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AFI Film Fest had strong entries and premieres, but where are the front runners?

AFI Film Fest had strong entries and premieres, but where are the front runners?
Actors Ryan Gosling, left, Marisa Tomei and Steve Carell on the red carpet for the world premiere of "The Big Short" at the AFI Film Festival. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

This year's AFI Fest, which ended Thursday, offered world premieres of three high-profile movies — "The Big Short," "By the Sea" and "Concussion" — but, as has been often been the case with the glitzy Hollywood festival, its programmed slate offered no dramatic jolts to the awards-season landscape.

With Oscar nomination voting beginning in six weeks, the post-AFI picture in the major categories remains cloudy, a marked contrast to last year, when three of the four eventual acting winners — Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette — were already seen as mortal locks in their races.

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Though there are currently several movies possessing clear Oscar potential — "Spotlight," "The Martian," "Room," "Bridge of Spies," "Brooklyn" — there's no clear-cut favorite, leaving an opening for a trio of coming Christmas releases ("The Revenant," "Joy," "The Hateful Eight") to make an impact.

Noticeably missing from this AFI Fest were last-minute adds. Last year, "American Sniper" and "Selma" dropped into the schedule — on the same night, no less — lending the festival some drama and awards-season intrigue, as both movies proved to be potent award season fare and went on to be nominated for the best picture Oscar.

AFI Fest's 2015 movies did offer some intrigue. Adam McKay's scathing "The Big Short," an adaptation of the Michael Lewis book chronicling the 2008 mortgage debt meltdown and the Wall Street outsiders who saw it coming, closed the festival, winning strong notices for its energy and timeliness as well as the strength of its ensemble, led by Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and, in a small role, Brad Pitt.

McKay's movie, shot earlier this year and quickly assembled, became a late add to the 2015 calendar, and Paramount has been quietly screening it for academy members in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco the last couple of weeks. Producer Lynda Obst and director Peter Bogdanovich hosted an industry screening recently at the Directors Guild, which elicited a wave of accolades on social media from the likes of filmmakers Peyton Reed, Rod Lurie and Nicholas Jarecki and some in-person endorsements from Robert Towne and Buck Henry.

Known for giddy comedies like "Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby" and the "Anchorman" movies, McKay is, to some, a surprising choice to handle serious-minded material, though a close inspection of his work reveals some sharp, sly critiques on the absurdities of American culture.

"I thought he was the perfect choice for this subject matter," says Carell, whose hedge fund manager acts as the movie's moral compass. "I couldn't wait to do this with him."

Carell will be campaigned in the lead category, where he will compete with Will Smith, another actor who found some good will at AFI Fest. In "Concussion," Smith plays Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant forensic pathologist crusading against the National Football League over its whitewashing of the dangers posed by the sport's constant on-field collisions.

Early critics applauded the movie's intentions but not its execution. (It currently has a 47 score on the movie review aggregator site Metacritic.) But even most of the bad reviews have praised Smith, who, it should be noted, has won Oscar nominations in the past for "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Ali," movies that weren't roundly praised by critics.

And, if by chance he's feeling down, Smith can take some comfort that his film wasn't the fest's most divisive entry. That would be "By the Sea," the love-on-the-rocks marital drama written, directed and starring Angelina Jolie Pitt opposite husband Brad Pitt. Jolie's attempt to mirror old-school European art cinema produced a fair amount of sighs, both on-screen between the couple and off among impatient festival-goers at the Chinese Theatre. Two people told me they fell asleep.

Organizers this year couldn't persuade the studios behind a trio of highly anticipated Christmas Day releases — the westerns "The Revenant" and "The Hateful Eight" and "Joy," filmmaker David O. Russell's latest movie with Jennifer Lawrence — to unveil their projects at the fest.

But that doesn't mean they weren't being shown. Hours before "The Big Short" closed AFI Fest on Thursday, members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. filed into the Directors Guild's theater to see Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight."

Golden Globes voters' reaction to the 70-millimeter, three-hour movie (yes, there's an intermission), we're told, was wildly divided — par for the course for an Oscar season sporting precious little consensus.

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