American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave lead Oscar nominations

Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters shocked the film industry when they overlooked Ben Affleck in the best director’s category, this year they outdid themselves, snubbing safe potential contenders such as Emma Thompson, Robert Redford and Tom Hanks in the acting categories and Paul Greengrass in the directing category. Other critics favourite films such Inside Llewyn Davis and Fruitvale Station did not receive much attention either.

Leading the field in the nominations for the 86th Academy Awards were Gravity and American Hustle with 10 nominations each, followed by 12 Years A Slave with 9 nods. The trio will compete for the best picture Oscar with Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Five directors of the aforementioned movies will be vying for the best director award: David O. Russell (American Hustle), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Alexander Payne (Nebraska), Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street). And another selection of five gained nods in the best film editing category: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave.

David O. Russell scored a third nod in the best original screenplay category with Eric Warren. They were joined by Woody Allen for Blue Jasmine, Spike Jonze for Her, Bob Nelson for Nebraska and Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack for Dallas Buyers Club. Meanwhile, the best adapted screenplay competition included Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke for Before Midnight, Billy Ray for Captain Phillips, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for Philomena, John Ridley for 12 Years A Slave and Terence Winter for The Wolf of Wall Street.

Marking her 18th Oscar nomination, Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) will be competing in the best leading actress category against Amy Adams (American Hustle), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (Gravity) and Judi Dench (Philomena). Her co-star in the same movie, Julia Roberts will be facing Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), June Squibb (Nebraska) and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave) in the best supporting actress contest.

Meanwhile, 5 actors received nods in the best actor category: Christian Bale (American Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Golden Globe-winner Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave) and Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club).

While Tom Hanks missed out on a nomination in the best actor category, his Somali co-star Barkhad Abdi was honoured with a nod for the best supporting actor, along with Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club).

The Oscars will handed out at a ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on 2nd March.

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Toronto Film Festival ignites the race to the Oscars

Sandra Bullock stars in Gravity

In the last few years, The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has increasingly become more of a barometer for Oscar contenders than a platform to discover small movies that often rely on festivals to gain some attention. Films are not measured by creative quality or commercial viability anymore but by their Oscar potential – a fact that was not missed, and even encouraged, by Hollywood Studios, who dispatch every executive and publicist in their armouries to form formidable attack lines with the hope that will eventually win them a trophy on the Oscars night next year. They are ubiquitous, feeding the information-hungry press with tidbits about their movies, leading talent from one interview to another, throwing glitzy parties in Toronto’s glamorous venues, where they urge the tipsy guests to believe that their movie is so good, it merits an Oscar.

Unlike the previous years, when one picture rose above the dizzying foray of over 250 movies and ended up winning the industry’s most coveted trophy,  the 38th edition of TIFF had several potential contenders this year, hence academic conversations often led to a passionate argument among fans of different movies. The awards war has indeed begun and it’s going to be ferocious this year.

One of the movies that produced a lot of buzz and ignited heated debate was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which tells the harrowing story of an African-American who has to endure the hardship of slavery for 12 years before he is freed by his white friends. Some audiences were dismayed by the sadistic violence portrayed in the movie, yet others hailed it as a bold depiction of the true hideous nature of the 18th century slavery in the US.

This was not the first time the British director has commanded such attention. A couple of years ago, his film Shame fired up Venice Film Festival, gaining a best actor award for its lead Michael Fassbender, but that fire dimmed quickly and the film eventually lost steam in its Oscar race. Will 12 Years a Slave do better?

A lighter and less controversial film was Ron Howard’s car-racing thriller Rush, which follows two Formula One legends British James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda as they battle each other to win the world championship. The film was universally embraced and admired for its verisimilitude and the performances of its leads, Chris Hemsworth who plays James Hunt and Daniel Bruhl, who looked and sounded like the real Niki Lauda, who flew himself to Toronto in his own airplane from Austria, arriving two hours before the premiere, and attend the screening and the after party. Amazingly, when I left the party at 2 am, the 70 year-old racer was still entertaining the guests. Yet, when I sat to interview him at 8am, he was bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. After the interview, he flew himself back to Austria.

