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Oscar’s Embrace of Young Artists Gives Hope for the Future

Variety logo Variety 2/6/2017 Geoff Berkshire
© Provided by Variety

Every year the Oscar nominations provide an opportunity to take the pulse of the movie industry. Which films, performances, and craftwork connected with Hollywood this year? Which studios are committed to quality projects? Who commands the respect of their peers? And who are the faces to watch?

There’s a particularly exciting answer to the last question this year. The 89th Oscar nominees provide something we’re all looking for right now: hope for the future.

An astonishing number of younger artists and/or first-time nominees are on the ballot, and while Oscar nominations are no guarantee of ongoing success in the industry, the numbers this year are still overwhelming enough to give moviegoers reason to believe we’ll be seeing great work from these contenders for years to come.

A large part of that excitement comes from two films: “La La Land,” the year’s most nominated movie with 14 noms, and “Moonlight,” which follows right behind with eight (tied with “Arrival”).

Having just turned 32, “La La” director Damien Chazelle is poised to become the youngest ever winner of Oscar’s director prize. (Although he’s not the youngest nominee: John Singleton retains that honor, having cracked the category at age 24 in 1992 for “Boyz N the Hood.”) Whatever the outcome, the youthful energy of Chazelle’s film has struck a chord with voters and audiences — it’s already topped $200 million worldwide, making it the highest grossing of this year’s best picture nominees. And “La La” also provides further confirmation that stars Emma Stone, 28, and Ryan Gosling, 36 — both on their second Oscar nominations this year — are among the brightest talents of their generation.

Similarly, “Moonlight,” which ranks as the best-reviewed movie of 2016, according to Metacritic, is full of impressive talent to watch. It’s only the second film from 37-year-old writer-director Barry Jenkins, a double nominee this year, and features an ensemble cast led by three intriguing newcomers (Trevante Rhodes, 26; Ashton Sanders, 20; and Alex R. Hibbert, 12; play the main character, Chiron, at three stages of his life).

Even the film’s more established talent — André Holland and Oscar nominees Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris — should benefit from increased awareness and appreciation in the industry. Enterprising filmmakers should already be thinking about how to make each one of them the center of their own movie.

Meanwhile, few musicians turned actors have ever experienced the kind of year Janelle Monáe has had, co-starring in both “Moonlight” and another best picture nominee, “Hidden Figures.” The 31-year-old breakout had never acted on film before that one-two punch, but now will surely be in high demand after proving her range in two pictures both nominated for SAG’s ensemble cast award. “Figures” went home with the trophy.

Don’t dismiss the chance to see these young performers working at peak levels as a reflection of Hollywood’s obsession with youth. Instead, consider it an encouraging sign for the next generation of artists capable of keeping Hollywood’s creative legacy alive and well.

After all, acting icons Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”) and Denzel Washington (“Fences”), both nominees again this year, were only 29 and 33, respectively, when they landed their first noms.

And it’s also worth noting that breakthrough performances can come at any age. Lucas Hedges, 20, may be the year’s youngest acting nominee, for “Manchester by the Sea,” but 63-year-old legend Isabelle Huppert is winning over just as many new fans with her sensational turn in “Elle” — a role that feels like no one else could possibly play, and one that maximizes all the experience and skill she’s gained over decades in the movie industry.

Film lovers can’t wait to see what Huppert does next, but it’s also thrilling to consider the long roads ahead for first-time nominees Dev Patel (“Lion”), Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”), and Ruth Negga (“Loving”) — who are all under age 36. We’ve watched their peers Natalie Portman (“Jackie”) and Michelle Williams (“Manchester by the Sea”) transform from child actors to Oscar veterans (Portman has one win so far from three nominations and Williams is on her fourth nom), and expect to see both at many more Oscar ceremonies to come.

Part of the annual thrill of the Oscars is seeing newcomers join the club. That’s one reason the discussion about a diverse and plugged-in membership is so important, making the Academy more inclusive can only help to reflect the experiences and interests of moviegoers around the world.

Two below-the-line categories in particular stand out for highlighting new faces this year. The original score category welcomes 29-year-old Mica Levi (“Jackie”), an acclaimed musician landing a nom for her second film score, and 36-year-old Nicholas Britell (“Moonlight”), who brings textures and techniques to his work unlike anything previously recognized by the Academy.

They’re joined by Justin Hurwitz, a friend and colleague of Chazelle’s since college who composed scores for both “La La” and “Whiplash” and is also nominated for two original “La La” songs, and the team of Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka, all rookie nominees as well. That makes Thomas Newman — on his 14th nomination still without a win — the lone veteran in a category historically not entirely welcoming of newcomers.

A similar dynamic is at work in the cinematography race where second-time nominee Rodrigo Prieto (“Silence”) is the only one in this year’s line-up with a previous Oscar nom. His competitors — Bradford Young (“Arrival), Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”), Greig Fraser (“Lion”), and James Laxton (“Moonlight”) — are all at various ages and levels of experience, but all five of these ace lensers are sure to provide us with ravishing imagery for years to come.

The future looks bright in other categories as well. German filmmaker Maren Ade recently turned 40 and scored an international breakthrough with “Toni Erdmann,” a top contender for this year’s foreign-language film prize.

There’s a history of the foreign-language category spotlighting talent that returns to the Oscar race. Witness the nominations this year for the directors of a pair of 2011 nominees: “Dogtooth” helmer Yorgos Lanthimos’ original screenplay, “The Lobster,” and “Incendies” helmer Denis Villeneuve earning his first directing nomination for “Arrival.”

Meanwhile, the documentary category continues to thrive on promising talent. And for the first time in Oscar history it’s dominated by filmmakers of color. Ava DuVernay (“13th”), Ezra Edelman (“O.J.: Made in America”), and Roger Ross Williams (“Life, Animated”) are all under the age of 45 and balance both narrative and nonfiction projects. Haitian director Raoul Peck (“I Am Not Your Negro”) and Italian director Gianfranco Rosi (“Fire at Sea”), born and raised in Eritrea, add an international twist to the competition.

The purpose of the Oscars, ultimately, is to honor the work most-admired by the industry each year. And inevitably both beloved veterans and scrappy newcomers will find their way into the race.

Moviegoers have much to celebrate on both counts, but for those with an eye on the future the sheer volume of promising young talent in the 2017 nominations provides reason to be optimistic about where we’re heading. And don’t we need that more than ever?

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