BEST PICTURE

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A24’s The Witch is easily the best film of 2016 so far, as was announced by AD’s editor Ryan Adams in an email to me earlier today. Since we’ve not yet seen any of the films out of Cannes, we’ll have to leave those aside for now and instead can praise a film that is just recently out on DVD.

The debut feature of former production designer Robert Eggers is compelling from first frame to last, and not just because he brings a designer’s eye to the film, though it is no surprise that it looks the way it does. Eggers chose production designer Craig Lathrop to design this film, but it still seems to have the look of a full-blown concept of a singular artist, almost like a live action comic book with perfectly chosen actors that draw you into their deceptively storybook world.
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Focus Features delivered its teaser poster for the new Jeff Nichols film Loving, about the real-life courage and commitment of an interracial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), whose civil rights case, Loving v. Virginia, went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Greg Kilday writes that Loving should be “in the conversation,” but especially the actors

Given the material, Nichols could have delivered a standard-issue courtroom drama, culminating with soaring oratory before the nation’s highest court. But he chose to take a different route — the American Civil Liberties Union, agreeing to take on the case, doesn’t enter the picture until more than half-way through the two-hour-three-minute movie. Instead, the film is centered around the Lovings themselves: Richard, played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton, and Mildred, played by the Ethiopia-born Ruth Negga.

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How exciting to see the great James Schamus behind the camera for his debut feature. Indignation, adapted by Schamus from the Phillip Roth novel, stars Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon. Gadon was the best thing about 11/22/63 as Sadie. Indignation’s synopsis is as follows:

Based on Philip Roth’s late novel, Indignation takes place in 1951, as Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a brilliant working class Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey, travels on scholarship to a small, conservative college in Ohio, thus exempting him from being drafted into the Korean War. But once there, Marcus’s growing infatuation with his beautiful classmate Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), and his clashes with the college’s imposing Dean, Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), put his and his family’s best laid plans to the ultimate test.​

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Director Ang Lee brings his extraordinary vision to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on the widely-acclaimed, bestselling novel. The film is told from the point of view of 19-year-old private Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) who, along with his fellow soldiers in Bravo Squad, becomes a hero after a harrowing Iraq battle and is brought home temporarily for a victory tour. Through flashbacks, culminating at the spectacular halftime show of the Thanksgiving Day football game, the film reveals what really happened to the squad – contrasting the realities of the war with America’s perceptions. The film also stars Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, with Vin Diesel, and Steve Martin. Lee used new technology, shooting at an ultra-high frame rate for the first time in film history, to create an immersive digital experience helping him dramatize war in a way never seen before.

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Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), dancers, and Alabama State Marching Hornets in TriStar Pictures'  BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK.

Sony released a still of the eagerly anticipated (definition: any movie directed by Ang Lee) film based on the bestselling novel. Kristen Stewart stars in the film, alongside Joe Alwyn. Stewart is all the talk at Cannes today, having turned in another knockout performance in Woody Allen’s latest, Cafe Society. Jean-Christophe Castello adapted the Ben Fountain novel, John Toll does the cinematography.
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If you really want to know why more women directors don’t get work, take a look at this year’s presidential election. Take a look, specifically, at the progressive left movement that has created a sharp division among the ranks of Democrats, with one faction supporting Bernie Sanders and the larger segment supporting Hillary Clinton. While Sanders has no path to win the nomination, he is vowing to fight on. This prolonged fight does two things: it gives his supporters a chance to trip the light fantastic for a month or two more before shutting it down for good (unless they can find a way to make it more productive than it is now), but it also helps Donald Trump. A lot. Trump doesn’t really have to put much energy into attacking Clinton because the Sanders people are doing it for him. They’ve done a really good job spending all of their hard earned $27 donations on attack ads against her. They spent $2 million in New York City alone. This helps Trump because he is only now starting to raise the big money required to beat her. But Sanders has all done the preliminary work. When all is said and done, that is all the Sanders movement will have amounted to — assistance for the GOP to beat the Democrats in November.
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Academy Award®-winning director Oliver Stone, who brought Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street and JFK to the big screen, tackles the most important and fascinating true story of the 21st century. Snowden, the politically-charged, pulse-pounding thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, reveals the incredible untold personal story of Edward Snowden, the polarizing figure who exposed shocking illegal surveillance activities by the NSA and became one of the most wanted men in the world. He is considered a hero by some, and a traitor by others. No matter which you believe, the epic story of why he did it, who he left behind, and how he pulled it off makes for one of the most compelling films of the year.

