'The Awards Pundits' Return: Telluride Lineup, 'La La Land' and Nate Parker's Future

La La Land - still 3 -VFF- H 2016
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

The Hollywood Reporter's awards analyst Scott Feinberg and executive features editor Stephen Galloway return for this season's opening conversation about the road to the Oscars.

STEPHEN GALLOWAY Scott, we're at LAX boarding the plane for Telluride. We've just been shown the festival lineup. So, tell me your three most-anticipated films.

SCOTT FEINBERG Most people on this flight would say La La Land, Damien Chazelle's original musical-drama starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, which just opened Venice to massive acclaim and — spoiler alert — has landed the coveted "Patron Preview" slot in Telluride. That previously went to Argo, The Descendants and Wild.

GALLOWAY But you’re not opting for that?

FEINBERG I’ve already seen it, so I'll go with another movie that debuted on the Lido, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, starring Amy Adams, and two others that haven't been shown anywhere: Sully — because few people have as strong a batting average as Clint Eastwood or Tom Hanks — and Moonlight, which sounds like the sort of indie drama I tend to adore.

GALLOWAY I've heard Adams is terrific in Arrival (she's also very good in Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals), and I'm a Clint fan: When the script is good, he's a master of the simplest, most modest form of filmmaking, and by modest I mean he trusts the material too much to show off. I'm also keen to see Robin Swicord's Wakefield, with Bryan Cranston

FEINBERG — which doesn't have a U.S. distributor yet.

GALLOWAY Right. It's one of the few movies playing this weekend that's still up for grabs — another is Maudie, starring Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins. But back to La La Land. Are you a fan?

FEINBERG I liked it quite a bit and respect it even more. It took some big cojones to make a non-ironic musical in this cynical day and age. And I think it will play very well with the Academy: Gosling and Stone, together again five years after Crazy Stupid Love, still have terrific chemistry and will be great on the campaign trail —

GALLOWAY — though he'll be less visible than her because of Blade Runner commitments

FEINBERG It also highlights the struggles artists like those in the Academy have to make, a theme of recent best picture winners The Artist and Birdman. And it's unlike any other film it will be competing against.

GALLOWAY I'm still making up my mind about it. But let me make a declaration: I'm in love with Emma Stone's performance. I'm waiting to see what Viola Davis is like in Fences (out Dec. 25) and how Annette Bening does with 20th Century Women (premiering at the New York Film Festival), but this is just exceptional work that I think is a lock for a nomination. Every year there are two or three performances that make all the craziness of this industry worthwhile. This is one of them.

FEINBERG It's nice to see so many great parts for — and performances by — actresses this year.

GALLOWAY I'm waiting to have the same reaction to the male performances.

FEINBERG Don't despair, it's early days. The thing I find bizarre is how many films that "feel" Telluride won't be at the fest, but are going directly north of the border.

GALLOWAY Which ones?

FEINBERG Several carryovers from Cannes (Ken Loach's Palme d'Or winner I, Daniel Blake, Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman, Jim Jarmusch's Paterson, Andrea Arnold's American Honey and Jeff Nichols' Loving) and Venice (Nocturnal Animals). And some first-anywhere screenings (Ewan McGregor's directorial debut American Pastoral, Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe, Amma Asante's A United Kingdom, Lone Scherfig's Their Finest, Mick Jackson’s Denial — and even Salt and Fire, directed by Werner Herzog, who has a theater at Telluride named after him).

GALLOWAY You know what else is skipping Telluride and going to Toronto? The Birth of a Nation, which won Sundance's grand jury and audience awards but is now at the center of a firestorm. The folks at Searchlight must be wishing they could get their money back.

FEINBERG The incredible thing is I think it might have won best picture had Nate Parker's rape case of 17 years ago — for which he was found not guilty, I should note — not been dredged up again. The film is well crafted. It's moving. It's timely. But, at this point, I wonder if it still even has a pulse, as far as its Oscar prospects.

GALLOWAY It's extremely well done — though not artistically in the same league as, say, 12 Years a Slave, Searchlight's previous movie about slavery, which of course debuted at Telluride and won the best picture Oscar. It has a message that's worth repeating over and over, especially at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to remind people that prejudice is still a problem.

FEINBERG But can voters separate the film from Parker, who wrote, directed and stars in it?

GALLOWAY Perhaps. Judging from social media reactions to a column I wrote on the subject, it's going to be an uphill climb. When I saw that your old friend Marcia Nasatir, a veteran studio executive, declared she wouldn't even see it, I have to admit it made me feel there's almost nothing Searchlight can do to make it the frontrunner again.

FEINBERG I find it baffling that a person can be tried and exonerated but still can't get on with his life in this country. Roman Polanski sexually assaulted a 13-year-old — he was convicted and still is a fugitive from the law — and the Academy had no problem awarding him a best director Oscar for The Pianist. So why should Parker, who was found not guilty but still has apologized for immature behavior, be given a harder time? Academy members are supposed to judge the work, not the person. We're not talking about the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

GALLOWAY It’s a very delicate subject. The other contenders had better hope they don’t have anything explosive in their pasts. But back to Telluride's lineup. Name one movie that you don't have to see, but still want to see badly.

FEINBERG No question: Amazing Grace, the decades-in-the-works documentary made by the late Sydney Pollack about the great Aretha Franklin, which was supposed to premiere at the fest last year but was blocked by a last-minute court injunction. Apparently Franklin and the producers have arrived at some sort of an understanding, and my interest certainly is piqued.

GALLOWAY Instead of naming one picture, I'm going to name a trilogy. The highlight of last year's fest was seeing Jean Renoir's 1936 film A Day in the Country again. This year I want to revisit Marcel Pagnol's Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and Cesar (1936) — and I hope you'll drop your pundit hat and join me. Then we can have dinner and talk about them. 

FEINBERG All right, Galloway. What if I don't like it?

GALLOWAY Dinner will be on me.