Daniel Bruhl didn’t excel only in portraying the legendary Niki Lauda, he also delivered a riveting performance in the wikileaks drama, The Fifth Estate, in which

Daniel Bruhl stars in Rush and The Fifth Estate

he plays Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who co founded the whistleblower website with Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). The film, which opened the festival didn’t live up to the preceding hype and quickly ceded to other competing high profile movies.

The performance of the year, however, was delivered by Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, in which he plays a real-life Texas electrician Ron Woodroof, who defies conventional medicine and stays alive for 7 years after being diagnosed with HIV in the early eighties, by relying on a banned alternative treatment. McConaughey, who shed 40 pounds for the role, is virtually unrecognisable as he leads us into the fascinating emotional journey of a man who refuses to die.

Away from the hardship of earth, Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi Gravity takes us to the silent loneliness of the heavens, where Sandra Bullock gets stranded in meteor-infested space after her partner George Clooney. Fresh from its dominance at The Venice Film Festival, Gravity continued to awe audiences and critics alike with its stunning visuals.

More high profile movies vying for Oscar attention were star-studded August: Osage County about a dysfunctional family, kidnapping thriller Prisoners, and Jason Reitman’s Labor Day.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs for 11 days, but in reality most stars and industry professionals depart the city after 5 days, because all the big movies are screened in the festival’s early days.  So on my last day,  I went to check out the Palestinian movie, Omar, which had won Un Certain Regard Jury Prize in this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It was a breath of fresh air, because the story, not the stars,  was the centre of attention. Following the screening, I attended the modest after-party, which lacked the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood bashes, but it was filled with movie lovers instead of star spotters.

It was not all doom and gloom for independent movies. In fact, it has been very bright this year with distributors competing over titles and paying handsome fees for their finds. Film mogul, Harvey Weinstein coughed up $7 million for Can a Song Save Your Life? 12 hours after its well-received world premiere. A similar sum was paid by Focus Features for Jason Bateman’s black comedy Bad Words. These deals are double last year’s top Toronto transaction of $3.5 million for The Place Beyond the Pines.

As The Toronto International Film Festival draws its curtains, Hollywood gets ready to march into a new battlefield that will eventually lead the victors to the that golden prize, the Oscar.

Will The Heat boost female roles in Hollywood movies?

Husam Asi with Sandra Bullock

Fox studios’ expectations from their female-cop-buddy comedy, The Heat, were so low that they had initially planned to release it quietly early in the year. Only after seeing the enthusiastic reactions from test screenings did they decide to push its opening to the summer to compete with the major blockbusters.

The box office figures of this week proved them right. The Heat beat a male-buddy actioner White House Down convincingly: $40 to $25 million respectively. Nonetheless, the road to making The Heat was not without challenges, director Paul Feig and the two leading stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy tell me when I sit to talk to them at The Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York.

When Bullock was asked by her producer friend a couple of years ago about the kind of film she wanted to be in, she answered “A two-hander female comedy.” The producer’s reply was “Ok, that doesn’t exist.”

“Well, then let’s get the scripts that have been written for men and haven’t been made, and let’s see if there is a premise that we love, where we can change the names.”

Indeed, such films have been exclusively reserved for male characters in Hollywood, which has invariably eschewed making female-driven blockbuster movies. Every summer, male-led movies, such as The Hangover, Iron Man, Batman, Spider-Man and Superman, fill the big screens of multiplexes around the world. The female characters are usually relegated to the superficial roles of the lead’s love interest, or assistant, or even just an object of desire. Some have blamed this schism of screen gender representation on sexism in Hollywood, but others have insisted that it’s purely about box office performance, which allegedly favours male movies.

In 2011, the phenomenal success of the female-led ensemble comedy, Bridesmaids, which was also directed by Paul Feig, stunned Hollywood and injected a new hope for more female-driven movies. “When we were making Bridesmaids, the whole town was almost in suspension because they were like, we can’t green light anymore movies with women until we find out how this one does, which is ridiculous, cause when The Hangover was coming out, they weren’t saying if it doesn’t work then men can’t be in movies anymore,” Fieg protests, shaking his head.

