The Academy has fattened its ranks in the last couple of weeks with all sorts of diverse and international filmmakers in a grand plan to, among other things, avoid a threepeat of no actors of color nominated among the 2016 class in the upcoming Oscar race. Of course, bringing in new members — no matter what the ethnicity — does not and cannot guarantee anything in terms of the vote, which is done with a secret ballot by each of the now more than 7000 members. In fact, one longtime Academy voter and Oscar-winning filmmaker told me just yesterday that he worries that some Academy members , upset at criticism fairly or unfairly aimed at them, might vote with these factors in mind rather just for what they think is the best work. And YOU thought it was all about the quality of the movies?
So, with last weekend’s successful limited release of Sundance and Cannes favorite Captain Fantastic to lead off the second half of 2016’s movie output, it got me thinking how little of real Oscar nomination possibilities there are already out there so far this year — after six months of new movies. This is not personal opinion but rather a basic reading of past Academy voting patterns. The influx of more than 600 new first-time voters is an unknown factor, as is the impact of veteran members who are about to lose their voting privileges due to inactivity in the business, but at this point in fact Fantastic’s superb lead actor Viggo Mortensen, playing a father of six bringing up his kids in an unorthodox and survivalist kind of lifestyle, seems to me to be the only sure-fire Best Actor nomination contender to come out of the movies in release the first half of the year (and I had to stretch that definition to include this July 7 Los Angeles/New York opening). For him, much will depend on how Bleecker Street keeps the movie going from the summer into the fall; the strong limited opening should give them hope.
For actresses I came up with more, well three actually: Helen Mirren in a tough-as-nails military commander role originally written for a man in the indie hit Eye In The Sky; Sally Field again getting a lead role worth her talent in Hello My Name Is Doris; and Susan Sarandon ditto in The Meddler. I very much liked Cesar Best Actress winner Catherine Frot as the French society woman who thinks she can sing but can’t in Marguerite, but she will be overshadowed by Meryl Streep’s Florence Foster Jenkins when it opens in the U.S. in August (it had its UK release already) — it essentially is the same story using the real names. With Streep going for her 20th nomination, that contest of the non-singers should be no contest at all.
Tilda Swinton as a different kind of singer, a rock star, was excellent in the steamy A Bigger Splash, but if anyone actually lands a nomination from that film it will be Supporting Actor Ralph Fiennes, who is as good as he has ever been and should not be forgotten even if the movie might be by balloting time at year’s end. Roadside Attractions and Amazon also hope to get traction with Kate Beckinsale in their arty Whit Stillman indie hit Love & Friendship, and a Comedy Actress Golden Globe nod is not out of the realm of possibility where she would have to compete with their other early-bird contender, Field.
On the Actor side, there were others of note besides Mortensen and, like Swinton, Streep and Frot, there is a musical bent to them which could help when it comes to the Golden Globes. Sony Pictures Classics has Don Cheadle’s well-liked Miles Davis in Miles Ahead (he also directed) as well as an excellent Tom Hiddleston doing his own singing as Hank Williams in I Saw The Light, but neither lasted long at the box office which won’t help matters with memory-challenged Oscar voters. SPC will have to spend serious bucks to position either one. Cliff Curtis was great in the New Zealand-set chess drama The Dark Horse, but I doubt Broad Green will spend on a big campaign for another film that came and went quickly in theatres. A sleeper possibility in one category or another could also be Sundance favorite Hunt For The Wilderpeople from New Zealand and director (and new Academy member) Taika Waititi, which seems to be developing a real following for distributor The Orchard. One Oscar voter I spoke with compared it to Whale Rider, a movie that drew a surprise Best Actress nom for its then-young star Keisha Castle-Hughes. Could the same happen for Wilderpeople kid star Julian Dennison? He’s first rate, as is co-star Sam Neill.
There was also great work from two past winners in smaller movies including Colin Firth as book editor Max Perkins in Genius and Jeremy Irons who guided a math genius in The Man Who Knew Infinity. The problem with so many of these smaller indie movies released earlier in the year is their not-always-deep-pocketed distributors have to mount expensive campaigns on their behalf or they stand little chance against the big guns of fall. I loved Weinstein Company’s Irish-based Sing Street from director John Carney whose previous films Once and Begin Again both gained traction in the song category. The company just re-released the movie in hopes of reviving its lackluster boxoffice, so maybe there will also be a push come Oscar and Globe time. It deserves better than it has gotten.
