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Can 'La La Land,' 'Loving' and other films turn festival buzz into a best picture Oscar?

By GLENN WHIPP | Los Angeles Times | Published: September 8, 2016

“The Revenant” came close last year. And who knows? Maybe Denzel Washington’s “Fences” or Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” will be the exception this year.

But you have to go back more than a decade to Martin Scorsese’s crime drama “The Departed” to find the last best picture Oscar winner that didn’t play at Cannes or one of the three fall film festivals - Telluride, Venice and Toronto - currently upon us.

Which means this year’s best picture Oscar will likely go to one of the movies listed below, all with fall-winter releases after their festival showings. Here’s how they stack up as we head into this crucial early juncture of the awards season.

AMERICAN PASTORAL

Story: Golden-boy businessman (Ewan McGregor) sees his perfect life destroyed when his daughter (Dakota Fanning) joins a radical protest against Vietnam.

Pedigree: Philip Roth’s novel won the Pulitzer. Many regard it as his finest book, which, by extension, means it’s one of the best novels ever written.

Best case: Early mixed buzz proves erroneous; McGregor aces his directorial debut.

Worst case: Novel’s depth doesn’t translate to the screen, continuing lamentable streak of disastrous Roth adaptations. Portnoy isn’t the only one complaining.

ARRIVAL

Story: Amy Adams talks to the aliens.

Pedigree: Prestige sci-fi pic boasts a fine director (Denis Villeneuve), an academy favorite (Adams), an Oscar winner (Forest Whitaker) and past nominee (Jeremy Renner).

Best case: Reviews propel genre movie to the same orbit of recent best pic nominees “The Martian” and “Gravity.”

Worst case: Reviews propel genre movie to the same awards orbit as self-serious “Interstellar.”

THE BIRTH OF A NATION

Story: Enslaved preacher Nat Turner (Nate Parker) leads a slave rebellion in 1831.

Pedigree: Sundance sensation sold for a record $17.5 million in January.

Best case: Festival screenings turn the conversation away from the rape accusations in Parker’s past and back to the politically charged content of his movie.

Worst case: The controversy surrounding Parker buries any serious discussion of the film.

BLEED FOR THIS

Story: Boxer Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), a.k.a. “The Pasmanian Devil,” refuses to retire after a car accident leaves him with a broken neck.

Pedigree: Open Road Films won last year’s best pic with “Spotlight” and is pinning this year’s hopes on this inspirational sports biopic.

Best case: The movie and Teller’s blistering, passionate performance connects with the same voters who loved “The Blind Side.”

Worst case: Pazienza’s comeback story - though true - feels a bit too familiar for voters to respond enthusiastically.

ELLE

Story: French businesswoman (Isabelle Huppert) has a rather unconventional response to her rape in filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s latest provocation.

Pedigree: Huppert owns 15 Cesar nominations. Time for a long-overdue first Oscar nod?

Best case: Strong reviews and an avalanche of sexual politics think-pieces pushes academy to consider Huppert for recognition she should have received for “The Piano Teacher.”

Worst case: Voters don’t dig Verhoeven’s spin on the rape-revenge genre. Too French. Too transgressive. Too Verhoeven-y.

HIDDEN FIGURES

Story: Unheralded African American math geniuses help NASA launch astronaut John Glenn into space in 1962.

Pedigree: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae play the math whizzes. Spencer has an Oscar. Henson has Oscar and Emmy nominations. Monae owns several Grammy nominations. What? Were no Tony nominees available too?

Best case: The scenes screened from this unfinished film at Toronto create enough buzz to persuade Fox to give it an Oscar-qualifying run in December.

Worst case: It’s more of a crowd-pleaser than an awards magnet.

LA LA LAND

Story: Struggling actress (Emma Stone) and true-blue jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) sing, dance and try to keep their dreams alive as they fall in love in Los Angeles.

Pedigree: Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s 2014 debut, “Whiplash,” won three Oscars. Stone and Gosling both have noms on their resumes.

Best case: Mix of old Hollywood glamour and modern filmmaking has voters whistling a merry tune.

