New Oscar date gives Academy Screenings different feel
For 13 years, Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings program has been the beneficiary of perfect timing, between holidays and the Academy Award presentations, and an equally ideal location.
With the Oscar ceremony entrenched in late March or early April, distributors got in the habit of releasing their prestige films at the tail end of the year, in New York and Los Angeles, to make them award-eligible. A few weeks later, hopefully with good reviews in their sails, the films were put in wide release, and Academy Award campaigns cranked up.
Thus, when Aspen Filmfest presented its Academy Screenings for the hordes of holiday tourists – presumably a good many Academy voters among them – there was a sense of bragging rights. Few of the films had been seen outside New York and Los Angeles. So Academy Screenings attendees had the pleasure of seeing a couple dozen films, almost all brand new, almost all of them hand-picked for their Oscar-worthiness, in a two-week flurry, at the height of the season.
Then last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences threw a wrench into the gears. Deciding there was too much of a lag between the end of the year and the awards show, allowing other awards to steal some thunder from Oscar and leading to endless, bloated Oscar campaigns, the Academy moved its timetable up a month. Distributors in turn altered their release schedules, putting a good number of their awards hopefuls into theaters in September and October.
Aspen Filmfest has thus had to rethink its approach to the Academy Screenings, which enters its 15th edition later this month.
“This year, we’re feeling it,” Aspen Filmfest Executive Director Laura Thielen said of the adjustment in distribution schedules. “A lot of films that would be released in December are now being released in August or September or October.”
Thielen mentioned “Capote” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” both likely Oscar contenders released in early fall, and the well-reviewed “A History of Violence,” as obvious examples.
This year’s slate of 21 films, announced Wednesday, gives the Academy Screenings a somewhat different feel. There are four foreign films, all of them the official submissions from their respective countries for the Best Foreign Language Film award. There are a pair of documentaries. And most notably, there are a handful of films that have already made the rounds at the multiplex.
Thielen also noted that a surprising number of the films are by first-time directors.
“Usually at this time of year,” she said, “you’re seeing director/star combinations: Anthony Minghella and Jude Law [from ‘Cold Mountain’], or Rob Marshall and Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger [from ‘Chicago’]. We’re not seeing that this year, and I think it’s because there’s an interest in new blood.”
Thielen added that the combination of fresh talent, lesser-known films, foreign fare and documentaries gives the program the feel of a festival and not just a series of highly plugged films.
Which is not to say that this year’s series, set for Dec. 19-Jan. 1, lacks big names. On screen, moviegoers will see Johnny Depp, Anthony Hopkins, Colin Farrell, Laura Linney, Heath Ledger and Judi Dench. The films come from such directors as Terrence Malick, Rob Marshall, Lasse Hallström, James Ivory and Neil Jordan. That might be impressive, until compared to last year’s star power, fueled by Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Alexander Payne, Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, Liam Neeson, Pedro Almodovar, Bill Murray, Wes Anderson and Kate Winslet.
Among the films Aspen audiences will get to see ahead of most of the world are “The New World,” “The Matador,” “Hoodwinked,” “Fateless” and “Tsotsi.”
“The New World,” Malick’s telling of the colonial American story of Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas, shows in Aspen on Dec. 26, before its wider release in mid-January. “The Matador,” starring Pierce Brosnan as an assassin suffering a midlife crisis, shows here Dec. 21 and gets a limited release Dec. 23. “Hoodwinked,” an animated reimagining of Little Red Riding Hood, is set for Dec. 23 in Aspen and a general release Christmas Day. “Fateless,” a Hungarian drama of Jews in Hungary during World War II, and “Tsotsi,” a South African crime drama that earned the top Audience Award at festivals in Toronto and Edinburgh, both show in the Academy Screenings months before their February release dates.
Films showing in the series that are set for release in late December include “The Libertine,” starring Johnny Depp as a debauched 17th-century earl and poet; “The White Countess,” a drama set in 1930s Shanghai directed by James Ivory and starring Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Lynn Redgrave and Vanessa Redgrave; and “Transamerica,” starring Aspen product Felicity Huffman as a preoperative transsexual on a road trip with the son she recently discovered.
Also scheduled are “The World’s Fastest Indian,” starring Anthony Hopkins as motorcyclist Burt Munro in his attempt to break a land-speed record; “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins; and “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” the directorial debut of Tommy Lee Jones.
Documentaries in the series, both released earlier in the year, are “Murderball,” about wheelchair rugby athletes; and “Rize,” photographer David LaChapelle’s film about Los Angeles street dancers. Additional foreign titles are the French film “Joyeux Noël” and the Palestinian drama “Paradise Now.”
Films released earlier in the year and being shown at the Academy Screenings are the divorce drama “The Squid and the Whale”; the Southern family drama “Junebug”; and “Crash,” Paul Haggis’ exploration of racism in contemporary Los Angeles. Director Neil Jordan’s “Breakfast on Pluto,” about an Irish transvestite cabaret singer; “Casanova,” starring Heath Ledger as the legendary Italian romantic; and director Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” adapted from the Arthur Golden novel, are all scheduled for early December release.
Tickets for Academy Screenings go on sale Dec. 12 at the Wheeler Opera House box office. Full details of the Academy Screenings program are available at http://www.aspenfilm.org.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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