Oscar-O-Meter™: The A.V. Club’s 2012 fall prestige-movie guide, part 1

Oscar-O-Meter™: The A.V. Club’s 2012 fall prestige-movie guide, part 1

Forged from the molten fire of Mount Haleakala, calibrated to the thump of a proud eagle’s heart, oiled with the blood of Jeffrey Wells, the Oscar-O-Meter has become the ultimate tool for awards-season prognostication. (Don’t run the numbers on this—the machine mustn’t be questioned.) Every year, the film staff at The A.V. Club hoists the Oscar-O-Meter from a secure vault 100 feet below the earth’s surface, offers up the requisite ritual animal sacrifices, and reports its devastatingly accurate findings in the form of a Fall Movie Preview. Measuring Oscar-osity on a scale of 1 to 10 may sound ridiculously arbitrary, but the machine arrives at a number via a complex matrix of factors, from a film’s level of bloated self-importance and shameless audience-flattery to the amount of weight an actor had to gain or lose to play the leading role to the measure of buzz the film received at the Toronto International Film Festival. In return for this valuable information, The A.V. Club will accept only a small percentage of your Oscar pool winnings. 

Last year, the Oscar-O-Meter predicted that The Artist would “work its way into the Best Picture conversation,” an assertion that no other publication had the stones to make. (Don’t verify this—really, the machine mustn’t be questioned.) Perhaps this year, another scrappy little movie-that-could, like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, will take the top prize. Find out below.

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The Master

Premise: Shot in 65mm, Paul Thomas Anderson’s intimate epic concerns the relationship between a haunted World War II veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) and the charismatic L. Ron Hubbard-like leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a religious cult.

Pedigree: Anderson is coming off three Oscar nominations in major categories (Picture, Screenplay, Director) for There Will Be Blood and a growing consensus that he’s the best filmmaker of his generation. Replace “filmmaker” with “actor” in that last phrase, and Hoffman is in the conversation, too. Someone fake-pooped on Phoenix in his hoax documentary I'm Still Here, but he's playing a more dignified role now.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 8. Worries about references to Scientology in a town full of Scientologists would have been a problem 10 years ago, but between Tom Cruise’s PR problems, various high-profile apostates, and the church’s weakened litigiousness, it’s not much of a problem any more. The deeper problem for The Master is that it’s a difficult film—abrasive, discordant, not easily resolved—but even then, Hoffman and Phoenix’s performances, and a wealth of artistry behind the camera, are not to be denied. 

The view from TIFF: Though Anderson shot the film on a large canvas, he uses the 65mm format to make the performances more vivid rather than to dazzle the eye. (Phoenix’s face is the film’s most startling landscape.) Though parallels to Scientology abound, the religion is more a means to an end, as Anderson explores a complex surrogate father-son relationship and the fragile state of American men in the wake of WWII. 

Trouble With The Curve 

Premise: Clint Eastwood plays an Atlanta Braves scout whose failing senses cause him problems on the job, but also give him a chance to reconnect with his hard-charging lawyer daughter Amy Adams. Together, they become a kind of super-scout while sorting out some problems from their past.

Pedigree: Mixed. Eastwood is an Academy favorite, and this is his first acting role since Gran Torino in 2008. But instead of Eastwood behind the camera, it’s first-time director Robert Lorenz, Eastwood’s producer for the past decade or so, and his assistant director before that.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. Eastwood is terrific in the lead, and he and Adams create a fiery, believably contentious father-daughter relationship. The film also finds meaty supporting roles for Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and others. But…

Advance word: … it’s a little sleepy. Probably too low-key, and too low-stakes for anyone not already won over by Eastwood.  

The week of September 28

Looper

Premise: Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a “looper,” a stylish thug who murders people who have been sent back in time 30 years for disposal by a criminal syndicate. Then one day the guy sent back for disposal is his 30-years-older self (Bruce Willis), who eludes him and runs off to try to alter the past so Willis’ dark, ugly future never comes to pass. The story gets significantly more complicated from there.

