The road to the Oscars begins with ‘First Man’ and ‘A Star Is Born’

OCTOBER 27 — Traditionally the Oscar season begins somewhere in December or late November, as the studios slowly begin the rollout of their Oscar hopefuls in cinemas and make their push in the trade papers and media. 

As to why December, the general assumption is Academy voters won’t remember stuff released earlier in the year. This is often proven when the list of nominees comes out every single year and very rarely will a film released in the first half of the year get even a look in.

The last big Oscar contenders that were released in the early parts of the year in recent memory were Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and that’s about it. 

Everything else more or less came out in the expected late November, December and beyond window. But something different is brewing this year. 

We’ve not even finished October yet and already two films poised to make some kind of mark in the upcoming awards season campaign have played in cinemas in Malaysia. Yes, you read that right, in Malaysian cinemas!!

We can probably thank the Venice Film Festival, which premiered both films, for this early start to the awards season. The festival has quietly been making its mark by shaping the Oscar race in the last few years, with films like La La Land, The Shape of Water, Birdman, Gravity, Spotlight and Hacksaw Ridge all given spots at the prestigious festival, and all of them then going on to receive multiple Oscar nominations and even Best Picture wins.

In fact, come to think of it, the festival has even managed to take the shine off of festivals like Toronto and Telluride, previously a sure-fire launching pad for studios with their Oscar hopefuls. 

And with their premiere of First Man (which opened this year’s festival) and the much talked about A Star Is Born, it looks like the road to the Oscars is increasingly beginning at Venice. Let’s see how these two films fare, shall we?

A Star Is Born

Bradley Cooper’s feature film directing debut has got plenty of buzz surrounding it even months before its release, thanks to it being another remake of a story told so many times already in Hollywood history, with the last version starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. 

But what really got everyone excited about this one is its casting of Lady Gaga, and in Cooper’s decision to strip away Gaga’s trademark make-up and outfits. 

So even if this feels like a cover of a very familiar but beloved song, the very fact that we get to see a completely different side of Gaga is enough to pull the crowd in. 

And just like some cover versions, a completely honest and earnest rendition is sometimes more than enough to make the listeners sit up, take notice, and just enjoy the song for what it is and what it has always been.

And that’s exactly what Cooper achieved with this grandly tragic Hollywood romance, about two singers, one on the up and the other crashing down, who fall in love with each other because of their talent. 

Gaga is simply sensational as the newcomer Ally, bringing a natural and magnetic presence to the role, and I foresee a Best Actress nomination coming for her at next year’s Oscars, and probably one for Cooper too for Best Actor. 

Will it bag nominations in the big categories like Best Picture or Best Director? I don’t think so, because for all the undeniable magic of the film’s first half, thanks to the ferocious honesty of the acting, the film’s second half still contains a lot of wobbles, which will not help its case.

First Man

After the big, grand gestures of La La Land, director Damien Chazelle returns to the much smaller and intense territory of Whiplash with his latest film First Man

As the title implies, this film is about the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong. And as the title also implies, it is truly, truly about that first man, and only about that first man.

Chazelle achieves this feat by virtually putting us inside the head of Armstrong almost throughout the film, whether from the way the film evokes memories of a personal tragedy that haunts him throughout his life (and therefore the film) or the hugely immersive experience that the viewer feels during crucial events like rocket launches, training modules and even plane rides.

It’s really impressive how doggedly “small” Chazelle’s focus is during these crucial moments. Where most films would be pulling out wide to reveal the scale of the production (often to reveal the gravity of the situation), Chazelle would just go in really close, usually giving the audience Armstrong’s point of view, and let the sound design and usually swirling and blurry visuals (and therefore, our imagination), do all the work. 

It’s a really personal film, and Ryan Gosling’s reserved and aching performance does it full justice. My only gripe might be that since the outcome of this historic mission is so well known, there’s not much drama and suspense once the mission to the moon kicks off, but then again, that’s clearly not the point of the movie. 

The point of the movie is to show how laborious it was to get to the moon, and to show it in the most intimate of manner, and it succeeds brilliantly at doing that. 

Not only does the road to the moon start here, but the road to the Oscars as well.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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