November marks a perfect time for an Oscar season reset. By now, most of the contenders have screened for critics and/or audiences; every week, Oscar Movies are officially being released into the wild; and — if we want to get a little aggressive about it (we really, really do) — the six-or-so-week stretch of Holiday Movie Season is just about nearing its start.
For this week’s Statue Monger, we’re going to hit the reset button, focusing on a few key takeaways as Oscar season hits full steam.
‘Fences’ Is Officially Next in Line
Fences, Denzel Washington’s long-awaited adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play, finally screened over the weekend. How did it go? Well — if you’re coming late to the party, then it helps to make an entrance. From Glenn Whipp of the Los Angeles Times, after Saturday’s screening: “The response was just shy of bonkers. The audience repeatedly roared and cheered … Standing ovations are par for the course at these events … But jumping up from your seat to register approval when nobody can see you — that’s another thing entirely. It’s a sure sign that a movie connects with people on a deep, emotional level. And that’s what Fences does.” If you’re looking for a “La La Land for Best Picture” disruptor, then look no further: Fences is officially it.
‘Fences’ vs. ‘Manchester by the Sea’: There Can Be Only One
And yet, when the nomination dust settles, the main victim of Fences’ disruption may not be La La Land. Manchester by the Sea has been hailed by many critics as a masterpiece, and remains a very strong Oscar contender overall. But Fences — another dialogue-driven family drama, but with bigger stars and better awards narratives — might present it with a version of what in sports we would call a “matchup problem”: competition that exposes its weaknesses and cancels out its strengths.
Fences seems like a threat to Manchester’s standing — either as favorite or a strong no. 2 — in several categories. In Best Director, Denzel Washington — who would be the first black winner in the category — is a bigger and starrier name, and generally a more beloved figure, than Kenneth Lonergan. In Best Actor, a similar story could unfold, as Manchester’s Casey Affleck had been considered an early front-runner, a critical darling and past nominee; but put up against what some are calling a career-best turn, from perhaps the definitive actor of a generation, who hasn’t won an Oscar for going on 15 years? Suddenly that’s a very tall order. And in Best Supporting Actress, well … we’ve already been through this. Here, again, is Michelle Williams playing the role of Michelle Williams’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar — during the moment that Viola Davis announced her intention to run in Supporting for Fences:
And so, while the final Best Picture race should prove fascinating, we have our eyes first set on what should be a sort of de facto semifinal: between Manchester by the Sea and Fences — two vastly different movies that, purely as Oscar contenders, may just be too similar for this world.
‘The Great Unseen’ Might Play Spoiler
There are still, somehow, a handful of Oscar “hopefuls” (an Old English word that derives from the root “hope”) that remain largely unseen: Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures; Morten Tyldum’s Passengers; David Frankel’s Collateral Beauty; Ben Affleck’s Why Did They Used to Wear Suits Like That, Like, Did It Ever “Look Good” — What I Mean to Say Is, Like, Even AT THE TIME, Were People, Just, You Know, Walking Around, Going, Like, “Hey Man, Great Suit — but I Wish It Looked More Like Fucking Pajamas”? And yet — with all due respect to Ben Affleck’s middlebrow period physique — there is only one remaining Legitimate Best Picture Contender on the board, among the unseen: Silence.
This is hardly a bold proclamation: Of Martin Scorsese’s six previous films, a whopping five — Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Hugo, and The Wolf of Wall Street — have been nominated for Best Picture. And the only one that wasn’t, Shutter Island, was genre fare with a February release (which one might even interpret as a conscious attempt to not get nominated). In other words, one could reasonably argue that the past five times Martin Scorsese has actually wanted a Best Picture nomination … he’s gotten it.
Will Silence make it six of seven? Marks against: literally called Silence; promotional stills look like a prank; trailer won’t start with “Sympathy for the Devil.” Marks for: a self-described “passion project”; promotional stills look like a prank; trailer won’t start with “Sympathy for the Devil.” But mostly: It’s now been a full decade since The Departed — and the meter on Scorsese’s “he just won one” penalty has officially expired. Am I saying that Silence will win Best Picture? No. But I think it could.
‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ Has 120fps’d Itself Out of Contention
Ang Lee’s showstopper entered Oscar season bearing several positive awards indicators: an adaptation of a popular novel; an Iraq war film; “Kristen Stewart is important”-wave; and, of course, two-time Best Director winner Lee himself. But it also brought with it two fatal negative indicators that, in retrospect, should have been flashing more brightly. One: It used a bootleg Beyoncé. And two: It was, by all accounts, visually radical.
