ZAMM.COM: AFI Action

By Martin Grove, ZAMM.com



AFI action: The parade of film festivals featuring awards contenders that began in Venice in late August before going on to Telluride, Toronto, New York and London is now in Los Angeles with AFI Fest.

Although most Oscar frontrunners have already premiered at earlier events, awards marketers see the American Film Institute's festival as a valuable platform for repeat screenings. To begin with, AFI is in Hollywood's backyard, making it very accessible to Academy members and other awards voters. Moreover, its Nov. 7-14 time frame puts contenders in the media spotlight just as the awards season's heating up. It's a great way to maintain momentum when nominations for Golden Globes, BAFTA's and Oscars are fast approaching.

Among the awards hopefuls playing to AFI audiences at Hollywood's historic Chinese Theatre are (alphabetically): John Wells's August: Osage County, Spike Jonze's Her, Joel & Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis, Alexander Payne's Nebraska, Stephen Frears's Philomena, John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks and Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.


This is such a crowded year with Academy possibilities that there's also an impressive list of could-be's that aren't playing at AFI – including, J.C. Chandor's All is Lost, Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color, Paul Greengrass's Captain Phillips, Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, Jason Reitman's Labor Day and Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave.

There also are contenders like Lee Daniels' The Butler and Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby that opened earlier in the year and anticipated contenders like David O. Russell's American Hustle and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street that weren't finished in time to make the festival scene (although AFI previewed Hustle's first six minutes last Friday as part of a Special Tribute to Russell, whose last two films were the best picture Oscar nominees Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter).

Overall, playing at AFI makes sense, especially for films that have been out of the media spotlight for a little while. Nebraska's a good example of a film that should benefit from exposure at AFI. Paramount Vantage, which opens the R -rated father-son drama in limited release Nov. 15, had great success with its world premiere last May at the Cannes Film Festival where Bruce Dern won Best Actor and the film was nominated for the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or.

Nebraska went on to play in early September at Colorado's Telluride Film Festival and in October at the New York Film Festival (where it was a best film nominee) and at the British Film Institute (BFI) Festival in London. Now it's good timing to put it back in the media spotlight at AFI.

Nebraska is directed by two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne, director of Sideways and The Descendants. Dern stars as Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic who gets his estranged son, David (Will Forte), to drive him from Montana to Nebraska to redeem a winning $1 million sweepstakes ticket. David goes along reluctantly, insisting Woody's winning ticket is really just a personalized form letter sent to millions of people as part of a marketing campaign.

Payne's solid track record with awards voters automatically makes any new film he directs a candidate for serious consideration. His last film, the drama The Descendants, was nominated in 2012 for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won for its adapted screenplay (co-written by Payne, Nat Faxton and Jim Rash). Among its many other honors were a Golden Globe nom for best picture – drama and a best film BAFTA nom.

Descendants also brought George Clooney Best Actor nods in the Oscars, BAFTAs and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards and a best actor- drama Globes win.

There are high hopes on the Nebraska front for history to repeat itself now with Dern, who's 77 years old and has been acting since he started working on TV in 1960. In all those years, Dern's only been Oscar nominated once--in 1978 for supporting actor for Coming Home. He's had two supporting actor Globe nods over the years--in 1975 for The Great Gatsby and in '78 for Home.

Because Dern's best actor victory at Cannes was about six months ago, it makes sense for Paramount to put the media focus back on Dern with Nebraska's Nov. 11 AFI screening and its accompanying Tribute to Dern. There was, for example, a New York Times feature Sunday on the front page of the paper's Arts & Leisure section headlined: DERN HAS A STORY FOR YOU. At 77, an actor revels in his star turn as a grouch in Nebraska. Considering Dern's age, it would seem that if the well liked and well regarded veteran actor is ever going to be embraced by Oscar voters for a lead performance, this is likely to be the one that does it.

And that would likely be the case in most other years. This year, however, is unusually complicated. Dern faces competition from another 77 year old actor--Robert Redford, who also has an awards contender film up for consideration. Directed by JC Chandor (Margin Call), the PG-13 adventure drama All is Lost stars Redford. Moreover, Redford's the only actor in the movie. That's left Hollywood handicappers asking how likely it is that Academy members will give two of their five best actor noms to octogenarians in this intensely competitive year. Redford and Dern, by the way, co-starred in 1974's The Great Gatsby, directed by Jack Clayton, for which neither of them was Oscar nominated. Redford played the lead role of Jay Gatsby and Dern played the supporting role of Tom Buchanan.

Lost, which opened in limited release Oct. 18 via Roadside Attractions, also world premiered at Cannes, where Dern won best actor for Nebraska. It went on to play at Telluride and New York, but not at BFI London or AFI where Nebraska had repeat screenings.

Nonetheless, Redford's serious septuagenarian competition. Like Dern, Redford's acting career goes back to television in 1960. In all those years, he's only received one acting Oscar nomination--for Best Actor in 1974 for The Sting.

Unlike Dern, Redford's also a longtime director and that aspect of his career did bring him a best directing Oscar win in 1981 for his directorial debut Ordinary People. He also was a best directing nominee in 1995 for Quiz Show, which he also was a producer on and which was a best picture nominee.

In 2002 the Academy presented an Honorary Award to Redford for his work as an actor, director, producer and founder of the Sundance Film Festival. If Academy voters feel they've sufficiently recognized Redford in the past, that could work to Dern's advantage.

Bottom line: Dern and Redford face competition not just from each other, but from a long list of other potential best actor nominees. The most frequently mentioned names (alphabetically) are: Christian Bale (American Hustle), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street or The Great Gatsby), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips or Saving Mr. Banks), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Joaquin Phoenix (Her) and Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels' The Butler).

Those eight names plus Dern and Redford add up to 10 potential nominees for five Best Actor Oscar slots. So the big question is: Which five worthy performances can't be recognized by Oscar voters?

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