Worst case: More adorbs than awards-worthy for voters who like their Oscar fare darker and drearier.

LOVING

Story: Interracial couple Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) sue the state of Virginia in 1964 for the right to be married.

Pedigree: Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ movies - “Take Shelter” and “Mud” among them - have won numerous indie and critics prizes.

Best case: Restrained historical drama wins hearts and minds of voters inclined to reward inspirational, social justice movies. Negga becomes a breakout star.

Worst case: Understated approach lacks the emotional fireworks many need when considering Oscar-worthy acting turns.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Story: A taciturn handyman (Casey Affleck) returns home after his brother’s death, becoming the legal guardian of his teenage nephew. A tragedy in his past complicates matters.

Pedigree: Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s directorial debut, “You Can Count on Me,” earned Oscar noms for screenplay and supporting actress Laura Linney.

Best case: The best-reviewed movie from this year’s Sundance festival continues to earn rousing acclaim. Affleck burnishes his case for a second Oscar nomination.

Worst case: Can the movie maintain its festival buzz until its Nov. 18 release?

A MONSTER CALLS

Story: A fearsome creature (voiced by Liam Neeson) helps a young boy (Lewis MacDougall) cope with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) worsening health.

Pedigree: Writer-director J.A. Bayona’s last movie, “The Impossible,” earned a lead actress Oscar nom for Naomi Watts.

Best case: Beautifully realized fantasy adventure surprises open-minded voters with its emotional wallop. Sigourney Weaver, playing the boy’s grandmother, gains traction for supporting turn.

Worst case: Hard-to-categorize movie translates into voters failing to place it in any categories.

MOONLIGHT

Story: An African American man struggles to find his identity in a story told over three defining chapters of his life.

Pedigree: Financed by both A24 and Plan B Entertainment, companies with a proven track record for fostering unique storytelling.

Best case: Critics and festival-goers love nothing more than discovering great new talent. Remember the excitement surrounding “Room” last year? This equals it.

Worst case: Reviews good but not great. More Indie Spirit than Oscar. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Story: Art gallery owner (Amy Adams) is disturbed by her ex-husband’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) novel, a violent, revenge thriller she interprets as a threat.

Pedigree: Writer-director Tom Ford’s 2009 debut film, “A Single Man,” earned Oscar noms for Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. Focus paid $20 million for the movie last year at Cannes. They must have seen something, right?

Best case: Literary pedigree, ace cast and auteur director elevate pulpy material into festival sensation. Between this and “Arrival,” everyone’s enchanted with Adams all over again.

Worst case: Seven years between films creates expectations greater than Ford’s finished product.

QUEEN OF KATWE

Story: Young Ugandan chess prodigy (Madina Nalwanga) overcomes poverty and lack of education in her quest to become a champion.

Pedigree: Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o plays the girl’s strong mother; David Oyelowo portrays her committed coach.

Best case: Mira Nair’s feel-good, true-life Disney movie earns good festival reviews, leading to a healthy commercial run and putting it squarely in awards voters’ minds.

Worst case: Sweet movie gets lost amid higher-profile titles.

A UNITED KINGDOM

Story: Prince Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the throne of Botswana, marries a London office worker (Rosamund Pike), causing a diplomatic headache among South Africa, the United Kingdom and his home country.

Pedigree: Pike earned an Oscar nom for “Gone Girl.” Oyelowo earned everything but an Oscar nom for “Selma.”

Best case: Movie finds an enthusiastic U.S. distributor at Toronto, one willing to give it a strong commercial and awards push.

Worst case: Film leaves Toronto with its U.S. release still uncertain.

VOYAGE OF TIME: LIFE’S JOURNEY

Story: The history of the universe, as chronicled by filmmaker Terrence Malick.

Pedigree: Malick has been working - or, at least, pondering - on this project since the 1970s.

Best case: Lots of magic-hour shots of the evolution of Earth’s landscapes. Trees, sky and water as you’ve never seen them before - provided you’ve never seen one of Malick’s other movies.

Worst case: It’s “The Tree of Life” without the plot and characters but with little else to offer.

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© 2016 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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