Pedigree: Writer-director Rian Johnson is the smart, serious young man who scripted and directed Brick and The Brothers Bloom. Gordon-Levitt is the smart, serious young man who starred in Brick, Inception, 50/50, (500) Days Of Summer, and many more. Willis is the big ol’ lug who starred in Die Hard and a zillion other action films. None of them have ever been up for an Oscar.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 0. Looper is a stylish, smart, exciting action film, but it’s still an action film. About time travel. And explosions.

The view from TIFF: Strongly positive, but in a way that speaks more to individual reviewers’ enthusiasm at something fresh and challenging than a way that suggests prestige-picture respect.

Also in multiplexes: Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky makes the leap to the big screen with the seasonally appropriate Hotel Transylvania, an animated film in which Adam Sandler voices Dracula, a hotel proprietor and overprotective father to a freedom-craving vampire teenager. Back in civilization, Anna Kendrick enters the cutthroat world of collegiate a cappella competitions in Pitch Perfect, and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis try to save a failing school in Won’t Back Down. Will they back down? Spoiler: They won’t.

The week of October 5

The Paperboy

Premise: Based on Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel, Lee Daniels’ follow-up to Precious delves headlong into pulpy genre territory, tracking a reporter (Matthew McConaughey) and his younger brother (Zac Efron) as they try to spring a man (John Cusack) from Florida’s death row. Nicole Kidman plays the femme fatale who gets the ball rolling by falling for the prisoner via mail. 

Pedigree: Even for a project this bananas, Daniels managed to attract A-listers galore—in addition to McConaughey, Efron, Cusack, and Kidman, Macy Gray narrates and acts, and Mariah Carey contributes an original song—because of Precious, his polarizing yet wildly successful Sundance phenomenon. The cast will have a lot to transcend here, though. 

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. Exploitation films—even ones with socially progressive messages—tend not to find traction in awards season, so any attention The Paperboy gets mostly likely will fall to performers like Kidman, who will have to search for a safe-for-work Oscar performance clip, and Carey, who will compete as a pop icon in a category that the Academy scrambles to fill every year. Unfortunately for Efron, they don’t give out awards for being peed upon good-naturedly. 

The view from TIFF: After The Paperboy debuted to widespread derision at Cannes—Mike D’Angelo likened it to John Waters meets Stanley Kramer—it slipped into TIFF without much fanfare, save for a few waves on the red carpet. The Precious backlash should snap at The Paperboy like a locker-room towel, with Daniels’ insertion of racial politics into Dexter’s story only amplifying an already-overheated procedural. 

Wuthering Heights

Premise: Following a tradition of previous adaptations, Andrea Arnold’s impressionistic take on Emily Brontë’s only novel lops off the second half, focusing instead on the star-crossed relationship between Catherine (Kaya Scodelario) and Heathcliff (James Howson), the impoverished young drifter her family takes in. 

Pedigree: Arnold, a British filmmaker with a photographer’s eye, has been steadily gaining recognition in critical circles with films like Fish Tank and Red Road. Otherwise, only the Brontë name remains widely known, given two unknowns in the leading roles and a slew of bit-playing non-actors. 

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 1. One of the refreshing things about Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is how sternly it resists the tradition-of-quality trappings of period adaptations in favor of a raw, windswept, grubby affair with relatively little dialogue and a roving handheld camera. These very elements are also the reason nobody in the Academy will vote for it. 

The view from TIFF: Arnold opens Wuthering Heights with Heathcliff repeatedly smashing his head against the wall, a bloody bit of masochism that sets the tone for her gray-black, relentlessly bleak and intense spin on Brontë’s book. Her version is so stripped-down that it lacks emotional complexity, but it compensates with unvarnished power. 

Also in multiplexes: Tim Burton expands a 1984 live-action short to a feature-length stop-motion film with Frankenweenie, about a boy who resurrects his dead dog, Victor Frankenstein-style. Liam Neeson expands his Taken role as a badass seeking his kidnapped daughter; in Taken 2, kidnappers nab him and his wife while seeking revenge for his many murders in Taken.

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The week of October 12

Argo

Premise: When protestors besiege the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, six Americans slip away and hide in the home of the Canadian ambassador. To rescue them, a CIA agent (Ben Affleck) concocts a far-fetched plan to pose as a film producer shooting a science-fiction epic as a cover to slip them out disguised as his film crew.

