From the premiere of “Bombshell” to the launch of the international race (can anything beat “Parasite”?) to the return of Elton John, here’s what we learned on the awards circuit this week
It’s the time of year when the number of potential contenders has dwindled to a precious few, and Oscar watchers tick them off one by one: “The Irishman” at the New York Film Festival in late September, “Little Women” on Oct. 23, “Dark Waters” on Oct. 28, “Richard Jewell” at the AFI Fest in November, “1917” at some indeterminate time after that… This week saw one more box get checked — Jay Roach’s “Bombshell,” the story of the fall of Fox News’ Roger Ailes that shouldn’t be confused with the 2018 documentary “Divide and Conquer” or “The Loudest Voice,” the Showtime miniseries starring Russell Crowe as the influential but disgraced Fox maven.
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Roach’s version, which screened for the first time on Sunday, first for a SAG audience and then for a mixture of guilds, press and tastemakers at a swanky Pacific Design Center soiree, got awards folks excitedly buzzing for its focus not on Ailes (played by John Lithgow) but on the newswomen he was accused of harassing: Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron, also one of the film’s producers), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and a fictional composite who in this telling goes by the name of Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie).
All three actresses are clearly in the awards race, though Kidman may suffer from having a supporting role that’s not quite as meaty as Robbie’s. (In Best Actress, Theron is a potential rival to Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland for the win.) This is the movie that asks a simple question: Will Hollywood liberals vote for a movie that asks them to think of Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson as heroines because they stood up to the repulsive Ailes? Will the spirit of #MeToo trump (no pun intended) the natural distaste much of the Academy has for everybody who’s ever had anything to do with Fox News? Maybe.
By the way, TheWrap was amused to find that in a particularly heated scene in the Fox newsroom, as Carlson’s charges against Ailes are starting to get attention, somebody shouts, “Have you seen TheWrap?” At the reception afterwards, Roach told Sharon Waxman he didn’t know how that line got in the shooting script.
On Monday, the day after the “Bombshell” unveiling, the Oscar category formerly known as Best Foreign Language Film and now retitled Best International Feature Film kicked off 47 nights of screenings in 57 days with a double bill of Brazil’s “Invisible Life” and Lithuania’s “Bridges of Time.” Attendance at the first few screenings, which are divided between the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills and the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood, was reportedly on the sparse side, but there’s lots of time left for things to pick up: A full 93 films are in contention, the most ever in the category.
As the screenings began, of course, one question hung over the entire field: Can anything possibly beat South Korea’s entry, Bong Joon Ho’s Palme d’Or winner “Parasite”? And the question became more pointed considering that the official Oscar screenings launched the day after a weekend in which “Parasite” set a box office record for the highest per-screen average of any film not in English.
I suspect that the answer is no, nothing can beat “Parasite” if the film lands key nominations outside the international-film category, particularly if it is nominated for Best Picture and/or Best Director. If it doesn’t have that imprimatur of quality, who knows? Oscar voters in the category can be notoriously unpredictable and sometimes timid in their choices, and “Parasite” is a bold and unnerving film.
Speaking of bold and unnerving… I’ve seen 21 of the international 93 entries so far, starting with “Les Misérables,” “Atlantics,” “Pain and Glory,” “The Whistlers,” “Parasite” and “Homeward” back at the Cannes Film Festival in May. And I have to say, voters had better be prepared, because two of the entries I’ve seen in the last week are among the most brutal filmgoing experiences I’ve had in a long time: the Czech Republic’s entry, Vaclav Marhoul’s near three-hour adaptation of the Jerzy Kosinski novel “The Painted Bird,” and Russia’s “Beanpole,” by young director Kantemir Balagov.
“The Painted Bird” is set during World War II, and follows a young Jewish boy who wanders through Eastern Europe and quietly suffers unspeakable horrors at the hands of almost everyone he encounters; “Beanpole” is set in a ravaged Leningrad just after the war, and contains two lengthy scenes — one of death, one of sex — that are almost unendurable. Both films are gorgeous to look at, both are extremely powerful and it wouldn’t surprise me to see one or both end up on the short list, but they are not easy to sit through.
Here’s what is easy to sit through: “Rocketman.” I saw it in Cannes but revisited it on Tuesday night on the Paramount lot, where the studio tried to jog voters’ memories by holding a screening and a Q&A and reception with director Dexter Fletcher, actors Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell and Bryce Dallas Howard, lyricist Bernie Taupin and Elton John himself.
The audience of guilds and guests loved the actors but went nuts for Sir Elton, who of course dominated the Q&A, charmed everybody and relentlessly plugged his just-published memoir. (When they tried to get him to talk about how horrible his mother was to him, he kept saying, “Read the book.”) Elton went out of his way to praise Fletcher and Egerton and said he would not change one frame of the film — which is saying something, considering how mercurial and insane the movie makes him out to be.
One night is not going to push “Rocketman” into the thick of the awards race, but hope springs eternal for Egerton and for the new song Elton and Bernie wrote for the end credits. (And for those costumes, of course.) If I didn’t find the film quite as winning the second time around, I had fun with it again and credit Fletcher and crew for their very smart choice to make it a full-fledged musical fantasy in which people break into song and the chronology is creative, to say the least. Every time I felt the urge to nitpick — He didn’t do “Crocodile Rock” at the Troubadour, and the door’s on the wrong side of the room! “I’m Still Standing” was written before he went into rehab, not after!! — I had to acknowledge that I was being silly, because this wasn’t supposed to be how it happened but how it felt.
It was a busy week for Elton, who appeared at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday night for Brandi Carlile’s wonderful performance of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album. (Egerton was there, too, as was Mitchell herself.) And then on Thursday, he was back in action at the Greek Theatre, where he and Egerton performed “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” after a screening with live orchestral music.
We’re still a few weeks off from the time when new nominations will be announced almost on a daily basis, but the Critics Choice Association — what used to be the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association — announced its fourth annual Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards this week. I’ve never quite trusted a group of film critics and writers for television, radio and online outlets to keep their fingers on the pulse of nonfiction filmmaking — and I say that as a member of the group and a former member of its nominating committee — but they do provide a look at what docs are getting through to mainstream voters.
And in a year without the doc hits that we saw last year — there’s no “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” or “Free Solo” or “RBG” or “Three Identical Strangers” — you can cross-reference the CCDA, the recent IDA Awards short list and the DOC NYC list of the likeliest awards movies to come up with a decent overview. On that basis, the docs with the most heat are “American Factory,” “Apollo 11,” “The Biggest Little Farm,” “The Cave,” “Honeyland” and “One Child Nation” — though I think that might be slighting “Maiden,” “For Sama,” “Diego Maradona,” “The Edge of Democracy” and “Knock Down the House,” among others.
Also of note, the Critics’ Choice nominating committee became the first to nominate or short-list “Rolling Thunder: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” as a documentary, which I suppose is easy to do if you’re not paying attention to how much of the time Scorsese and the people he puts on screen are lying to you or trying to mislead you. I’ve gotten flak for saying this before and I’ll probably get more for saying it again, but here goes: It’s a great, wildly entertaining movie, but it’s not a documentary and it shouldn’t be getting doc awards or nominations.
But hey, the quote on the front of the “Rolling Thunder” awards screener that Netflix sent out says “A BRILLIANT ROCK DOC” in all caps, and the Academy’s Documentary Branch has put it on their voters’ streaming site and made it required viewing for 20 percent of the branch. So what do I know?