It was barely four months ago that director Barry Jenkins stood alongside the baffled cast and crew of “Moonlight” at the Dolby Theatre after defying virtually every known Oscar convention in spectacular, immortal fashion. But just eight short weeks from now, the season will purr right back to life at the Venice and Telluride film festivals. Hollywood will set its sights on that coveted gold statuette for the 90th time, and a new flock of prestige productions will vie for the industry’s top honor.
New York-based distributor A24’s victory brought the best picture tally for independents (and studio dependents) up to nine over the past decade. The only major studio to score in that stretch was Warner Bros. with “Argo,” as the game of Oscar continues to be one of bolstering the financial outlook of artistic risks that conglomerate-tethered companies feel they can’t afford. A glance at the horizon this year reveals a healthy market for those projects.
This is not, by any means, a set of Oscar predictions. Rather, it is an attempt to fix the landscape from afar. There will be plenty of time for the usual guessing games in the fall.
An unlikely reigning champ even in this indie-focused fray that has left its unique mark on the season with remarkable confidence, A24 comes to the table with a full plate this time. A pair of festival pick-ups appear to lead the way: James Franco’s SXSW hit “The Disaster Artist,” about the making of Tommy Wiseau’s cult classic “The Room” (not to be confused with A24’s own 2015 Oscar success story “Room”) and Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” follow-up “The Florida Project,” which played to great acclaim in Cannes and could also be actor Willem Dafoe’s ticket to the dance.
Another Cannes entry, Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” may prove too esoteric for Academy tastes (which are obviously shifting), but it does have a prime release date of Nov. 3. And after all, A24 has made believers of skeptics before; no need to arbitrarily thin the herd just yet. Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s debut “Woodshock” and, should it find 2017 real estate, Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” follow-up “Lean on Pete,” will also be looking to stand out in a wide-ranging stable that includes films like David Lowery’s masterful metaphysical study “A Ghost Story” (anchored by a worthy Rooney Mara) and Trey Edward Shults’ exacting “It Comes at Night” (fodder for the indie-centric Spirit and Gotham Awards, at minimum), among others.
Moving on, talk about full plates: Focus Features, for one, is prepping its most promising lineup in years. An early look at Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” shown to exhibitors at CinemaCon in March, revealed a fiery and committed Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill on the precipice of his most defining moment. Awash in mouthwatering photography and period detail, it’s poised to be a force across many categories. Another period piece to tickle the throwback fancy is Stephen Frears’ “Victoria and Abdul,” from the writer of “Billy Elliot” and starring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria.
But many eyes will no doubt be glued to Paul Thomas Anderson and a retiring Daniel Day-Lewis, together again a decade removed from “There Will Be Blood.” Their new film, about the 1950s fashion scene (currently untitled but having been called everything from “Phantom Thread” to, according to recent crew T-shirts, “Woodcock”), will command attention.
Already released by Focus this year are two more period dramas: Sofia Coppola’s Cannes prize-winner “The Beguiled” with Nicole Kidman and Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife” with Jessica Chastain. Both deserve notice and, happily, help maintain a presence for female directors this year.
Which brings us to Kathryn Bigelow. It’s been five years since the only woman to win a best director Oscar was unceremoniously ignored for the daring “Zero Dark Thirty.” She’s back with another harrowing angle on American history, “Detroit,” about the 1967 Detroit riot. Will Poulter is said to be the stand-out as a sadistic police officer, but John Boyega is called on to anchor the proceedings in lead. The film will be the first big test for Annapurna’s transition into the distribution space under patron Megan Ellison. But look for the company to go shopping and fill out its 2017 portfolio, with films like Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” (Christian Bale going to dark places), Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” (Ethan Hawke doing the same), and James Marsh’s “The Mercy” (Colin Firth as ill-fated amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst), among others, still looking for a home.
Then there are the dueling streamers, notable disruptors to the status quo alongside Annapurna’s efforts. Last year Amazon had great success with “Manchester by the Sea” (and spent a pretty penny in the process). This year, the e-commerce monolith hopes to double down on that success, with the usual distribution partners (“The Big Sick” with Kumail Nanjiani at Lionsgate, Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” and Marc Webb’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” at Roadside Attractions, and James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z” at Bleecker Street) and, apparently, without (Richard Linklater’s New York Film Festival opener “Last Flag Flying” and Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel”). A 2017 course may also be set for Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here,” a Cannes stand-out that could bring Joaquin Phoenix back into the Oscar fray — much to his chagrin, no doubt.
Netflix, meanwhile, is looking to come roaring back after stumbling with would-be player “Beasts of No Nation” two years ago. When you walk into the company’s palatial new headquarters in the heart of Hollywood, you’re flanked by two glass cases full of Emmy Awards for shows like “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.” The lone Oscar in their midst is the one recently awarded to documentary short “The White Helmets” in February. But with a newly assembled team of seasoned strategists, and the brand’s finest crop of contenders to date, honcho Ted Sarandos will be looking to add another in due time.