The Beyoncé thing is just tempting the gods in a manner so brazen I almost respect it. And the visually radical thing is, well: just tempting the gods in a manner so brazen I almost respect it. Filmed in 120 frames per second (as opposed to the standard 24), reactions to Billy Lynn — “too lifelike,” “hyper real,” “like watching an HD broadcast with motion blur on” — read like someone talking to a shrink about their fear of clowns. And that’s reading about watching it; imagine actual Academy members trying to watch it.
Several other early-season contenders, for various reasons, have also bowed out: The Birth of a Nation has faltered due to a resurfaced rape allegation against the director and lagging reviews. Allied appears to have lost some steam in the face of mounting evidence that Marion Cotillard uses Instagram and Brangelina is no more. And Passengers’ prospects have seemingly deflated as a result of — ballparking here — trailer line readings that scan as porn exposition.
But no matter. Because, even among that elite downtrending company, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’s long halftime loss of Oscar buzz is still king. To repeat: Ang Lee’s movie reached “early contender” status despite (1) NOT LOOKING LIKE A MOVIE, APPARENTLY, and (2) SNUBBING BEYONCÉ. Sometimes, the little accomplishments in life are the awards themselves.
Billy Crudup Is in the Driver’s Seat
Look, we knew this was coming. When Billy Crudup, by sheer force of talent and beauty, willed Spotlight to a Best Picture win in 2016, we all knew that Crudup was “back.” But this year, thankfully, we don’t have to know. We can just watch.
Billy Crudup has buzzy, acclaimed supporting roles in not one, but four potential Best Picture nominees this year: (4) He Makes Her Laugh! Naomi Watts is Spotted Having Fun With Billy Crudup on Set of Netflix Series Gypsy After Rough Liev Schreiber Split; (3) people going to Billy Crudup’s IMDb page and seeing that his next credit is for playing “Coach K” in a project called Life at These Speeds and thinking for a brief moment that Billy Crudup is starring in a Mike Krzyzewski biopic called Life at These Speeds; (2) as “The Journalist” in Pablo Larraín’s Natalie Portman prestige vehicle, Jackie; and finally, (1) as William, Male Concern among the titular women in Mike Mills’s Annette Bening prestige vehicle, 20th Century Women.
Does Billy Crudup secretly control this year’s Best Supporting Actor race and Best Actress race and Best Picture race and next year’s Best Picture race and every Best Picture race after that? It’s hard to say. But, I mean:
NO MORE PARTIES* (*MOVIES) IN L.A.
2016 has been a banner year for location scouting — and for films that really care about the places they’re filmed. Hell or High Water feels, above all else, like an American West movie. Among Moonlight’s long list of magical powers is its ability to depict such a very specific, and very tender, and very human-scaled Miami. Silence has been heavily marketed as “Scorsese goes to Japan.” Manchester by the Sea is the sort of film that makes you want to draw a map of it. And Lion is … literally about Google Earth.
But if there’s one Oscar contender whose sense of place feels most relevant this year, it’s La La Land’s. And that’s because it increasingly feels like La La Land, if it wins Best Picture, is going to win — at least in part — for that place.
Or, in other words: If you want to take home the biggest movie award in Hollywood, then here’s a tip — make a movie about Hollywood. Of the past five Best Picture winners, three, in some way, have been about Hollywood: The Artist, Argo, and Birdman. La La Land, bless its “the festival reviews of this movie make it seem like it’s a ride at an amusement park where Ryan Gosling comes out of the screen and walks up to you and says, ‘You look really pretty tonight,’” heart, would make four of six. And it’s just — I’m sorry: It’s too much.
And when I say it’s “too much,” I mean that on an existential scale. Like: From a certain, isolated perspective, hasn’t the idea of a Hollywood product … rewarding a Hollywood product … about a Hollywood product … become kind of sad? It’s as though suddenly, and without warning, the Oscars have gone off and decided to become one of those people on Twitter who just shamelessly retweet compliments all day. The Artist, Argo — those are the film equivalents of retweeted compliments. Birdman — that’s a retweeted backhanded compliment. And La La Land, I’m afraid — as good as it looks — is honestly no different.
So I’m left with no choice. La La Land may win Best Picture — but for the time being, out of sheer principle, we are going to have to treat it like we would any other online acquaintance basking in too much of their own meta-glory: We love it; we’re happy for it; we’re putting it on mute.