OSCAR OUTLOOK -- 10/17/16


Oscar outlook: What looked like it would be a slam dunk best picture Oscar race dominated by "The Birth of a Nation" has taken some unexpected twists and turns, creating excellent opportunities for other contenders.

Besides the half-dozen strong diversity driven dramas spotlighted in last week's column, there's also a field of nominations hopefuls coming off film festival success with everything going for them except diversity. In a normal awards season that wouldn't be a big issue, but after two years of #OscarsSoWhite, it looms now as a serious challenge.

Part of the problem is that this year there are many diversity driven contenders, unlike in recent years when Hollywood's diversity noms were limited because there really weren't a lot of Academy-type serious small indie dramas with powerhouse performances by actors of color to choose from.

Yes, there were some notable exceptions to this – like David Oyelow not getting a best actor Oscar nod in 2015 for playing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma," and Ava DuVernay not getting a directing nom for "Selma" although it got a best picture nom – but there wasn't a long list of worthy contenders to choose from.

This time around, with "Birth" badly damaged by the Nate Parker controversy, there are quite a few films from filmmakers and actors and actresses of color to recognize (as discussed here last week).

There also are other titles to consider that won't help repair the #OscarsSoWhite problem, but that have been well received by festival audiences and critics. That, typically, is what it takes for Oscar voters to make time to see a movie hoping to get into the race.

Here's a quick look at some of the high profile hopefuls that won't add diversity to the race, but could still land some prime noms.

Lionsgate and Marc Platt Productions' PG-13 rated musical comedy drama "La La Land" was well received as the opening night selection at the Venice Film Festival and then at the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF). Those festival showings sparked a strong buzz that immediately put "LLL" on Oscar voters' radar screen.

It's a Los Angeles set musical about a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) in love with a struggling young actress (Emma Stone). While it stands out from the heavy drama crowd by being a musical, it could face challenges with Academy members who tend to favor serious films over musicals or comedies when it comes to best picture votes.

It helps that the film's writer-director Damien Chazelle was an adapted screenplay Oscar nominee in 2015 for "Whiplash." That film resonated well with Academy members, who also nominated it for best picture. It won for supporting actor (J.K. Simmons), film editing and sound mixing.

"LLL," which stars Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling and Finn Wittrock, opens in limited release Dec. 2 and goes wide Dec. 16.

Two films starring Amy Adams are also being talked about after having had good showings at TIFF and Venice.  

Focus Features and Universal Pictures' R rated thriller "Nocturnal Animals" is from Tom Ford ("A Single Man") and stars Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Armie Hammer (who also stars in the controversial "Birth"). It won the Silver Lion (Grand Jury Prize) at Venice and was a Golden Lion (Best Film) nominee.

"Nocturnal" opens via Focus with exclusive runs Nov. 18, expands Wed., Nov. 23 for Thanksgiving and goes wide Dec. 9.

Adams plays Susan Morrow, whose ex-husband from 20 years earlier sends her his manuscript for a violent novel, asking for her opinion. The manuscript, whose title is "Nocturnal Animals," is about a man's deadly family vacation, which Susan considers to be a veiled threat.

Adams is a big plus in driving "Nocturnal" for awards consideration. The Academy loves her. She's a five time Oscar nominee – in 2006 for supporting actress for "Junebug;" in 2009 for supporting actress for "Doubt;" in 2011 for supporting actress for "The Fighter;" in 2013 for supporting actress for "The Master;" and in 2014 for lead actress for "American Hustle." After all those noms, this could be her year to finally take home an Oscar.

One possible problem -- Adams also has a second film that could put her in the Oscar race. It's the sci-fi drama "Arrival" from FilmNation Entertainment, directed by Denis Villeneuve ("Sicario"). Starring Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, it opens wide Nov. 11 via Paramount.

Last year, Villeneuve's R rated action crime drama "Sicario," generated an early best picture buzz, but it evaporated as the awards season moved forward. "Sicario" wound up receiving Oscar noms for cinematography, original score and sound editing.

In "Arrival," Adams plays expert linguist Louise Banks, who becomes part of an elite investigating team when mysterious spacecraft land around the Earth. With global war imminent, Banks races against time. But finding answers means taking a chance that could threaten her life and humanity, as well.

It's never great for an actor or actress to have multiple films competing in the awards race as it usually means votes will be divided between both titles and the result could be no nomination at all.

