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12 Movies to Know for Oscar Season

Article by: Josh Bradley

 

The Academy Awards are still five months away, and while “Oscar season” doesn’t begin for most people until nominations are announced in January, it begins in September for people with way too much time on their hands. That’s when award season contenders premiere every year at the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto Film Festivals, and we can finally see how they compare to the Sundance releases from January and Cannes releases from May.

“But Josh. Didn’t you make a similar list like this last year? But only half of the movies you named actually went on to be nominated for Best Picture? And in fact three of the movies you called ‘heavy hitters’ collectively netted one single nomination?”

Yes. Now shut up.

Heavy-Hitters That Have Made Their World Debut:

La La Land

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Release Date: December 2, 2016 (limited), December 16 (wide)

Damien Chazelle wrote and directed the absolutely marvelous Whiplash (2014) two years ago, which became the Little Movie That Could at the Academy Awards, walking away with three statues. While that movie took a gritty, borderline-misanthropic look at jazz musicians and the quest for success, La La Land seems to cover those same bases from the lens of a whimsical musical romance. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star.

Way back in January, we published a list of 2016’s Most-Anticipated (non-sequel, prequel, reboot, or comic book adaptation) Movies. La La Land topped *that* list, and the hype has only grown stronger in the intervening nine months.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: As indicated above, people were very eager to see what Chazelle would do after Whiplash, because that movie made it abundantly clear that the 31-year-old Harvard grad is supremely-talented, both on the page and behind the camera. However, that muted eagerness transformed into enthusiastic praise after the movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival a few weeks ago, with many people now whispering “Best Picture frontrunner.” Less than two weeks later, La La Land took home the coveted People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, the winner of which has gone on to a Best Picture nomination seven of the last eight years (including three wins).

Where It Will Compete: It has all the makings of a Best Picture winner. A premiere at the fall festivals (not unlike Spotlight, Birdman, 12 Years A Slave, or Argo), powerful lead performances, an auteur people are excited about, and a story about show business set in Tinseltown (Stone plays a struggling actress and Gosling a struggling musician). Despite being (probably) the most-talked about movie at the fall festivals, I hesitate to call it a frontrunner, but only because my frontrunner pick last year was so off base (God damnit, Steve Jobs…)

Chazelle was nominated for his Whiplash script but was passed over for a Best Director nod. While his La La Land screenplay could repeat Whiplash’s feat, in order to break into the Best Director pool, he’ll have to face off with past winners like Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, Warren Beatty, and Oliver Stone. But if the movie emerges as the Best Picture frontrunner in the coming months, there’s no way Chazelle won’t get a Director nod.

The Best Actress category is shaping up to be the most competitive in years, but if there’s an early favorite, Emma Stone is likely it. The Best Actor category is also a mystery at this point, but for the opposite reason; no one performance has wowed people enough to inspire absolute confidence in its awards prospects. But Gosling’s been nominated twice before, and just like Chazelle in the Director category, if the movie itself begins to clean up everywhere else, Gosling will likely ride its coattails to a nomination.

 

Manchester by the Sea

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan

Release Date: November 18, 2016 (limited), December (wide)

After Triple 9 and Finest Hours earlier this year, Casey Affleck returns to doing what those Affleck boys do best: playing emotionally-jaded, blue collar tough guys from Boston. In this case, Affleck returns home after the death of his brother (the always reliable Kyle Chandler) to find that he’s been named the legal guardian of his now-fatherless teenage nephew. Surprising literally no one, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan originally developed the script with Matt Damon attached to star, but Affleck replaced him due to a scheduling conflict. I have to wonder if the producers’ first thought after Damon dropped out was “What about Ben?” before landing on Casey. Michele Williams also stars as Affleck’s ex-wife.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: It was one of only a select few movies to make a splash at Sundance back in January, though its splash was dwarfed by that of The Birth of a Nation (more on that later). After gestating for eight months, it continued to earn praise at Telluride and Toronto. Plus, the Academy seems to have a soft spot for movies set in Boston (see Spotlight, The Departed, Good Will Hunting, The Town, The Social Network, The Fighter, Mystic River, etc), though that didn’t help Black Mass last year.

Where It Will Compete: A Best Picture nomination seems likely, as the early reviews are positive enough that I’m willing to bet people will cry “snub” if it isn’t recognized. That said, despite Sundance’s well-earned reputation of introducing the world to some great movies, including future Oscar winners, let me list how many movies that have (1) premiered at Sundance and (2) gone on to win Best Picture: 0.

