Red carpet already rolling for this year’s Oscar race


Nate Parker as Nat Turner in 'The Birth of a Nation'

By Ian Flanagan / Culture Editor

With the final act of the year about to begin, the cinematic world’s attention shifts from the swelter of another overcrowded — and, in 2016’s case, underwhelming — summer blockbuster spell to the festival circuit winners and Oscar bait looking to make their stamp on the awards race.

At the head of the pack is actor Nate Parker’s directorial debut, “The Birth of a Nation,” which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Fox Searchlight Pictures bought worldwide distribution rights for the film for $17.5 million following a bidding war with Netflix, resulting in the priciest deal in the festival’s history.

The film, which shares the same name as the overtly racist 1915 classic, tells the story of Nat Turner and the 1831 slave rebellion he led in Virginia. Parker struggled to get the film made for about a decade. He wrote, produced and stars in “The Birth of a Nation,” in addition to directing. The film’s wide release is set for Oct. 7.

Following the #oscarssowhite controversy which exploded in response to acting nominations filled with nearly all white actors this past year, the film will be a shoo-in for several nominations, but most likely for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Whether the film measures up to its ambitions is yet to be seen by the public, but like Steve McQueen did with “12 Years a Slave” just three years prior, a black director is dealing directly with the brutal realities of our nation’s most shameful chapter and producing valuable art in the process.

Also tapping into the country’s current wave of heated racial politics, Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” — about the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which dealt with laws regarding interracial marriage — seems poised to capture attention. Previous efforts by Nichols — “Take Shelter” and “Mud” — performed well at festivals and received critical acclaim. With a relevant bit of history at its center, Nichols’ film, like Parker’s, appears to have the chance to earn its first Academy Award nomination.

Similarly, “Fences,” Denzel Washington’s third directorial effort, is an adaptation of the August Wilson play. The play is one of 10 related stories from Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” — the film was made in Pittsburgh and Washington stars as lead character Troy Maxson, whom Washington previously played on stage. The film begins a limited run in mid-December before opening wide on Christmas, positioning it at a prime spot for box office returns and awards attention.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is also amidst a great deal of awards hype. The original drama, starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, premiered at Sundance early this year and was subsequently purchased by Amazon for $10 million and received universal acclaim thus far.

But while many of the front-runners of the Oscar race are fresh talent seeking to earn recognition, many seasoned directors are also in contention with the new blood. Firstly, Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” which was originally scheduled for release last December, finally makes its way to theaters this September. Stone’s two Academy Award for Best Director wins were from the ’80s — “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July” — but with a topical true-life tale and a fine cast led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this has the makings of a return to form.

Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” also seeks to take a biographical take on a recently relevant figure, in this case with Tom Hanks playing Chesley Sullenberger, who famously landed a hindered plane on the Hudson River in 2009. Following the success of “American Sniper,” both financially and for its six Oscar nominations just two years ago, Eastwood’s viability as a filmmaking force has definitely resurged since winning Best Director and Picture for “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004.

Though he’s more than proven his worth, Martin Scorsese’s “passion project” of 25 years, “Silence,” finally arrives this year — though its exact release date is still unconfirmed. The adaptation of the 1966 Japanese novel stars Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson and Adam Driver as Catholic priests enduring persecution as they travel to 17th century Japan. Almost 50 years into his illustrious career, Scorsese continues to produce quality films that nearly always put him in the Oscar conversation, and this year looks no different.

Current long shots by notable up-and-coming directors are also in the mix. Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming sci-fi drama “Arrival” should be another laudable entry in the director’s filmography. Last year’s excellent “Sicario” appeared to be an early contender for Best Picture and at least two acting categories, but despite coming short it still ended up with three other nominations, meaning “Arrival” should at least be sporting nominations in the technical categories.

Damien Chazelle, director of 2014’s electrifying “Whiplash,” is also returning with the musical “La La Land” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as romantic leads. His previous effort won three Academy Awards and a well-deserved Best Picture nod, and if his final product is as good as the trailer suggests, “La La Land” may be honored as such.

Without “Mad Max: Fury Road” level blockbusters to shake up the race, or films released earlier in the year with enduring high regard — as was the case with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Boyhood” in 2014 — it appears that all the most-likely contenders are ahead of us. And if the hype built by those who’ve gotten a sneak peek is to be trusted, we have more to look forward to than the popcorn.

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