Another title on Oscar's radar is the R rated drama "Manchester-by-the-Sea," which attracted lots of attention at Sundance and then played well at TIFF. It opens Nov. 18 in limited release from Amazon Studios and its theatrical distribution partner Roadside Attractions. When Amazon acquired it for $10 million at Sundance, it was the festival's first big deal of the season.

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan ("You Can Count on Me"), "Manchester" stars Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler and Michelle Williams. It's about a teenage boy whose uncle is forced to care for him after his father dies.

Lonergan's a two time original screenplay Oscar nominee – in 2001 for "You Can" and in 2003 for "Gangs of New York."

"Gangs" director Martin Scorsese, who won the best directing Oscar in 2007 for "The Departed" (whose other Oscar wins included best picture) could be heading for this year's Academy sweepstakes with his new historical drama "Silence" from Paramount and Verdi Productions. The iconic filmmaker is a longtime Academy favorite, with 11 other Oscar noms to his credit.

Although "Silence" doesn't open wide until January, it will receive a limited opening Dec. 13 to qualify for Oscar consideration this year. Films from brand name directors like Scorsese have a distinct advantage in that Oscar voters automatically make time to see them. It's just a fact of life in Hollywood that titles from less well established filmmakers have to fight hard to be seen and considered.

Adam Driver, Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield star in "Silence's" story about two 17th century Jesuit priests (Garfield and Driver) who travel to Japan facing violence and persecution while trying to find their mentor (Neeson) and help spread Christianity.

"Silence" reportedly runs about 2 hours 40 minutes, which makes for what Hollywood marketers call "a long sit." That's down from the over-three-hours running time it started out with last summer. Its length could work against it with Academy members who have limited attention spans. But, on the other hand, the Scorsese name may be all it takes to get their attention.

Another high profile awards hopeful is TriStar Pictures and Marc Platt Productions' 3D war drama "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," which world premiered Oct. 11 at the New York Film Festival and opens wide Nov. 11.

Here, too, there's helpful filmmaker brand name recognition from Oscar voters. Its director, Ang Lee, is a two-time best directing Oscar winner  -- in 2006 for "Brokeback Mountain" and in 2013 for "Life of Pi." Starring are: Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel and Garrett Hedlund.

Based on the bestselling novel by Ben Fountain, it's the story of 19-year-old private Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn). Billy, along with his fellow Bravo Squad soldiers, becomes a hero after a traumatic Iraq War battle and is brought home for a victory tour. Using flashbacks that culminate with a Thanksgiving Day football game halftime show, Lee reveals what really happened to Bravo Squad.

Lee shot "Billy" using new technology with an ultra-high frame rate providing an immersive digital experience particularly effective for the film's war scenes. But projecting that new technology requires theatres to be specially equipped and reports say there aren't many that can be used to let Academy members see its unique 3D/4K/120 frame per second format.

Moreover, many Oscar voters skip most theatre screenings in favor of watching DVD screeners at home and they won't be able to fully experience the new big-screen technology.

 Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures and RatPac Entertainment's PG-13 rated biographical drama "Sully" is a drama that definitely won't have to fight to be seen by Oscar voters. It's directed by four time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood and stars two time Oscar winner Tom Hanks.

         Hanks plays Captain "Sully" Sullenberger, who in January 2009 glided his disabled plane onto the frigid waters of the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 people on board. But just as Sully was being heralded for his aviation skill, an unfolding investigation threatened to destroy his reputation and career.

         Eastwood won the best picture Oscar in 2005 as a producer of "Million Dollar Baby." He also won Oscars in 1993 for best picture and best directing for "Unforgiven." In 1995 he received the Academy's Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.

         Hanks won back-to-back best actor Oscars in 1994 for "Philadelphia" and in 1995 for "Forrest Gump."

         Paramount and GK Films' romantic action drama "Allied," opening wide Nov. 23, is from Robert Zemeckis, Oscar winning director of "Forrest Gump." Starring are Oscar winners Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard.

         Pitt as intelligence officer Max Vatan encounters French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard) on a deadly mission behind enemy lines in 1942 North Africa. When they reunite in London, the war's extreme pressures threaten their relationship.

         "Allied" is another film that will benefit from Academy members wanting to make sure they see it. It's an even higher profile film now given the recent marital split between Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

         Pitt won the best picture Oscar in 2014 as a producer of "12 Years a Slave." He's had four other Oscar noms over the years – in 1996 for supporting actor for "12 Monkeys;" in 2009 as lead actor in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button;" in 2012 as a producer of "Moneyball;" and in 2016 as a producer of "The Big Short."

