I’ll say it right now; there is an intriguing battle shaping up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards next year.
On one hand, the favourite (quite clearly, for a reason I’ll go on to detail); Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a musical about classical Hollywood and the kind of artistic work that the Academy usually goes for. On the other, an underdog, but almost certainly the film to win if Chazelle’s effort misses out: Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation. Yes, that it shares its name with a certain other movie released in 1915 is intentional, as is the poignant choice to make it almost exactly 100 years after its namesake dominated headlines as the first mainstream American feature length film.
Now, anyone who follows the Academy Awards will know that this decision can be as much about politics as it is about finding the best film of the year. And anyone who paid attention to the controversy surrounding last year’s ceremony will also know that the issue of race has been a prevalent one for the Academy of late. In fact, it seems 2016 in general has been a year in which the issue of race has prominently reared its head, with cases of unbridled racism, perhaps naively thought conquered, regularly hitting headlines in the US and – to a lesser extent but let’s not deny the unfortunate side effects of ‘Brexit’ – in the UK as well.
So I think the Academy is set to find themselves in a rather awkward spot come January/ February time. Whichever of the above two contenders wins the top prize is likely to affect the narrative surrounding the decision, and that narrative is likely, once again, to be about race.
I said La La Land was the clear favourite. That is because I honestly believe it’s the one the Academy will choose if they are to choose honestly. Without asking themselves which one they ‘should’ choose. But there is a chance, with the racial undertones of the past year, that they will opt for Birth of a Nation, and for many people it would feel like a victory in more ways than one.
I’m of course saying this without having seen either of these films. They will both be screening at the BFI London Film Festival, which begins this evening with another racially charged movie: A United Kingdom, a British film directed by Amma Asante. When I first heard this film would open the festival, I immediately thought of how the UK had been split by Brexit in the Summer – and the title of the movie took on an almost ironic tone, as if it was pointing out to all of us that our United Kingdom was not, in fact, living up to its name in 2016.
A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike (both of whom I’m sure will feature once again in the acting categories at the Oscars – Oyelowo may well get his win this year) tells the story of the real-life romance between Seretse Khama, first president of Botswana, and Ruth Williams, a woman he met while touring in Britain and took back with him to Botswana as his bride. As one might imagine, it proved rather controversial on both sides, and with the racial tensions of today, this film may therefore be another dark horse to look out for in February.
Those are the main headliners of the festival, but not necessarily the films I am most looking forward to. From what I’ve read, heard and seen, this year’s lineup is incredibly strong, and there are quite a few on my list to check out in the coming days.
This includes new films from some of my favourite modern directors; Francois Ozon (with Frantz, a monochrome WW1-era romance), Korean director Park Chan-wook (most famous among Western audiences for 2003’s Oldboy) with new movie The Handmaiden, and Denis Villeneuve (whose next project is the Blade Runner sequel) with sci-fi Arrival starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.
My most anticipated, though, is the new film from Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who is making his return to the J-horror genre for the first time since 2001’s Pulse, with Creepy. Admittedly an uninspired title at first glance, and last year’s festival wasn’t exactly kind with its promised return to this genre (Hideo Nakata’s Ghost Theater was rather laughably bad and a far cry from his vintage work), but I still have high hopes for Kurosawa’s return. Pulse remains one of my all-time favourite horror movies and his films outside the genre have been almost as impressive.
Other films that have made my watch list include: Queen of Katwe, a biographical film about a Ugandan woman – Phiona Mutesi – who proves to be a chess prodigy and competes at the world championships; Graduation, for which Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu shared the Best Director award at Cannes; and Personal Shopper starring Kristen Stewart, the director of which (Olivier Assayas) shared that Best Director prize at Cannes with Mungiu. Also a few highly rated Australian films, including hard-hitting documentary Chasing Asylum (about Australia’s harsh immigration policies) and Goldstone, sequel to 2013’s underrated Western Mystery Road.
There are more, many more of course, but I’m going to leave the rest for the imagination right now. Hopefully I’ve adequately whetted your appetite for the festival. I’m pretty hyped about what awaits, a little tired already thinking how busy it’s going to be, and looking forward to the inevitable surprises beyond what I’ve highlighted here.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be a memorable festival, and an interesting few months leading up to the Academy Awards next February. Enjoy the ride!