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Andrew Garfield and Will Smith Brought Best Actor Race Into Focus at AFI Fest

"King Richard" and "Tick, Tick ¡­ Boom!" screen at AFI, just ahead of their openings on HBO Max and Netflix.

Tick Tick Boom King Richard Oscar
King Richard: Warner Bros.; Tick, Tick...Boom: Macall Play/Netflix
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So have we seen everything yet?

AFI Fest, which just wrapped in Los Angeles, is the final prominent film festival to unveil a handful of awards hopefuls.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” from Netflix, premiered to strong reviews and plenty of Oscar buzz. As part of a banner year for Miranda that includes involvement in three other projects — “Encanto,” “In the Heights” and “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” — Miranda successfully stages a movie adaptation of a lesser-known, autobiographical musical from “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson. The film will most likely earn a second lead actor Oscar nomination for Andrew Garfield (after “Hacksaw Ridge”) for playing Larson, in a role that requires quite a bit of singing.

In fact, Garfield may emerge as a formidable challenger to Will Smith for “King Richard,” where he plays Richard Williams, the father of tennis champs Venus and Serena. The drama closed out the festival on Sunday at the TCL Chinese Theatre, holding on to its Oscars front-runner status.

“King Richard’s” journey began at the Telluride Film Festival, and Warner Bros. has kept the pedal to the floor, with many AMPAS and guild screenings occurring over the past few weeks. Smith has appeared in person at many of these events along with co-star Aunjanue Ellis. Smith, who also is a producer, could become the second Black man to be nominated for acting and producing in the same year, following his competitor Denzel Washington, who achieved the feat for “Fences” (2016) — and is expected to return to the Oscars with Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”

Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” has made a stop at nearly every in-person festival this season, and it continued to AFI Fest with its sprawling cast and artisans in tow. Can the top Netflix feature maintain that momentum before it makes its bow on the streaming platform on Dec. 1?

Apple Original Films debuted “Swan Song” from Benjamin Cleary. Mahershala Ali plays a man who learns he has a terminal illness and decides to swap himself out with an identical clone to still be present with his family. Ali reunites with his “Moonlight” co-star Naomie Harris, and the two are hoping for a late break in the awards season in two stacked categories.

“Bruised,” which is directed by and stars Halle Berry, was finally revealed. Its “work-in-progress” cut was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2020 before Netflix picked it up. Can Berry direct herself to an Oscar nomination? No female actor has pulled this off — not even Barbra Streisand with “Yentl” (1983) or “The Prince of Tides” (1991).

Documentary features are in full force ahead of the Oscars shortlist-voting period, which is set to begin on Dec. 10. Sony Pictures Classics has two worthy entries in the fray, both coming from women director duos. Julie Cohen and Betsy West take a comprehensive look at the life and career of Julia Child in “Julia,” while Emily and Sarah Kunstler take on America’s original sin through the eyes of lawyer and lecturer Jeffery Robinson in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.”

The season now moves forward with early precursor awards, which kick off with the Gotham Awards on Nov. 29, followed by National Board of Review nominations the next day.

On Friday, Nov. 19, “King Richard” will open in theaters and stream on HBO Max while “Tick, Tick … Boom!” is already in theaters and will stream on Netflix.

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