As for Best Picture contenders from the first six months in release, Disney’s Jon Favreau technical marvel The Jungle Book has resonated strongly, at least with Academy members I talk to. They seem wowed by the sheer filmmaking challenge of tackling this live-action version of Kipling’s tale that sans the lead actor was entirely a masterpiece of visual effects, CGI and animation. For my money, two other films — the aforementioned Captain Fantastic, which also played Sundance and later won a 10-minute standing ovation as well as the Un Certain Regard Best Director prize for Matt Ross in Cannes, and Gavin Hood’s brilliant drone drama Eye In The Sky — are absolutely worthy of being seriously considered. The latter is the best-directed film I have seen all year and is the top-grossing indie to date nearing $19 million domestically. In addition to Mirren it would be nice to remember the late Alan Rickman’s fine supporting turn. Both these movies are from Bleecker Street, the upstart company which got its feet wet in the Oscar game last season with a Bryan Cranston Best Actor nod for Trumbo, as well as a leading three SAG nominations for that movie.
The reality is that very few films released in the year’s first half ever wind up in the Best Picture race, though the May 15 Warner Bros action film Mad Max: Fury Road defied all odds last year and got a Best Pic nod along with winning six Oscars in below-the-line categories. The previous year, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel really defied the odds grabbing nine nominations including Best Picture and winning in four below-the-line categories despite its March 7 opening. That film was the first since Erin Brockovich in 2000 to grab a Best Picture nod after such an early-in-the-year start. There are many examples of Best Picture Oscar winners like Patton, Silence Of The Lambs, The Sound Of Music, Gladiator, Braveheart, Crash, The Hurt Locker, etc., coming out of the first six months, but the odds seem to be getting longer as studios and distributors seem to be determined to cram everything they deem as Oscar bait into fall — and as stated they have to be willing to spend for movies already out of the theatrical window.
Along these lines, I am told Amazon plans to campaign Nicolas Winding Refn’s box office disappointment The Neon Demon (it debuted in Cannes competition) in Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Production Design, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects and for the Sia song “Waving Goodbye,” as well as Cliff Martinez’s score. All of this despite a painful early box office death for Refn’s stylish teen fashion model horror film — not exactly a genre welcomed by your usual Oscar voter. We will see, when push comes to shove, what happens as the real campaign season starts around Labor Day.
Feature Documentary and Animation categories are where we see, as usual, some genuine Oscar nomination possibilities from the year’s first half (along with several crafts that favor summer blockbuster type movies). For the toons, Disney’s smash hit Zootopia would seem a shoo-in for a nom, with sequels Finding Dory and Kung Fu Panda 3 trying to keep the previous Oscar presence for their predecesors going strong. GKIDS’ French film April And The Extraordinary World has a shot too at this point, but competition in this category promises to be more fierce than ever as it heats up in the second half.
There are numerous documentaries already staking claims too, including the fascinating Anthony Weiner meltdown movie Weiner, the touching Disney-tinged Autism docu Life Animated, music docus The Music Of Strangers and Presenting Princess Shaw, and the 7 1/2-hour OJ: Made In America, which got a qualifying run earlier in the year before debuting on ESPN last month. That film, which has won raves, had one of the season’s first campaign lunches Monday in Century City with several Documentary Branch and other Academy members attending. The distributor has also been having all-day marathon screenings of the movie for voters, though most will likely watch this on their own time schedule at home. One docu Oscar voter told me today he intended to watch about an hour and wound up seeing the whole thing in one sitting, mentioning the Ezra Edelman-directed film had a profound effect on him.
I would also highly recommend the wonderful De Palma, a documentary from directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow that has a very willing and brilliant storyteller in the form of its interview subject, Brian De Palma. As a primer on the movie business, I have rarely seen better.
Among the fall releases already seen, digested and reviewed on the festival circuit there is growing buzz, but this piece is only concentrating on those that have already opened commercially. Undoubtedly we will be hearing a lot more from the fest list that includes Sundance sensations The Birth Of A Nation and Manchester By The Sea, James Schamus’ powerful Philip Roth adaptation Indignation, and a gaggle of films out of Cannes that include Jeff Nichols’ well-received Loving, Ken Loach’s second Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, the likely German Foreign Language entry Toni Erdmann, A24’s American Honey, Jim Jarmusch’s great Paterson, the sensational Southwestern crime drama Hell Or High Water from British director David Mackenzie, Paul Verhoeven’s intense and controversial rape drama Elle, the biopic Neruda, and the gorgeous animated The Red Turtle which Sony Pictures Classics will release toward the end of the year. And I would add a very small indie recently picked up by The Orchard called Miss Stevens which screened at SXSW and contains a breakout performance from a young actor named Timothee Chalamet. He’s going places, maybe the Indie Spirits for starters.
Bottom line is most Academy members tell me they have not been blown away by much so far this year in terms of movies playing their official Academy screening on weekends at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre. But take heart, like always that is going to change. In the meantime, don’t discount those smaller films that deserve to be remembered — or at least seen — that have already opened in 2016. If i left any of you out , you know who you are.