Oscar Predictions: Round 1 - Once More Unto the Breach

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in La La Land. an Entertainment One release.
Once more unto the breach. The award season grind returns earlier than ever. There’s barely a frontrunner and there are still two full months of moviegoing left to enjoy, but critics’ nominations are already coming out and screeners are trickling in as campaigns swing into gear. Let us start by crossing our fingers in hopes of a much more civilised and enjoyable year of Oscar fodder, and begin by looking at the three main stages of the year award-wise: pre-festivals, festival season, and late-breaking game-changers.

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water.
Courtesy VVS Films

Pre-Festival Releases

Early award contenders are rare beasts, and this year is no exception when it comes to Best Picture. Sure, some categories have healthy frontrunners and maybe even potential winners with films that hit the screen between January and August. Finding Dory is a plum pick for Best Animated Feature, while oodles of docs like Gleason, Miss Sharon Jones!, and Weiner are all viable contenders. Best Adapted Screenplay has two probably nominees with Whit Stilman’s delightful Jane Austen romp Love & Friendship and James Schamus’s powerful Indignation. The former film is stronger than the latter, but Schamus is certainly a player after so many years at the helm of Focus Features.

Meryl Streep is in the running for her 20th nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins and while the film might be a little long on the shelf between its release and Oscar eve, reports during the summer said that Academy members are generally over the moon with this performance. A screening push and an inevitable Golden Globe nomination should keep Streep steady in a competitive field and this easygoing comedy might pop up elsewhere, especially if Hugh Grant’s team campaigns in the relatively weak supporting field.

The only solid Best Picture contender to debut before the festivals is David Mackenzie’s bullseye Hellor High Water. Jeff Bridges has a Best Supporting Actor nomination in the bag, while Taylor Sheridan is bound to nab the Original Screenplay nomination he should have found for Sicario. Hell or High Water is the highest grossing independent film of the year so far and this fact really means something in a year filled with disappointments. Here’s a film that draws an audience organically through strong word of mouth and legitimate critical enthusiasm, which matters because all the upcoming campaigning means little if people don’t actually like the film and Hell or High Water is one of few movies in the race that could appeal to the broadest range of tastes and sensibilities. It’s nice to have a film that stings so hard with the genuine sense of discovery. (Read the Cinemablographer interview with Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie here.)

Natalie Portman in Jackie.
Photo by Pablo Larraín. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The Festivals

Chalk up one spot for TIFF People’s Choice Award winner La La Land, which has everyone floating at whichever festival it appears. The Emma Stone/Ryan Gosling musical is hitting the festival circuit quite aggressively for a film with such strong commercial prospects. Ditto the push for Kenneth Lonergan’s ensemble drama Manchester by the Sea and its strong presence on the festival front that keeps building support for the film and particularly for the performances by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. Both films have their hurdles as La La Land carries the enormous weight of expectations, although it arguably did going into TIFF and held steady, while Manchester has the unenviable task of sustaining buzz from Sundance, premiering only days after last year’s nominations were announced. No Sundance film has yet to win Best Picture and if Boyhood can’t do it, can anything?

Jackie and Arrival are two other major threats depending on whom one asks. Both films have passionate supporters and Natalie Portman and Amy Adams seem to be among the safer bets of the increasingly competitive Best Actress line-up. Adams in particular has the added boost of her equally award-worthy performance in Tom Ford’s spectacular Nocturnal Animals to give her more exposure and merit for a good year. Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve looks strong in terms of finding his way back to the Oscars as his phenomenal feat of direction in Arrival is simply too good to ignore—and arguably unlikely to be overlooked given that Arrival is one of the few mainstream films of the year to deliver something satisfying and original. In a field of independents, Villeneuve has an edge. Jackie, on the other hand, brings an overdue biopic about the iconic First Lady and reports from Venice and TIFF (where the film won the competitive Platform prize) are unanimous that Natalie Portman deserves her second Best Actress nomination. Crossover appeal between arthouse audiences and mainstream viewers make it a contender for one of those flexible 6-10 Best Picture slots.

The results from the festival circuit also help scratch a few names off the lists. Ewan McGregor’s American Pastoral remains the undoubted casualty of the Toronto International Film Festival. (It’s a letdown, but not nearly as bad as everyone says.) The film is a great example of the danger in adapting only the story of a book and not the structure and thematic complexity that make it so beloved in the first place. Ang Lee’s adaptation of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also seems to have taken a bullet after screening at the New York Film Festival where word on the film’s much-anticipated 3D 120 fps high frame rate was overwhelming negative. Only two theatres in the USA actually have the capacity to screen the film in this format, so screeners could always save it although industry types will probably want to see it in its intended format due to professional curiosity.