Pedigree: Affleck quickly established himself as a first-rate director with his first two films, Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Argo outdoes them in ambition, and by giving himself the lead role, Affleck gets a chance to remind audiences that he didn’t become a movie star by accident, even though he made some unfortunate choices that dimmed that stardom for a while. A supporting cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and others doesn’t hurt.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 9. This is the sort of accomplished, well-crafted but not incredibly challenging film that Oscar loves to reward, and in Affleck, the Academy has found an skilled director nurtured by and brought up through the Hollywood system. Any number of the supporting performances could get nominated, too—though Arkin is the standout—and the current unrest in the Middle East as well as U.S. tension with Iran makes it the timeliest period piece of the fall.

The view from TIFF: Argo snuck in, stole the admiration of those who saw it, then flew off to a brighter tomorrow.

Seven Psychopaths

Premise: Martin McDonagh’s writing and directing follow-up to his cult hit In Bruges stars Colin Farrell as a blocked alcoholic Irish screenwriter named “Martin” who gets some help on his latest screenplay—called Seven Psychopaths—from his crazy actor friend Sam Rockwell and deeply spiritual dognapper Christopher Walken. Postmodern hijinks ensue.

Pedigree: McDonagh won an Oscar for his 2005 short film “Six Shooter,” and received a nomination for his In Bruges screenplay. His stage plays have been nominated for multiple Tonys. At only 42, McDonagh is already widely regarded as one of the smartest (and funniest) writers of his generation, and he’s establishing himself as a very good movie director as well.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 3. McDonagh’s script is a twisty, metafictional delight, and Rockwell and Walken both give hilarious yet soulful performances. But this movie is crazily violent, and likely far too navel-gazing to impress the Academy.

The view from TIFF: Seven Psychopaths can’t consistently maintain its highest highs, but when the movie is on, it’s super-on. McDonagh weaves between fictional realities neatly, sometimes describing in advance what’s about to happen, and sometimes varying the pitch. He’s commenting to some extent on his own past work, but this film isn’t a thesis statement on violence in movies; it’s more about what motivates ruthless killers and artists alike to pick up their weapons.

Smashed 

Premise: After drinking night after night with her music-writer husband (Aaron Paul), a first-grade teacher (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) enters AA and tries to come to terms with her alcoholism. Husband-wife team Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman co-star as principal and vice principal, respectively. 

Pedigree: Very little. Paul won an Emmy for Breaking Bad, but Mullally and Offerman are known primarily as TV comedy specialists, and director James Ponsoldt only has one previous film (Off The Black) under his belt. It’s the subject matter here that’s the real prestige draw, given a long history of “lost weekend” films like Days Of Wine And Roses and Leaving Las Vegas

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 3. It’ll be tough to get a hard-sell indie like Smashed enough attention in the white-elephant stampede of fall awards season, but Winstead has been excellent in supporting roles for a while now, and a performance like this could make her the cause célèbre that young actresses like Michelle Williams and Carey Mulligan once were. 

The view from TIFF: Though Smashed was relaunched at this year’s TIFF, it premièred in competition at Sundance, where Nathan Rabin called it, “a powerful, uncompromising character drama” and likened it to the similarly punishing Blue Valentine

Also in multiplexes: The market uncontrovertibly rejected the low-budget adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s swooning valentine to the moral good of selfishness and laissez-faire capitalism, back when it hit theaters in 2011. Yet in a hilarious twist, the filmmakers soldiered on with Atlas Shrugged Part II all the same, proudly sacrificing their own commercial prospects for the sake of a greater public good. Oh, the irony! Kevin James returns in Here Comes The Boom, an underdog sports comedy whose name promises to be its sole amusing facet, while Sinister is a haunted-house movie about a writer (novelist and filmmaker Ethan Hawke, who has been known to dabble in acting) who moves into a new home with some seriously spooky mojo.

The week of October 19

The Sessions

Premise: A middle-aged poet left paralyzed by childhood polio (John Hawkes) decides it’s finally time to part with his virginity. To that end, he hires an accomplished sex surrogate played by a very naked Helen Hunt to help him enter the exciting world of sex. Naturally, Hawkes falls for his kindly mentor. 

