Oscars: 'Bombshell' Debut, Critics' Doc Picks, East Coast Film Fests Heat Up Awards Race

Bombshell Still 1 - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Lionsgate

So much for a holiday break! The Columbus Day weekend was jampacked, from coast to coast, with developments that could impact the Oscar race.

No film caused more noise this past week than Sunday's unveiling of Jay Roach's Bombshell, which centers on former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly during Roger Ailes' reign at Fox News. Almost everyone who caught the Lionsgate release at West Hollywood's Pacific Design Center declared that it exceeded their expectations — which is a bit surprising, considering that Roach has been pumping out high-caliber female-centric films about news and politics for years. Indeed, he directed award-winning performances by Laura Dern as Katherine Harris in 2008's Recount and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in 2012's Game Change, both for HBO. 

Now, Roach apparently has done it again for Bombshell, starring Charlize Theron as Kelly, Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson and Margot Robbie as Kayla, a fictional character that is a composite of multiple women that Ailes sexually harassed.

"Exit polls" seem to suggest that Robbie and John Lithgow, who plays Ailes, could contend for supporting nominations, but that Theron is the true standout and a slam-dunk for a lead actress nom. If so, Academy members may have to decide whether to give a rare second Oscar either to Theron (who previously won best actress honors for 2003's Monster) for playing a person many of them dislike, or to current frontrunner Renee Zellweger (who previously won in the best supporting actress category for 2003's Cold Mountain) and playing a person many of them adored, Judy Garland, in Judy.

Meanwhile, on Monday morning, the Critics' Choice Association (of which I am a longtime member) announced the nominees for its fourth Critics' Choice Documentary Awards, which will be handed out Nov. 10 at Bric in Brooklyn. Neon had the most to celebrate as its docs The Biggest Little Farm, with seven noms, and Apollo 11, with six, led the field and were joined in the best doc feature category by another of the company's releases, Honeyland. They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson's World War I doc for Warner Bros., also scored six mentions, including for best doc feature.

The rest of the top category was filled out with Netflix's American Factory and Knock Down the House; Showtime's The Kingmaker; NatGeo's The Cave; Sony Classics' Maiden; Amazon's One Child Nation; and HBO's Leaving Neverland, the only nominee that is not eligible for Oscars. (Directors of eight of the Critics' Choice doc feature nominees — American Factory, Apollo 11, The Biggest Little Farm, The Cave, The Kingmaker, Knock Down the House, Maiden and One Child Nation — will be on the sixth annual Savannah Film Festival 'Docs to Watch' panel on Nov. 1, which I moderate, along with HBO's Diego Maradona and NatGeo's Sea of Shadows.)

The Critics' Choice Documentary Awards ceremony will also honor two legendary documentarians. Frederick Wiseman will receive the first Critics' Choice Lifetime Achievement Award, renamed the D.A. Pennebaker Award after the great filmmaker who died in August, and Michael Apted will receive the Landmark Award, in recognition of his unparalleled Up series of docs, the latest of which, 63 Up, was released this year by upstart distributor BritBox.

I spent the holiday weekend three hours north of New York in picturesque East Hampton, where I served on the narrative films jury for the Hamptons International Film Festival (the fest's 27th edition, fest director David Nugent's 13th, fest executive director Anne Chaisson's eighth and my first) alongside writer-director Peter Hedges and Magnolia executive Dori Begley. We considered five narrative features and five narrative shorts and, after hours of deliberation, awarded best narrative feature honors to Hlynur Pálmason's haunting A White, White Day, the Icelandic entry for the best international feature film Oscar. The best narrative short prize went to Sandrine Brodeur-Desrosiers' timely Just Me and You.

We also bestowed several special awards: breakthrough achievement in filmmaking to Anke Blondé's terrific directorial debut The Best of Dorien B., a Belgian film starring Kim Snauwaert; best cinematography to Miguel Ioann Litten Menz, the DP of the remarkable low-budget sci-fi film The Vast of Night; and special mentions recognizing five standout performances by female actors — The Best of Dorien B.'s aforementioned Snauwaert, A White, White Day's Ida Mekkín Hlynsdóttir, Atlantics' Mama Sane, The Vast of Night's Sierra McCormick and Lara's Corinna Harfouch (who was previously awarded best actress honors at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival).

The HIFF documentary jury tapped Sung-a Yoon's Overseas as best doc feature and Bassam Tariq's Ghosts of Sugar Land as best doc short. It also awarded special jury prizes to Alla Kovgan's Cunningham for artistic vision; Suhaib Gasmelbari's Talking About Trees for indomitable spirit of storytelling; Lasse Linder's All Cats Are Grey in the Dark for originality; and Alexander A. Mora's The Nightcrawlers for creative filmmaking. Separately, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts' doc For Sama was given the Brizzolara Family Foundation's Award to Films of Conflict and Resolution.

There were many higher-profile Oscar hopefuls at HIFF — among them opener Just Mercy, closer Waves, The Irishman, The Two Popes, Marriage Story, Clemency, The Aeronauts, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Mickey and the Bear, Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, A Hidden Life, Knives Out, Les Miserables, Parasite and The Report — not least because there are many Academy members who are based, at least part-time, in and around the area, including fest co-chair Alec Baldwin, who attended many of the events, and The Irishman producer Jane Rosenthal.

A number of other notables came to town to support their films at this year's HIFF. It was great to catch up with The Farewell's writer-director Lulu Wang (and her boyfriend Barry Jenkins) and Clemency's supporting actor Aldis Hodge (along with the film's leading lady Alfre Woodard and helmer Chinonye Chukwu), who were honored as breakthrough artists at the fest, along with Camila Morrone. It also was nice to see The Two Popes' leading actor Jonathan Pryce, Marriage Story's writer-director Noah Baumbach and HIFF lifetime achievement award honoree Brian De Palma. And it was a personal thrill to meet Tracy Edwards, the legendary yachtswoman who is the subject of the aforementioned Maiden, which recently won the audience award at HIFF's 11th SummerDocs series.

HIFF audience awards went to The Two Popes (narrative feature), Ric Burns' Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (documentary feature) and Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper's Fire in Paradise (documentary short).

Meanwhile, from Wednesday to Sunday, the second annual Film Fest 919 — founded by veteran publicist Carol Marshall, film critic Claudia Puig and executive Randi Emerman — was taking place in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with 38 films (it opened with Marriage Story and closed with Jojo Rabbit) and accompanying talent (Two Popes scribe Anthony McCarten was on hand to collect the Distinguished Screenwriter Award). Festival goers voted to give their audience award to Parasite, with Just Mercy placing second and Two Popes finishing third.