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The news about Passengers coming out of CinemaCon made it sound like a comedy, maybe not aimed squarely at the Oscars. But some further digging indicates that it’s not a comedy comedy, and it’s very likely headed straight for the Best Picture race. It’s being released December 21st of this year, but will likely start screening sooner. Will it hit any of the major festivals first?

The Oscar race is making the jump slowly but surely to be more inclusive of “genre films,” but specifically Sci-Fi. Inception, District 9, Gravity, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian are all recent Best Picture nominees, Ex Machina likely almost was. Thus, it isn’t even a strange thing to think about a nomination for Passengers, which tells the story of a group of colonists en route to a new world, two of whom wake up about 90 years too soon. Apparently, it’s a love story, but it’s also likely about the future of humanity.

The one constant in the science community, across almost all disciplines, is the fundamental idea that if we stay on this planet, eventually mankind will die off (best thing for all the other life on the planet, really). Thus, the next question is how and where can the human race survive. Can we get to any of those Earth-like planets so far away that they would require two hundred years of space travel to reach? That is the premise of Passengers.
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There has to be a reason why Telluride often calls the Best Picture winner. This trend, like all trends, is destined to be broken at some point. Every year we think this is the year. Every year at the mountaintop festival, we see a good movie like Spotlight or 12 Years a Slave or Argo, and we think that was really good but it might not be able to compete with the big movies coming up in October and November. Yet somehow, with the preferential ballot still a factor, that Telluride launch seems to have become more important than ever.

But Telluride doesn’t happen until the end of summer. Right before that, a number of major premieres hit Venice, sometimes launching a winner (Birdman) or a near-winner (Gravity). But lately, those Venice sensations have to hit Telluride next before bringing home the gold.

Cannes is somewhat different because it really does come early early. The festival is set to launch May 11, in fact. As far as Oscar goes, although an occasional winner launches at Cannes (The Artist, No Country for Old Men), or a contender can get a showcase putting it closer to the Oscar race (Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out), more often Cannes is able to give a film a major push, only to see its momentum slow as the later fall festivals roll out (Carol, Foxcatcher).
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The original film, The Beguiled, starred Clint Eastwood as a wounded confederate soldier during the Civil War who was taken in at a girls boarding school before worming his way into their hearts, reports Variety. One of the most interesting female auteurs working today, Coppola has worked, almost exclusively, within the realm of the female mind. Her most male-oriented film, Lost in Translation (which isn’t even, really) is the only one so far that has gotten any Oscar attention, earning her a screenplay win and one of the rare Best Director slots (4 in total in 88 years), along with Best Picture and Best Actor.

Coppola’s The Bling Ring was, I thought, unfairly maligned and disregarded when it shouldn’t have been. It was and remains one of the most starkly truthful looks at modern girl culture, specifically in the realm of the Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian legacies. Somewhere is a beautiful rendering of a distant relationship between a father, who is trying his best to connect with his daughter, and a daughter trying her best to connect with her father. Marie Antoinette is a crazy masterpiece that would – let’s face it, people – have far more respect had it been directed by a man. And yeah, Lost in Translation remains one of the best films ever made.

To say we’re very excited about The Beguiled would be an understatement. Coppola is a surprising and unpredictable filmmaker who never delivers the same film twice. I’m sure this latest of hers will be no exception.