Pedigree: The Sessions is based on the life of artist Mark O’Brien, whose life story has already inspired an Oscar-winning film, in this instance Jessica Yu’s short documentary “Breathing Lessons: The Life And Work Of Mark O’Brien.” Hunt already has an Oscar for As Good As It Gets in addition to various Emmys and Golden Globes for her role on Mad About You, while John Hawkes was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in Winter’s Bone. Oh, and The Sessions won the audience award and a Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at Sundance this year. 

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 9. At this point, it’s not really a matter of whether The Sessions will win Academy Awards, but how many it will win and in which categories. Hawkes, in particular, has a strong shot at winning Best Actor, thanks to a funny, poignant performance in the kind of challenging role that makes awards voters swoon, while Hunt has a strong shot of at least being nominated for her less flashy but still impressive performance. 

The view from TIFF: The Sessions is a heart-tugger and a crowd-pleaser, but its blatant sentimentality and lack of visual style make it seem at times like the world’s most artful, moving disease-of-the-week TV movie. Then again, conventionality and sentimentality aren’t exactly liabilities when it comes to winning Academy Awards.

Also in multiplexes: Tyler Perry’s name isn’t the first that comes to mind when most people think of tense psychological thrillers, but he’s giving the genre a go by starring in Alex Cross, in which he plays the title psychologist hero of James Patterson’s long-running series of books (a role previously played by Morgan Freeman in Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider). The faux-documentary team behind Catfish returns for another round of tedium and terror with Paranormal Activity 4, which is rumored to break with the format of previous entries by including several tightly choreographed musical sequences. (Note: This rumor may not be true.)

The week of October 26

Cloud Atlas

Premise: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, and Ben Whishaw play multiple characters in multiple stories of adventure, romance, and defiance—ranging from the distant past to the far future—in an ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s seemingly unadaptable novel.

Pedigree: The book is a bestseller and an award-winner, and the cast couldn’t get much more prestige-y. But writer-directors Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer—who reportedly divided up the segments of the story and worked on them separately—are better known for delivering blockbuster movies and arthouse hits than collecting end-of-the-year prizes.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. Cloud Atlas seems like a major contender in the technical categories—editing, costuming, and effects in particular—and the stars are perennial Oscar favorites. But the quality of the performances varies wildly from segment to segment, and Tykwer and the Wachowskis’ decision to jumble all of Mitchell’s stories into what amounts to a two-and-a-half-hour montage may baffle Oscar voters.

The view from TIFF: Sure to be the most divisive film of the season, Cloud Atlas is eye-popping and sappy in equal measure. Beyond the simplistic “all you need is love” sentiment, the decision to recycle actors turns out to be a handicap, since none of the cast members is right for all the roles they’re asked to play. But it’d be a mistake to discount how boldly and effectively constructed Cloud Atlas is: The filmmakers keep multiple plates spinning, reaching strong crescendos by cross-cutting action between timelines. And yet this feels very much like one big story, and not just unrelenting randomness.

The Loneliest Planet 

Premise: Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg play an outdoorsy couple, in love and engaged, who embark on a backpacking trip across the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. Then something happens that severely alters the state of their relationship. 

Pedigree: Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También) is the only widely known quantity here, though writer-director Julia Loktev earned her share of acclaim for Day Night Day Night, a portrait of 48 hours in the life of a female suicide bomber en route to Times Square. 

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 0. Not only does The Loneliest Planet have a modest profile (IFC is distributing) and the deliberate pace of a landscape film like Gerry, it also turns on an incident that can’t be discussed upfront for fear of spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it. 

The view from TIFF: Bernal and Furstenberg are both superb at denoting the shifts in their relationship as the big event completely alters their dynamic and teaches them things about themselves and each other. Loktev’s direction is beautiful and perfectly modulated, with an awestruck vision of the terrain and insights into human relationships that are provocative without overt button-pushing.  

Also in multiplexes: Up series director Michael Apted and 8 Mile director Curtis Hanson team up for Chasing Mavericks, a buddy sports movie about two surfers working together to beat a legendary wave site. A high-school girl loses her little brother on Halloween and pursues him around town with her best friend in Fun Size, the directorial debut of O.C./Gossip Girl/Chuck writer Josh Schwartz; the Nickelodeon-backed film looks suspiciously like a gender-swapped version of Superbad, with a little Harold & Kumar thrown in. And Silent Hill: Revelation 3D continues the videogame-to-movie franchise, with still more faceless, creepy-ass things haunting a woman who’s spent her life on the run from her haunting visions.

