Festival season is already underway, and already it has proven that the last three months of this year will be trying to make up for the hellhole that has been 2016. Both Venice and Telluride have provided many films destined for the Oscar race and best of lists, especially mine. And while Venice isn’t supposed to end until this upcoming Saturday, and Telluride ends later tonight, and we still don’t have news on the triumph or failures of Voyage of Time, Jackie, The Magnificent Seven and the Secret Screening, we’ve heard enough to have a strong understanding of the upcoming season, and there’s an understanding of what is great, what is fine, and what’s a major bomb.
Well, Telluride has spoken, and it seems that La La Land is destined to be a bonafide hit. While they were harsher on the writing and the middle portion, which apparently suffers from a lack of songs, the film still received raves. Not only is the opening described as “electric,” the ending has been described as on par with City Lights, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Casablanca. Hell, a critic I follow openly bragged about how she was going to hate it, only to give it one of the most laudatory reviews of the festival. The last time I witnessed a film receive this level of acclaim and love was Spotlight, which went on to survive a grueling awards season to win Best Picture. I think that it is likely that Damien Chazelle will go the distance this year, and we might even see Emma Stone take home Best Actress, as I’ve seen her performance compared to Audrey Hepburn at her prime.
Before I cover the rest of Telluride, I’m going to quickly address Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford’s first film in seven years, and his second film overall. Ford, a renowned fashion designer, made a small film titled A Single Man in 2009, on a whim, which showed a clear vision and got career-best work out of Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. This year, he’s back with an adaptation of Tony and Susan, and he has proven that his talent behind the camera was not a fluke. The film has been described as “Lynchian” and “Hitchcock-esque,” which are probably the best things that can be said about a thriller film. While it may end up being too dark or too smart for the Academy, I would not rule out Ford’s script, or the universally praised performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams, as well as Laura Linney, who has a glorified cameo that could earn her a Beatrice Straight-style nom (especially in such a weak year), and Michael Shannon has turned himself into a Best Supporting Actor frontrunner (he also has the benefit of three great films this year). This is certainly going to be one to look out for.
Meanwhile, strong reviews have started to flow in about Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s atypical sci-fi drama. Focused more on humanity and motherhood than action or effects, the film is being hailed as a brilliant and intelligent, if flawed, film. Historically speaking, these types of films do terribly at the Oscars (Hi Interstellar!); however, based on the passion by those who love it really love it, and I would expect it to play well amongst critics groups.
Meanwhile, Manchester by the Sea has put itself back on the board with a strong showing. Michelle Williams is already the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress, and is likely to remain that way for a while, but the person who has benefited the most is Casey Affleck. The fact Telluride gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at such a young age (and in spite of directing I’m Still Here) is a testament to his talent as an actor, and the buzz for him is strong. Coupled with the fact that three frontrunners for Best Actor are at risk of dropping out of the race (more on this later in the week), Affleck may find himself flying up the ladder and into the top five (side note: how great would it be if brother Ben enters the race in December and they both get nominated together?).
And finally, the film with the greatest early buzz outside of La La Land, Moonlight. When the trailer for this one first dropped, I made an offhand comment that it could be this year’s Room-a small but powerful indie film that works because of great acting, writing and directing. As it turns out, that may be a great analogy, as everyone’s talking about how Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age tale is one of the greatest films in many, many years. I think the best description I saw for it, at least from an entertainment standpoint was “It’s Brokeback Mountain, Boyhood, and Beasts of the Southern Wild all mixed together and directed by Frank Ocean.” I’m so onboard it’s not even funny. The Academy is terrible when it comes to films dealing with homosexuality (despite the pervasive rumor of the Oscars having a liberal bias, in reality they have a conservative lean, and while the actors will nominate gay characters right and left, no film focusing on gay characters has ever won Best Picture, and Carol couldn’t even get nominated last year), so I’m hesitant to add it into my Best Picture predictions, just yet, but you can bet it’ll be on my very shortlist. While the script and Naomie Harris are most certainly locks, it’s quite possible that the editing, Jenkins and the film itself will make the cut, just as Room did last year. And if you’re like me, this will skyrocket up your list of most anticipated films, as reviews say things like “Good Christ Moonlight is good. One of the best films I’ve ever seen.”
