The 89th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 26, 142 days from today.
Some thoughts and the New York Film Festival
Coming off of the first festivals of the Oscar season — Tellurude and Venice and Toronto — we find ourselves in a position where most of the movies and performances have already been seen, at least by critics. All that’s left is to do is screen the remaining few films deemed contenders (most often helmed by an Academy Award-winning director, like Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Martin Scorsese’s Silence) and wait to see the staying power of each current contender’s Oscar narrative. We ask questions after each festival. Are people still talking about Moonlight? (Yes.) Is The Birth of a Nation making headlines for its standing ovations or its non-apology 60 Minutes interviews? (See below.) Has anything come that can overpower La La Land? (Probably not.) All of this sounds in a sort of echo chamber that allows critics to declare who Is and who Is Not winning a race for an award coming out in 142 days. At least until the movies start to come out, which is when the field really begins to narrow — when box office numbers and critics’ lists picks take a world of Oscar possibilities and limit it to 10-15 Contenders.

Where are we now? The only film anyone is really talking about as a potential winner is La La Land. It’s a love letter to Hollywood, and we know how much Hollywood loves its love letters. (See The Artist, Argo and Birdman for more information.) In a world of anger and political frustration, it’s a nice reprieve. (In 1968, another year of anger, the Oscar winner was Oliver!, a musical that literally has an exclamation point in the title.) Vulture’s Toronto recap called it the “Hottest Awards Magnet,” but that is a tough spot to be in this early in the year — the only place to go is down. (Vulture also called Moonlight the “Most Unforgettable,” Lion the “Most Likely to Make Harvey Weinstein Happy” and horror documentary Rats the “Grossest Real-Life Terror.”)

The New York Film Festival is underway, running from September 30 through October 16. NYFF opened with the world premiere of Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th and will feature the premiere of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Other films worth looking out for include 20th Century Women (starring Annette Bening and from the director of Beginners), Jackie (which has launched Natalie Portman into the Best Actress race) and Personal Shopper(which, yes, stars Kristen Stewart). Once we start to see how these are playing, we’ll have a little more information about the shape of the race.

The BFI London Film Festival is also underway, running from October 5 through October 16. It doesn’t matter very much at all, unless you are me, because I am going to be seeing La La Land and Manchester By the Sea this weekend. Yes, I am the coolest.
Spotlight on The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation will be released in theaters this Friday, October 7. The film details the ultimately unsuccessful (spoiler) slave revolt led by Nat Turner in the 1830s. It’s gotten good reviews so far (94% Rotten Tomatoes top critics), but it’s still mired in controversy.

For those of you who don’t remember, the film had a stunning premiere at Sundance in the midst of #OscarsSoWhite, was sold to awards-shepherd Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million and seemed destined to be an unstoppable Oscar contender. That is before it came to light that director, producer, writer and lead actor Nate Parker was accused of raping a college classmate back in 1999. He was acquitted, sure, but her suicide in 2012 makes the whole situation a lot more uncomfortable. Since late summer, an ongoing discussion in the Oscar prediction world was whether this controversy — and the shift in narrative from “Can you believe Nate Parker spent seven years making this movie?” to “Can you believe Nate Parker is maybe a rapist?” — would sink the film’s chances of making a run for Best Picture. (For a snapshot of life per-controversy, read this Vulture retrospective, and for a discussion of the alleged rape and why it matters, read this August Buzzfeed piece.)

The Birth of a Nation played at Toronto, where the audience enjoyed the film and gave it two long standing ovations. But the focus has still been on Parker. On Sunday’s edition of 60 Minutes, Parker sat down with Anderson Cooper to discuss whether he wanted to apologize for his actions.

“I’ll say this,” Parker said. “I do think it’s tragic, so much of what happened and [what] the family had to endure with respect to this woman not being here. I don’t want to harp on this and be disrespectful of them, but at some point I have to say it: I was falsely accused. I went to court, and I sat in trial. I was vind— (choking up). I was vindicated. I was proven innocent, and I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. Her family had to deal with that, but as I sit here, an apology is — no.”

So Nate Parker didn’t apologize. That’s what all the headlines stated. (If you are interested, Sasha Stone has writtentwo articles debating whether Parker needed to apologize, whether he should have apologized and how the “character test” should play into awards calculus.)

Add into the mix an article by the sister of the woman who accused Parker of rape saying that a rape scene in the movie exploits her sister all over again (“Since she is no longer here to speak for herself, I feel a duty to speak on her behalf … Nate Parker caused her so much pain, and that pain and anger are still raw for me”), a Hollywood Reporter piece guest column titled “How ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Dishonors Rosa Parks and Black Female Activists”and a New Yorker review titled The Birth of a Nation Isn’t Worth Defending.” That doesn’t even go into the difficulty of Fox Searchlight to promote a film about a black rebellion against oppressive white men in the midst of Black Lives Matter and a racially tinged presidential campaign. (“Inspire but don’t insight,” the strategy aims.)

Estimates show the movie opening in the $7 million-$8 million range, which may be either good or bad but this articledoesn’t tell me. But The Birth of a Nation’s Oscar futures are still sinking.

Spotlight on The Girl on the Train

Speaking of movies opening this weekend already off to a rough start, The Girl on the Train.

The film has been adapted from a book published just 21 months ago, in January 2015. That is not very long ago if you consider the normal time it takes to develop a film. (Picking another adaptation completely at random, say, Gone Girl‘s journey from page to screen took almost two and a half years.) But the filmmakers wanted to make a movie before interest died down.

“They were like: ‘We’ve got to get this thing made. We’ve got lightning in a bottle here. We’ve got to get it out for fall of 2016.’ So we just amped it up,” director Tate Taylor said.

It was evidently supposed to be the next Gone Girl. David Fincher’s adaptation grossed $369 million and earned Rosamund Pike a nomination for Best Actress. With that in mind, Emily Blunt, the lead of The Girl on the Train, has been considered a Best Actress threat since the summer. The film itself was considered a possibility for Best Picture. It even graced the cover of The Hollywood Reporter.

Then people saw the film. There is no “critical consensus” yet, but top critics at Rotten Tomatoes have given it a 41%. (“Imagine if Gone Girl had been directed by the guy who made The Help,” writes Indiewire.) Blunt has fallen off the list of likely Best Actress contenders. (“It hurts me to say anything bad about Emily Blunt but she appears to have modeled her GIRL ON THE TRAIN performance on David After Dentist,” tweeted Vulture reporter Kyle Buchanan.) It looks like its chances for Oscar success have been DERAILED. (Ha.)
Spotlight on Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy will be honored with a career achievement award at the 20th annual Hollywood Film Awards. The awards are a bit of a joke, but they serve to bring into the spotlight some of the top contenders of the year. Murphy, for his part, is hoping to score a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for this year’s Mr. Church.

Despite a long career in television and film, Eddie Murphy has been largely absent for the past decade. In 2006, he scored a nomination for Dreamgirls, for which he was widely expected to win an Oscar. The award went instead to Alan Arkin, prompting Murphy to storm out of the ceremony early. Many people in the industry thought that the reason for Murphy’s loss was due to his critically panned Norbit, which was in theaters that month and which starred Murphy as a morbidly obese woman. (You can read about the “Norbit effect” in the Oscar press most years. I last remember it being brought up for Eddie Redmayne’s awful Jupiter Ascending in the year of The Theory of Everything.) Regardless, Murphy lost the award and largely disappeared.

A New Yorker article, “Why Is Eddie Murphy in Cinematic Exile?” tries to look into why. Fundamentally, the reason is that, “I don’t usually get offered stuff,” which is depressing. Also depressing is the article’s stance on the movie Mr. Church:

“Mr. Church is a repugnant film,” the review states. “It’s repugnant for its dehumanizing view (however unintentionally so) of a black man, and repugnant for its emptying-out of one of the great black performers of the time into a sanitized symbol of acceptable blackness … The director films the script thoroughly and, with an earnest obliviousness, not only fails to see the ugly meaning of the action but also fails to see the performer—or, rather, the person—who’s in front of the camera.”

It’s worth remembering that, even in a year with Moonlight and Loving and even Birth of a Nation, you have some films that fall back into the old stereotypes. And it’s worth wondering every so often about what ever happened to Eddie Murphy.
Other News 
  • Movie calendar: In case you are interested, AwardsDaily has put together a list of upcoming Oscar-contending movies (and their trailers).
  • The non-campaign campaign: Variety looks into The Departed, the “last film to win best picture without playing the festival game.”
  • Thanks, Brazil: There has been a lot of news over the last week or two about countries selecting which movie they plan to push for a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. I haven’t been following it or reporting on it because, from the bottom of my heart, I really don’t care about foreign language films. However, the New York Times reported about a bit of a scandal in Brazil. The popular choice for the country’s submission, Aquarius, was not chosen, critics claim, as a result of the cast and crew’s public distaste for Brazil’s new president, Michel Temer.
  • Box office update: Sully breaks $100 million domestically, and Lionsgate (with Deepwater Horizon) is screwed.
  • Give Amy Adams more credit: Vulture wrote in their “Oscar futures” piece that “the dependable Adams is practically our new Leonardo DiCaprio: She’s been nominated five times now in the prime of her career and has never won.” I’d like to point out that Leonardo DiCaprio won on his fifth acting nomination, meaning that she is more Leonardo DiCaprio than Leonardo DiCaprio was even in the year of The Revenant.


Other News — Political Edition
  • Zootopia stays relevant: Disney’s Zootopia, still the best-reviewed film of the year, hosted a viewing party of the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. That seems like a strange choice, until you remember what the movie was about. According to Time’s initial review, “Zootopia is actually a movie about crooked, bigoted authority figures who recognize that the best way to stay in power is to make sure ‘white’ animals live in constant fear of ‘black’ ones. And if that’s not a sock-in-the-jaw metaphor for contemporary life in most major American cities, what is?”
  • Bad advertising: No one really gets this Birth of a Nation advertisement, which Photoshops the backdrop of the presidential debate.
  • Register to vote: Viewers at special promotional screenings of Birth of a Nation can register to vote in support of National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday, Sept. 27. Theater fans, don’t worry — Hamilton is also hosting voter registration drives.
  • Ruffalo in the buff-alo? “Benevolent Mark Ruffalo Promises to Do a Full-Frontal Nude Scene If You Vote Against Trump”

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