The 89th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 26, 127 days from today.

Why it could be La La Land

Oscar season is progressing. Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was built up as a potential Best Picture favorite, with a two-time Academy Award-winning director, strong cast (including Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker and newcomer Joe Alwyn) and relevant subject matter (war drama). Then it screened at the New York Film Fest. Reviews were poor, or at least not ecstatic. Billy Lynn sank from near the top of most people’s lists to the bottom. And so it goes.

It is starting to feel, at least as a reader of Oscar news, that La La Land has a reasonably clear path to the Best Picture prize. I think I’ve already talked about how the film seems designed, in a way, for Academy voters who love movies and love Los Angeles. What I’d like to talk about are the three main films that could prove spoiler:

  1. Moonlight: This film, centered on a young black man’s struggles with his identity and sexuality in a tough Miami neighborhood, has been quietly maintaining its momentum since its debut at Telluride in September. It is almost universally well liked (with a score of 99, it is the best-reviewed film of the year on Metacritic, and it has only received one “rotten” review on Rotten Tomatoes) and has a strong supporting actress contender in Naomie Harris (who shot all her scenes in just three days). For it to win, there has to be some backlash against La La Land, and it has to build its case as a Serious film relevant to the Issues That Are Important Today. It would be a huge statement in the year after #OscarSoWhite (and in an election year full of racially tinged issues of its own), but, at least right now, it seems too small to succeed. It is being released to the public today, so we’ll see if it seizes on that hype to change the conversation at all.
  2. Lion: This prediction lies largely in my faith in Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein has led two films to Best Picture wins since 2008 (The King’s Speech and The Artist) as well as five to nominations (The Reader, Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, Philomena and The Imitation Game). He is not known for championing subtle Oscar campaigning. For The Imitation Game, he had star Benedict Cumberbatch sign an open letter to the British government asking them to pardon all of those people who, like Alan Turing, were charged with “gross indecency” (homosexuality). His advertisements also used quotes from Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin (“Alan Turing is a hero to the LGBT community”) and GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis (“‘The Imitation Game’ is an important film that preserves LGBT history”), to the extent that the Washington Post ran an article called “‘The Imitation Game’ isn’t really about gay rights. But its Oscars campaign is.” The year before, he had Judi Dench meet the Pope to promote Philomena, a film you have never heard of that managed to score a nomination in a year that neither Saving Mr. Banks nor Inside Llewyn Davis managed to do so. For Lion to win, Weinstein needs to convince Academy voters with tear-jerking campaigning that this is the right movie for this year, but it seems unlikely it will out-heartwarming La La Land.
  3. Silence: This has yet to be screened and may very well pull a Billy Lynn when it does. But when a movie is directed by Martin Scorsese, you have to take it seriously. He has eight Best Director nominations (and one win), making him the most nominated living director. His films have earned a total of 80 Oscar nominations (20 wins), and five of his last six movies have been nominated for Best Picture (The Wolf of Wall Street, Hugo, The Departed, The Aviator and The Gangs of New York; no love for Shutter Island). From the pictures I’ve seen, it seems to be about Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson having beards. We’ll have to wait until it comes out in December to find out what its chances are.

Other films at the top of people’s lists include Fences (unseen), Manchester by the Sea (a bit too sad), Jackie (more a Natalie Portman vehicle than a Best Picture winner), Arrival (sci-fi and divisive), Sully (nothing that new), Loving (I already forgot about it, which is sad, because it looks awesome) and Hell or High Water (miraculously still part of the conversation).

One note on Birth of a Nation: It does not appear that its public release has done much to shore up support for its Oscar chances. Its Academy screening was just half full (though those that attended gave it “warm and very appreciative applause”). Reasons for why Academy members avoided it, according to the Los Angeles Times,  included “the details of [director Nate] Parker’s 1999 rape case, disdain for how Parker answered questions about his past while promoting the movie and a general fatigue with films about slavery.” (That last bit’s a little scary). Add to this the fact that it opened the same day that the infamous Donald Trump Access Hollywood Tape came out, which didn’t really help the film downplay its director’s rape accusation. It opened to $7.1 million, which, according to Vulture, was “a disappointing number for a title with this kind of exposure, cost, and expectations.” This is lower than the opening weekend of the Matthew McConaughey Civil War dud Free State of Jones. This may be the final nail in the coffin for the film: Oscar voters can forgive sex abusers (just ask Woody Allen or Best Actor frontrunner Casey Affleck), but they can’t forgive movies that were supposed to earn money and then didn’t. (Just ask Steve Jobs.)

