Academy Screenings highlight Oscar contenders | AspenTimes.com

Academy Screenings highlight Oscar contenders

Stewart Oksenhorn

Peter O'Toole stars with Jodie Whittaker in the romantic comedy "Venus," showing at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings later this month. (Courtesy Nicola Dove)

Everywhere, the holiday season is a time of family, friends, food and festivities. And in Aspen, you can add films to that list.

Aspen Film’s annual Academy Screenings takes a bundle of the year’s Oscar hopefuls and presents them to film lovers in Aspen for the holidays. The series is gift-wrapped for easy use: Between one and three films per day are presented at Harris Concert Hall. Each film has one screening, and in most years the showings don’t overlap, so the truly dedicated moviegoer can see every film. (This extra-abundant year features 26 films, which has caused not only some overlap, but also pushes a few screenings to the Wheeler Opera House.)

The Academy Screenings, in their 16th season, are based on the idea that lots of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters are in Aspen in late December (probably true) and these voters are motivated to see the films they will be voting for and against (let’s hope). In any event, the series is open to all, which gives the Aspen moviegoer bragging rights over most film fans. Each year, several of the films don’t open nationally until a few weeks into the new year.

This year’s Academy Screenings are set for Dec. 18 through Jan. 1. Tickets go on sale Friday, Dec. 8, at the Wheeler Opera House. A complete program is available at http://www.aspenfilm.org. Here’s what audiences will have a peek at:

The biggest question of the Oscar season is: Will Peter O’Toole, a seven-time nominee, finally earn a best actor statuette? The Academy appears to have dismissed the possibility, and thus gave him an honorary award in 2003. But the 74-year-old Irishman is a strong contender for his work in “Venus” (showing Dec. 31 in Academy Screenings), which stars O’Toole as an aged actor who staves off loneliness by falling for a much younger woman.

Giving O’Toole a run for his Oscar is Forest Whitaker, who stars as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland” (Dec. 28). Whitaker’s splashy performance comes in the story of Amin’s relationship with his Scottish doctor. Also in the race are Jude Law, starring in director Anthony Minghella’s romantic drama “Breaking and Entering”; and Will Smith in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Both play professionals re-evaluating their lives.

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Another British actor in the spotlight is Helen Mirren. Mirren, twice nominated as best supporting actress, stars as Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” director Stephen Frears’ portrait of the royal family in the tumultuous days after Princess Diana’s death. She has already won the Venice Film Festival’s Volpi Cup, for best actress. (“The Queen” shows Dec. 20 in the Academy Screenings. It was screened at Aspen Filmfest in October, and is currently showing in Aspen and Carbondale.)

Mirren’s strongest competition should come from her side of the Atlantic. Penelope Cruz is the leading member of an ensemble cast in Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” (Dec. 26); the ensemble earned the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. And English actor Charlotte Gainsbourg has earned accolades for her work in “Golden Door” (Jan. 1), an Italian film about immigration.

Vying for best picture, alongside “The Queen” and “Volver,” are “Babel” and “Little Children.” “Babel” (Dec. 19), the latest by the Mexican team of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, uses four connected stories to demonstrate the distance between people and societies. “Little Children” (Dec. 28) stars Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly and Jackie Earle Haley in an examination of the lives of several young married couples.

Clint Eastwood, who has been on as Oscar roll – earning a best director award for 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” and a nomination for 2003’s “Mystic River” – takes two shots at adding to his trophy case: “Flags of Our Fathers,” released earlier this fall, returns for another look (Dec. 26, Wheeler). And his “Letters from Iwo Jima” – also a World War II story, but from the Japanese perspective – gets an early showing in Aspen (Dec. 27, Wheeler).

Other notable directors with films in the Academy Screenings: Steven Soderbergh, whose post-World War II mystery “The Good German” (Dec. 27) stars George Clooney and Cate Blanchett; Emilio Estevez, whose “Bobby” (Dec. 26) recreates the day of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy from numerous perspectives; and Luc Besson, whose animated “Arthur and the Invisibles” (Dec. 31) features the voices of Freddie Highmore and Mia Farrow.

Additional films include “Home of the Brave” (Dec. 21), about soldiers returning from Iraq; “The Painted Veil” (Dec. 29), an adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel, starring Edward Norton; “Notes on a Scandal” (Dec. 30), starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett; and the biopic “Miss Potter” (Jan. 1), starring Renee Zellweger as children’s writer Beatrix Potter. Previously released films include “Marie Antoinette” (Dec. 21) and “The Illusionist” (Dec. 22).

Foreign language titles include the French World War II film “Days of Glory” (Dec. 22); the French romantic comedy “Avenue Montaigne” (Dec. 25, Wheeler); Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s action film “Curse of the Golden Flower” (Dec. 27); and the horror film “Pan’s Labyrinth” (Dec. 29) by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro.

The series features two documentaries: “God Grew Tired of Us,” about African refugees in the U.S.; and “Shut Up and Sing,” the Aspen Filmfest Audience Favorite Documentary award winner about the country music group the Dixie Chicks.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.

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