Yesterday, we dusted off our highly proprietary Oscar-O-Meter™ device and asked it what it thought of the first half of the year’s fall prestige-movie slate. Today, we tackle the second half of that slate, sniffing out the entries most likely to make Academy Awards voters dust off their monocles, nod approvingly, and start planning awards-ceremony interpretive-dance sequences.
The week of November 9
Pedigree: Lincoln. Steven Spielberg. Daniel Day-Lewis. Sally Field. Tony Kushner. Doris Kearns Goodwin. John Williams. The Civil War. Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Hal Freakin’ Holbrook. Tommy Lee Freakin’ Jones.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 10. (See above.)
Advance word: So far, advance word has been limited to the trailer, in which Day-Lewis looks, walks, and talks like Abraham Lincoln. This trailer has already won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Also in multiplexes: Sure, Lincoln freed the slaves and guided the United States through its bloodiest chapter, but did he ever save the world from nuclear destruction while dressed up like a clown in the movie Octopussy? Didn’t think so. For that, the world needs James Bond, who returns in Skyfall in the form of Daniel Craig. (So far, Craig hasn’t dressed up like a clown, but that could change.)
The week of November 16
Premise: Keira Knightley plays a Russian princess who embarrasses her respected politician husband Jude Law by embarking on an affair with cavalry officer Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Director Joe Wright gives Leo Tolstoy’s novel a theatrical and cinematic flourish, often using a single stage to represent multiple locations, while having scenery and cast members dance in and out of the space.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 10. It’s hard to imagine that Knightley won’t get a near-automatic nod for playing one of the most famous characters in world literature, though Law gives the movie’s best performance as a shamed man struggling to calibrate his emotions and his social position. And though Wright’s stagebound approach is a gimmick, it’s a highly effective one, making what could’ve been a dry literary adaptation feel vital.
The view from TIFF: Wright’s overt artifice often makes Anna’s feelings seem abstract, which makes it harder to grasp why she’d throw away a good marriage for what amounts to a schoolgirl crush. But Tom Stoppard’s script skillfully illuminates Tolstoy’s themes, giving each of the minor characters their due so they can play out the questions of what forgiveness means, and whether the head can overrule the heart. And while the florid style sometimes results in mere kitsch, more often, this Anna Karenina is a triumph of cinematic choreography.
Also in multiplexes: Our long national nightmare finally comes to a close with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn–Part 2, which wraps up the saga of a sparkly vampire and his vapid girlfriend. The documentary Chasing Ice seeks to document global warming with time-lapse cameras tracking the rapid melting of polar glaciers. The description of the film does actually make watching ice melt sound pretty interesting—and certainly more interesting than watching Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart mope at each other yet again.
The week of November 23
Life Of Pi
Premise: After a shipwreck, a teenager (Suraj Sharma) is trapped on a lifeboat with various animals from his father’s zoo—including a hungry Bengal tiger—and has to figure out how to survive.
Pedigree: The film is based on a much-lauded, pop-philosophy-heavy bestselling novel, and directed by Ang Lee, who won the Best Director Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, and was nominated for Best Picture and Director for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6? It’s hard to say, given that practically no one has seen it yet, but Lee’s reputation remains strong, the cinematography looks impressive, and the heavily symbolic story could potentially hit the right balance of sincerity and excitement to draw in the crowds without seeming populist enough to offend the Academy’s sensibilities. In other words, this could have enough gravitas and thematic ambition to be a prestige picture without being deathly dull. Or it could not.
Advance word: Life Of Pi skipped Toronto; its world première is scheduled for the opening night of the New York Film Festival on September 28.
Silver Linings Playbook
Premise: Director David O. Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter) brings a deft comic touch to this generous ensemble piece about two mentally unstable people who make beautifully neurotic music together. Bradley Cooper stars as a potentially violent psych-ward inmate released to his family, and Jennifer Lawrence plays a dark, combative young widow who’s on his wavelength.
