Oscar Review from the TCFF Perspective
Gregory Klimowicz

As they begin scouting their 2016 lineup, the top programmers at the Twin Cities Film Fest know they have a high bar to hit, if they’re going to match the accolades and excitement of their 2015 run. Just a couple months ago, during the 88 th Academy Awards, more than 34 million viewers cheered the first Oscar wins for industry veterans Leonardo DiCaprio and Ennio Morricone, while celebrating the Best Picture breakthrough Spotlight that managed to pull out a surprise victory over the critical darling The Revenant. TCFF had plenty to be proud of that night as well, having shown four films from the 2015Oscar season that received a total of nine Academy nominations: Anomalisa (Animated Feature nomination,) Brooklyn (Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Actress nominations,) Room (Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Director, and Actress nominations,) and Youth (Best Original Song nomination.) The cherry on top came when the award for Best Actress went to Brie Larson for her performance in Room. Larson’s victory caused many TCFF members watching the awards at this year’s official Minnesota viewing party to feel elated — not just because it was a well-deserved win but because it symbolized the hard work that those at TCFF put in to give festivalgoers what they want: films of high caliber by amazingly talented people.

Steve Snyder, TCFF Artistic Director, made it clear that the festival’s Oscar triumph doesn’t come from foreshadowing the next big hit, but from giving the festival audience a story worthy of their support. “Absolutely I feel pride. And I’m rooting for [these films] in the weeks leading up to the awards. But more than pride, I feel a sense of exhilaration for our audiences. They put a lot of faith in us to bring them Oscar-worthy discoveries. And of course we don’t know, in August or September, if we’re making the right picks. And as we ask viewers to give us their time, and their money, in exchange for ‘The Next Big Oscar Contender,’ I always hold my breath in January, when the nominees are announced. This year was our most successful yet.”

The buildup for Hollywood’s big night started in less than stellar fashion, as the Academy was accused of continuing its history of glancing past those in the industry of color, and “whitewashing” their nomination selections. Many believe, for example, that actors like Oscar Isaac, Will Smith, Idris Elba, and Michael B Jordan, or films like Beasts of No Nation or Straight Outta Compton to name a few, should have been given proper credit instead of being passed up by the Academy. “When you see the nominees – and also the lack of diversity in the nominees, the lack of risky titles in the Best Picture and Best Documentary categories – and when you see Leo finally getting crowned in the best actor category, over far more worthy performances, you’re reminded that this really does come down to consensus. Which, as any filmmaker will tell you, is the surest way to make a movie – or a movie awards show – that lacks uniqueness and edge.” Snyder contends. Much of the comedic content, provided by host Chris Rock, jabbed at the bad publicity the Academy has gotten over this. “They say big changes are coming to membership and voting rules, which should guarantee a wider spectrum of voters, and movies that are being seen for consideration,” explains Snyder. “They now have ten months to figure it out, let’s see if they actually do anything, “This biggest surprise of the night came when the award for Best Supporting Actor went to Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies. During the award season, it is common for actors to promote their work, and to engage in a plethora of interviews with members of the Academy and the media. Yet Rylance, a highly regarded theatre actor who has won two Tony awards, did not advocate in the way that those in the industry have become accustomed to during award season. “Campaigning is, sadly, essential. Because the voters have gotten used to it; and because it’s popular vote,” says Snyder. Many expected the award to go to the sentimental favorite Sylvester Stallone (for his performance as the iconic Rocky Balboa in Creed.)

Rylance also beat out some of the industry’s heaviest hitters: The Revenant’s Tom Hardy, Spotlight’s Mark Ruffalo, and The Big Short Christian Bale. In comparison, Mark Rylance is a bit of an unknown for most moviegoers. Yet he made a tremendous first impression for fans of big-budget studio films, as he emphasized a man’s “complexity and understatement,” as Snyder puts it, in his role of Rudolph Abel. “I cheered when he won, but it’s also highly possible that other actors split the vote in a very contentious field.” Snyder clarifies. “And more options make it easier to get the ‘most’ votes.”

The biggest winner of the night went to Mad Max, specifically their production staff. The summer blockbuster collected six Oscars: for Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Production Design, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, and Costume Design. The film had six months to shoot with a budget of $150 million, relied on using practical effects, and shot in some of the harshest locations in the world. When asked if the fruits of this film’s labor would have any kind of impact on the way studios approach summer blockbusters going forward, Snyder believes it most certainly would. “We are seeing an open revolt against CGI. And it’s being led by, believe it or not, Star Wars. To see the two-year campaign of The Force Awakens, in which they kept reminding fans: ‘we are creating real models, real puppets, shooting on real sets,’” says Snyder. “I heard a Comic-Con audience explode into applause as JJ Abrams was talking about hiring real puppeteers for all the aliens. It’s clear that people want tactile experiences; the opposite of Avatar. The pendulum always swings, and it’s swinging back in the direction of actors and humor and spectacle. From Guardians of the Galaxy to Star Wars on down, I think Hollywood is getting Now that the 2016 movie award season has reached its end, it will only be a matter of time until rumors of next year’s big hits come to a theatre near you. Some of these films have been made with the direct intention of receiving movie awards. As Snyder illustrates, the process of building the hype for these films is a long process. “Movies like The Revenant or Bridge of Spies, which have been in production for years, are released strategically at festivals, and in limited theaters, to build buzz and then crescendo through the awards season. So in those cases, you’re talking about 1-4 years of strategizing.” An alternative to waiting for these films to arrive in theatres come the holiday season is see what films make it the many film festivals taking place in the US and abroad. These are where Cinderella stories get noticed, and perhaps consideration during award season. That is how the films Room and Brooklyn received the attention of both movie lovers and movie studios. Unlike films bred by studios to make a run during award season, these diamonds in the rough are adopted by studios and are given proper resources to help promote the movie upon its’ popularity. Snyder indicated that it is through these summer fests that helps determine how the TCFF schedule gets molded as early reviews of films take come out. He explains that “…as we see which Sundance sales take shape for 2016 releases, and as we eye both the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival for their official selections, it’ll start to take shape!”

The 88th Academy Awards are now in the past, and the Twin Cities Film Fest already has its sights set on what’s next, with the hopes of outdoing themselves once again. With the success of this past season’s lineup, the staff of the Twin Cities Film Fest knows that it has a lot of work to do to meet expectations and measure up to last year’s amazing film selection. They are all ready for the challenge; knowing just how much of a staple these award-contending films are to the festival and more importantly, to its members. “When you come to Twin Cities Film Fest events, you’re more and more likely to be seeing the movies that everyone’s talking about half a year ahead of the buzz. This year was a slam dunk,” acknowledged Snyder.

Steve Snyder’s film criticism has appeared in the pages of Time, People, Artforum, Time Out New York and the New York Sun. In addition to his TCFF duties he is currently editorial director of the education news site The74Million.org.