There were already whispers about Casey Affleck’s Best Actor chances back in January, and as mentioned above, no lead actor performance really stood out in the fall festivals (which is good for Affleck’s chances). However, keep in mind that we didn’t get our first look at last year’s winner (‘Nardo DiCaprio in The Revenant) until Christmas, and there are a few performances coming down the pipe yet to be seen, notably two-time winner Denzel Washington in Fences, Andrew Garfield in Silence, and Michael Keaton in The Founder. Casey Affleck currently has one Oscar nomination to his name, a Best Supporting nod for the mostly-overlooked masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).

Michelle Williams, despite not having much screen time, is an apparent lock for a Supporting Actress nomination. She has been quietly thrice-nominated over the past eleven years (quite the run), but is yet to take home the gold. To break through this year, she’ll have to fend off past winners like Helen Mirren (Eye in the Sky), Lupita Nyong’o (Queen of Katwe), and Julianne Moore (Maggie’s Plan). Newcomer Lucas Hedges (who plays Affleck’s nephew) will probably compete for Supporting Actor.

 

Moonlight

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

Release Date: October 21, 2016

Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the simply-titled Moonlight follows a black man (/teenager/boy) over three different periods in his life as he struggles with his closeted sexuality and the cultural expectations of being black. It’s yet another auteur piece (just like the two movies above and the one directly below), this time from newcomer Barry Jenkins.

It’s no secret that People of Color have been underrepresented in Oscar movies the last few years (and in movies in general), which is why I get excited for movies like this. Not because of tokenism or a progressive agenda (because that would be ridiculous), but because I feel there’s a dearth of movies depicting what I’ll call “the black experience.” Race has always been an uncomfortable yet essential topic in America, rising to the forefront of the zeitgeist in the last few years, and yet we have so few movies dissecting what it’s like to be black in modern America, what collective experiences millions of people share but millions of others may know nothing about (for a small screen example, see Atlanta on FX). In the case of Moonlight, I’m personally interested to see how a gay man navigates the black community, which some view to be homophobic and perhaps overly concerned with masculinity.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: To be honest, it kind of just started to. Without a January premiere (like Manchester by the Sea) or an established talent (like Damien Chazelle), this wasn’t talked about much until its September 2 premiere in Telluride. But after Telluride (and Toronto), Moonlight is emerging as perhaps the best-reviewed movie of the fall festivals (based purely on RottenTomatoes and Metacritic, etc). Though, it’s early yet.

And I have to note that the movie is being distributed by A24, a young studio who can seemingly do no wrong. In 2015, they were responsible for three of the very best movies of the year in Room, Ex Machina, and The End of the Tour, and they already have several highly-acclaimed movies under their belts this year as well, including The Lobster, The Witch, and Green Room.

Where It Will Compete: Like Manchester by the Sea, the rave reviews are more than enough to warrant a Best Picture nomination. If it doesn’t get that nod, it might be because of underexposure. Again, this didn’t get on people’s radar until a few weeks ago, and to make matters worse, it lacks A-list star power (though that didn’t stop Slumdog Millionaire (2008)).

Like its relatively unknown writer/director, the movie doesn’t have many familiar faces (the only person I recognized in the trailer was Mahershala Ali, better known to many as Remy Danton in House of Cards). However, those more familiar with the current R&B scene will recognize musician Janelle Monáe, who has been getting particular praise for her film debut as the protagonist’s mother. She may be an early favorite for Best Supporting Actress. The aforementioned Mahershala Ali has early buzz for Best Supporting Actor in his own right.

Jenkins’ direction has also earned its fair share of praise (just look at the gorgeous trailer), but it’ll be hard for a newcomer to sneak into a crowded field of seasoned vets.

 

Loving

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Release Date: November 4, 2016

Are you sick of auteurs yet? Too bad, because now we have accomplished writer/director Jeff Nichols joining the mix. In addition to the mysterious Midnight Special from earlier this year, Nichols brings this historical drama about the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage. Despite centering on events from 50 years ago, it appears to be one of the most zeitgeist-y movies of awards season, given the recent spotlight on racial disparity and the marriage equality Supreme Court decision last June.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: This is only the fifth movie Jeff Nichols has made, but the first four were unique, compelling, and very well-reviewed, establishing Nichols as one of the most promising and consistent auteurs working today. Loving may or may not be his best work yet (hard to say at this point), but it’s certainly the one that looks the most like an Oscar contender on paper: period piece, based on a true story, progressive subject matter, strong lead performances, a respected auteur, etc. It may have gotten a boost by the fact that it was really the only movie to inspire Oscar whispers at the Cannes Film Festival in May (making this the second year in a row for an unusually muted Oscar presence at Cannes, as Carol was the only contender to premiere there in 2015).