Pedigree: Russell has never made a bad movie—and moreover, his movies are broadly appealing and often feature strong roles across a big ensemble. Lawrence already earned a nomination for Winter’s Bone, and Cooper seems primed to reintroduce himself as a serious actor, not just the smug guy from the Hangover movies. Then there’s Robert De Niro, who awakes from a long acting slumber to play Cooper’s aggrieved, Eagles-obsessed father.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 10. The breakout hit of the Toronto Film Festival—in part because it’s one of the few films critics could agree on—Silver Linings Playbook won the Audience Award, which, as Oscar prognosticators will recall, also anointed future Best Picture winners The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire. De Niro has a classic Oscar-reel-ready scene, and the whole movie is crowd-pleasing without pandering. A juggernaut in the making.
The view from TIFF: At the film’s best, Russell harnesses Cooper and Lawrence’s mutual quirks into a screwball delirium that’s like a more mainstream version of his Flirting With Disaster or I Heart Huckabees. Silver Linings Playbook sells itself out a little in the applause-grubbing finale, but as a romantic comedy, it’s still enormously funny and affecting.
Rust And Bone
Premise: Jacques Audiard’s offbeat follow-up to the widely acclaimed A Prophet considers the relationship between a Marine World trainer (Marion Cotillard) who has her legs bitten off by a killer whale and a drifter (Matthias Schoenaerts) who uses his MMA skills to earn money in black-market street-fighting.
Pedigree: After directing a couple of vivid modern takes on old genre material, like his Fingers remake The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Audiard rose to new international prominence on the strength of A Prophet, a prison thriller with sharp racial and spiritual overtones. After winning the Oscar for playing Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, Cotillard made herself more familiar to U.S. audiences by appearing in Christopher Nolan’s Inception and The Dark Knight Rises.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. A leg-chomping killer whale, MMA… The premise alone has won Rust And Bone ridicule in some corners—completely unfair ridicule, but still—and will likely keep the film from being taken seriously.
The view from TIFF: Cotillard and Schoenaerts’ love story is surprisingly persuasive and moving, especially in the scenes after her accident, when she turns to him for encouragement and sexual affirmation, and he gives her the raw desire (rather than the pity) she needs. It’s also beautiful and deeply felt on Audiard’s part.
Also in multiplexes: How relevant could a remake of Red Dawn, a mid-’80s slice of reactionary anti-Communist paranoia, be in the year 2012? With the bad guys shifting from the Soviet Union to North Korea—an isolationist country that probably cares little about invading a small American town—not very, but perhaps three years on the shelf have aged it well. The DreamWorks animated movie Rise Of The Guardians also has brave warriors defending humanity from dark forces, but here, those warriors are Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman.
The week of November 30
Killing Them Softly
Premise: Based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade and directed by Andrew Dominik, who last broke the bank on The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly stars Brad Pitt as a New Orleans enforcer who orchestrates a daring heist of a high-stakes, mobbed-up poker game. Naturally, the mob isn’t happy about getting knocked off.
Pedigree: Assassination Of Jesse James tanked, but Dominik’s chops were hard to deny, and Killing Them Softly not only reteams him with Pitt, but adds a supporting cast that includes Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, and Sam Shepard. If it’s anywhere near as good as The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, a previous Higgins adaptation, it’ll be a must.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 2. Between The Master, Silver Linings Playbook, and Django Unchained, The Weinstein Company will be awfully busy over the next few months, and it’s already looking like Killing Them Softly will be the orphan of the bunch. In spite of a mostly kind reception at Cannes, the film has already been shuffled in the schedule to accommodate The Master, and full awards support seems unlikely.
Advance word: Writing from Cannes 2012, The A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo admired the film’s “electrifying” first half, which has a tone that’s “at once intensely heightened and utterly realistic,” but complains that Dominik’s running commentary on the 2008 presidential election lays on the film’s economic message too thick.
