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AFI Fest 2015: Predicting this year's 'American Sniper'

Margaret here. The full 2015 AFI Fest lineup has been announced and it's full of must-sees, from Oscar-campaign heavyweights and indie up-and-comers alike.

Many of the season's most buzzy films have already made a splash at Cannes, TIFF and NYFF, and a few of those will be screening here, but AFI Fest will also as in years past be holding world premieres for a few late-breaking contenders. With the first end-of-the-film-year nominations out (Gotham Awards, always early but never predictable) many pundits would have you believe the shortlists are already set, but there may yet be a few wild cards in the mix.

Last year AFI Fest gave us the world-premieres of two eventual Best Picture nominees (Selma and American Sniper), a critical darling that nonetheless escaped Oscar's notice (A Most Violent Year), and an all-around non-starter (The Gambler). This year the festival will premiere By the SeaThe Big Short, and Concussion, as well as The 33 (already released in Latin America but not yet widely screened in English-language markets). Naturally we're very curious to see which of these, if any, will make the kind of impression it will take to break into the conversation and stay there.

The Big Short: a (comedic?) drama about the bursting of the housing credit bubble in the 2000s. Directed by Adam McKay; starring Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. Oscar loves when comedic actors get serious. Might similar goodwill extend to a director like Adam McKay, who is most famous for his many absurdist collaborations with Will Ferrell? You'll note that the ensemble cast is chock-full of Oscar nominees with atrocious hairdos-- reminds one of nothing so much as American Hustle, which made a killing on nomination morning 2013.  

By the Sea: a marital drama set at the 1970s French seaside. Written and directed by Angelina Jolie, who is also starring with Brad Pitt. As buzzy as it gets: the world's most famous celebrity couple, acting together for the first time in ten years. Jolie's last directorial effort debuted to very healthy box office and decent reviews-- unspectacular, but more than enough to sustain curiousity for her third film. People seem to really want it to be good, and the below the line team (including The White Ribbon DP Christian Berger and The English Patient composer Gabriel Yared) bring a formidable arsenal of talent to the table. But will a romantic drama that's not also a biopic be able to gain traction with Oscar? 

Concussion: a dramatic thriller about the real-life Dr. Bennet Omalu's research on serious brain damage in professional football players and the NFL's efforts to keep him quiet. Written and directed by Peter Landesman, starring Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Albert Brooks. Primed to be a dramatic comeback for Smith, who used to cross back and forth between blockbusters and prestige films much more often. The true story aspect is often irresistable to awards bodies, and it seems that recent-history stories about the investigation of shady dealings by powerful people is a popular theme among this year's Oscar hopefuls (see also TruthSpotlightThe Big Short). But since the trailer dropped, Smith's accent has been the object of many a snide comment-- will we be able to take him and the movie seriously? There are also rumors that pressure from the NFL shaped some of the storytelling, which if true could impact the movie's bite and credibility.

The 33: a true-life drama based on the 2010 Chilean mining catastrophe that trapped 33 miners underground for over two months. Directed by Patricia Riggen, starring Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, Lou Diamond Phillips. Not only does it have the true-story advantage, but the subject is an objectively impressive and cinematic human achievement. Binoche and Banderas also both have decades of critical goodwill. The response from critics in Latin America (where it has already opened) suggests that it's something of a broad melodrama, which might not win it die-hard fans among cinephiles but certainly puts it in good company with many Best Picture nominees in years past.

Which of these has the potential to go full American Sniper and sneak into 5-7 nominations? Which do you predict will go the way of The Gambler? And perhaps most importantly: which movies on the AFI Fest slate are you dying to hear more about? Nathaniel, Anne Marie, Kieran and myself will be attending and sharing our thoughts.

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Reader Comments (18)

By The Sea will hopefully surprise everyone.

October 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMARK

Kind of hoping they all go the way of The Gambler...
Ok, fine, Antonio can stick around a little longer. But your trailer is the pits.