Where It Will Compete: While early reports indicate that it’s a rather subdued movie (which might be for the best, as a story like this has potential to tumble into melodrama if it’s too over-the-top), it’s still certainly a Best Picture contender. Joel Edgerton has been mentioned alongside Casey Affleck as a Best Actor lock for the last four months, which is unsurprising given his increasingly impressive body of work (barely missing Supporting Actor nominations for Black Mass and The Great Gatsby). Ruth Negga, mostly known for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is similarly a strong Best Actress contender. Nichols has a shot at Best Director, but as I’ve mentioned before, the Director field is crowded, particularly with heavy-hitters coming out with yet unseen entries.

 

Lion

Directed by: Garth Davis

Release Date: November 25, 2016

Based on the memoir A Long Way Home, this is the true story of Saroo Brierley, who was separated from his family at the age of 5 after getting lost at a train station in India and was subsequently adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty-five years later, he uses Google Earth and obscure memories of his former home in an attempt to locate his mother and brother. Dev Patel stars as Saroo and Nicole Kidman plays his adoptive Australian mother.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: While early reviews from Toronto aren’t universally positive, it’s still an uplifting and sentimental true story helmed by actor who’s already helmed an uplifting and sentimental Best Picture winner in the last ten years. Plus, it’s the Weinsteins, and those guys know how to campaign for Oscars (perhaps to a fault).

Where It Will Compete: It could sneak in with a Best Picture nomination if some of the upcoming heavy-hitters disappoint (which is possible; just ask Joy and The Hateful Eight). Where the movie will really compete is in the acting categories. Some are putting Dev Patel in the Lead category, some are putting him in Supporting, but the Weinsteins will likely wait to see the competition in each category before committing. Expect Oscar-winner (and three-time Golden Globe-winner) Nicole Kidman to compete for Supporting Actress.

 

Arrival

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Release Date: November 11, 2016

Another from our Most-Anticipated of 2016 list, Arrival is an adaptation of Ted Chang’s award-winning short story, Story of Your Life, about a linguist and mathematician making first contact with mysterious alien visitors (invaders?). It’s directed by probably the most exciting director working today, Oscar-nominee Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), and stars five-time nominee Amy Adams and two-time nominee Jeremy Renner.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: An acclaimed short story, an acclaimed director, and two lead actors who are so acclaimed that their respective “List(s) of awards and nominations” both require their own dedicated Wikipedia pages. And while that’s all well and good, it received rave reviews from Venice, rivaling those of La La Land.

Where It Will Compete: There’s been a heady, hard sci-fi, award-contending space movie released each of the last three years: Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian. Expect some debate about whether Arrival or Passengers (pegged for a Christmas release) will be the go-to award-season space movie this year. Arrival seems poised for a Best Picture nomination (following in the footsteps of Gravity and The Martian), and Villeneuve will hopefully get his (overdue) first Best Director nomination.

I’ve complained ad nauseum about Amy Adams’ Oscarlessness despite five (5!!) nominations. Between this and Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (due out November 18), Amy Adams appears to be some serious competition for Emma Stone in the packed Lead Actress category. No word yet on whether Jeremy Renner will be considered in Lead or Supporting Actor, but the two-time nominee should also make waves.

 

The Birth of a Nation

Directed by: Nate Parker

Release Date: October 7, 2016

Already the most-talked about (would be) award season movie, first for good reasons but lately for bad reasons, this Sundance breakout is the true story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia, co-written, co-produced, and directed by lead actor Nate Parker. It received a hugely positive response from Sundance in January, winning the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize after demolishing a Sundance record with its sale to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million (the previous record was only $10 million). It was promoted as a passion project for actor Nate Parker, who worked tirelessly to find funding for the movie after being frustrated at the lack of prestige roles for black actors. As his four filmmaking titles indicate, Nate Parker is the face of this movie as much as Woody Allen was the face of Annie Hall.