Birth of a Nation is the wild card of the race. If one looks back to Sundance where it received a standing ovation before it even screened and won both the Grand Prize and the Audience Award, it seemed like the film to herald the end of #OscarsSoWhite. Then look to the summer where news emerged that Nate Parker and the film’s screenwriter Jean Celestin allegedly sexually assaulted a woman during university and the event led to her suicide, and it now sits as the elephant in the room. Parker denies the charges, but the fact remains that he keeps using the incident to make a case for his present character and essentially fuel an Oscar campaign, which seems totally at odds with the film given that Parker positions Birth of a Nation as a film about confronting truthful accounts of history. Covering the film is basically a no-win situation given that one is either a rapist or misogynist depending on whether one’s thumb points down or up, and voters might steer clear of the film with the same caution. The film seems to have survived its controversy with a relatively incident-free return at TIFF, where it notably got a pass on the stringent rule against non-World or North American Premieres playing at premium venues on the first weekend, but weak box office shows that audiences don’t want much to do with it. However, part of the film’s record-breaking Sundance deal with distributor Fox Searchlight, which took 12 Years a Slave to Best Picture, includes an awards campaign. Searchlight might be better off to acknowledge that Parker’s case is a roaring dumpster fire that can’t be contained, but the film needs awards traction to make its money back at this point. There are far more viable and controversy-free films that voters can use to add some diversity to the race, like Moonlight or Loving.

Moonlight is the fall festival circuit’s genuine discovery. It’s one of the most perfectly composed and performed indies of the year and guaranteed to be a favourite among critics come awards time. Expect a nom for Naomie Harris’s devastating performance as a drug addled mother and a screenplay nomination for writer/director Barry Jenkins regardless of the category in which he finds himself eligible. (The film is based on a drama school project by Tarell Alvin McCraney that was never produced or performed, so it’s likely to remain in the original category in which it’s currently being campaigned.) Buzz is also strong for House of Cards star Mahershala Ali, arguably the film’s MVP, but his role is very small and he disappears quickly. A Best Supporting Actor bid is no easy get with so little presence in a film this small. But, then again, Anne Hathaway won for a brief appearance in the beginning of Les Mis, so anything’s possible. Moonlight might be one to watch for those flexible slots, too, if its breaks through to a wider audience.

Jessica Chastain stars in Miss Sloane.
Courtesy VVS Films

Late to the Game

Here’s where it gets tricky. It’s now the tenth anniversary of the last time a film won Best Picture without hitting the festival circuit: Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. The Telluride-TIFF one-two punch is important for building loyalty and creating strong word of mouth, but a festival run is equally important simply for the fact that awards voters consider the full term of the year less and less. Films don’t deserve to be punished for having a December release, but major critics groups now value the immediacy of a vote over an informed decision. Just look at last year’s mess with the Critics Choice Awards where members retroactively added Star Wars to the ballot after they voted before seeing the film. Members resigned in protest over the compromise to the integrity of the awards, but rather than learn from the mistake, the group moved its award show for this year over a month earlier with awards now being handed out on December 11—around the same time that nominations came out last year.

If voters want to find an acceptable substitute for, say, Birth of a Nation, they’ll have to rally to see Fences and put it atop the screener pile. This drama directed by Denzel Washington looks to be a promising remedy to #OscarsSoWhite over the excellent, but arguably “smaller” Moonlight. The film adapts the Pulitzer Prize winning play and re-teams Washington and Viola Davis in the roles that earned both of them a Tony Award. Paramount might be smart to campaign Davis in the embarrassingly thin Best Supporting Actress field lest it risk cancelling out either of its safe Best Actress contenders in Streep or Adams. (Adams could easily have her own bit of category play since she has less screen time in Nocturnal Animals than either of the previous two winners for Best Supporting Actress does in their films.)

John Madden returns to the Oscar race after Shakespeare in Love scooped the top prize for 1998. Jessica Chastain is in it to win it for her turn as a feisty lobbyist fighting for gun control, and the film’s a wild card given that distributor EuroCorp USA is new to the race. OpenRoad won on its first stab with Spotlight last year, although that film had the benefit of a TIFF/Telluride boost, while Madden’s film hits theatres in December after forgoing the early fall festival circuit. Instead, if the film plays where audiences may consider it instead of running from one movie to the next, it stands a chance of tapping in to the cultural pulse of America at a time when mass shootings are too common and (presumably) President-Elect Hilary Clinton will make history as Washington’s most powerful woman. Chastain stars as this pantsuit wearing powerplayer alongside an impressive roster of veterans like John Lithgow, Sam Waterston and Mark Strong and hot newcomers like Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alison Pill, and Jake Lacy so Miss Sloane is one to keep in mind for ensemble prizes, too, if the film and the lobbying deliver.

