Cannes in years,” where critics booed other movies, fell asleep and referred to Sean Penn’s dud The Last Face as The Last Fart.” Instead, we are going to talk about the real “winner” of Cannes in the eyes of the Oscar bloggers: Loving.

Directed by Jeff Nichols (who previously helmed this year’s Midnight Special as well as Mud and Take Shelter), the film features the story of the interracial couple behind the Supreme Court’s landmark Loving v. Virginia ruling in 1967. It basically screams Oscar film, especially given today’s environment. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the screening “immediately made the case why the film has to be considered one of this year’s first major awards contenders.” The actors (Joel Edgerton and standout Ruth Negga) got great reviews, as did Nichols who focused more on the human side of the story (“Nichols intentionally isn’t making a showy movie”). This is a film to take seriously, despite the other strong contenders set to be released later this year.

(Other highlights from the festival included Personal Shopper, Toni Erdmann, Elle and Paterson, but unless those show up again with very strong reviews in the next few months, we can pretend they never existed like we do most films from Cannes.)

The Tony awards took place in June and were marked by a Hamilton sweep. Notably, this was “the first time since the Tonys began in 1947 that black artists won all four major musical performance categories,” with Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Cynthia Erivo taking the awards for Featured Actor, Featured Actress, Lead Actor and Lead Actress in a Musical, respectively. For those of you keeping track, the Oscars have been given to three black actors and actresses over the last nine years. With the success of the Tonys and memories still fresh from #OscarsSoWhite, there is still reason to hope, and the New York Times outlined many of the possible black films in contention in 2016.

July and August were a bit of a wash in terms of the Oscar race, as summer movies rarely leave a mark. Two of the strongest contenders released over the summer are Florence Foster Jenkins (88% Rotten Tomatoes), which is getting strong reviews for Meryl Streep as a terrible opera singer and Hugh Grant as her husband, and Hell or High Water (99% Rotten Tomatoes), which is a western with Chris Pine. These must stay part of the conversation, which will be especially difficult given that what may be the most important film festival of the year took place this Labor Day.

Telluride has been a major part of the Oscar race for at least the past decade. At last year’s Telluride, Spotlight began receiving excellent reviews and building the buzz that would ultimately award it Best Picture at the Oscars. Also screened at that festival was Best Picture nominee Room and seven other serious contenders (Carol, Beasts of No Nation, Steve Jobs, 45 Years, Black Mass, Suffragette and Anomalisa). The year before, eventual winner Birdman screened alongside Best Picture nominee The Imitation Game and five other strong films (Foxcatcher, Mr. Turner, Wild, 99 Homes and Two Days One Night). Best Picture winners from the last six years, and seven of the past 10 years (Spotlight, Birdman,12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire) played Telluride. In fact, you need to go back as far as The Departed to find a Best Picture winner that debuted after the festival. Buzzy films from Telluride do not always go the distance — think Inside Llewyn Davis — but a strong start here can mean a lot for a film’s Best Picture hopes.

So what dominated the lineup this year? The big four you are going to hear a lot more about as the season progresses are La La Land, Manchester By the Sea, Sully and Arrival.