Somehow, it took seven months after Nate Parker became the talk of the town before his 1999 rape trial surfaced to the public consciousness (despite being included on Parker’s Wikipedia page, even before the film sold in January). Though he was acquitted, his co-writer (and co-defendant) served time for the alleged rape before having his conviction overturned on appeal. Most distressing of all, the accuser, who was a classmate of Parker’s at Penn State at the time, reportedly ended her own life in 2012. The cloudy details of the case have largely overshadowed the movie itself for the past couple months, and Fox Searchlight has been left scrambling to put out fires, cancelling a planned roadshow tour for Parker to personally screen the movie at churches and college campuses across the country. The fact that the movie itself is entirely about social justice was once viewed as its strength (given the on-going climate surrounding race in America), but now it feels more like cruel irony (given the on-going climate surrounding sexual assaults on college campuses).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t pause here and say unequivocally that there are far more important issues in the world than who does or doesn’t win an Oscar (despite the 4,500 words I’ve written here). This case touches on a lot of sensitive topics, including crucial issues like sexual assault, race, and the court of public opinion, and also less crucial things like the separation of art and artist. But it’s important to remember that this case damaged people’s lives and a woman is dead; the effect that the case may or may not have on the Academy Awards rightfully seems trivial by comparison (because it is trivial). So, while I’m not going to ignore how the case has affected the movie’s award season prospects, I want to explicitly state that this discussion is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Now more than ever, perspective is key.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: For the reasons listed above. Plus, the movie premiered at Sundance just two weeks after last year’s Oscar nominations were announced, and for the second straight year, all 20 acting nominees were white. Even before last year’s Academy Awards took place, The Birth of a Nation was already being held up as the Academy’s opportunity to right ship in 2016.

Where It Will Compete: Indiewire keeps an ever-evolving list of “Front runners”, “Contenders”, and “Long shots” for the major Oscar categories, and they update it continuously throughout the year as movies premiere at Cannes, Venice, Telluride, Toronto, AFI, etc, all the way up to the nomination ceremony in January. Up until August, they listed the movie as a Best Picture front runner and Parker as a front runner for Best Actor and contender for Best Director. Less than two months later, after the rape trial resurfaced (and other anticipated movies premiered, illuminating the competition), they’re now listing it as a “long shot” for Best Picture and Best Actor. Parker’s name dropped off of the list of Best Director contenders entirely.

 

Upcoming Heavy-Hitters Yet to be Seen:

Silence

silence

Directed by: Marty Scorsese

Release Date: 2016

Yet another entry from our Most-Anticipated list (second to only La La Land), this Martin Scorsese historical drama about missionary Jesuit priests in Japan is (allegedly) finally going to hit screens after being in and out of various stages of development for seven years. That is, if Scorsese and Paramount can agree on a run time. Scorsese plans to finish editing the film next month, but the listed 193-minute length (as of this writing) could potentially force Paramount to make last-minute cuts or push it yet again to 2017. Starring Andrew Garfield, Oscar-winner Liam Neeson, and Adam Driver.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: “Directed by Martin Scorsese”

Where It Will Compete: We don’t even have so much as a trailer to judge at this point (or a guarantee that it will premiere before the 2016 cutoff), but on paper – given Scorsese’s track record and the actors involved – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Lead/Supporting Actor(s) are all decent bets.

 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Directed by: Ang Lee

Release Date: November 11, 2016

Based on the novel of the same name, Ang Lee’s war drama follows 19-year-old Billy Lynn, an Army private involved a tense battle in Iraq covered heavily by the media. Hailed as a hero back home, he must battle PTSD and haunting memories as he’s paraded around the country by the Department of Defense on a promotional tour, culminating in an appearance at a halftime show at a Thanksgiving Day football game (hence the title). Newcomer Joe Alwyn plays the title character.

Why It’s Getting Buzz: Ang Lee is one of only a handful of multiple Best Director winners (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi), and his 13 movies to date have been nominated for a staggering 38 Academy Awards (winning 12). Any movie that he directs will be presumed to be an awards contender, especially with a late-fall release date.

Where It Will Compete: Four of Lee’s movies have been nominated for Best Picture (though, none have won, despite his two Best Director wins). Thus, Best Picture and Best Director nominations are distinct possibilities.

 

Rules Don’t Apply

Directed by: Warren Beatty

Release Date: November 23, 2016

An aspiring actress and ambitious young businessman begin to fall for each other shortly after arriving in Hollywood in 1958, but they must fight those feelings due to strict rules against fraternization set in place by their employer, billionaire filmmaker and aviator Howard Hughes. Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, and Warren Beatty star.

Why It’s Getting Buzz: To me, Warren Beatty will always be Clyde Barrow (from Bonnie and Clyde (1967)) and Mr. Annette Bening. However, the guy is also (occasionally) an accomplished and Oscar-winning writer/director. While it’s only his fifth directorial feature, the first four netted Beatty nine total Academy Award nominations (two for Best Picture, two for Best Director, two for Best Actor, and three for Best Screenplay). And that’s not even counting his five additional nominations (for acting, producing, or writing) in movies that he didn’t also direct.

Where It Will Compete: The Academy loves movies endearing to Old Hollywood, and clearly the Academy loves Warren Beatty. On paper, this has the makings of a serious competitor for Best Picture, Best Director, and the acting categories (particularly for Beatty, playing Howard Hawks, in Supporting Actor).