With the end of the New York Film Festival (here are five “hidden gems” according to the Hollywood Reporter) and the London Film Festival (Certain Women took the top prize), the next major film festival is AFI, held from November 10 through November 17. Many films that have already been seen will be screening (including, *cough*, La La Land) in an attempt to keep up momentum, but four films in particular will be looking to the fest as a way to get them into the conversation: 20th Century Women (starring Annette Bening in a potentially Oscar-winning role), The Comedian (with Robert De Niro), Rules Don’t Apply (with Warren Beatty) and Elle (with Isabelle Huppert, who is French, so you don’t know her).

Looking at the years since 2009 when the Academy expanded the ballot past five Best Picture nominees, Sasha Stone identified that typically two films screened after October made it to the final nominee list. (Last year, for example, The Big Short opened at AFI and The Revenant screened in December, while everything else was out earlier on.) Assuming that there will be just two unseen movies left to join the party gives greater strength to the arguments for Silence and Fences but makes it less likely that they will be joined in the final list by other contenders, like Hidden Figures or Allied. But rules are made to be broken and, with a rape controversy, early Best Picture favorite and oversupply of possible Best Actress candidates, this year already feels weird.


Spotlight on Emma Stone:
Emma Stone will get nominated for an Oscar this year. It will be her second (she was nominated for Birdman two years ago) and it is almost a guarantee, given the good press that La La Land and she in particular is getting. Vogue wrote their cover story on her, which is very much worth the read. Highlights include:

  • Emma Stone’s first job was behind the counter at Three Dog Bakery, which is a bakery that sells dog treats. She still remembers the top-selling items: “Pup Tarts,” she says. “Pop Tarts, but for dogs. And Pupcakes. Then there was a kind of dog Oreo made with carob and honey. A mom would come in and buy them for her kid because she thought dog Oreos were healthier.”
  • Vogue really liked La La Land, saying that, “Big, sweeping, and refreshingly uncynical, La La Land is the sort of movie that studios used to make all the time but don’t anymore. Stone and Gosling sing. They dance. They fly—literally, in a breathtaking scene among the stars inside the Griffith Observatory—and fall in love. In an age of thumping and frantically edited franchise flicks, La La Land is both retro (there are nods to the MGM-musical heyday and the French New Wave director Jacques Demy) and utterly radical.”
  • Tom Hanks also really liked La La Land, saying, “If the audience doesn’t go and embrace something as wonderful as this, then we are all doomed.”
  • Emma Stone was completely non-stressed at the Oscars for Birdman because she knew that Patricia Arquette was going to win for Boyhood. (She did.) Because of that, she could completely enjoy herself. “There was no pressure,” Stone says. “My mom and I got to sit in the front row, and my mom sat next to Michael Keaton. It was the year of The LEGO Movie, so I got a LEGO Oscar.”
  • La La Land director Damien Chazelle has a lot of praise for Stone: “Obviously it was a big swing to do an original musical where she’d have to sing and dance and the whole gamut on-screen,” says Chazelle. “But Emma just has that presence. She’s a great comedienne and also can be tremendously moving. She can play every single register.”

Expect to see a lot more of her on the red carpet.

Spotlight on Emily Blunt:

Emily Blunt is not going to get nominated for an Oscar this year. It’s possible that people will be able to separate how much they liked her from how much they disliked The Girl on the Train (see a 44% on Rotten Tomatoes, an article on why Gone Girl is better in Vox and a British article arguing that it should have still been set in England), but it’s always easier to just nominate well-liked people from well-liked movies. With that in mind, I want to begin my annual post about not taking Emily Blunt for granted.

