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Oscar Watching: Gus Van Sant Brings His PROMISED LAND to the Race

Politics: with the Republican National Convention hoopla happening right now, the Democratic National Convention taking place next week, and the Presidential election right around the corner, it’s all anyone can talk about. It makes sense that several Oscar-centric articles have focused on how the political atmosphere can affect an awards season, particularly in an election year. Though it sounds far-fetched, the idea holds up, and in an age with such a harsh political climate, politics might factor into the season more than ever before.

With that in mind, let’s look at Gus Van Sant’s anti-fracking drama Promised Land, which gets a limited release from Focus Features on December 28. Matt Damon leads as a natural gas salesman who seeks to exploit a rural town’s natural resources, with Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, John Krasinski, and Frances McDormand filling out supporting roles. Promised Land is a passion project for Damon, who founded the non-profit organization Water.org. The actor was also more directly involved with the film than most leading men are: he co-wrote the film with Krasinski and was once set to make his directorial debut with the film.

Damon’s Promised Land multitasking could help him land an Actor nomination, as well as an Adapted Screenplay bid with Krasinski. Van Sant scored a Director nod for his last effort, Milk, which won Actor and Original Screenplay. He could find himself in that race yet again, and Promised Land itself feels safe – at least at this point – for a Picture nomination. The film’s supporting players might be in the hunt for recognition as well.

Political views were also prevalent at the box office as 2016: Obama’s America expanded across the country. The conspiracy-theory “documentary” pulled in more than all of the new wide releases despite being in around 1,100 locations. However, 2016’s impressive totals have more to do with political biases than anything else; it’s come under critical fire for pandering to individuals who abhor U.S. President Barack Obama. Expect several topical documentaries – like exposé The Invisible War and anti-bullying doc Bully – to make the Documentary Feature cut, but this flick won’t be one of them.

Oscar won’t dwell much on the new wide releases of the week either. The biggest hit among new releases was the Joseph Gordon-Levitt-led thriller Premium Rush, but even that scored around $6 million. Reviews are positive but hardly enthusiastic, and Oscar doesn’t often embrace this kind of film without significant critical backing. Still, JGL’s body of work this year – including Rush – might boost his Supporting Actor prospects for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Even worse off in the critical department is the comedy Hit and Run. Comedies aiming for Oscar glory need support from the critics, and this film isn’t getting that necessary backing. Then there’s The Apparition. Being a PG-13 horror flick aimed at younger audiences, it’s not as if the film is on lots of Oscar prognostications lists. However, if you were unsure of where it’d place in the awards season, it predictably snagged a place at the bottom of the critical totem pole like most films of its ilk. For instance, our very own Brad McHargue’s take on it wasn’t exactly favorable. The film’s weak debut – less than $3 million – only adds insult to injury.

So the wide releases offer nothing to the Oscar conversation; could Sleepwalk with Me make waves this season? The Sundance player earned $65,000 from just one location, New York’s IFC Center, over the weekend. Mike Birbiglia’s comedy, which derives from his one-man show, will expand into other markets in the coming weeks. If it becomes a sleeper hit at the box office, Sleepwalk might also become a surprise contender in Adapted Screenplay. Don’t miss our SXSW review. 

Speaking of big cinematic happenings in New York, Nicole Kidman will get her own New York Film Festival tribute along with the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Program Director Richard Peña. This might tie into Oscar campaign for the actress’ performance in Lee DanielsThe Paperboy, which premiered at Cannes and will play at NYFF. Although she earned raves for her work, most were heavily critical of the film itself. Even if Kidman does hit the campaign trail, will she even factor into the race? Probably not, but she’ll have a variety of potential Oscar contenders out next year.

While we’re talking about the New York Film Festival, it’s worth noting David Chase’s Not Fade Away serves as its centerpiece. The drama about friends who start a band in the 1960s also makes it world premiere at the fest and marks the Sopranos creator’s first feature film. The ensemble includes Sopranos star James Gandolfini, John Magaro, and names you might not expect like Everybody Loves Raymond’s Brad Garrett and stand-up comic Lisa Lampanelli. Paramount Vantage will give this music-tinged drama a limited run in the thick of awards season on December 21. No pre-release buzz yet, but the film might figure into the Original Screenplay race.

Perhaps on a less significant note, Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep found a distributor in Sony Pictures Classics. The thriller premieres at Venice and play at Toronto just a few days later. The festival plays suggest a quality film if nothing else, but SPC hasn’t announced if Company will hit theaters this year. The distributor also has Michael Haneke’s Amour (Love), Pablo Larrain’s No, Jacques Audiard’s De rouille et d’Os (Rust and Bone) and James Ponsoldt’s Smashed arriving this year, so we might have to wait awhile to keep this Company.

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Donovan Warren

Donovan Warren

Donovan Warren loves the wonderful world of film and all that comes with it. He specifically loves long takes, fabulous actresses, and keeping up with the Oscar season - even when it's far too early to make sense of anything.