“Mudbound,” which unspooled in Park City, feels like it’s in the driver’s seat. It’s also a vital player in a year that could see a significant backslide in terms of diversity at the Oscars. A heart-wrenching tragedy that sneaks up on you and luxuriates in the grace notes of its wonderfully drawn characters, Dee Rees’ bold film could find traction for leads Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke, though perhaps more likely for supporting stand-outs like Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Jonathan Banks, and Mary J. Blige. (Category placement not confirmed.)
Meanwhile, Noah Baumbach’s Cannes competition title “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” is sure to delight writers branch members and swiftly accrue champions for stars Dustin Hoffman (full of piss and vinegar in the role of an artist patriarch), Adam Sandler (a revelation even for those who remember “Punch-Drunk Love” 15 years ago), and Ben Stiller (a rudder for the proceedings who also gets some big moments to play). But Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja,” an audacious satire that wades confidently into emotional waters, will have its supporters as well. And Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” could make a dent with a planned qualifying release.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg on a wide-ranging slate. Netflix is coming to play this season.
Elsewhere, along with “The Lost City of Z,” Bleecker Street will have Andy Serkis’ directorial debut “Breathe” to promote, with Andrew Garfield as British disabled advocate Robin Cavendish. The film will open the BFI London Film Festival in October. Others in the distributor’s quiver include Steven Soderbergh’s return, “Logan Lucky,” as well as Bharat Nalluri’s “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” with Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens, self-publishing his classic “A Christmas Carol.”
Fresh off the “La La Land” roller-coaster, Lionsgate will aim to score love for Julia Roberts (Stephen Chbosky’s “Wonder”), Brie Larson (Destin Cretton’s “The Glass Castle”), and Jake Gyllenhaal (David Gordon Green’s “Stronger”), in addition to “The Big Sick,” which could net Ray Romano and Holly Hunter supporting recognition; Open Road will be looking to relive the “Nightcrawler” and “Spotlight” glory years with Reginald Hudlin’s Thurgood Marshall biopic “Marshall,” starring Chadwick Boseman; STX Entertainment has Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut “Molly’s Game,” with Jessica Chastain as underground poker maven Molly Bloom, as well as Luc Besson’s trippy “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”; and no doubt coupled with a foreign film player or two, Sony Pictures Classics will be looking to maneuver Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name” from Park City all the way through to the Dolby; along with Stanley Tucci’s “Final Portrait,” starring Geoffrey Rush as Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti; and Peter Landesman’s “Mark Felt — The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” with Liam Neeson as Mark Felt in the story of Nixon-era source Deep Throat.
There are also animated contenders in the indie fray, including Lionsgate’s “My Little Pony Movie,” Open Road’s “Blazing Samurai” and “The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature,” Serafini Releasing’s “Animal Crackers,” and, of course, GKids’ “Breadwinner.” Keep an eye on those, as they will at least help fill out the required number of entries to guarantee five animated feature nominees.
And then of course there’s The Weinstein Co. If it hasn’t become patently obvious as the Oscar season has mushroomed these past several decades, you can never sleep on Harvey Weinstein’s slate. Last year he made smooth moves with Garth Davis’ “Lion.” This year he’s back with, on paper, a promising batch. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “The Current War,” with Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison to Michael Shannon’s George Westinghouse, has all the trappings of a player, but a Dec. 22 release date means it will have to break late, even with festival exposure. The Thanksgiving corridor that has brought Weinstein success with films like “The King’s Speech,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” and “The Artist,” however, currently belongs to Davis’ new film, “Mary Magdalene,” with Rooney Mara as the storied biblical figure. Taylor Sheridan also transitions from the page (“Sicario,” “Hell or High Water”) to the director’s chair with Sundance entry “Wind River.”
But the titan of this particular sect remains Fox Searchlight, and one year after a would-be Oscar run crashed and burned, the previous back-to-back best picture victor has a slew of titles for voters to consider. Guillermo del Toro’s Cold War era drama “The Shape of Water” lands in the vein of three-time Oscar winner “Pan’s Labyrinth” in December; Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes,” with Emma Stone and Steve Carell, as well as Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” with Frances McDormand, drop right after the Venice-Telluride-Toronto starting gun; and Simon Curtis’ seemingly saccharine “Goodbye Christopher Robin” gets the sweet spot in November. There is also Sundance pick-up “Patti Cake$” from director Geremy Jasper and Craig Johnson’s “Wilson” to play with, among others. [UPDATE: “Three Billboards” and “Goodbye Christopher Robin” have swapped dates, the former now arriving in November, the latter in October.]
And we haven’t even touched on companies like IFC Films, Music Box Pictures and The Orchard, always looking for a way into the conversation, with titles like Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin,” Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion” and Brett Haley’s “The Hero” on offer this year.
It’s a dense and vibrant landscape for the little engines that could.
(Read part two now, an overview of what the major studios have in response.)