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Sunday 18 February 2018

Your guide to what films are generating Oscar buzz (and how the Irish are faring)

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving
Liam Neeson in Martin Scorsese’s Silence
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land
Natalie Portman in Jackie

Paul Whitington

Forgive me if it seems scandalously early to be mentioning the word Oscar, but the Christmas madness is almost upon us, and after that the awards season will enter into full swing.

This is the time of year that film critics love, because one by one the studios launch the heavyweight productions they've backed for glory - rightly or wrongly, as they'll eventually discover.

This year, the speculation seems to have begun especially early (believe me, I didn't start it), and an early frontrunner for a big sweep at the Academy Awards has emerged. Damien Chazelle's La La Land is a musical of all things, a genre everyone assumed Hollywood had forgotten how to make: but he revives it in fine fashion in a film that both celebrates and playfully satirises the Californian entertainment industry.

Emma Stone plays Mia Dolan, a young woman who's struggling to establish herself as a movie actress when she has an unpleasant run-in with an angry driver on a Los Angeles Freeway. He's Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), a talented pianist and passionate jazz evangelist, and when the pair meet again in better circumstances they fall in love. They encourage each other's dreams, but success will ultimately come between them.

Liam Neeson in Martin Scorsese’s Silence
Liam Neeson in Martin Scorsese’s Silence

Making a musical in 2016 is problematic: most actors can't really sing and dance any more, and modern audiences have little tolerance for sudden eruptions into song. But there's real charm to the way La La Land works within its stars' limitations, and Chazelle has good Oscar pedigree, having received five nominations for his 2014 drama Whiplash.

Directed by and starring Denzel Washington, Fences has emerged from nowhere in recent weeks to become a strong Oscar contender, particularly in the Best Actor and Actress categories. The film is adapted from a play by August Wilson, and set in 1950s Pittsburgh: Washington plays Troy Maxson, a former baseball player and garbage-truck driver whose efforts to provide for his family are hampered by his complex private life. Viola Davis plays his wife, and both are apparently outstanding: Denzel already has two Oscars, and is due another.

Much praise is being heaped on Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, a gloomy drama starring Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a taciturn handyman with dark secrets. When his brother dies suddenly, Lee becomes guardian to his teenage nephew, and returns with him to the fishing town where he grew up to confront the past, and a bitter ex-wife (Michelle Williams). Lonergan's last film, the thoroughly brilliant Margaret, was stuck in post-production for five years due to a dispute over its length, so it would be nice to see Manchester by the Sea do well.

As witnessed during the recent presidential election, race remains a burning issue in the US, and Jeff Nichols' Loving provides a timely reminder of America's intolerant past.

It's based on the real-life court case that finally brought an end to state laws prohibiting interracial marriage, and stars Joel Edgerton and Irish actress Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving, a 1960s couple who went to the Supreme Court to validate their marriage. The performances are apparently excellent, and Loving received a standing ovation at Cannes.

Harvey Weinstein once bestrode Oscar nights like a colossus, but has had a lean time of it lately. He's hoping to make a comeback with Lion, an engaging saga based on a true story and starring Dev Patel as an Indian man who was adopted as a child and has been raised by a wealthy Australian couple. Saroo gets more than he bargained for when he sets out to find his long-lost family with the aid of Google Earth, and Lion apparently has a good deal to say about affluence and the lack of it.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land

It's a definite contender, and so is Moonlight, Barry Jenkins' immensely powerful urban drama following the coming of age of an African-American gay man. Mahershala Ali may well get a Best Supporting Actor nod for his multi-layered portrayal of a local drug dealer who takes a bullied boy called Chiron under his wing. Chiron is gay but terrified of the consequences of accepting it, and develops a tough veneer as he grows up. It's a remarkable film, and will test the temperature of a nation that appears to have turned its back on tolerance.

Naomie Harris, who plays Chiron's fearsome, drug-addicted mother, is also tipped for a nomination.

Natalie Portman is almost certain to get a nod for her work on Jackie. Noah Oppenheim's biopic follows Jackie Kennedy's time as a first lady in the White House, and her life immediately after JFK's assassination. It could be a big hit.