Good Films/Good Actors
The odds of every film being a winner are slim to none. Some are just-fine crowd pleasers, and some are pure actors’ pieces-flawed films that work because of one or more great performances. I’ll start with the most well liked in this department before moving on to the films passing on great performances.
The reviews are in, and people like Clint Eastwood’s Sully. Well, “like” is a strong word. There’s a storytelling decision that inspires love-it-or-hate-it reactions, but in general, people find the plane crash invigorating, Tom Hanks good as usual, and are generally amazed that a film this lean and entertaining was made by an 86 year old man. That’s something that’s impressive whether you end up liking the film or not. While it seems most critics are destined to think “Yeah, it’s fine,” the Academy clearly loves Eastwood (They gave a film as bad as American Sniper six nominations), and they love movies about ordinary white guys doing great things. So while I’m not moving it in just yet, be ready for this one to sneak into the Oscars this year.
Speaking of the people the Academy has loved at one point or another, Mel Gibson is back with his newest film, Hacksaw Ridge. And for the most part, critics think…it’s fine. It’s not quite Braveheart, but it’s still thoughtful and well made. Andrew Garfield is raking up strong notices, and the only negative thing people have to say is that, at times, it moves away from the thoughtful meditation on faith that it strives for and dips its toe in some God’s Not Dead water. However, when it works, it works, and maybe Gibson can make his comeback and achieve the forgiveness and redemption he strives for.
Now let’s take a look at two films that received “meh” reviews, but have a real shot at acting nominations. The first is Bleed For This, a cliché boxing film that’s biggest draw is that this boxer broke his neck and we get to watch him overcome this in rehab to get back in the ring. People find it overbearing and trite, but they loved Miles Teller and, to a lesser extent, Aaron Eckhart. I doubt either will be Oscar contenders, but don’t rule them out just yet. Meanwhile, the festival has been thoroughly creeped out by Una, the story of a young woman confronting the fifty-year-old man she ran away with when she was thirteen. It’s a disturbing story, and director Benedict Andrews pulls no punches in his storytelling, turning people off from the film. However, everyone seems to agree that this may be Rooney Mara’s best performance from an already-impressive career. In her performance as a cold and distant woman confronting her past, it seems she combines the harsh apathy of her performance in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with the emotional vulnerability of Carol, resulting in an incredible performance that you will remember walking out of the theater. Mara faces an uphill climb, facing off with one of the toughest Best Actress fields in recent memory, but if someone drops out, or doesn’t connect with the Academy, then maybe Mara can sneak in. Time will tell, but this seems like the type of film only I will see, and hate myself for afterwards.
Cannes smash Toni Erdmann received good reviews at Telluride, although American critics were slightly put off by the film’s two and a half hour running time. And people at Venice appreciated One More Time With Feeling and television program The Young Pope, if not necessarily over the moon.
Finally, we have two films forced to watch as their chutes didn’t open. The first is James Franco’s John Steinbeck adaptation In Dubious Battle. While critics agreed it’s Franco’s best direction, they felt the final product was a jumbled mess. The film stars Bryan Cranston, which is unfortunate, because Cranston was also in Wakefield, a film about a man’s nervous breakdown, also received poor reviews, despite a few passionate fans. It seems these films are destined to be forgotten, although who knows-Cranston’s been nominated for worse (hi, Trumbo).
So that’s the state of the year up to this point. If this doesn’t get you excited for the second half of the year, I don’t know what does. These films will be reaching a theater near you very soon, so be ready. And expect an Oscar Predictions Update in the near future!