  • La La Land is directed by Damien Chazelle, who rose to fame two years ago for directing Whiplash. His next film stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is a musical and is considered by many to be the next Artist. According to Scott Feinberg, the film “received two mid-movie ovations and a 20-second one at the end” and is “almost tailor-made for Academy members.” Sasha Stone calls it “a force to be reckoned with” and notes that, like all recent Oscar winners, “this is the film almost everyone can agree upon. And it’s the film no one hates.” And, according to another article she wrote, it now should be considered the favorite. (It also opened the Venice film festival, taking place from August 31-September 10, to great reviews.)
  • Manchester By the Sea previously screened at Sundance, but the film continued making its mark last weekend. It’s about the super fun topic of “how the premature death of a man impacts his brother.” Casey Affleck is “the heart and soul of the film and has a solid shot at landing his first-ever best actor nomination,” while Michelle Williams has an important, albeit brief, supporting turn.
  • When you combine Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks and “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, you sort of know what to expect. Apparently, Sully is better than that for two reasons. First, “the film focuses on the aftermath of the near-crash — the successful water landing — which left Sully feeling less like the hero he was portrayed as in the media than maybe the cause of the crash itself,” which seams interesting. Second, Tom Hanks is great, and it’s been 16 years since he was last nominated despite really-should’ve-been-nominated performances like the one in Captain Phillips.
  • Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve, who also directed Sicario and Prisoners and was, at one point, my younger brother’s favorite director. The response has been mixed, both here and at Venice. Scott Feinberg’s review headline (“Telluride: ‘Arrival’ Poses an Awards Conundrum”) belies the fact that the entire review is dedicated to saying that due to a “convoluted plot,” science fiction genre, overambitious director and “terrible Boston accent” by Forest Whitaker, this film is going nowhere soon in the Oscar race. This is a shame, he says, because Amy Adams (who plays a linguist recruited by the military to translate some aliens) is amazing and overdue. Sasha Stone agreed that “many of the men I spoke with didn’t connect with it” (though she said this was because the themes were about motherhood and that men don’t understand that).
Beyond those four, Sasha Stone highlights Bleed for This (particularly Miles Teller’s performance) and Una (particularly Rooney Mara); Scott Feinberg calls out Bryan Cranston in Wakefield; and both call out Moonlight (a small indie, known by some as “the black Brokeback Mountain,” which is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Room.

Next up is the Toronto Film Festival, which will take place from September 8-18. Back from Telluride, Venice or Cannes are La La Land, Arrival, Loving, Manchester By the Sea, Bleed For This and Nocturnal Animals, and screening for the first time (I think) are Lion, LBJ, American Pastoral and Queen of Katwe. Most importantly, The Birth of a Nation, which screened to rave reviews at Sundance but is in the middle of a rape scandal, will be trying to make its case as well.

What’s going on with The Birth of a Nation?
If you were following the race last January, predicting this year’s Best Picture winner would be easy. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation was sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million shortly before winning Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize. The film seemed to have “everything going for it”, according to The Hollywood Reporter:

[Birth of a Nation] could claim historical importance — it tells the story of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831. It had the imprimatur of the Sundance Institute, where it had been developed. Parker himself had the kind of personal story that often resonates with Oscar voters, since he’d temporarily set aside a promising acting career to pursue his passion project, which marks his directorial debut. And, in the months since its debut, as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum, Birth, rather than just revisiting the past, looked as if it could become an important part of the national conversation about how black men are treated in America.”
It sounded like the perfect antidote to #OscarsSoWhite, and the only question was whether anything could happen to break its winning streak.

The answer, it turns out, is that Parker was accused of rape while at college at Penn State. The response has been outrage. Parker claims he is innocent (and was acquitted back when he was originally accused), but that may not be enough in the age of social media. Boycotts are possible, and it’s possible that the current scandal surrounding the film will dim its Oscar prospects entirely. The timing is interesting; we don’t know yet whether this conversation will fade away or define the film.

We’ll check in on this again after Toronto. Three interesting articles to read are ones from Buzzfeed (detailing the alleged rape and discussing why this is different from your everyday Roman Polanski or Woody Allen sex scandal), The Hollywood Reporter (on how this news will affect the Oscar race) and AwardsDaily (describing other scandals that have sunk Oscar contenders, such as the “no black people in Suffragette” or “Selma is mean to LBJ” controversies).
Spotlight on changes in the Academy

The lack of diversity within the Academy made news last year, as did the Academy’s plan to phase out inactive voters. Over the summer, the Academy has made news again for a variety of initiatives and changes affecting its membership, leadership, rules and awards:

  • New members: Following promises to double female and minority membership by 2020, the Academy invited 683 potential new members to the elite club this year (more than twice last year’s number). This group is much more diverse than the current membership, with women making up 46 percent of invitees and minorities making up 41 percent. (See here for a full list of invitees.) Many applauded the Academy’s decision, though there was some criticism, such as the fact that many nominees had questionable film achievements (compared to their recognized talent in television, theater or music) or little film experience (such as John Boyega, who is awesome but not very prolific so far). The big question is whether the Academy can sustain this pace. According to the New York Times, “even if all of the new invitees join, minority membership would rise to 11 percent from 8 percent, and the percentage of women would increase to 27 percent from 25 percent.” Bizarrely, New York state is hoping to help out with this, by starting a new initiative to gather credentials of female and minority filmmakers from the New York area and pitch them to the Academy as possible invitees for next year.
  • New leaders: Despite controversies last year, Academy leadership stayed largely the same. Cheryl Boone Isaacs was elected on Tuesday night to a fourth consecutive one-year term as president. Though there were some exciting new faces in the governors’ election (like Steven Spielberg and two new black governors, Roger Ross Williams and Sharen K. Davis), seven of the 11 incumbents who sought re-election were voted back in. Unlike previous years, when each branch’s executive committee was appointed by the relevant governor, Academy members have been empowered to choose half of their executive committee, though I don’t really understand why this is exciting. All in all, Academy leadership can say it has received a “vote of confidence” or, at least, a vote of apathy.
  • New restrictions: At the end of June, the Academy announced new rules to govern campaigning: “Academy members may not be invited to or attend any nonscreening event, party or dinner that is reasonably perceived to unduly influence members or undermine the integrity of the vote.” What this means is still unclear, but most campaign events will still be considered kosher as long as they are not “over the top.”
  • New awards: The SciTech Committee is debating adding 12 new categories to the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards. These include digital cinematography, motion control software and computer-printed, seamless scenic backdrops, and they will be voted on by the committee this December.
Spotlight on the Governors Awards
This week, the Academy announced the four winners of honorary Oscars to be presented at this year’s Governors Awards: actor Jackie Chan, film editor Anne V. Coates, casting director Lynn Stalmaster and documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. The Academy president called them “true pioneers and legends in their crafts.” The winners came from a group of “more than 100 people … put forward as potential honorary Oscar recipients.” They will receive their awards on November 12. (Worth noting that these two articles weighed in on who they thought should receive this year’s honorary Oscars. Three winners were on both lists; Jackie Chan was on neither.)
Other News

  • Best 21st-century films: The BBC recently announced its list of the top 100 greatest films of the 21st century. The top five spots went to Mulholland Drive (2001), In the Mood for Love (2000), There Will Be Blood (2007), Spirited Away (2001) and Boyhood (2014).
  • EGOT hopefuls: The Los Angeles Times ranks some of the top contenders for the elusive EGOT (those who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony). There are currently 12 people who have won all four awards. Among the 20 closest to an EGOT, according to the article, are Lin-Manuel Miranda (missing an Oscar), Jeremy Irons (missing a Grammy), Kate Winslet (missing a Tony) and Helen Mirren (missing a Grammy). Mirren has won an Oscar and a Tony playing Queen Elizabeth II and an Emmy playing Queen Elizabeth I, so I think we know what will happen when she narrates some Queen Elizabeth audiobook.
  • Best Actress contenders: I’ll be looking a lot more into the various races in the coming weeks and months, but this AwardsDaily article from several months back gives a good breakdown on some of the contenders for Best Actress. Possibilities include Viola Davis in Fences (an overdue actress who won a Tony for the role on Broadway, poised to become the first African American Best Actress winner in 15 years), Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train (buzzy airplane book starring an actress who should have been nominated one to four times already) and Ruth Negga in Loving (newcomer in a movie that debuted well at Cannes), though the article also lists paths to nominations for Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, Alicia Vikander, Jessica Chastain, Amy Adams, Michelle Pfeiffer, Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep, Marion Cotillard, Annette Bening, Rooney Mara and Kristen Stewart. (It’s a long article.)

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