The week of December 7
Hyde Park On Hudson
Premise: Bill Murray stars as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Laura Linney as his cousin/lover Margaret Suckley in this drama about a 1939 incident in which FDR entertained King George VI and Queen Consort Elizabeth in the months before World War II broke out.
Pedigree: Director Roger Michell is one of the go-to guys for dramas and comedies with class, having helmed such films as Persuasion, Notting Hill, and Venus. And the subject matter—observing historical figures in private moments—recalls the recent Best Picture winner The King’s Speech.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 3. Hyde Park On Hudson is classic Oscar-bait, and there’s always a chance that voters will be hooked, but…
The view from TIFF: …the movie was greeted with a mix of yawns and outright derision in Toronto, where critics and audiences described it as a goofy, opportunistic, surprisingly raunchy semi-sequel to The King’s Speech.
Also in multiplexes: Gerard Butler’s charmless offensive continues with Playing For Keeps, a dodgy-looking comedy where the manly man plays a former athlete who discovers that coaching his son’s soccer team is a great way to seduce moms. Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, and Catherine Zeta-Jones are among the lookers playing opposite Butler’s smirk.
The week of December 14
Also in multiplexes: After years of on-again, off-again negotiations and setbacks, the lure of rolling green hills composed entirely of money have brought Peter Jackson back to his profitable J.R.R. Tolkien partnership with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The big mystery remains how Jackson and his Lord Of The Rings screenwriting partners managed to stretch the LOTR prequel book—a relatively short middle-grades novel—out into three films. This first one presumably just covers the story of how some dwarves come to visit Bilbo Baggins, and maybe have a dinner party with him. Possibly he starts packing up his socks and underwear for the unexpected journey, too. To be continued in 2013.
The week of December 21
Premise: Michael Haneke’s Palme D’Or winner casts his pitiless gaze on an aging couple facing the indignities of dying and the certainty of death. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play long-married eightysomethings who face a painful separation when Riva suffers a stroke that leaves her paralyzed on one side, and Trintignant struggles to take care of her.
Pedigree: The Palme D’Or at Cannes was Haneke’s second in a row after The White Ribbon, continuing his critical ascension after a career full of nasty provocations like Funny Games and The Piano Teacher. For his part, Trintignant is an iconic actor with a formidable list of credits, including notable turns in Costa-Gavras’ Z and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. By far Haneke’s most accessible film—and Austria’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar—Amour considers a common, universal situation with piercing directness. Nevertheless, it’s still a Michael Haneke movie, as uncompromising and brutal on the subject of death as his first film, The Seventh Continent, was 23 years ago.
The view from TIFF: Tough as Amour is at times, the title isn’t entirely ironic: Taking care of a loved one in a difficult time is what partnership is all about, and Trintignant’s steadfastness in caring for his wife and honoring her wishes is touching without crossing over into sentimentality.
Premise: Based on the true story of a family separated in Thailand after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, The Impossible stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as a husband and wife who scramble toward each other—and toward their three young kids—across a storm-ravaged landscape.
Pedigree: Director Juan Antonio Bayona made his feature debut in 2007 with the terrifying-yet-tearjerking ghost story The Orphanage; this is only his second film, and one the many Orphanage fans have been eagerly awaiting.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. Watts and McGregor give strong performances, and The Impossible tells the kind of triumph-of-the-human-spirit story that Oscar voters eat up. More importantly, The Impossible confirms that Bayona is a major talent, with a skill for shooting and constructing sequences that build tension masterfully.
The view from TIFF: The script for The Impossible isn’t in the same class as the direction; the dialogue tends to be either functional or corny, constraining the characters to one or two levels. But overall, this is a superb example of the “man against the elements” film, anchored by the panic that sets in when one family member fears never seeing the others again. With that as his starting point, Bayona deftly pushes the audience’s buttons, going for the big swell of emotion, and getting it.