Blunt has four Golden Globe nominations (for film). Now, I will be the first to tell you how little these matter and how ridiculous it is that the Golden Globes have any importance (please see me circa December), but it points to the number of films that could have, but didn’t, bring her to the Dolby Theatre. She first was nominated for The Devil Wears Prada, a role that brought her fame, juicier parts and inspired, in part, the brilliant article “Emily Blunt Deserves Better.” (“Emily Blunt is a very good actor. Think of a mood or emotion — ’in love,’ ‘in danger,’ ‘depressed,’ ‘protective,’ ‘curious,’ ‘silly,’ ‘cool,’ you name it — and Emily Blunt, to my mind, plays it about as well as any other very good actor. Except for ‘rude.’ Emily Blunt plays ‘rude’ better than any actor I’ve ever seen.”) Next came period piece The Young Victoria, romantic dramedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and musical Into the Woods. Add to this the unnominated roles in science fiction Edge of Tomorrow and crime-thriller Sicario and you have some sense of her range. (FiveThirtyEight did an analysis of Emily Blunt movies, and it’s remarkable how well-reviewed many of them are.)

The Girl on the Train could have been her moment. She’s the lead in a movie that will be raking in money and allow her to play new emotions, like drunk, sad, scared, more drunk and confused. There’s a precedent — Rosamund Pike got an Oscar nomination for Gone Girl. But the odds were just not in her favor.

In two years, she’ll play the title role in Mary Poppins Returns. Will she get a nomination for the role that brought Julie Andrews her own statuette? Probably not, given her history, but at the very least, I can remind you then that Blunt deserves more than what she’s getting.

Spotlight on Gotham Awards:

On October 20, nominations for this year’s Gotham Awards nominations came out. Manchester By the Sea got four nominations (for Best Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Breakthrough Actor) and Moonlight got three (Best Feature, Best Screenplay and a special jury award for the ensemble performance). The other nominations for Best Feature (the Best Picture equivalent) were Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson.

Last year, Spotlight won the Gotham Award for Best Feature and then went on to win the Oscar. But the story is less impressive when you realize that nothing it was up against got nominated (sorry Carol, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Heaven Knows What and Tangerine) and that the winners of Best Actor (Paul Dano in Love & Mercy) and Best Actress (Bel Powley in The Diary of a Teenage Girl) also didn’t get nominated. To address this, Scott Feinberg wrote an article called “Gotham Awards: Any Foreshadowing of the Oscars Is Purely Coincidental .”
“I would love to be able to tell you that the Gothams’ set of nominees, the 26th set of which were announced this morning, also offer helpful hints about the highest-profile awards of them all, the Oscars. Their own press release suggests that’s the case by touting them as ‘the kick-off to the film awards season,’ ‘the first major awards ceremony of the film season,’ known for ‘catapulting award recipients prominently into national awards season attention.’ … But, while a number of the Gotham nominees will end up in Oscar contention, I feel compelled to point out each year when people read meaning into the Gotham noms, they are a reflection of nothing more than the tastes of several five-person committees comprised of ‘writers, critics and programmers,’ not filmmakers; there is no coordination between the individual committees, which results in noms that send conflicting signals; these committee members tend to reward old stalwarts of the indie community even for works that aren’t among their best (see Reichardt, Linklater, Jarmusch); and, perhaps most significantly, make their decisions using rather vague criteria.”

So, good news for the nominees, but not something that sends any signs just yet.


Other News:

  • Oscar bait: Vulture debates whether we should call movies that seem destined for the Academy Awards (or would like to be) “Oscar bait.” One interesting point is whether that term is largely used for more “feminine” movies — Scorsese flicks are rarely called “Oscar bait.”
  • Bad England: According to the Hollywood Reporter, almost 60% of British films over the last decade feature zero black actors. Only 13 percent featured a black actor in a lead role.
  • Best Actress race is crowded: A good article from Variety listing the top candidates for the award, including Annette Bening, Viola Davis, Meryl Streep, Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, Ruth Negga, Amy Adams, Jessica Chastain, Taraji P. Henson and Marion Cotillard.
  • Best Actor race is crowded: A less convincing article from AwardsDaily that Best Actor is also crowded.
  • First movie role: This article lists the first time a number of A-list actors (such as George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) were on screen. Clooney’s, for his part, was in the movie Grizzly II about a “giant, man-eating bear” in a nameless role where he was “camping out with a lover before being mauled by the monster.”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s