However, the success of Bridesmaids didn’t yield a plethora of female movies. In fact, a recent study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has revealed that 2012 was the worst year for representation of women, both onscreen and behind the camera. The study’s results will probably do little to change Hollywood, considering that the same year produced the highest domestic box-office tally in history: $10.8 billion. Nonetheless, Bullock, who had almost given up on producing due to the lack of projects with strong women -and preoccupation with producing a baby- is upbeat.

“It’s exciting now what you’re able to do,” the Oscar-winning actress enthuses. “You don’t have to fight as much to find material.” Indeed, her friend came back, after a year of waiting, with a two-hander female buddy cop script, from screenwriter Katie Dippold. One character is an uptight FBI agent (Bullock) and the other is a feisty Boston cop (McCarthy). Both are on a mission to capture a brutal drug dealer. “So I read it and I laughed out loud from beginning to end.”

The studio gave her and the filmmakers a $43 million (a fraction of a blockbuster budget) and 45 days to shoot the movie. So two weeks later, she was in Atlanta at a table reading with Feig and McCarthy, whom she had never met before. “We had to work fast,” Bullock says. “We literally just squeezed our way into a little time slot in Boston and because of that amazing Boston crew and Paul’s unbelievable energy level, the script got made.”

Bullock credits the making of The Heat to the success of Bridesmaids. “I think if it wasn’t for the Bridesmaids and what Kristen Wiig and her partner wrote, you wouldn’t have people wanting to look at Katie Dippold’s script.”

Feig concurs, blaming the term chick flick on perpetuating the demeaning notion that female movies have only one focus: a woman finding a man or falling in a love.

“We are never allowed to show them in a way where it is okay for them to be professionals.” he exclaims. “What I like about The Heat is, there’s never any judgement about ‘oh, you should find a man.’ it’s basically like you are great at your job, but for Sandra, she is trying too hard because she’s in a man’s world, and she’s really trying to be taken seriously. And then Melissa is this headstrong woman who is a loner, because she is dedicated to what she is doing. They are played like human beings and they have vulnerabilities.”

Indeed, neither of the ladies is an object of desire nor a source of attraction, each is a hardened law officers who are focused on the job of cleaning the streets

Husam Asi with director Paul Feig

of drugs and criminals. “You don’t normally get to see women doing that in the film, and why not?” Feig wonders. “That’s how some women do their job in the workplace and others don’t, but I want to see all types of female characters in movies, and we were fed such a steady stream of romantic comedies starring women, which is fine, but I want to see other aspects. I want to see them getting to be tough, but not so tough that they are kind of acting like men. I like that they are strong, professional women, who are great at their jobs and just need a little bit of help on the personal side.”

The question is: why was The Heat not directed by a woman? If you look at the box office charts, you won’t find a single female director in the top 60 highest grossing movies. Is Hollywood to blame for not offering female directors the opportunity to helm blockbusters? The problem is that there are not that many women with such an established record that a studio could trust with budgets of tens of millions of dollars, and the successful ones, such as Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and award-winning Jane Campion, have opted to work on low-budget movies. In fact, according to a Sundance study, female directors are well represented in the independent cinema scene, suggesting that they prefer to work on intimate human stories, which have far more substance than Hollywood blockbusters. Interestingly, the thought of having a female director hasn’t even crossed the minds of Bullock and McCarthy.

“Paul loves women,” says McCarthy, who has previously worked with him on Bridesmaids. “He thinks women are funny and smart. Everyday is a delight on set because he just says why not, why wouldn’t you, what do you think. I can’t ask for anything more from a director than one who is just willing to take any suggestion you have.”

The Heat will undoubtedly enhance the chances of other female-led movies to be made, as Bridesmaids has done, but most likely it won’t achieve gender equality in movies. As long as Hollywood is dominated by male screenwriters and directors, we will continue to be deluged with male-led movies, but evidently this is changing thanks to the emergence of female writers, who have penned hits such as Bridesmaids, Twilight, The Hunger Game and The Heat.

“I do think the landscape is changing,” 48-year-old Bullock enthuses. “I mean, I am over 40 and I’m shocked that I’m offered more than I’ve ever been offered before and I’m not going to question it,” she laughs.