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Predictions Friday – Whole Lotta Shaking Going On

Greetings from New York City, where I’m dropping off my daughter (who is almost as old as this website) at college. After planes, trains, and automobiles, I have a moment to spare. So Predictions Friday this week will have to be Predictions Saturday.

What’s happening in the Oscar race is that we are just moments away from Telluride. That means the Oscar race is about one week from starting properly. There will be a few more major peaks here and there — like Venice right before Telluride, like the New York Film Festival and Toronto after Telluride, like the AFI Film Fest, and a few screenings of films that won’t be at any of the festivals but will be seen early enough to be “in play.”

There are a few things left to wonder about the year so far, like what will be the ultimate fate of Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation. Taking his and his film completely out of the conversation seems unnatural somehow but the hysteria, seems to be unstoppable. I do believe that the internet enables mass hysteria to occur more frequently and easily now — especially with clickbait becoming a driver for keeping many media outlets alive. For the record, though, I hate this sniff-frown-and-discard aspect of awards season and I hate this weakness in the character of humans.

The Birth of a Nation is about the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. Telling Turner’s story is an important one. We know that the awards race is often about building heroes. Most (if not all) of the time those heroes are white men. We worry for their careers and gently help usher them upward and onward where they need to go. Think of how many white male directors have been given second chances and third chances and even fourth chances to come out with a good movie after a string of bad ones, and compare that to a first feature film that is praised out of Sundance. The point is, we accept so much imperfection from the white male pantheon of minor and major gods we build every season and yet, for women and minority filmmakers we continually apply the strictest rules of perfection in both character and execution.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said of The Birth of a Nation, “The important thing is for people to see it and enjoy the film, be impressed by the film. And I think that is what is very important. People need to see this movie.” Agreed!

At the moment, though, it is what it is. We will next direct our focus to the movies that we know are going to be strongly considered as we head into Telluride.

1. Loving – Jeff Nichols’ haunting portrait of discrimination in 1958 Virginia is a perfect film. Since seeing it myself, I have not been able to shake the performances of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. It’s astonishing how such an understated film can inspire such a powerful emotional response, although that is really where Nichols’ gift as a writer and director lies — a slow burn that leads to something big. Loving has special relevance to today not only because it’s so hard to imagine anyone forbidding a black woman to wed a white man, but because LGBT families are still fighting for legitimacy and the same rights that opposite-sex couples have. As ridiculous as miscegenation laws of 60 years ago look through our modern lens, so too does Kentucky clerk Kim Davis and her refusal to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples look ridiculous today, and that’s part of the reason Loving resonates as such a big deal. Not yet released.

2. Manchester by the Sea – A haunting portrait of grief (although I’ve not yet seen it, but I expect it is about grief). Already named one of the best films of the 21st century by Peter Travers, and hailed by film critics are one of the best and perhaps the best of Kenneth Lonergan’s career, Manchester, too, seems destined for the Oscar race. With a career-best central performance by Casey Affleck and not a false note hit, this one seems like a keeper. Opens in theaters November 4.

3. Hell or High Water – Sure, it’s not your traditional Oscar pick. But it is that rare film that has become quickly and widely admired just two weeks after it is release, and one that didn’t need a publicist team greasing its wheels. It’s the exception to the rule of the Oscar race that says only the most closely managed films can break through. Then again, sometimes no matter how much people love a movie, it can still get mercilessly shut out, as happened to Creed last year. Hell or High Water is a noir western absolutely faithful to its genre tropes, but one that feeds directly into current American angst about income inequality, and the power of big banks to take away homes along with a family’s dreams of a better life. I wouldn’t count on it as an definite Oscar contender but there is no doubt it is one of the big shake-ups of the year. With an astonishing score of 88 at Metacritic and expanding soon to more theaters nationwide, Hell or High Water will be remembered as one of the high points of this year, whether the Academy recognizes it or not. Hell or High Water is the best reviewed high profile film of the year so far.

4. 20th Century Women – Although there hasn’t been a lot of information to go on about this film, it was deemed good enough that the NYFF’s Kent Jones praised it and selected it to be shown as a “Centerpiece Selection” at the festival in October. That tells me it is possibly one of the films that we need to watch out for. As we’ve said already, with the exception of Loving, this is going to be (probably) yet another year of mostly male driven protagonists. Thus, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women could be a rare exception.

There are several other films that really should be in the conversation, though it’s unclear whether or not they will stay in the minds of voters come December. Among them, we’ll include Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen film starring Kate Beckinsale; Indignation, James Schamus’ wonderfully provocative adaptation of the Philip Roth novel; The Witch, one of the more memorable horror films of late; and The Fits, quite a wonderful find in the indy world, and almost wordless.

