Telluride Film Fest: The Oscar Race, Post-Election
Over Labor Day weekend, the Telluride Film Festival did its thing, celebrating the art, not the business, of filmmaking in grand style. But the business of films inevitably rears its head, especially in the run-up to Oscar season. Among the buzziest festival films of 2016 were “La La Land,” whose star, Emma Stone, gushed “This has to be the coolest festival.” Other big pics were TFF alum Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” and Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea.” Critics are on their knees for all three, but especially “Moonlight,” which has been in the limelight since its release and already won big. (See below.) Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” also generated a lot of chatter. How will those films fare at the Oscars? Will the Telluride Film Festival continue its streak, albeit unbidden, in picking what the Academy thinks are the best films of the year? Will the election debacle influence the results of the Academy Awards? If so, how? Does the idea of Otherness, a leitmotif of the campaign, suggest this year’s winners? Jada Yuan of Vulture weighs in, “Taking the Post-Election Temperature of the Oscars Race.”
We’re now a month out from the moment when Donald Trump became our president-elect, and it would be foolish not to account for how that seismic shift of context may affect this year’s other way-too-long, potentially insanity-inducing campaign: the Oscars race. Over the past two weeks, we’ve finally gotten a temperature of the film community’s post-election mood, via a spate of movie awards that both sway the opinions of the Academy, and reflect them — and it looks like our friends in the arts are ready to jump into the fire of socially relevant, emotionally taxing content rather than run away from it.
“How am I feeling in the Trumpocalypse?” said John Leguizamo at last week’s Gotham Awards. “It’s weird, because you want to escape it, but [watching] anything that’s too light and silly, I get really bored by it because I’m so worried. Superficiality only makes me worry more! It’s got to have a little political something to it. It’s got to have enough gravitas to get me the fuck out of this realm.”
How much gravitas? The Gotham Awards, the first ceremony of the season, brought a triumph for Moonlight, a lyrical depiction of growing up poor, black, and gay in the slums of Miami. Two days later, the National Board of Review named Manchester by the Sea, a story of family and crippling loss in a small New England town, as its best film of the year, while awarding Moonlight best director and best supporting actress. Both films picked up three awards each from the New York Film Critics Circle (while La La Land took best picture), and on Sunday, Moonlight positively wiped the floor of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, winning four honors including best picture and best director. According to representatives, voting for all of the above took place after the election.
Box office has certainly reflected the trend; Moonlight had a nearly 40 percent jump in ticket sales the day after the election, which grew even bigger as the movie expanded into wide release. Director Barry Jenkins told me, at a lunch for Moonlight held at Manhattan’s Explorers Club, that he’s also seen a notable increase in the number of people who’ve reached out to him with fervent thanks on social media. “I do think that people are seeking out things that remind them of what’s possible, that diversity is this thing that we should embrace, that we should have empathy for others.” He also pointed out that none of this was planned: Moonlightjust happens to addresses people’s post-election emotional needs, at the time they need it. “In the post-election world,” he said, “I think people want to see that we’re all connected. We’re all human beings and we’re all going through the same shit.”
Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali, who’s won every supporting actor award so far and is the Oscars front-runner by far, adds that nothing about the film has changed since the election. “But if the reaction has changed, it’s because suddenly people feel like they’re on the outside, like they’re away from center,” Ali explained.”I think that’s a real connecting point for the audience, post-election.” More people seem to be approaching him on the street, but when they try to talk about the film, they can’t. “You can see clearly that this person needs to hug you because they’re gonna break down crying,” he said. “We didn’t have any clue that this project would resonate with people to this degree.”
All of this good news for documentaries, which naturally fulfill the appetite for substance. It seems telling that Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour O.J.: Made in America, which many worried would be discounted for its TV origins, has swept early awards and is now the runaway front-runner in the doc category. It’s politically meaty, an epic achievement, and digestible in chunks over several days, which is how many of us want to be consuming culture right now. (Plus, if you spend that much time watching something, of course you’ll remember it when the ballot’s in your hand.) Sadly, though, it seems as though Weiner, that fascinating, can’t-look-awayportrait of the politician’s implosion, may suffer from being too relevant to recent events, given its subject’s direct connection to the FBI’s “October surprise” announcement about Hillary Clinton’s emails. As Leguizamo explained, “Weiner was basically the guy who put us in this mess. I’ve heard it’s great, but you can’t watch that now. I’ve got to give it a little more time.”
Anecdotally, I’ve noticed post-election enthusiasm bumps for Arrival, which is essentially a sci-fi movie about our fear of outsiders, as well as a plea for global cooperation; Lion, also about global connectedness, and the plight of a lost boy from India; and Loving, about the interracial couple whose fight to be married ended up changing the law. All had mixed, and even tepid, receptions at film festivals earlier this summer and fall, in contrast to the almost rapturous way I’ve heard people talking about them now.
At a tea for Loving at Manhattan’s Lotus Club, director Jeff Nichols told me he’s noticed a stark difference in the way people talk about the movie with him after the election. “People are coming up and saying, ‘We really need this right now,'” he said. “People said that before, but there seems to be a little more intensity to it.” Audiences tend to project themselves and their beliefs onto the screen, he noted, but that seems to be happening more frequently with Loving. “I think because all of the politics are so heightened outside of the theater, a lot more is being brought into the theater,” Nichols said. “We always knew that the film would have social and political relevance, and that seems emphasized after the election. People are really searching for meaning in all of this.”
Ruth Negga, star of Loving and a strong best actress contender, feels a new sense of “urgency” in the way people talk to her about the movie. “It’s like a need, a lovely sort of graciousness in people’s response, mixed with a certain panic. ‘Have we lost those values? Are they going further and further away?'” she said. “I can only describe it as an an appetite, a thirst, for relief and goodness in our lives. Because I think the level of despair now, it’s not just an existential one. It’s a very tangible, solid one that has scared people more than anything that I’ve experienced in my entire lifetime. It’s not just imagining the wolves at the door. They’re probably there.”
So where does that leave La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s big, escapist technicolor musical about Hollywood dreamers — and presumed Oscars front-runner? It’s very much still in the picture…
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