I'm really looking forward to Silence, a two-and-a-half hour historical epic that Martin Scorsese has been planning for decades. It's set in the 17th century, and stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as Portuguese Jesuits who face danger and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor (Liam Neeson) and spread the Christian faith. It sounds spectacular, and Ciaran Hinds co-stars. Adam Driver's star is definitely on the rise, and while he might get a nomination for Silence, I'd rather see him get one for his superb performance in Jim Jarmusch's Paterson.

Denis Villeneuve's Arrival deserves a raft of nominations, from Villeneuve's direction to the cinematography of Bradford Young and the luminous acting of Amy Adams, who stars as a linguist who attempts to decode the written language of alien beings who arrive on Earth intent on delivering a message. It's a very special film, beautifully choreographed and designed, and is currently in cinemas here - it is well worth a look.

Hell or High Water came out a few months back, possibly too early to be a hot contender. But it's one of the best films of 2016, and gave Chris Pine the chance to conclusively prove that there's more to him than James T Kirk. He and Ben Foster play hillbilly brothers who begin robbing a string of banks across west Texas in David Mackenzie's spectacular looking contemporary western.

Natalie Portman in Jackie
Natalie Portman in Jackie

Jeff Bridges plays the weathered and laconic Texas Ranger who waxes philosophical while pursuing them, and the action unfolds against the backdrop of a decaying rural society. It's terrific, and Ben Foster is an outside contender for Best Supporting Actor.

Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals may prove a little too esoteric for the meat-and-two-veg tastes of the Academy, but could yet mount an awards run. This tale within in a tale stars Amy Adams (who's sure to get nominated for something this year) as a woman who receives a package from the ex-husband she hasn't seen in 20 years. It contains the manuscript of a novel, and as she starts to read, she realises it contains a powerful and devastating message from the past.

It's very nicely put together, and while I thought it was intellectually arid and a bit too clever for its own good, most critics adored it.

In the animated category, Pixar's all-conquering sequel Finding Dory seems like the obvious frontrunner, and will face competition from the Disney features Moana and Zootopia, as well perhaps as Laika's Kubo and the Two Strings, and Illumination's forthcoming comedy, Sing. But the real threat to Pixar is likely to come from Studio Ghibli's gorgeous Japanese saga The Red Turtle.

The Academy loves Clint Eastwood, and the 86-year-old multiple Oscar winner is back to his very best with Sully, a fact-based drama that went down a bomb in the US and will be released here in a few weeks. It tells the story of Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who managed to land an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River after its engines had been taken out by a flock of geese.

Acclaimed as a hero, Sully then had to face the stress and humiliation of an official inquiry, during which the airline sought to blame him for the forced landing in order to dodge liability. Tom Hanks, who's been unlucky not to win a Best Actor award in recent years, is excellent in the lead role, and will surely at least be nominated, while Eastwood could once again be in the running for Best Director.

Ben Affleck's Live by Night isn't even out yet, but is already being talked about as an Oscar contender. Based on a Dennis Lehane novel, and inspired by the Warner Brothers gangster pictures of the 1930s and 1940s, the film stars Affleck as Joe Coughlin, the son of a tough Boston police captain who moves to Florida during the Prohibition era and drifts into a life of crime. Affleck, who won Best Picture with Argo back in 2012, adapted, directed and stars in a film he describes as a labour of love, and may well figure in the nominations race.

Until a few months back, Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation was tipped for big things at the Oscars, but the historical drama's awards season now seems effectively over before it has even begun. Pitched as a kind of African-American response to DW Griffith's profoundly racist 1916 silent classic, Birth of a Nation stirringly dramatises the exploits of Nat Turner, the 1830s Virginian slave and preacher who became so horrified by the unending brutality of slavery that he led an armed revolt against plantation owners.

Slavery is a hot topic in America at the moment, given the current toxicity of race relations, and Parker's film looked well placed to capitalise on the zeitgeist.

But in August of this year, details emerged of a 1999 criminal case involving Parker and his college roommate Jean Celestin, who were accused (though Parker was later acquitted) of raping a female student while attending Pennsylvania State University.

Parker's response to media questions about the case was chippy, and defensive, and the fact that his film included a gratuitous and historically inaccurate rape scene didn't help matters either.

Birth of a Nation bombed at the box office, and has become the film that dare not speak its name.

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