AFI Fest: Oscar Race Gets Adrenaline Shot From 'Selma,' 'American Sniper' Premieres

Selma American Sniper - H 2014

Selma American Sniper - H 2014

Talk about a double feature! On Tuesday night, two highly anticipated Oscar hopefuls — Ava DuVernay's Selma (Paramount) and Clint Eastwood's American Sniper (Warner Bros.) — had back-to-back world premieres at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre as part of AFI Fest.

And while the films each deserved nights of their own, those who were lucky enough to catch both witnessed something that has been strangely uncommon this season: projects that actually lived up to great expectations.

Selma, which centers around a major turning point in America's Civil Rights movement and the man at its center, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is one of those rare films that set out to be "important" and actually is. It offers an intense, engaging, inspiring and uplifting look at the private and public life of a great leader during deeply consequential times. In other words, it's right up the Academy's alley. (See: The Queen, Milk, The King's Speech and Lincoln — and those are just examples from the past decade.)

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The quality of the film, which was derived from an original screenplay by Paul Webb, does not come as a surprise to me, given what a fine filmmaker DuVernay, a former publicist, showed herself to be with her feature directorial debut, the indie Middle of Nowhere (2012, and finally being released on DVD on Jan. 13). An auteur who is also a champion of other filmmakers through her African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement collective, she might well become only the fifth female and the first black female to land a best director Oscar nom, while Selma could become only the 12th best picture Oscar nominee directed or co-directed by a woman. (If it does, Oprah Winfrey, one of the film's producers, would receive an Oscar nom, along with Plan B's Brad Pitt, Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner, all of whom were Oscar winners last year for 12 Years a Slave, and Christian Colson, who won an Oscar six years ago for Slumdog Millionaire.)

But the thing that will have Oscar voters buzzing even more is the film's central performance: the portrayal of King by David Oyelowo, a Brit of Nigerian descent who also appeared in Middle of Nowhere but is best known for his supporting work in two films by Lee Daniels (who was set to direct Selma at one time), The Paperboy and The Butler. Selma's trailer suggested that he was up to something special, but the fact of the matter is that Oyelowo gives one of the greatest performances you will ever see.

For one thing, he looks, talks and moves exactly like King — I feel quite comfortable saying that, having recently watched the 185-minute, Oscar-nominated documentary feature King: A Filmed Record ... Montgomery to Memphis (1970). But, even more than that, he seems to have inhabited King's soul. I've spent a fair amount of time with Oyelowo over the last year — we chatted quite a bit before, during and after numerous Q&As for The Butler and just last weekend sat next to each other at the Academy's Governors Awards — and yet, throughout Selma, I essentially forgot that I was looking at someone I knew. There are several quiet, extended close-ups of his face that allow one to look into his eyes, at which point one gets the unmistakable sense that he is actually carrying the burden that King felt as the leader of a cause that he knew could take him from his family and this Earth at any time (and ultimately did). During a post-screening Q&A, the actor attributed his desire to play the part to a calling from God. I'm not a particularly religious man, but if that's the case then God got this one right.

Consequently, Oyelowo now finds himself right into the thick of one of the most competitive best actor Oscar races in history, alongside the likes of The Theory of Everything's Eddie Redmayne, Birdman's Michael Keaton, The Imitation Game's Benedict Cumberbatch, Foxcatcher's Steve Carell and Channing Tatum, Whiplash's Miles Teller, Interstellar's Matthew McConaughey, Nightcrawler's Jake Gyllenhaal, Get On Up's Chadwick Boseman, Mr. Turner's Timothy Spall, Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane and — wait for it — American Sniper's Bradley Cooper.

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Cooper, who landed an Oscar nom in each of the past two years — for David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013) — is the heart and soul of Sniper, a film that made sense for a Veterans Day premiere because it is all about the service and sacrifice of American troops.

The actor gives his most committed and mature performance to date — he got himself ripped, changed his speech delivery and brought to life a character of the sort that few Hollywood types encounter in their own lives — as Chris Kyle, a Texan good ol' boy of fine moral and patriotic stock who winds up in the military, and then in Iraq and then as a legend thanks to his unparalleled work as a sniper. (It might well earn him his third consecutive trip to the Dolby.) The specialized job, however, requires focus, intensity and life-or-death decision-making that, along with the loss of colleagues, take their toll on his psyche and his relationships. (Sienna Miller, as Kyle's neglected wife, doesn't have much to do in the film.) In those respects it's not all that different from the only film about the Iraq War that's in the same class, The Hurt Locker (2009) — which won the best picture Oscar.

It is also easily the finest film that Eastwood has made since Million Dollar Baby landed a handful of major Oscars — including best picture and best director — exactly a decade ago. Since then he's been pretty hit or miss, with a lot more miss than hit: Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) was pretty special, but Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Changeling (2008), Gran Torino (2008), Invictus (2009), Hereafter (2010), J. Edgar (2011) and Jersey Boys (2014) were all, to one degree or another, letdowns. This one is anything but. It's smart. It's intense. It's action-packed. And it in no way feels like the work of an 84-year-old. (At this point, they ought to start referring to fine wines as "Clint Eastwoods" — both just get better as they get older.) My sense is that Eastwood stands a great shot at landing his fifth nom for best director, which would make him the oldest person ever to land a nom in the category — by five years.

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The third and final film to have its world premiere at AFI Fest within 24 hours of these other two was Monday night's featured attraction, Rupert Wyatt's The Gambler (Paramount), which unspooled at the Dolby, where the Oscars are dished out each year. The remake of James Toback's 1974 drama, penned by Oscar winner William Monahan (The Departed), is certainly entertaining and worth seeing, mainly because Mark Wahlberg is excellent, as always, in the titular role of a self-destructive college professor, for which he dropped 60 pounds and gets to deliver some terrific monologues. But, as I noted, the best actor race is already packed to the gills, and even showier work in even stronger films will almost certainly crowd him out, and nothing else from the film stands a better chance in other categories.

AFI Fest will fete the legendary actress Sophia Loren with a career tribute on Wednesday night before closing out its program on Thursday night with the Los Angeles premiere of Foxcatcher.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg