Projection: Oscar – The Elephant, The Three-Headed Monster, and The Movies


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I know, what a screwy title for the season’s inaugural post. Trust me, though, it will all make sense in the end.

Welcome back inside the machine.

If you’re looking for a path to navigate the machine, here is my immediate advice:

  1. Brace for the forthcoming onslaught.
  2. If you survive it, there will be a long, hazy path laid out ahead of you.

We’re talking about onslaughts and long, hazy paths, which must mean only one thing – another Oscar season is upon us! And with that, here we stand at the starting line of Year Six of Projection: Oscar. We’ve run the Oscar gamut these past five years, starting off with one of the more predictable seasons of the past decade in 2011, when The Artist basically dominated wire-to-wire, and riding the awards season roller coaster all the way through last season, which by all accounts was about the least predictable in recent memory – in case you forgot, Spotlight was the last film standing in the wake of that whirling dervish.

What kind of season are we in for this year? The simple-but-correct answer is “I don’t know,” since the environment is about as uncertain as any pre-fall festival awards season terrain in recent memory. A considerable portion of that uncertainty is due to The Elephant in the Room…

The Elephant

Every Oscar race is ostensibly “wide open” at the outset, though this season starts with increased uncertainty due to the recent precipitous drop of a film many thought to be a sure thing: Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. The Sundance sensation was poised to be an Oscar juggernaut – even if it didn’t end up winning Best Picture, it was sure to be in the conversation for the next six months – until the re-emergence of Parker’s 1999 rape trial made headlines, and its fallout seriously damaged the film’s awards season prospects. It remains to be seen just how devastating that damage will be – most observers predict anywhere from “severely marginalized” to “completely dead” – but either way, the film will be wearing this albatross for the remainder of the season and beyond.

If you’d like to hear some perspective that runs very similar to my own, I would direct you to the Hollywood Reporter opinion piece written by Amy Ziering, Oscar-nominated producer of The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground, as well as Roxane Gay’s New York Times Op-Ed, which is about the best distillation of the Parker situation and its collateral damage.

In the face of arguments that this is unnecessary re-litigation of charges for which Parker was acquitted, I would note that the one place Parker hadn’t previously been tried is in the Court of Public Opinion. That trial is currently being conducted. And if he is sage enough to create what he intends to be a seminal piece of cinema that comments upon one of the darkest stages in American history, and if he is bold enough to proclaim that those historical wounds still fester, then he must be man enough to face the still-festering wounds from a dark stage in his own personal history. His initial response was bad, his subsequent responses have been better. Maybe that will eventually impact public perception of the artist, but rightly or wrongly, the art has already been tarnished.

The Three-Headed Monster

This particular beast is the fall festival triple-threat: Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. Venice kicks off tomorrow, August 31, and for all intents and purposes, that is the official starting gun of the Oscar Marathon. Telluride, the leanest but perhaps most celebrated festival of the circuit, takes place this weekend, September 2-5. Three days later, on September 8, Toronto begins. By then, we may well know which films become audience favorites, which films unexpectedly tank, and which films surge to the front of the pack for the next several months of discussion/campaigning/hand-wringing.

Getting out in front early is crucial, and if you don’t believe me, allow me to direct your attention to the last decade of awards season history, wherein every eventual Best Picture winner at the Oscars debuted to audiences by mid-September, and a majority of BP winners premiered at one of the big three fall fests. The last two Best Picture winners – Spotlight and Birdman – premiered at Venice and played Telluride. In 2013, 12 Years a Slave premiered at Telluride. Ditto Argo in 2012. In 2011, The Artist was a Cannes debut that used Toronto as its Oscar launching pad. The King’s Speech, in 2010, was another Telluride premiere. The Best Picture winner from 2009, The Hurt Locker, actually premiered at Venice in 2008 before eventually opening in July 2009. Slumdog Millionaire debuted at Telluride 2008. No Country for Old Men was another Cannes-to-Toronto play in 2007. You have to go all the way back to 2006, with Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, to find a Best Picture winner that skipped the festival circuit altogether, though it still opened in that early fall slot. To find a BP winner that skipped festivals and opened in December you’d need to go back two years earlier, to 2004, when Million Dollar Baby pulled off that (apparently rare) feat.

Histrionics, right? Maybe, but also quite indicative of the evolution of the Oscar race. An early debut helps dominate the conversation, and dominating the conversation helps drive the media narrative. And make no mistake, the media narrative is what shapes each season. The Venice-Telluride-Toronto blitz is the collective launching pad, and the prevailing media narrative is the fuel that keeps the ship moving throughout the season.

