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Which Films Will Dominate the Oscars? Critic Pete Hammond Weighs In

"Hidden Figures" poster
© Twentieth Century Fox

Out of this year's nine Academy Awards best picture nominees, four were screened during the 2016 KCET Cinema Series. "There are many others that I wasn't able to show at the Cinema Series, just because of scheduling or the time that they came out, for whatever other reasons we were booked," says Pete Hammond, host of KCET Cinema Series, by phone. Hammond is also Deadline's awards columnist, so he has an innate ability to pick up on those future Oscar contenders. It's not an exact science, though. "It's always a crapshoot with these things," he says. 

Although Hammond wasn't surprised by the films that made the Oscar nomination cut this year, there was one omission that disappointed him. That was "Eye in the Sky," the drone strike drama that opened the 2016 spring session of the Cinema Series at ArcLight Sherman Oaks. Directed by Gavin Hood, the film featured an ensemble cast led by past Oscar winner Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman, who died in early 2016. "Eye in the Sky" reached the second spot on Hammond's end-of-the-year list for Deadline. "I thought that was a terrific movie, bringing up really interesting moral issues. Great acting. Great direction from Gavin Hood," says Hammond. "I know it's difficult for movies that come out that early to keep the momentum going, but I hoped that one would be in there and I think that was a miss by the Academy."

But, sometimes, those movies released in spring or summer go far. That's the case for bank heist drama "Hell or High Water," which screened as part of the Cinema Series' summer season at Santa Monica's Aero Theatre. Hammond first caught the film at Cannes. "Nobody was really seriously thinking [the film] could go all the way to a best picture nomination," Hammond says. But it has. The film has also earned nominations for Jeff Bridges in the best supporting actor category, Taylor Sheridan for best original screenplay and Jake Roberts for best film editing.

"Hell or High Water." Photo: Lorey Sebastian
Photo: Lorey Sebastian

With "Hell or High Water," Hammond was taken by how the film took an old genre and gave it a new spin with commentary on life in 21st century America. "It seemed like it was hitting the zeitgeist for me," he says of the film, about two brothers who decide to rob banks so that they can save the family property. "It had its finger on a lot of hot-button issues going on and the way that people look at their lives, kind of like the disgruntled voter out there that feels they've been left behind. And then there's this whole exciting plot of these guys robbing the banks to pay back the banks, so that they can keep their property. It seemed like a lot of the themes resonated and a lot of the dialogue was very, very sharp."

Hammond points to another summer flick that made it all the way to the Oscar nominations, "Captain Fantastic," which screened for the Cinema Series audience in June. Star Viggo Mortensen was nominated for a best actor award.

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For the KCET Cinema Series, Hammond seeks out the films that he thinks will play well to the audience. "I don't pick things based on genre or anything like that," he says. "I don't like to pick the same thing over and over, so we try to do a mix of things." And that often translates into films that also play well for Academy members. "The movies that appeal to the Academy are mostly movies aimed for smart, adult audiences and that's what we have at KCET," he says. "You're dealing with a pool of films that are going to be nominated. They're also going to appeal to our screening series group. This is not like we're showing comic book movies and some of these blockbuster films that are made to make a buck and are popular with the masses."

That selection process extends to foreign language films and documentaries as well. Last September, the Cinema Series audience had the chance to see Swedish hit "A Man Called Ove," based on the best-selling novel of the same name. That's up for an award in the best foreign film category, as well as best make-up. "I'll try to do a foreign language movie if I can find a good one where somebody is in town," Hammond says. This was the case for "A Man Called Ove," as director Hannes Holm was in Los Angeles and attended the Cinema Series for a Q&A session, which followed the screening of the film. Hammond says the movie is now "a real prospect" to take home an Academy Award. 

"Life, Animated." | Image: Courtesy The Orchard/A&E IndieFilms
Image: Courtesy of The Orchard/A&E IndieFilms

In June, the Cinema Series screened "Life, Animated," a documentary about a young autistic man who learned to communicate with the help of Disney films. "That's a lovely movie. That's a film that I thought would appeal to our group, definitely, and it did for sure," Hammond says. "That wound up in a very hotly-contested documentary feature category."

There are times when Hammond knows instantly that a film will be a hit, like with "Florence Foster Jenkins." Based on the true tale of an unlikely opera sensation, the movie earned two Oscar nominations, including one for its star Meryl Streep. Hammond points out that Simon Helberg, who was the guest for the Cinema Series screening, was also nominated for a best supporting actor award at the Golden Globes. "I looked at that movie and thought that would have great appeal to our group, which skews a little older in the demos," says Hammond. "I can see a movie like that and know immediately, 'this is going to be great.'"

Dev Patel and Priyanka Bose in the film "Lion." 1200.
© The Weinstein Company

That happened a lot this year with films like "Lion," where Oscar nominee Dev Patel plays an Australian man who uses Google maps to find the family in India that he lost as a child. That was also the case for "Hidden Figures," based on the story of African-American women whose calculations helped get the United States into space. 

In some cases, the guests at the Cinema Series go on to be Oscar nominees. "Loving," based on the real case of an interracial couple whose fight for legal marriage went to the Supreme Court, opened the fall season of the film series. Ruth Negga, now nominated for a best actress award, was there. The winter season closed with "20th Century Women" and an appearance from writer/director Mike Mills. He's nominated for best original screenplay. 

Pete Hammond, Jeff Nichols, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton at the KCET Cinema Series screening for "Loving." 1200.
Pete Hammond, Jeff Nichols, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton at the KCET Cinema Series screening for "Loving."

And there's one movie that Hammond thinks could clean up at this year's Academy Awards. That's "La La Land," which screened at the 2016 winter series and featured guests Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz. Chazelle is nominated for best director, while Hurwitz is nominated for best composer and best original song.

"I think it's an original movie, but with its feet firmly planted in the great tradition of Hollywood musicals," says Hammond. "I expect that to perhaps even break some records at the Academy. It has already tied the record for nominations. Doesn't surprise me in the least."

Hammond adds, "I think it's a film that's right in line of past Academy best pictures in recent years that have also been sort of about themselves — 'Birdman' and 'The Artist,' even 'Argo' to a little bit of that. It seems right in line with that, so I think that's the movie that's going to dominate."

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