Amazon Studios owns the 2017 New York Film Festival with opener “Last Flag Flying” from Richard Linklater, Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” as the centerpiece gala October 7, and Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” closing it out October 15 — but taking those movies into the crowded fall marketplace and landing Oscar nominations and wins is another matter altogether.
Of course, Amazon has done it before: At Sundance 2016, it paid $10 million for Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” and took the movie (via Roadside Attractions) all the way to six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It won two, for Best Actor Casey Affleck and Lonergan for Best Original Screenplay, and earned a robust $47.6 million domestic.
This year, the deep-pocketed studio challenger — which, unlike Netflix, supports the industry’s established theatrical paradigm, 90-day window and all — has a wider swath of films to compete in multiple awards categories. But there are several key differences this time. (Amazon resisted the temptation to include Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here,” which won Best Actor at Cannes for Joaquin Phoenix’s portrait of a hitman. However, Cannes wasn’t Amazon’s doing — the French distributor submitted it to the festival — and stuck to its plan for a 2018 slot, where Ramsay’s slightly revised cut might face less competition.)
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Here’s how the packed Amazon 2018 awards slate stacks up.
Strengths: Producer Judd Apatow and director Michael Showalter (“Hello, My Name is Doris”) shepherded the careful development of this romantic comedy based on co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s own romance, which came together as one of those rare, perfectly balanced comedy-dramas that is never schmaltzy, always authentic. Folks in Hollywood will recognize the high degree of difficulty, and respond to the movie’s deep laughs and unique multi-cultural profile.
Acting nods: Nanjiani is terrific as himself, and Zoe Kazan is delightful as Gordon, but veterans Holly Hunter (the four-time Oscar nominee won for “The Piano”) and television star Ray Romano steal the show as Gordon’s parents.
Weaknesses: While Showalter does an extraordinary job keeping this challenging movie on track, the tony Academy directors’ branch may see him as an adept comedy director and accord much of the credit for the movie to the writers and heavyweight producer Apatow.
Bottom Line: Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay are the film’s best shots, along with Supporting Actress Hunter.
Strengths: Director Todd Haynes, whose “Carol” scored six Oscar nominations and no wins, delivers a gorgeously wrought cinematic realization of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” author Brian Selznick’s innovative graphic novel that intertwines a black-and-white ’20s story without words and a ’70s story with text and color. Lauded cinematographer Ed Lachman and a superb crafts team offer a treasure of visual and aural delights.
Acting nods: In a weaker year for Best Actress contenders, deaf discovery Millicent Simmonds would have a stronger shot at a nomination for bringing honest emotion to her performance in the silent half of the movie. Haynes’ go-to actress Julianne Moore (Oscar-winner for “Still Alice”), who plays two roles in the movie in two different time frames, could land a Supporting Actress nomination.
Bottom Line: While the artful movie will play well in New York, just blocks away from the New York Public Library that is its centerpiece, the formalist film’s commercial fate in the specialty marketplace will impact its awards chances. Like Netflix TV series “Stranger Things,” it’s an unusual film about children that is aimed at adults. The Academy and the guilds will best appreciate its extraordinary craftsmanship including cinematography, production design, costumes and the innovative Carter Burwell score that carries the movie, especially in its silent section.
“Last Flag Flying”
Strengths: The trouble with opening the NYFF is the scrutiny it brings. Yes, Richard Linklater is the lauded Oscar-contending writer-director behind “Boyhood,” and this thoughtful, contemplative exploration of the conflicted bonds between veteran soldiers, their country, and each other, was appreciated by some critics (Metacritic has it at a respectable 63).
Acting nods: While a trio of canny actors are worth the price of admission, Bryan Cranston’s loudmouthed Sal Nealon (a distant echo of Jack Nicholson in Hal Ashby’s 1973 movie) is the noisiest and most likely to impress his peers, who awarded him SAG and Oscar nods for “Trumbo.” He’s undeniably fun to watch, along with wily Laurence Fishburne and an understated Steve Carrell as a poignantly grieving father in his second brilliant performance this year after Bobby Riggs in “Battle of the Sexes.”
Weaknesses: The dramedy, loosely adapted by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan from the writer’s sequel to “The Last Detail,” never makes its raison d’etre clear to an audience. I polled the assembled New York film community at the opening night Tavern on the Green afterparty and was hard-pressed to find a passionate defender. Linklater wanted me to know that the film expresses ambivalent points of view. That’s the problem.
Bottom Line: Amazon distribution head Bob Berney will take “Last Flag Flying” out to many markets beyond the coasts, where it will play well to veterans. Decent box office will be crucial to its awards hopes.
Strengths: Sight unseen, Woody Allen’s sophisticated adult comedies command a solid following. Some catch fire more than others (“Midnight in Paris” marks his recent peak, while last year’s “Cafe Society” was a disappointment), but Allen always attracts Hollywood’s top actors, and this movie is no exception: Kate Winslet leads an ensemble that includes Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple and Debi Mazar in a ’50s fable set on Coney Island.
Acting nods: If Winslet takes control of the writer-director’s trademark dialogue as well as Cate Blanchett did in “Blue Jasmine” (winning an Oscar), she could enter the crowded Best Actress race.
Weaknesses: This NYFF closer marks Amazon’s first foray into self-distribution. Berney knows what he is doing, but is still ramping up a new distribution machine within the complex Amazon corporate behemoth. He’s done it many times, but it takes time to get on track.
Bottom Line: Expectations are high for Winslet to ride out of the NYFF with some stellar reviews and a shot at an Oscar nomination.
“City of Ghosts”
Strengths: Matthew Heineman is a respected and gifted filmmaker who combines gonzo fearlessness (see Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land”) with empathetic sensitivity. He knows how to win his subjects’ trust, which gave him extraordinary access and intimacy on this dramatic story of Raqqa activist journalists fighting to tell the story of their city against multiple, even life-threatening obstacles.
Weaknesses: Amid an onslaught of strong Syria documentaries this year, this A&E Indie Films production seems to be staying at the front of the pack.
Bottom Line: Amazon picked this up out of Sundance and is backing the IFC release all the way — so far the film has made the DOC NYC shortlist and should go far toward a second Oscar nomination for Heineman.