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Oscar Front Runners Come to Virginia

November 5, 2018


It’s fitting that the 2018 Virginia Film Festival closed with The Front Runner, the Gary Hart biopic starring Hugh Jackman. Unlike in the past, when the fest mostly offered dark horses that came up short in the Oscar race (e.g. last year’s Downsizing and Hostiles), the VFF served up a number of leading Academy Awards contenders.

The opening-night attraction, Green Book, seems destined to earn Best Actor nods for Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. They’re note-perfect as Dr. Don Shirley, an African-American pianist, and Tony Lip, his Italian-American driver on a concert tour through the Deep South in 1962. It’s Driving Miss Daisy in reverse, and while it’s not the most sophisticated take on race in America, it’s hugely entertaining and could go a long way in the Best Picture category.  Peter Farrelly, best known for making lowbrow comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber with his brother Bobby, might win a spot in the Best Director ranks, although he’s less likely to take home the statuette than two other filmmakers whose new work was shown at VAFF.

One is Yorgos Lanthimos, whose period comedy The Favourite I reviewed favorably when it played at the New York Film Festival. The other is Roma, whose true star is director Alfonso Cuarón. The autobiographical drama is drawn on his memories of growing up in Mexico City in the early ’70s and being raised by a nanny (played here by Yalitza Aparicio, a lock for a Best Actress nom). Shot in gorgeous black-and-white and deliberately paced, it’s a film that grows on you gradually and builds to a powerful impact. It faces some challenges commercially — including the fact that it’s a foreign-language film and will open only in limited theaters before streaming on Netflix — but it figures to be a major player on Oscar night.

So, too, will be Willem Dafoe, whose performance as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate could bring him the Oscar he deserved last year for The Florida Project. Artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel’s film can be like watching paint dry at times, but Dafoe’s work is indelible. It even earned unmitigated praise from Christoph Waltz, who sat for a typically prickly but fascinating Q&A with Rain Man and Breaking Bad producer Mark Johnson, a UVA grad and the chairman of VAFF’s advisory board. Waltz amusingly refused to answer questions about what it felt like to win two Oscars, what it was like working with Quentin Tarantino on  Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, and why he’s so good at playing charming but evil villains.

VAFF also screened a number of high-quality documentaries, including Charlottesville, a devastating examination of the deadly violence that broke out during the alt-right’s rally in August 2017. It was all the more disturbing to view only blocks away from the location where the anti-white supremacist protestor Heather Heyer was killed. An enlightening look at the cultural forces that led to this tragedy was provided by Divide and Conquer: The Roger Ailes Story, Alexis Bloom’s film about the rise and fall of Fox News Channel founder Roger Ailes. He emerges as compelling and complicated of a character as I’ve seen in any scripted film this year.

I wasn’t able to stay long enough to see The Front Runner or If Beale Street Could Talk, director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight. But I left the 2018 Virginia Film Festival excited for next year’s Academy Awards — and VAFF.

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