As the end of the year approaches, the number of question marks in the Oscar ranks continues to sink lower. This past week, Selma, American Sniper, The Gambler and A Most Violent Year all dropped at AFI Fest, leaving only movies like Unbroken (still presumed to be a front-runner in a crowded field), Exodus: Gods and Kings (possibly not an awards movie at all), Big Eyes, and Into the Woods (who knows?) still unseen.
Did these newcomers make an impact worthy of making the charts? Let’s explore below.
It seemed like just a few weeks ago Selma might not even be completed in time for a serious awards push. This week Oprah convinced Director Ava DuVernay to screen the whole film rather than just a 30-minute preview, and the gamble paid off in spades.
Critics have been hailing Selma as an American cinematic triumph. Director Ava DuVernay’s “Selma”… is the exact opposite of the noble, immobile sepia-toned biopics that usually define the Awards season,” wrote James Rocchi at The Wrap. Stephen Farber in The Hollywood Reporter seconded him, saying, “In a season of so many bloated, overlong films, this two-hour recreation of a few crucial months in 1965 seems just the right length. Intelligently written, vividly shot, tightly edited, sharply acted, the film represents a rare example of craftsmanship working to produce a deeply moving piece of history.”
DuVernay and David Oyelowo are starting to look like serious locks, even in a crowded field. That’s especially promising news for DuVernay, who could become the first black woman nominated for Best Director. And while there was hope that Selma could produce a serious Supporting Actor contender out of Tim Roth or Tom Wilkinson, their roles may be a little too small. HitFix also champions Cinematographer Bradford Young, who also showed up at AFI Fest for A Most Violent Year.
2. American Sniper
AFI’s Secret Screening was none other than Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, on Veteran’s Day no less, yet another film that has been dropped on us like a bombshell and could potentially shake up the entire race. Comparisons have been drawn to Lone Survivor and The Hurt Locker, and many are saying it is Eastwood’s best film since Letters From Iwo Jima.
And yet reviews have been positive, but mixed. Todd McCarthy says it’s primarily a profile of a soldier, and it takes war politics off the table in favor of isolated episodes of Chris Kyle’s campaign and his home life. And yet also claims the film suffers from a one-dimensional character portrayed by Sienna Miller, thought at first to be a possible Supporting Actress player, no perhaps less so.
Bradley Cooper however still stands a strong chance at breaking into that fifth Best Actor slot. “Cooper disappears into the role, illustrating remarkable versatility. He packed on the pounds and nailed Kyle’s accent. In a competitive year of great male performances, Cooper’s is a standout,” writes Sasha Stone.
3. The Homesman and Hilary Swank
If AFI Fest gave the biggest boost to any film in dire need of it, it’s Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman, a film that’s finally getting murmurs from critics and is now focusing its direction on getting Hilary Swank a nomination. While the movie is more polarizing, especially its ending, Sasha Stone aggregates some strong notices for Swank, including one saying, “She cuts the kind of figure who used to make Gary Cooper take off his hat, fiddle with the brim, and gaze in confusion at his boots. First rule of a tough guy: know when you’ve met your match.”
4. A Most Violent Year
Anne Thompson is not buying the buzz for J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, claiming it would’ve been better received by a Sundance crowd than in the height of Awards season. She, among many others, compare Chandor’s work to a Sidney Lumet classic like Serpico or Prince of the City, but concedes that the movie “could have used more sizzle.” You might well put a fork in hopes for Albert Brooks or Oscar Isaac, but it’ll be interesting to see how it performs with critics closer to the end of the year.
5. Still Alice and Julianne Moore
Pundits continue to beat the drum for Julianne Moore even though, as Deadline’s Pete Hammond points out, that few Oscar voters have gotten a chance to see her film yet. Still Alice also screened at AFI Fest, but it really landed at the Palm Springs International Film Fest, where Moore won Best Actress. If she wants to truly be considered a frontrunner, Moore’s narrative will have to be that she’s due. Four nominations and no win versus newcomers in Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones and former winner and likely multiple-nominee on Oscar night Reese Witherspoon.
6. The Gambler
The Gambler is Rise of the Planet of the Apes Director Rupert Wyatt’s remake of a 1974 film starring James Caan as a compulsive gambler dealing with the mob. The latest film stars Mark Wahlberg, and Anne Thompson says it stinks of being a “vanity vehicle.” “It’s a film designed to showcase the powerful Hollywood producer/star’s acting chops. Alas, Paramount’s The Gambler does the opposite. It serves to reveal the actor’s weaknesses,” she writes, further opining underwritten female characters. Kyle Buchanan at Vulture joined in on the bashing, saying it “just misses the mark.” “It’s filled with macho-bluster monologues that are a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” However, Kris Tapley seems to think if John Goodman’s role was a little bigger as a sinister loan shark he might have a legit shot at a Supporting Actor nomination.
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s latest gem of nostalgia from this spring, is finally making its comeback tour. A pre-AFI Fest poll of the Gurus ‘O Gold had Anderson’s film clinging to 10th place in the Best Picture race. Gregory Ellwood at HitFix had some cute details about the cast at a SAG Q&A he conducted, including how Tony Revolori is severely allergic to chocolate and abstained from trying any of the film’s treats.
It’s hard to say that this movie, which is everywhere, may actually be out of contention, but the nitpicking seems to be everywhere, and it’s getting harder to imagine where this might actually break into a major category.
PTA is one director who would’ve needed to be championed by critics above all, and even after another screening at AFI Fest, it hasn’t happened. Kris Tapley says we’re already starting the campaign to not forget about Josh Brolin, and the movie hasn’t even come out yet.
This movie may have been outshined by the fact that a man was maced by a woman using her cellphone inside the theater. Poor Timothy Spall, and I guess the man who was maced.