Sunday, October 16, 2016

Will the Best Pic Contenders Please Stand Up?

The agonizing wait for Oscar movies to finally show themselves towards year's end is annual gripe of mine. While some years aren't as bad as others, 2016 has thus far proven to be exceptionally back-ended, with nearly every predicted Best Picture contender waiting until the last two months of the year (three months if you include the inevitable January roll-outs) to debut to the public. Only next weekend's limited release of Barry Jenkins' festival darling Moonlight provides us with the faintest hope of a Best Pic nominee that dares to drop before November.
How did it get to be this bad? Looking back over the young expanded Best Picture era, every slate has contained at least two or three films that bowed in October or earlier -- heck, some from the summer and spring -- that would have been absolutely pulverized by the competition had they waited for the winter glut. I fear that fate may be lurking for some of this year's late-breaking gems, whatever they may be. The season's barely underway and already I can tell this is going to be one of my biggest pet peeves.

On a more optimistic note, one of my recent pet peeves that's likely not to repeat this time around is the execrable #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. After two consecutive years of exclusively Caucasian acting nominees, the social media furor looks to be potentially quelled by projects like Denzel Washington's Fences, Jeff Nichols' Loving, the aforementioned Moonlight, and the recently announced Christmas release for Hidden Figures, all of which figure in to most pundits' current preictions.

Regrettable as it is to anticipate that the diversity controversy could be so easily silenced merely by the presence of black actors (how many nominees in major categories this year do we expect to be Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern...?), I still welcome a year off from this particular online rage storm.
And that's not even counting other possibilities for people of colour that have already opened and fallen through the cracks. Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, once considered the saviour of the Academy's diversity problem back in February, has become the latest poster child for out-of-control Sundance hype by flopping spectacularly at the box office. Industry insiders are citing the 17-year-old rape allegations against Parker that resurfaced over the summer and have plagued the film's publicity campaign ever since. Some are claiming that it's "slavery fatigue" keeping audiences away from the reportedly grisly drama. Or perhaps it's some combination of those and any other more complicated factors. Whatever the case, it's a costly $17 million write-off for Fox Searchlight, who will likely divert their awards focus to their TIFF acquisition Jackie.

Meager box office returns have also befallen Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe, which is depressing. It's not that Disney needs the money, but that other studios need to see movies like this succeed so we can get more of them released in the otherwise thin September-October calendar. Charting the rise of Phiona Mutesi (luminous newcomer Madina Nalwanga) from selling maize in the slums of Uganda to impressing the world at international chess competitions, the film feels like a sports movie wrapped in a slice-of-life. Though heavily laced with feel-good cliches, Nair treats her characters and setting with earnestness and empathy, never kneeling to empty exoticism. The performances are earthy and generous, particularly from David Oyelowo as Phinoa's dedicated, idealistic coach, and Lupita Nyong'o as her pragmatic, concerned mother.
But perhaps the finest, most important movie about people of colour to open this year will be seen not on the big screen, but the small, in the form of Ava DuVernay's excellent Netflix documentary 13th. DuVernay skillfully dissects over a century of complex racial politics to deliver a significant, powerful essay on how mass incarceration and systemic racism are embedded right in the American Constitution. She punctuates insightful discussion from talking heads with deliberate framing, musical choices and use of graphics/animation. It is both engaging and enraging, and deserves serious consideration for the Best Documentary trophy. After being passed over for Selma (which more or less ignited that whole #OscarsSoWhite mess two years ago), there would be a certain poetic justice to seeing her clutching her own Oscar for this piece of work.


  1. Also nix your predix for Billy Lynn apparently. It ain't happening.

  2. We'll see. NYFF press are not the Academy, and Lee is much beloved.