Finally, Martin Scorsese seems ready to crash the party once again. After sneaking in and shaking up the race with The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, he’s back at the last second with Silence. This film is Scorsese’s passion project years in the making as he adapts the novel by Shusaku Endo that chronicles the persecution of Catholic priests in 1600s Japan. Concerns about the film’s reportedly bloated running time now give silence for news of a modest and manageable 160-ish minute cut, but how much of Scorsese’s vision endures remains to be seen. This book can’t be an easy one to adapt. However, in a race without much noise, Silence could be a last-minute juggernaut like The Revenant to give the season some drama.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea.
Photo by Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

First round of Oscar predictions:

*Unfortunately, I don't have the same ability to review as many films as I used to, but see links below or on the sidebar where available.

Best Picture:
La La Land
Manchester By the Sea
Miss Sloane

What about: Allied, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Birth of a Nation, Lion, Hidden Figures, Love & Friendship, Moonlight, Nocturnal Animals, Silence, Toni Erdmann, Sully, 20th Century Women

Best Director
Damian Chazelle, La La Land
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Jeff Nichols, Loving
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
Denzel Washington, Fences

What about: Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann; Pablo Larrain, Jackie; Ang Lee, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk; David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water; John Madden, Miss Sloane; Mike Mills, 20th Century Women; Martin Scorsese, Silence; Robert Zemeckis, Allied

Best Actress
Amy Adams, Arrival
Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land

What about: Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship; Annette Bening, 20th Century Women; Sonia Braga, Aquarius; Marion Cotillard, Allied; Viola Davis, Fences; Sally Field, Hello, My Nameis Doris; Isabelle Huppert, Elle; Ruth Negga, Loving

Best Actor
Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea
Ryan Gosling, La La Land  
Tom Hanks, Sully
Dev Patel, Lion
Denzel Washington, Fences

What about: Adam Driver, Paterson; Ethan Hawke, Born to Be Blue; Jake Gyllenhaal, Nocturnal Animals; Logan Lerman, Indignation; Liam Neeson, Silence; Nate Parker, Birth of a Nation; Chris Pine, Hell or High Water; Brad Pitt, Allied

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Miss Sloane
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

What about: Margaret Bowman, Hell or High Water; Linda Emond, Indignation; Sarah Gadon, Indignation; Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women; Helen Mirren, Eye in the Sky; Julianne Moore, Maggie’s Plan; Alison Pill, Miss Sloane; Chloe Sevigny, Love & Friendship, Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures

Best Supporting Actor
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

What about: Jovan Adepo, Fences; Mahershala Ali, Moonlight; Tracy Letts, Indignation,; Trevonte Rhodes, Moonlight; Alan Rickman, Eye in the Sky; Mark Strong, Miss Sloane, Tom Wilkinson, Denial

Adapted Screenplay
Love & Friendship
Nocturnal Animals

What about: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Elle, Lion, Silence

Original Screenplay
Hell or High Water
Manchester by the Sea
Miss Sloane

What about: Birth of a Nation, Café Society, The Edge of Seventeen, Jackie, The Lobster, Toni Erdmann, 20th Century Women, Wiener-Dog

Best Film Editing
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Star Wars: Rogue One

What about: Miss Sloane, Moonlight, Sully

Best Cinematography
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Nocturnal Animals

What about: AmericanPastoral, Birth of a Nation, Café Society, Silence

Best Score
Finding Dory
La La Land

What about: Manchester By the Sea

Best Song
Gleason, “Hoping and Healing”
La La Land, “City of Stars”
Moana, “Because It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda”
Sing Street, “Drive It Like You Stole It

What about: Deepwater Horizon (“Take Me Down”), La La Land (“Audition - Those Who Dream”), Wiener-Dog (“The Ballad of Wiener-Dog”)

Best Costumes
Florence Foster Jenkins
Hail, Caesar!
La La Land
Love and Friendship

What about: Absolutely Fabulous, American Pastoral, Birth of a Nation, Café Society, The Dressmaker, The Magnificent Seven, Silence

Best Production Design
Hail, Caesar!
La La Land

What about: American Pastoral, Birth of a Nation, Café Society, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Florence Foster Jenkins, Love and Friendship, Silence

Best Visual Effects
The Jungle Book
Star Wars: Rogue One

What about: Deepwater Horizon, Suicide Squad, Sully

Best Documentary

What about: Miss Sharon Jones!, Life, Animated, Into the Inferno, OJ Simpson: Made in America, Tickled!, Tower,

Best Foreign Language Film
The Ardennes (Belgium)
Ma’Rosa (Philippines)
Neruda (Chile)
Sand Storm (Israel)
Toni Erdmann (Germany)

Other submissions reviewed: It's Only the End of the World (Canada), Elle (France), Port of Call (Hong Kong),  Fire at Sea (Italy), Very Big Shot (Lebanon), Eva Nova (Slovakia), The Age of Shadows (South Korea), My Life as a Courgette (Switzerland), As I Open My Eyes (Tunisia).

Best Animated Film
Kubo and the Two Strings
The Red Turtle

What about: My Life as a Courgette, Zootopia

What are your first Oscar predictions?