The State of The Oscar Race Following The New York Film Festival

By  · Published on October 18th, 2016

Analysis of the awards prospects of NYFF premieres and favorites.

The New York Film Festival might not immediately bring the Oscar race to mind the way Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals often times do. This prestigious fall event, luxuriously spread out to 17 days of screenings, premieres, talks and revivals (longer, if you count the start of the press and industry screenings), is first and foremost known for its impeccable tastes and highly-selective programming. But having pushed eventual Best Picture nominees like Bridge of Spies, Her, Captain Phillips, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Hugo and The Social Network into the awards race during its recent years, NYFF plays an increasingly undeniable role in shaping the season, right before the remaining Oscar hopefuls scheduled to screen at the AFI Fest or slated for a November/December release meet the audiences.

This year’s NYFF lineup was packed with exquisite films exploring grief, trauma and human tragedy from various angles, aptly responding to the times we live in. While the festival didn’t necessarily introduce a contender that can truly shake up the awards season in the months ahead, it had one of its finest years in recent memory and reinforced the awards prospects of several films that launched into the race elsewhere, from Sundance to Cannes, and beyond.

Among the premieres, Ava DuVernay’s opening night film 13th, her timely and explosive documentary on racial injustice and mass incarceration (a modern form of slavery, according to the film’s thesis), made the most noise, and rightfully so. (Read our rave review here.) Netflix already made 13th available for streaming and will surely push the film for a Best Documentary Feature Consideration, where it’s likely to score a nomination. Common, who shared an Oscar with John Legend for “Glory” from Selma, could be considered for another Best Original Song nomination with “A Letter to the Free”. In Contention’s Kris Tapley goes even beyond these likely scenarios and makes a case for why 13th should be considered for a Best Picture nomination. Who knows? Maybe AMPAS will listen.

20th Century Women Review: An Exquisite Tale of Mother and Son

Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, this year’s Centerpiece presentation at NYFF, gently carved out its spot in the awards race, most notably in the Best Actress category. Lead actress Annette Bening, in the role of a circa-70s California mother who raises her impressionable son with the help of two younger women, is the most probable name that can score a nomination in Women. (Our rave NYFF review can be found here.) Greta Gerwig, who memorably plays one of them, could also be recognized in the Best Supporting Actress category. Picture and Director nods seem like a long shot for Women, at least for now, but Mike Mills could very well nab a Best Original Screenplay nomination with this A24 film.

NYFF’s most hotly anticipated premiere was surely Sony’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, directed by Ang Lee, who won two out of three Best Director Oscars he was nominated for (Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi.) Shot at a rate of 120 fps, with 4K resolution in 3D, Ang Lee’s potential hit unfortunately gets chewed up by a confusing technology (a decision that obstructs, rather than elevates a sense of reality) and received underwhelming reviews out of the festival. (Our own included.) As indicated in the review, the film’s sound crafts are marvelous and can bring a pair of nominations to the film. Kristen Stewart, who plays the sister of a soldier battling with PTSD after being stationed in Iraq, could also be nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category. (Though in an ideal world, Stewart should instead be considered for her performance in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, also a NYFF title.) Billy Lynn’s screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli feels a bit haphazard at times. And its Picture/Director prospects are also iffy at this stage. But Academy loves Ang Lee and he might find support with his innovative approach to storytelling. I just don’t anticipate a major Billy Lynn presence at the Oscars, but I am prepared to be proven wrong. The film will reportedly screen for LA journalists/critics in less than two weeks. The word out of the West Coast will surely offer up further clues.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk Review: A Frame Rate Nightmare

Among the non-premieres, Amazon’s Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan) was once again loved dearly and pretty much secured its spot in the race, with a locked nomination for Casey Affleck in Best Actor and nearly shoo-in nods at Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams) categories. A24’s other awards hopeful Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) continued its Telluride and TIFF surge with love pouring in at NYFF. The film will likely end up with nominations for Mahershala Ali in Best Supporting Actor and Naomie Harris in Best Supporting Actress races. Picture, Director and Screenplay nods are also in play for Moonlight, as well as additional Supporting Actor considerations for Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland.

Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, bought by Fox Searchlight out of TIFF (who understandably needed another contender after The Birth of a Nation’s awards prospects vanished), firmed up Nathalie Portman’s status as one of the front-runners in the Best Actress race, alongside La La Land’s Emma Stone (who currently feels somewhat closer to grabbing the statue on Oscar night.) Picture, Director and Screenplay nods are also not out of question for Jackie. Plus, the film sports one of the best film scores of this year (if not the best, composed by Mica Levi of Under the Skin) and it would be an utter crime if her haunting score goes unrecognized.

In the Foreign Language race, Italy’s submission Fire at Sea (Kino Lorber), directed by Gianfranco Rosi, captivated the New York Film Festival audiences, firmly building upon its major Golden Bear win at the Berlin International Film Festival back in February. Maren Ade’s Cannes-heralded and Sony Pictures Classics-distributed Toni Erdmann once again proved to be a big winner, following its recent enthusiastic receptions both in Telluride and Toronto. In fact, Toni Erdmann is now the front-runner to beat in the Foreign Language race. Additionally, Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta (another SPC release and Spain’s Oscars entry) generated enthusiasm among festival-goers and built some buzz on the ground.

AFI Fest will unveil Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply soon, which he wrote, directed and stars in. Robert Zemeckis’ Allied, Denzel Washington’s Fences, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures and Martin Scorsese’s Silence are among the festival absentees that no one has yet seen and will enter the race through November/December. But the race has shaped up nicely so far throughout the Fall Film Festival season. And if there is one thing in common between the Best Picture winners of the last decade, it is that each of them had already screened at a festival by this time of the year, or already opened. Going by that trend of recent history alone, we probably have already seen our winner somewhere. Time will tell.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.