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As we head into the last moments of Oscar voting, sentiments toward a favorite still seem divided. Even as the heat of the Bernie Sanders campaign dies down, there can be no dispute about the topic of the Wall Street meltdown and its impact on the economy, on how it reshaped our government, and The Big Short’s urgent call for Americans to pay attention. If The Big Short does anything, it puts an exclamation point on the end of the sentence, “Wake up. WAKE UP!” And yet, you know and I know that it is not in the nature of many citizens to do so.

Still, for my money, if I’m picking Best Picture I’m thinking about that. I’m thinking about that exclamation point and how it might look when we glance back at 2016 from some time in the future. Or future selves might ask, “Did any of us care? Did Hollywood people care?” Maybe some did, but maybe enough of them didn’t. There may be other films in the race that give voters an easier, more clear-cut way to show they care. We all need to know that the people we see onscreen are worthy enough to root for. We have a harder time with complexity, and especially with the dreaded anti-hero. Thus, the genius of telling the story of the Wall Street collapse from the point-of-view of the rats hanging around in the alley will leave some ambivalent about whether or not they’re supposed to care about those characters.
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Early on in the season, I remember thinking, actually writing, that we were looking at a year where four films with leading roles for women, where the subject matter was about women, would be launched into the Best Picture race. The year began with Carol, Todd Haynes’ stunning love story between two women, based on Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, adapted by Phyllis Nagy. Mad Max: Fury Road came out early, in mid-May, and it too seemed to be headed for the Best Picture race. Brooklyn and Room and maybe Inside Out held great promise, as well. There was even some talk that one of these films could actually win. Of course it never turns out the way we expect, and this year it seems particularly strange that it really isn’t turning out that way. In fact, it’s pulled so far in the opposite direction of  those hopes, one wonders how it is that this could have happened the same year the country might be electing its first female president.
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I began my website in the year 2000. The idea was to monitor the Oscar race from beginning to end. It was just one of those funny things that my first time covering the awards was a crazy, unpredictable year of the kind I haven’t seen since — until this year. The Oscars were still being held in March. There was barely a working SAG Ensemble award yet. Hardly any critics groups to speak of. No real awards trajectory like we have now. There was Toronto, maybe, and there was the end of the year rush for “Oscar movies.” The public really had  a say back then, so when both Gladiator and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made a shitload of money, it was no secret and no surprise that they would then be up for the Oscar race.

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Despite the 11th hour notion that The Revenant is indeed the film to beat (and it might be), we are still left with a needling question: when each guild picks a different movie to win, which guild most reliably prevails for Best Picture?

First, let’s look at what The Revenant has against it, knowing what we know about what films normally win Best Picture:

  • No SAG Ensemble award nomination (since the SAG Awards began, only Braveheart has won without this)
  • No Screenplay nomination (Titanic is the most recent BP winner to win without this)
  • No PGA win (so far, no film has lost PGA and then won the Oscar after both started using the preferential ballot in 2009)
  • Late breaker (no film that have been released after October has won Best Pic since Million Dollar Baby)
  • Oscar History (no filmmaker has directed Best Picture winners in consecutive years)
  • Divisive (with 50 negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, The Revenant sits alongside films like Crash and A Beautiful Mind)

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One of the interesting dynamics in this very competitive Oscar year is how two very strong, very tech-heavy films are each nominated in nearly every category. Mad Max: Fury Road is at a slight disadvantage with no acting nominations, to Revenant’s two. But the similarities between the two films are striking in what they say about the film industry overall, the movies going public, and the Oscar race.

If The Revenant is about the survival of man, or more specifically, the ultimate survival of the parasite that was white Europeans invading the Americas, Mad Max: Fury Road is about how those men fucked it all up and now it’s time for a woman to take charge, take the wheel, grab the rifle. and make humanity’s last stand. Tom Hardy stars in both. In The Revenant, he’s the villain, an opportunistic white man. In Fury Road, he’s Mad Max himself, restrained in chains and in need of a female to rescue him. But he’s the good guy, among too few good guys.

