Months after the fall film festivals kicked off an awards season now marked by controversy, the road ends for most campaigns today. Academy voters cast their ballots to select the nominated films, performances, and craft achievements they deem represent the strongest cinematic works of 2018. Favorites emerged and some collected their prizes at precursor ceremonies. Journalists and industry insiders attended screenings, receptions, and panels. Some talked to journalists and pundits in anticipation of the morning when those inching towards the golden statuette hear their names. On January 22, a new group of artists will be thrust into the spotlight as Oscar nominees. Not all those that deserve to hear their names will. Few contenders, however, have survived a more arduous rodeo than Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider,” an astounding and miraculous drama based on a true story about a cowboy overcoming a grave injury.
Zhao shot her second feature at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She met her star, Brady Jandreau, on the land off I-90 outside of Rapid City. His real life experience served as the basis for the director’s fictionalized account. Jandreau, his immediate family, and his friends play versions of themselves on screen for a heartbreaking ode to perseverance.
An awards season underdog, “The Rider” premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It went on to play at TIFF that year as well. Distributor Sony Pictures Classics, one of the successful art-house labels in the industry, chose not to rush it into contention that season and instead scheduled its theatrical release for April 13, 2018.
Still, late in 2017, the affect modern western received 5 Independent Spirit Awards nominations. This included Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Cinematography nominations. In January 2018, the filmmaker would returns to the Sundance Film Festival, where her debut “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” premiered, to show “The Rider” as part of the Spotlight section. A month later at the Spirits ceremony, she won the Bonnie Award, which honors a mid-career woman director.
Upon its commercial release last year, “The Rider” garnered critical acclaimed and instantly jumped to the forefront as one of the best movies of 2018. At the box-office, it grossed a respectable $2.4 million for Sony Classics. For a meditative gem that boasts no stars, it is a triumph. Following promotion for the film’s theatrical run, Zhao embarked on her new project. Her Bass Reeves biopic went into production for Amazon Studios.
A new crop of exciting narratives by the world’s masters were unveiled at Cannes, Telluride, Venice, NYFF, and AFI Fest. They started their own journeys, many of which will conclude this afternoon. Yet even a long list of masterpieces, couldn’t completely overpower the enduring spell Chloé Zhao cast with melancholic Badlands stunner.
Nearly three years after it was shot and almost two since it first premiered in France, “The Rider, reemerged. It became a regular fixture in year-end lists and an awards competitor vying for attention in 2018-2019 season. Overshadowed by more prominent and recent pictures more freshly remembered by voters, the film struggled to be showered with all the love it merits. Yet some savvy groups have not failed to recognize it.
Early in the fall, the Gotham Awards named it the Best Feature of the 2018. Just last week the National Society of Film Critics named it the Best Picture of the Year. Additionally, the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) nominated DP Joshua James Richards for Spotlight Award for his contributions. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA) championed Zhao’s accomplishment with the New Generation Award.
With Zhao in production, Sony Classics’ campaign relied on key events and FYC ads in major publications. They also found success by keeping the movie playing in at least one LA-area theater for numerous consecutive weeks. Considering the director’s schedule and the intimate nature of the “The Rider,” there is no doubt that the best possible foot has been forward.
In spite of the undeniable technical and emotional feat of “The Rider,” Chloé Zhao, her small team, and her cast may still be left out when the Academy announces its nominations next Tuesday. That would be an absolute shame and further testament to the subjectivity of awards. The uneven playing field creates a bubble where only a few films have a serious chance at Oscar glory.
Whatever happens—whether a vindicating twist grants it at least a Best Cinematography nod, or the film is totally ignored—“The Rider” will remain unmovable as an artistic high-point in American independent cinema. If the Oscars want to get on board with that, it would be a grand gesture of validation for their taste and a great opportunity for more audience members to become aware of its wonders.