October 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

The Big Short looks great! I am meh on the rest so will probably never see any of them though I'm sure some of the actors will be doing good work.

October 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

Ah, The Big Short: The only women in the trailer seem to be strippers.

October 24, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercash

In order of curiosity:
1) By the Sea - Angelina is certainly pushing herself as a director and I'm happy to see her try something on a smaller scale after Unbroken
2) The 33, which looks like a guilty pleasure excuse for a good cry. Plus Binoche!
3) The Big Short
4) Concussion, for which the only draw card for me is Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

In a year with Carol, Brooklyn, Suffragette, The Danish Girl and Truth, not to mention the other strong Best Actress contenders, wouldn't it be typical if a male ensemble film like The Big Short swept in and got more nominations than all the female-centred pics?

October 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G


October 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

But will a romantic drama that's not also [The English Patient] be able to gain traction with Oscar?


October 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I say The Big Short goes the Selma/American Sniper route.

By the Sea will get one tech nomination and maybe a surprise nod for Jole.

Concussion could also pull a Best Actor nod for Smith, but I don't see much else.

I see The 33 being The Gambler this time around.

October 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

"By the Sea" looks very arty and yeah we want to see beautiful people suffer....

October 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Kind of on topic: Steve Jobs has officially flopped.

October 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Inherent Vice brought me to AFI last year. This year nothing comes close to the excitement level I had then for the latest PTA release.

October 24, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Apparently TO THE SEA has been rated R18+ in Australia, which is the equivalent of NC17 so I am officially intrigued. As for the rest? Don't know, don't care.

October 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Really excited for By the Sea. I hope it has a lot of bite like A Single Man meets Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

The Big Short on the other hand is just obnoxious. The housing bubble crashed our economy and millions of people lost their homes and savings overnight. I don't see how making a movie about white guys who always knew what was happening and making money off it while everyone around them went down in flames is entertaining for people? It's this kind of tone-deafness that rich people in Hollywood can never divorce themselves from.

October 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRahul

Given how overdue is Antonio Banderas (at least, for those who remember how great he can be, specially in Almodovar films, latest example being "The Skin I live in"), I'd like him to finally get the nom, for "The 33", even thought I think the right chance for him would be as supporting, even in cathegory fraud. Iwant that movie to be good, but I'm afraid from the trailer, it's not going to be as intelligent and deep as Bayona's "The Impossible", and just go the feel-good way.

Adam McKay, well, I loved "Talladega Nights" and thought that film deserved at least noms for Original Screenplay and Supporting Actor for Sacha Baron Cohen. I normally dig his films. "The Big Short" features a nice cast but it's too obvious that some role could have been played by McKay regular Will Ferrell and the switch to "Academy Award nominee" underlines the Oscar ambitions of the production...

From the trailer, "Concussion" looked like a surefire bet for Will Smith to earn his next Oscar nom. On Best Picture, that's another matter. I'd say Smith can sneak in, the film, with only 5 noms, has a snowball's in hell chances.

The one that looks kind-of-possible, is Jolie's "By the sea", if any good-to-great. Jolie will be campaigning it, as she's looking for some respect beyond the acting career.

For Best Picture, I'd say the order to surprise is...

1) By the sea
2) The Big Short
3) The 33
4) Concussion

October 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

I saw The 33 a couple months ago. It's not spectacular, but it's pretty solid. It's a melodrama for sure, but there's a lot of lightness in it, too. I actually weirdly think The Martian is a good comparison in terms of tone and structure. It was nice to see that many recognizable Latino actors (also Juliette Binoche) get the kind of parts they wouldn't ordinarily get.

I could see it doing well with The Globes.

October 26, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterwill h

I literally can't with the sausage fest that is The Big Short. Ew

October 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJim

None of the above.

October 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

Anyone attending happen to have any extra tickets for By the Sea??

Who am I kidding right? Seemingly impossible to come by, crossing my fingers for the rush line!

November 4, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter917nick

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