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I myself can’t give any reason why The Big Short SHOULD win Best Picture. I could probably give good reasons why The Revenant and Spotlight should. But I remember an Academy member once telling me how he chose films to win Best Picture. He said, simply, it’s the best picture. That’s how I feel about The Big Short. It’s just the best picture.

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Women producers nominated in the Oscar race have seen their numbers steadily increase since the beginning, but not many have won. The first woman to be honored by the Academy as a producer was Julia Phillips, who won for The Sting in 1973. It wouldn’t be until 1989 that another woman won, Lili Fini Zanuck, for Driving Miss Daisy, 16 years later. Since then, only six other women have won an Oscar for producing a Best Picture winner. Dede Gardner won in 2012 for co-producing 12 Years a Slave. If The Big Short wins this year, she would be the first two-time winner in Oscar history.

1989 – Lili Fini Zanuck for DRIVING MISS DAISY
1994 – Wendy Finerman for FORREST GUMP
1998 — Donna Gigliotti for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE
2003 – Fran Walsh for THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
2005 — Cathy Schulman for CRASH
2009 — Kathryn Bigelow for THE HURT LOCKER
2013 – Dede Gardner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE

This is Gardner’s astonishing third nomination in a row as a producer: in addition to 12 Years a Slave, Gardner co-produced Ava DuVernay’s Selma last year. Gardner is not a producer who chases awards but instead is committed to bringing daring works with a strong social conscience to the screen. With all of the hubbub this year about Alejandro G. Iñárritu and his string of recent successes, there’s not a lot of talk about Gardner. We offer her a crisp salute here at AwardsDaily.

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It’s such an interesting year to test the Oscar stats. Even Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan is not 100% on board on with The Revenant being a surefire winner as most others are. Why didn’t it win the Producers Guild award? Why didn’t it get a SAG Ensemble award nomination? Those questions still haunt this year’s wildly unpredictable race. But it’s harder to argue with a total of 12 Oscar nominations. Except, when we look more closely, you see that in all the years of the preferential ballot, there have only ever been four Best Picture nominees with 12 nominations heading in. Of those, only one – The King’s Speech – won Best Picture. The other two did not: Song of Bernadette and Lincoln. The Revenant is the fourth.

The other interesting stat to note is that in the recent years where the preferential ballot was in play, no Best Picture winner won more than 6 Oscars total (The Hurt Locker). In most recent years, Best Picture has won as few as 3 or 4 Oscars, total. In split years, no Best Picture-winning film has ever won more than 3 Oscars.

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This Oscar year is similar to the some of the years before the Academy pushed their date forward six weeks, before Telluride and other film festivals became the premiere Best Picture launching pad. The Revenant’s last minute dominance — after seeming to miss the first wave of critical acclaim — is reminiscent of the years where films like Braveheart and Million Dollar Baby won. In both their respective years, two other films were barreling towards Best Picture, but neither could be decided upon, so voters turned to a newly emerged alternative.

In the year of Braveheart, 1995, Sense and Sensibility and Apollo 13 were sharply dividing the industry and the critics. No one was really considering Braveheart because its reviews were somewhat mixed. But when neither Ron Howard nor Ang Lee received Best Directing nominations from the Academy, that left only two films that could win with a traditional BD-BP twofer: Braveheart and Babe. Next to Babe (which is by far the better film, sorry but it is) Braveheart seemed liked the ultimate Oscar epic. “So let it be written, so let it be done.”

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Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own novel, Room, Lenny Abrahamson’s claustrophobic but ultimately life-embracing film tells the story of a young woman held captive in a small shed for years and her son who was born there. For the first 5 years of his life, his entire world is defined by the boundaries of Room. Brie Larson’s strong performance has won her great reviews and Best Actress accolades at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, she is tipped to win Best Actress at the Oscars.

Room has been nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress. Re-visit our interviews with Brie Larson and Lenny Abrahamson, as well as Sasha’s piece on why we should start taking Room seriously as a potential Best Picture winner.

 

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