 

Fences

fences

Directed by: Denzel Washington

Release Date: December 16, 2016 (limited), December 25 (wide)

In 1950s Pittsburgh, a former Negro League baseball player toils away as a waste collector trying to support his family and put his past behind him. Adapted from August Wilson’s play of the same name, starring two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington and two-time nominee Viola Davis.

Why It’s Getting Buzz: The play won both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize back in 1987, so it’s clearly great source material. A 2010 Broadway revival, produced by Scott Rudin and starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, won Tony’s for both of its leads. That’s more than enough to get excited for the film adaptation, also produced by Rudin and also starring Washington and Davis (it doesn’t hurt that acclaimed playwright and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tony Kushner wrote an uncredited draft of the script).

Where It Will Compete: If nothing else, Best Actor and Actress nominations seem plausible, if not likely. Denzel Washington has two solid directorial credits under his belt, but nothing particularly Best Picture-worthy, and so a breakthrough in that category (or in the Best Director category) would require Washington to bring his A-game. But if his directing can reach the heights achieved by his acting, his A-game will be scary-good.

 

The Founder

Directed by: John Lee Hancock

Release Date: December 16, 2016 (limited), January 20, 2017 (wide)

The Founder tells the true story of Ray Kroc, a travelling salesman from Illinois who helps Mac and Dick McDonald with their Southern California hamburger restaurant in the 1950s. Kroc manages to take control of the company and helps grow it into the giant conglomerate it is today. Michael Keaton stars, as well as Nick Offerman and Laura Dern.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: Honestly, I think people noted that Michael Keaton played the lead in two consecutive Best Picture winners (Birdman, Spotlight) and checked his schedule to see if he can three-peat in 2016. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s the lead in a Social Network-esque biopic about a controversial American entrepreneur, directed by someone who has already made a Best Picture nominee for which the lead character won an Oscar (Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side). When the Weinsteins moved its release back from August to a more awards-friendly December limited release, the buzz only grew louder.

Where It Will Compete: Again, John Lee Hancock directed The Blind Side, which was nominated for Best Actress, Best Picture, and…nothing else (in hindsight, the Best Picture nomination was really generous). To get a Best Picture nomination here, Hancock will presumably have to deliver his best work yet. Then again, Michael Keaton seems to be the good luck charm, so maybe Hancock can deliver.

Speaking of which, I’m still hoping Keaton can avenge his 2014 Best Actor loss to Eddie Redmayne. Also, look for the perpetually-amazing, two-time nominee Laura Dern to compete for Supporting Actress.

 

Others That May Compete:

Passengers. Jennifer Lawrence is always hard to bet against (with her absurd four Oscar nominations in the last six years), and director Morton Tyldum was nominated two years ago for The Imitation Game. But the presence of Chris Pratt as the male lead makes me think this might be more of a broad blockbuster than Oscar fare (no offense to Mr. Pratt, just judging by his previous work). At this point, I’m envisioning this to go more the route of Interstellar (garnering a few technical nominations) as opposed to Gravity or The Martian (Best Picture and Lead Actor/Actress nominees).

The Jungle Book. One of the best-reviewed movies of the year, this visually inventive Disney hit could go the route of Life of Pi or Gravity, where a nomination in just about every technical category earned each a Best Picture nomination and Best Director win. I would love to see the director of Elf and Cowboys & Aliens win an Academy Award for Best Director.

Sully. I mentioned that Ang Lee is one of only a handful of directors to collect multiple Best Director Oscars; Clint Eastwood is another. And that Tom Hanks guy is pretty good at acting. While I expect Sully to print money at the box office (Eastwood’s earned himself quite the loyal fan base), I wonder if it’s too simple and straightforward for the Academy. Though, that didn’t stop American Sniper, which Eastwood played as down-the-middle as humanly possible, to the point that the movie almost aggressively lacked nuance.

Queen of Katwe. Disney’s uplifting true sports drama about a Ugandan chess player could garner supporting acting nominations for Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave) and Oscar-snub David Oyelowo (Selma).

Jackie and Florence Foster Jenkins. Oscar-winner Natalie Portman received unanimous praise for her turn as Jackie Kennedy when Jackie premiered in Venice. But in addition to Emma Stone, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis, she’ll have to battle Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, which will play very well with the older demographic (overrepresented among Academy voters).

Josh Bradley
Josh Bradley was once literally a rocket scientist, and now splits his time between the Criterion Collection, his YouTube channel, and a blank CeltX document. He has trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Los Angeles and recently learned how to use a coffee maker.

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