Whether or not these or any of the major films will still remain standouts a month from now will be the real question. As we head into Venice/Telluride/Toronto/New York/AFI, the next few weeks is when we will can seriously sort out the Oscar race — unless we’re headed into an anomalous year where a film released after all those festivals will emerge at year-end to win the day. That hasn’t happened since 2004. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It’s just that moving the consensus that late in the game has repeatedly proven to be a daunting task.

Other than 12 Years a Slave, but to a certain degree that film too, too, what we’ve seen the consensus uniting around year after year are films that explore the burden of being a white male. I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s quite apparent in this year’s election, too. Don’t kid yourself that on the Bernie side of things, there wasn’t a whiff of “don’t worry, the white guy can fix it” attitude in regard to what kind of leader should follow the nation’s first black president. Obama himself chose a woman to be his successor, but that didn’t go over too well in some corners. Needless to say, the desperation to have a man at the wheel is even more blatant on the right.

We can find evidence among the films that do well with the demographic of mostly white male voters (and some women too) — this concept that men should be rightfully in charge and want to fix the world, and feel sad that they can’t. They see their plight as more tragic than those who are hurt most by their oppression. Do they feel as though they failed? I do not not know. But movies like The Revenant, Birdman, Hell or High Water always appeal to that kind of angst. That attitude has helped create many brilliant films for decades, no doubt, but there is good reason to hope this year could defy that dynamic, with more diverse films of social importance, like Loving.

Through all of this, we’ll be looking for that one standout that isn’t like the others. We’ll see good people doing undeniably good deeds pitted against bleak films about complicated dark characters. Which films will make audiences feel good? Which ones will make voters feel like they’re doing right thing by considering? We’re pretty sure that Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk may not be as uplifting as the trailer leads ticket-buyers to believe. La La Land will probably very uplifting. Sully will be uplifting, even if a bit dark at times. Lion looks to be downright triumphant. Arrival seems like it could land solidly in feelgood territory. Until we experience these films for ourselves, there is just no way to know.

In the foreign feature race, Anne Thompson has put up a piece predicting only two films so far – Toni Erdmann (Germany) and From Afar (Venezuela). She has named some possibilities (although, since she has not seen them, she is not yet predicting them):

Barakah Meets Baraka (Saudi Arabia)
The Companion (Cuba)
House of Others (Georgia)
My Life as a Courgette (Switzerland)
On the Other Side (Croatia)
Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu)
Tanna (Australia)

So, as a fun August exercise, I’ll do a quick Oscar predictions piece that names 10 in the Best Picture category (there will likely be only 8 or 9), and five in each of the other top categories. We can all have a laugh when we look back at this, on the morning nominations are anounced.

Best Picture
Manchester by the Sea
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
20th Century Women
La La Land
Hell or High Water
Alt. Hidden Figures

Best Actor
Joel Edgerton, Loving
Joe Lehy, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Tom Hanks, Sully
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Keaton, The Founder
Alt. Miles Teller, Bleed for This; Denzel Washington, Fences

Best Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Ruth Negga, Loving
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Amy Adams, Arrival
Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
Alt. Emily Blunt, Girl on the Train; Emma Stone, La La Land; Rachel Weisz, Denial

Best Supporting Actor
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Timothy Spall, Denial
Liam Neeson, Silence
Tracy Letts, Indignation
Alt. Kyle Chandler, Manchester by the Sea

Best Supporting Actress
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Kristen Stewart, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Rooney Mara, Lion
Sarah Gadon, Indignation
Katey Sagal, Bleed for This

Original Screenplay
Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan
Loving, Jeff Nichols
Florence Foster Jenkins, Nicholas Martin
Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan
Bleed for This, Ben Younger

Adapted Screenplay
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Silence, Jay Cocks
Arrival, Eric Heisserer
Indignation, James Schamus
Sully, Todd Komarnicki
Alt. August Wilson, Fences

Best Director
Jeff Nichols, Loving
Martin Scorsese, Silence
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Ang Lee, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
Alt. Damien Chazelle, La La Land

And that is about all I can muster at the moment, sure to be 100% wrong in one month’s time. But just an observation from the cheap seats: taking Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation out of the Oscar race leaves a massive vacuum and slams more closed doors for African American filmmakers. If you are hanging your hopes on the push toward more recognition for filmmakers with a greater diversity of voices, that could give us a 50/50 shot that Nate Parker and Birth of a Nation might make it in.  Anyone who supports shunning such a strong contender for any consideration in any category whatsoever should realize that they are blocking progress and helping wreck the careers of many potentially worthy nominees. Whether or not you think Parker’s name should be removed from the race, that is your decision to make, but his absence will mean discarding what might prove to be an exceptional and enduring achievement just to satisfy your pique of indignation.  Such a decision should never be taken lightly, not this year, not any year.