Movie Awards Season Kicks Off in High Gear


“People have been saying, ‘In this time of unease, the movie really opened me up,’ that it’s an emotionally healing experience,” Luke Davies, the screenwriter of “Lion,” a tear-jerker based on the true story of a lost boy seeking his family after being adopted in a far-off land, told the Bagger. Iain Canning, one of the film’s producers, said that while the movie was met with warm enthusiasm before the election, audience members at screenings since then have told him they were left with “hope and determination to move forward in a new way.”

Robert Zemeckis, who directed “Allied,” starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as World War II spies (and is probably a nonstarter in terms of awards), said people have been telling him, “‘We needed something to get emotional about; we needed something cathartic.’”

And Jeff Nichols, whose quiet film “Loving” tells the true story of an interracial couple’s successful fight for marriage equality half a century ago, saw audience responses shift in recent weeks, too.

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Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in “Loving,” an awards contender.

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Ben Rothstein/Focus Features

“I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Wow, we need this so much right now,’” Mr. Nichols said, speaking by phone from Texas. “It sounds self aggrandizing. But it’s a comment that didn’t happen the same way before the election. It’s a specific reaction.”

All of this might draw eye rolls from conservative readers (are ya out there?). But all of these awards — which started with the Gothams on Monday and culminate in the Oscars on Feb. 26 — are largely decided by those firmly ensconced in the coastally elite blue bubbles. And a big question burbling around the awards world is whether academy voters will, in the wake of the election, go for lighter, escapist fare, or a meatier film with a message, especially considering last year’s eruption when all of the Oscar acting nominees were white.

Certainly some films feel more relevant than ever, which is helping publicists with their pitches. Six days after the election, the Bagger was emailed regarding the elevated urgency of Leonardo DiCaprio and Fisher Stevens’s climate change documentary, “Before the Flood” — what with the United States being a leading emitter of greenhouse gases and, despite President-elect Donald J. Trump’s claim about an “open mind” on the matter, global warming deniers set to descend on the White House.

Yet relevancy could be a burden. At a recent party for the documentary “Newtown,” the Bagger asked the film’s director, Kim A. Snyder, whether the election of a president with strong backing from the National Rifle Association would help or hurt the film. Ms. Snyder replied that the film was never intended as an act of advocacy but an exploration of the emotional wreckage of a mass shooting’s aftermath. “It gets in through collective trauma,” Ms. Snyder said.

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Alex Hibbert, left, and Mahershala Ali, right, in “Moonlight.”

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David Bornfriend/A24

But if escapism is what academy members want, both of the docs (admittedly awards long shots) might be hurt by the cold, hard, if necessary, truths that they drive home.

The feature film currently claiming the top spot on the awards prediction site Gold Derby is one of the most fanciful confections Hollywood has come up with in years. Candy-coated, musical and “Umbrellas of Cherbourg”-esque, “La La Land” has been collectively sweeping critics and academy voters off their feet since its August premiere at the Venice Film Festival. (It opens Dec. 9.) And, as happened with “Lion,” the election caused audience reactions to shift, and deepen.

Rewatching the film after Election Day, the Bagger’s colleague Manohla Dargis wrote that she “fell into it gratefully,” and imagined parallels with how Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had lifted Great Depression audiences. The heart of the movie’s campaign was reflected in a Facebook post by the awards strategist Lisa Taback, who is working on the film. “What the world needs right now,” she wrote, “is a little more ‘La La Land.’”

By luck or chance, few of this year’s leading features, so far, are especially grueling to watch: all the better for audiences taxed by an ugly political year. There is no “12 Years a Slave” brutality, no sadism à la “The Revenant,” nothing as unremittingly frenetic as “Mad Max: Fury Road” — at least not yet. There are of course exceptions: Mel Gibson’s gory “Hacksaw Ridge” has a distant shot, and Martin Scorsese’s coming film “Silence” promises to be, at the least, intense. (The chances of the controversy-ridden film “The Birth a Nation,” certainly a tough watch, have mightily dimmed.)

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Dev Patel in “Lion.”

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Mark Rogers/The Weinstein Company

And there is speculation as to whether one of biggest challengers to “La La Land” for best picture, Kenneth Lonergan’s wrenching “Manchester by the Sea,” might be hurt by being a bit of downer. That said, this week it won best film from the National Board of Review.

Another big player is Barry Jenkins’s deeply personal “Moonlight,” a coming-of-age story about a black boy growing up gay and poor in Miami. Already a critical darling and, by indie standards, a box-office hit, its subject now seems evermore poignant, as many people of color and those who are lesbian, gay, transgender or questioning feel under threat from the incoming administration and its supporters. But, more than that, “Moonlight” is about intimacy, vulnerability and connection, all of which seem more precious than ever. (The film also collected four Gotham awards, including best feature, this week).

Even the filmmakers behind “Zootopia,” the animated film about the breakdown of order and the rise of prejudices between predator and prey, who had up until then learned to idyllically get along, are hearing about parallels between the nation today and their movie.

“The film is what we believe in, that we are better as a society when we’re looking for similarities rather than differences,” one of the directors, Rich Moore, told the Bagger in a recent phone chat. “We all want the same things in life — security, happiness, safety, respect and acceptance. But the paradox is we won’t get those things if we go about painting people different from us as bad.”

To be determined: whether this boosts “Zootopia’s” awards prospects. Spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen it, predator and prey once again get along in the end. Fantasy indeed.

Correction: December 2, 2016

The Carpetbagger column on Thursday, about the movie awards season, misstated the given name of a director of the animated film “Zootopia,” a possible Oscar contender. He is Rich Moore, not Rick.

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