Which film will take home the Best Picture trophy at the 89th annual Academy Awards? Will it be a musical about young artists falling in love in Los Angeles? A period epic by one of the world's greatest directors? A drama about a man grappling with the death of his brother? A coming-of-age story about growing up black and gay in modern day Florida? Or something else entirely? Movie buffs will get their first hint of what's to come when the 2016 awards season officially kicks off this Monday night with the Gotham Independent Film Awards.
Although most pundits agree that La La Land, Silence, Manchester By The Sea, and Moonlight will likely be among the films vying for the top prize at this year's Oscars, only two of those four forerunners — the latter pair — will be competing at the Gotham Awards. That's because this awards body honors only the best in indie films, those movies made outside of the major Hollywood studio circuit. That automatically puts Martin Scorsese's Silence out of the running; and although La La Land exists in a somewhat murky zone between designations, rumor has it that the film's (relatively) large $30,000 budget took it out of the running for the Gothams, which generally favor much smaller fare.
In the absence of all the big studio fare that will be up for contention when the Oscar nominations are announced in January, Manchester and Moonlight are instead facing off against a roster of acclaimed low-budget films: Certain Women, an anthology film about several women in Montana starring Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Laura Dern; Everybody Wants Some!!, the latest effort from Boyhood director Richard Linklater about a 1980s college baseball team; and Paterson, in which Girls actor Adam Driver plays a struggling poet.
The Best Actor categories are equally eclectic, and not just because of the absence of Oscar frontrunners like La La Land's Emma Stone and Fences' Denzel Washington; but also because the Gothams only have one category for both Lead and Supporting performances, which means that headlining stars are going toe-to-toe with quirky minor players. For Actor, Manchester's Casey Affleck is joined by fellow Oscar contender Joel Edgerton (Loving), as well as Paterson's Driver, Morris From America's Craig Robinson, and Hell Or High Water's Jeff Bridges. And for Actress, a trio of major Oscar players — 20th Century Women's Annette Bening, Loving's Ruth Negga, and Jackie's Natalie Portman — are nominated alongside Love & Friendship's Kate Beckinsale and Elle's Isabelle Huppert.
If you're worried about the absence of acting nominations for the cast of Moonlight — including Oscar frontrunners Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris — don't be. The film itself is being honored by the Gothams with a prestigious Special Jury Award for Ensemble Performance, which specifically names Ali and Harris alongside their co-stars including André Holland, Janelle Monáe, and Trevante Rhodes; consequently, Ali and Harris were not eligible for individual nominations. More concerning is the fact that Michelle Williams didn't get a nod for Manchester (or for her other Best Picture nominee, Certain Women, for that matter). Long considered a shoo-in for a Supporting Actress nom at the Oscars ever since Manchester premiered at Sundance last January, her stumble here is a bit mystifying.
Speaking of, how much of an impact do the Gotham Awards typically have on the Oscars, anyway? Honestly, not too much — although that could very well be changing as independent films become a bigger force to be reckoned with at the Academy Awards. In the 12 years that the Gothams have been handing out a Best Picture prize, their winner has only lined up with the Oscars three times; another four times the prize has gone to an Oscar Best Picture nominee, while five times the top Gotham Award has gone to a movie that wasn't even nominated by the Academy. However, it's important to note that of those three times the winners have lined up, two of them were the past two years in a row: Spotlight last year and Birdman the year before that. (The third and final winner in common was 2009's The Hurt Locker.)
Does this recent confluence between the Gothams and the Oscars signal a shift in the Academy towards more independent fare? We'll have to wait and see what happens this year; like they say, once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence, and three times would make a pattern. So even if Manchester or Moonlight were to take home the top prize at the Gothams this Monday, that obviously doesn't mean they'll automatically win Best Picture in February. But if neither of them manage to win the Gotham, then that would perhaps put a hiccup in their momentum heading into Oscar voting this winter.
Then again, just because the Gothams snub you doesn't mean you can't come from behind to win the Academy Award. Just last year, the Gotham was one of the very few precursor awards that Room star Brie Larson didn't win in her full-speed charge towards the Best Actress trophy at the Oscars. (The Gothams gave it to The Diary Of A Teenage Girl's Bel Powley instead; then again, they had just given Best Actress to Brie Larson two years before for Short Term 12, which perhaps explains their reticence to honor her again so soon.) While there's no direct correlation between the Gothams and the Oscars, what happens Monday night should give us at least some indication of whether Manchester or Moonlight has a stronger chance going into the Academy Awards… or whether they both might end up falling to mightier studio fare.
Either way, the Gotham Awards are exciting just because they signal that the fierce and unpredictable 2016 awards season has officially begun. You can tune into the ceremony live online when it airs at 8:00 p.m. ET Monday night.
Images: A24; Roadside Attractions; Fox Searchlight Pictures; Open Road Films