Notes On The Season: Netflix’s ‘Trial Of The Chicago 7’ Gets Awards Buzz For Aaron Sorkin And Cast; NYFF Launches New Oscar Shot For Bill Murray?

A column chronicling events and conversations on the awards circuit.

No sooner had the Emmys ended with a disappointing night Sunday for Netflix after a record-breaking 160 nominations (and 21 wins), the streamer is turning its sights bigly to Oscar season. If the launch of their series of daily new Netflix Screening Room entries with Aaron Sorkin’s triumphant The Trial of the Chicago 7 is any indication of what it has in store, then Netflix is going to have a much better night at the Oscars come Sunday, April 25. This could be its year.

Neflix actually has the most impressive lineup of films for this season, better than any other distributor (at least on paper), and just in sheer volume it promises to overwhelm the competition. This is especially apparent as other expected films with big awards ambitions seem to be falling by the wayside, as witnessed just today with the move of Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated remake of West Side Story a full year, from December 2020 to December 10, 2021 (now ironically in the same fall period where the original Oscar-winning film version will have opened exactly 60 years earlier). It may sound crude to say it, but if there is a bright side to this pandemic Netflix has found it with its model of stay-at-home, theatrical-quality movies becoming the norm for an awards season that seems tailor-made for the entertainment experience they have been selling.

You can say Netflix’s Oscar push started in June with the debut of Spike Lee’s terrific Da 5 Bloods, and earlier this month with Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Then there are such upcoming awards-friendly-sounding titles as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman; David Fincher’s Mank starring Gary Oldman; Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy with (Oscar overdue to say the least) Amy Adams and Glenn Close; George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky; Ryan Murphy’s star-laden musical The Prom; Venice Best Actress winner Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn in new pickup Pieces of a Woman; and as I exclusively reported Tuesday a November 13 date just set for a worldwide launch of the return of Sophia Loren in The Life Ahead.

These are just some of the titles it has, a bounty that is probably the big reason for the innovative launch this week of its own virtual Netflix Screening Room, which is aiming for targeted industry and media advance viewings of movies like last night’s Trial of the Chicago 7. That is being followed by Murphy’s The Boys in the Band adaptation tonight, Sundance favorite The 40 Year Old Version tomorrow, His House on Friday and a doubleheader of animated hopeful Over the Moon and documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead on Saturday. After a delayed start, last night’s 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET screening went off technically without a hitch followed by a 45-minute Q&A which is a feature of the way Netflix is using this new service — one that has a communal kind of special feel to it in the virtual screening era as they are set for a specific time for everyone, not the usual 48-hour (or more or less) window most screeners come with these days accompanied by your watermarked name obscuring part of the picture for most of them.

Although Netflix has seen increasing Oscar-season success in the past few seasons with multiple nominations going to titles like Roma, The Irishman, Marriage Story and The Two Popes, the goal of major category wins has been on a slower trajectory. But there have been inroads, like Laura Dern’s supporting actress win last year and Alfonso Cuarón’s director victory the year before. Best Picture could be in its sights this year, particularly if the studios continue running scared due to COVID-19 and its unpredictable path.

Of course the movies have to deliver, and though reviews are embargoed until Thursday, I can tell you Trial of the Chicago 7 is a first-rate dramatization of that infamous landmark courtroom confrontation with the group accused of inciting riots and violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. This is a film about that turbulent year that is timed perfectly for this turbulent year. The parallels are extraordinary and sad, to say the least.  While reviews are embargoed, Netflix encourages Oscar buzz, so let me say unequivocally this is a distinct possibility for nominations in Best Picture, Screenplay and Director for Sorkin, as well as its amazing ensemble for SAG Cast, and a host of possible individual Oscar nods for Frank Langella’s evil judge, Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden, Sacha Baron Cohen’s best film work as Abbie Hoffman, newly minted Emmy winner Jeremy Strong’s Jerry Rubin, another newly minted Emmy winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Bobby Seale, and Mark Rylance nailing it as defense lawyer William Kuntsler. Daniel Pemberton’s score and Celeste-sung end-credits song are strong, as is the sharp editing and cinematography.

Of course it is an especially long road to nominations on March 15, 2021, and the political mood of the Academy might be demonstrably different at that point depending on how things go this election year. But right now I would say the time is ripe and this is a movie that must be seen. Perhaps more important in whatever Oscar ambitions there are, Sorkin said of the 15-year journey he has taken to get this to the screen finally came to fruition when Spielberg (whose DreamWorks is behind the film) felt that with the election of Trump four years ago the moment had come for this. He’s right. If it can help make a difference at the ballot box where it really counts when it begins streaming October 16, then that would be more than enough.

All this screening action from Netflix  is competing , however inadvertently , with the up and running virtual/live hybrid of the New York Film Festival now thru the middle of next month. Festivals has been jonesing for many of these Netflix titles but the streamer has steadfastly determined to stay off the fest circuit completely this season , and with the creation of things like their new virtual screening room , and eventual (hopefully) reopening of the Egyptian in Hollywood and Paris in New York  are clearly doing their own thing to bang the drums not so slowly. But don’t count out the fests which are making do with the likes of Searchlight’s Nomadland , Amazon’s One Night In Miami, the stirring Mexican film New Order and others including a big get last night for the NYFF World Premiere of Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks, a dazzling comedic ode to New York that has her Oscar nominated Lost In Translation star Bill Murray teamed with a wonderful Rashida Jones  for what I said in my Deadline review last night is the “comedy of the year”.

Awards-wise this one could really step up for a24 and Apple with numerous Golden Globe nominations in their Comedy/Musical categories, and for my money  — and with the right campaign — a Best Supporting Actor Oscar shot (where I hear the distributor may be headed in its thinking)  for Murray who has a role he was born for as the Playboy charmer of a father who teams up with his daughter to stalk her husband who may – or may not – be fooling around with a work colleague.  Murray , who in my opinion should have won that Oscar for their first collaboration in 2003 (Sean Penn instead picked up his first Oscar for Mystic River)  , just owns this movie from the moment he hits the screen to the moment the leaves.  It  could be that rare comic turn that grabs to hearts and minds of Academy voters.  It seems , at this point , one that may be as irresistible as the light hearted but oh-so-accomplished comedy that Coppola has cooked up. She deserves another crack by the way for her Original Screenplay, and may well find herself in that race again just as she did when she won for Lost In Translation. 

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