         Cotillard won the best actress Oscar in 2008 for "La Vie en Rose" and was nominated in 2015 for best actress for "Two Days, One Night."

         Besides his Oscar win for directing "Gump," Zemeckis was nominated in 1986 for co-writing "Back to the Future."

Fox Searchlight Pictures' R rated biographical drama "Jackie," directed by Pablo Larrain ("Neruda"), opens in limited release Dec. 2. It stars Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in the dark days following her husband's assassination in Dallas in 1963. Also starring are: Peter Sarsgaard as Robert F. Kennedy and Caspar Phillipson as President John F. Kennedy.

Larrain won the Platform Prize at TIFF and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (who's also known for being the executive running NBC's "Today") won the best screenplay and Golden Osella awards at Venice. The film was also a Golden Lion nominee at Venice.

The festival buzz about "Jackie" centered on Portman's performance, which could put her in this year's best actress race. Portman won the supporting actress Oscar in 2005 for "Closer" and won for lead actress in 2011 for "Black Swan" (also released by Searchlight).

         Bottom line: There were no big boxoffice awards once again last weekend. Warner Bros.' opening of "The Accountant" took first place with just $24.7 million. Universal's launch of "Kevin Hart: What Now?" was second with $11.98 million. Fox's "Girl On the Train" slid 51 percent in weekend two, placing a very close third with $11.97 million and a domestic cume of $46.6 million. The weekend was down about 21 percent versus last year, per comScore.

         Fox Searchlight's one-time 800-pound gorilla Oscar best picture contender "The Birth of a Nation" suffered at the boxoffice in its second weekend in the wake of the controversy over its filmmaker-star Nate Parker. "Birth" fell 61 percent, finishing tenth with $2.7 million and a domestic cume of $12.2 million.

         Given "Birth's" problems, it makes sense that last Friday Fox arranged to have another title to put in front of moviegoers and Academy voters by changing the release date for the 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000 Pictures and Chernin Entertainment drama "Hidden Figures."

         Originally scheduled to open wide Jan. 13 for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, "Hidden" will now get a limited theatrical release Dec. 25, which will qualify it for this year's Oscar race, and will go wide Jan. 6.

          Directed by Theodore Melfi ("St. Vincent"), "Hidden" stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.

There's been talk about Fox qualifying "Hidden" for the Oscar race ever since the studio previewed footage from the film Sept. 30 to a very enthusiastic audience at TIFF. However, if "Birth" hadn't run into trouble because of the Parker controversy, it wouldn't have made sense for Fox to compete against itself with "Hidden."

"Hidden" looms as a strong Oscar contender with solid diversity credentials because of its women of color stars. Spencer won the supporting actress Oscar, BAFTA, Critics Choice, SAG Award and Globe in 2012 for "The Help." Henson was a supporting actress Oscar and SAG nominee in 2009 for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." 

Melfi is a director of color whose much anticipated film could bring him serious consideration from the Academy's directors branch and also from the Directors Guild of America (DGA).

"Hidden" is the true story of how the U.S. in its 1962 race against Russia to put a man in space found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians, who became the "human computer" heroes behind the project.

While "Hidden" is being released through "big Fox," the studio's Searchlight division could put itself back in the Oscar race with a strong diversity driven contender just by changing the release date for its true-life romantic drama "A United Kingdom."

Presently set to open Feb. 17, "Kingdom" could easily be given a qualifying run to get into this year's competition, giving Searchlight a strong new horse to bet on in the race.

Not only does "Kingdom" boast diverse casting, but its director is a woman of color, Amma Asante ("Belle"), who also happens to be an actress and screenwriter. Starring are: Rosamund Pike, Tom Felton and David Oyelowo.

Oyelowo plays Botswanian prince Seretse Khama, who creates an international controversy in the late 1940s by marrying a white British woman (Pike).

Oyelowo, who's also a potential best actor nominee for "Queen of Katwe," received a best actor-drama Golden Globe nom in 2015 for playing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma," but wasn't Oscar nominated. Academy voters could make up for that by nominating him now for "Queen" or for "Kingdom," if it gets a qualifying run.

         Meanwhile, Hollywood's year-to-date boxoffice lead continues to evaporate. We're now ahead by only 3.5 percent, according to comScore -- $8.92 billion vs. $8.62 billion. Five weeks ago, 2016 was running a healthier 5.7 percent ahead.