The Movies

Ah, what we’ve all been waiting for – what this whole damn thing is supposed to be about – the movies themselves.

As ever, there are a ton of potential contenders on the horizon. As ever, the calendar year is back loaded with prestige films that are geared to awards consideration. And as ever, the first two-thirds of the year didn’t offer much in the way of awards bait. There have been plenty of critical darlings – Green Room, The Lobster, A Bigger Splash, Midnight Special, Love and Friendship, High-Rise, Hell or High Water, and a handful of others. Plenty of quality art, not a lot of Oscar muscle.

In terms of legit contenders, I imagine Weiner will be firmly in the mix for Documentary Feature, though now the film can’t help but be seen as incomplete, given the recent headlines. Finding Dory might have the Animated Feature Oscar sewn up in any other year…but how it has Kubo and the Two Strings to reckon with, not to mention the upcoming animated films, from Moana to Sing. Maybe Florence Foster Jenkins can deliver another Best Actress nomination for Meryl Streep…or maybe not. Every category seems to be up in the air.

The next great surge of contending titles happens over the course of the next two weeks, as the major fests commence. When we emerge from those fests – really, in the midst of those fests – we will have a firmer grasp on what kind of race this will be.

Venice starts us off in a big way, with the world premiere of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land as the opening night film. If there’s the potential for the mantle to be claimed right from the starting line, that would be the film to claim it. Gosling, Stone, Chazelle, Musical…a sensation may well be on the horizon. Other films in competition at Venice include Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford’s long-awaited follow-up to A Single Man; Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, with Amy Adams attempting to communicate with other life forms; Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, Terrence Malick’s long-form version of his cosmological epic (cosmolepic?), with Cate Blanchett narrating; Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination; and Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans, which I can attest is fabulous, though likely not an Oscar contender.

Telluride offers…well, no one can say just yet. One of the frustrating joys of the festival is its programming secrecy. The official slate will be unveiled as the fest convenes this Friday. Look for a handful of world premieres, a couple of Venice hold-overs, and some truly magnificent retrospectives and revivals.

Onto Toronto, Next Projection’s beloved TIFF, where the festival is lengthy and the program is deep with titles from across the globe. A key premiere: Garth Davis’ Lion, with Dev Patel going in search of his family origins – you may be familiar with this one as the film Harvey Weinstein recently pegged as his golden goose. Other titles include Ewan McGregor’s feature directorial debut, American Pastoral; Juan Antonio Bayona’s A Monster Calls; Ben Younger’s Bleed for This, with Miles Teller in the true story of one of boxing greatest comebacks; Loving, another remarkable true story, which may represent Jeff Nichols’ first major dalliance with Oscar; Pedro Almodovar’s latest, Julieta; Andrea Arnold’s American Honey; Oliver Stone’s Snowden; Cannes sensation Toni Erdmann; Kenneth Lonergan’s Sundance favorite Manchester by the Sea; Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden; and  Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart in what’s being billed as “a ghost story.” Last year, Assayas and Stewart collaborated on another veritable ghost story, Clouds of Sils Maria, and it resulted in the year’s best film.

There are countless others, and that’s not even digging into the New York Film Festival, where Ang Lee’s debuts his latest technical marvel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Or AFI Fest, which premieres Rules Don’t Apply, the first film Warren Beatty has directed in 18 years. And then there’s Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which may or may not play any festivals, but we should all be paying attention nonetheless.

The Festival Calendar:

Venice: 8/31-9/10
Telluride: 9/2-9/5
Toronto: 9/8-9/18
Fantastic Fest: 9/22-9/29
New York: 9/30-10/16
London: 10/5-10/16
AFI Fest: 11/10-11/17

Oscar Key Dates:

Governors Awards: 11/12/16
Nomination Voting Opens: 1/5/17
Nomination Voting Closes: 1/13/17
Nominations Announcement: 1/24/17
Scientific and Technical Awards: 2/11/17
Final Voting Opens: 2/13/17
Final Voting Closes: 2/21/17
89th Academy Awards: 2/26/17

Here now, the calm before the storm. Just over 25 weeks to go. Lots of ground yet to cover, and we don’t even know what that ground will look like. But for now, I leave you with something of a contradictory closing phrase:

And so it begins.


About Author

I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.