The week of November 2

A Late Quartet

Premise: Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir co-star as old friends and colleagues who’ve been playing together in the same world-class string quartet for years, but who are finding their collaboration tested by personal problems.

Pedigree: The cast is impressive, given that this is the first fiction feature from director/co-writer Yaron Zilberman, following the well-regarded 2004 documentary Watermarks.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. This one could be a sleeper—the kind of small-scale drama that catches on with voters and squeaks into the acting and writing categories.

The view from TIFF: With so many buzz films and major directors in Toronto this year, A Late Quartet wasn’t as widely seen as some of the other big fall releases, but it received respectful notices from those who caught it, with the performances garnering more praise than the reportedly too-reserved script and direction.

A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story Of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman

Premise: Before he died in 1989, Monty Python writer-performer Graham Chapman recorded himself reading from his 1980 memoir, which describes his start in show business, his struggles with alcoholism, and his embrace of his own homosexuality. Those tapes now provide the foundation for a 3-D animated film, featuring interpretations by a number of different artists.

Pedigree: A Liar’s Autobiography appears to have the Python seal of approval, since John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin all lent their voices to the project—both as “themselves” and as major figures from Chapman’s life.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. The Pythons were never that popular with the Academy, and though the animated-feature category often finds space for a from-left-field project like this…

The view from TIFF:A Liar’s Autobiography isn’t very good. Some of the animation is unusual enough—especially in 3-D—to merit at least a nod of admiration, and some of Chapman’s anecdotes are funny and touching. But the structure of this film is confusingly jumbled, and many of the sequences are just dire, coming off as bad Python sketches marred even further by an off-putting air of pretension.

This Must Be The Place

Premise: In Paulo Sorrentino’s English-language follow-up to the Italian sensation Il Divo, Sean Penn slaps on pancake makeup to play a sheltered, androgynous rock star in Robert Smith mold. After trying (and failing)  at a deathbed reconciliation with his father, Penn seeks redemption by trying to track down the Nazi officer who tormented his dad at Auschwitz. 

Pedigree: Though only those schooled in Italian politics could make sense of Il Divo, Sorrentino’s spectacularly kinetic style won him many fans, including Penn, who pitched the director on a collaboration. In addition to Penn, a multiple Oscar winner and fervent Jude Law defender, This Must Be The Place also enlists the services of Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, and David Byrne, whose classic Talking Heads song inspired the title. 

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. Sorrentino is a huge talent, and Penn and McDormand have three Oscars between them, but take a look at that premise again. It’s bananas. And the trailer, with Penn shuffling around in a squeaky, singsong voice doesn’t provide much in the way of gravitas. 

Advance word: This Must Be The Place premièred at the Cannes Film Festival way back in May of 2011, where critics responded with rapture or ridicule, and little in between. Writing from Cannes, The A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo approved: “There’s something radically optimistic about the way that This Must Be The Place, in keeping with its title, stubbornly refuses to close itself off to anything, so that each newly introduced character or situation—in many cases, each individual shot—seems to be the reason the movie was made.”

Also in multiplexes: Robert Zemeckis takes a brief break from dicking around with motion-capture technology with the Denzel Washington-starring aviation drama Flight, the director’s first live-action movie since 2000. As a producer, composer, and actor, RZA has long been obsessed with films, especially martial-arts movies; he realizes a dream by directing, co-writing, and starring in The Man With The Iron Fists, an Eli Roth-produced action extravaganza co-starring Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, and Pam Grier. Videogames get the Toy Story treatment in Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, a promising kid’s film about an old-school videogame villain (voiced by John C. Reilly) who longs to change sides and be a good guy.

Our fall-movie preview concludes tomorrow, with the rest of November and December, featuring new films from Steven Spielberg, David O. Russell, Judd Apatow, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, and an adaptation of Kerouac’s On The Road. Oh, and the last Twilight movie.

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