On The Road
Premise: Based on Jack Kerouac’s classic, On The Road follows Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a young writer, as he takes a freewheeling ride across America in the wake of his father’s death. Joining him are Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), his friend and Beat hero, and Moriarty’s girlfriend Marylou (Kristen Stewart).
Pedigree: Kerouac’s book has a long history of not quite getting produced, most notably by Francis Ford Coppola, who nurtured the project at various points in his career before finally turning it over to Walter Salles, the Brazilian director of The Motorcycle Diaries. The material brought Salles a big cast—Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams, Terrence Howard, and Elisabeth Moss among them—but three less-experienced actors took the key roles, including vacant Twilight zombie Stewart.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 1. In principle, Kerouac’s peripatetic novel about life on the road has the makings of another Easy Rider, but a conventional dramatist like Salles isn’t the man to get it there.
The view from TIFF: On The Road premièred to a hostile reception at Cannes, and few stepped up to defend it at TIFF, where Stewart’s gossip woes dominated the discussion.
This Is 40
Premise: Billed as “the sort-of sequel to Knocked Up,” Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 shifts the focus to the fractious married couple played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann as they approach the titular birthday.
Pedigree: Purebred Apatow. Rudd has worked with Apatow for years, Mann is his real-life wife, and the cast mixes in some Apatow repertory players with welcome newcomers like Albert Brooks.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. Oscar is famously stingy about rewarding comedies, but Apatow comedies, particularly those he writes and directs, never shy away from the heavy stuff. He’s been turning out good-to-great work as a filmmaker and a producer at a steady clip for a decade now. Surely some respect is due.
Advance word: So far, there hasn’t been much advance word. Maybe Apatow is cutting it down from a Greed-like eight-hour version.
Zero Dark Thirty
Premise: This action-drama chronicles the United States’ dogged efforts to kill terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Pedigree: The last time director Kathryn Bigelow and playwright-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal collaborated, the result was The Hurt Locker, the scaldingly intense Iraq War drama that won Best Picture and Best Director, and paved the way for Jeremy Renner to take over every stray action franchise in existence. That’s an impressive pedigree, even if Zero Dark Thirty weren’t about one of the most significant, publicized manhunts of the past century.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. Bigelow and Boal won top prizes just three years ago. But Zero Dark Thirty’s timeliness could help or hurt it with Oscar voters: 1976’s All The President’s Men was nominated for eight Oscars with a similarly zeitgeist-capturing tale of a seminal historical event, but Zero Dark Thirty has already kicked off a firestorm of controversy, with critics of the Obama administration accusing the filmmakers of making the film as a propaganda tool and receiving improper access to confidential information regarding bin Laden’s killing.
Advance word: Expectations are high given the film’s subject, and crew, but right now, most of the buzz about the film revolves around its possible political connotations rather than its actual quality.
Also in multiplexes: The director of the first three Chronicles Of Narnia movies sticks with fantasy and spectacle for Cirque Du Soleil: Worlds Away, which follows a girl on a magical journey to a place where she probably just sits around all day saying, “Oh holy crap, this circus-thing features some amazingly pretty costumes.” And Jack Reacher stars Tom Cruise as a cop who, in the words of the trailer, “doesn’t care about proof, doesn’t care about the law—he only cares about what’s right.” Judging from the trailer, he also cares about beating the crap out of people in cheap-looking environments.
The week of December 28
Premise: After promising for years to make his version of a Western—a “Southern”—writer-director Quentin Tarantino finally delivers Django Unchained, with Jamie Foxx as a slave who agrees to help bounty hunter Christoph Waltz kill mercenaries, in exchange for his freedom. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a whimsical plantation owner who owns Foxx’s wife, Kerry Washington.
Pedigree: It’s Quentin Tarantino, dude.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. The Academy has shown love to Tarantino and his casts before, but the sensitive subject matter might scare Oscar voters away, if there’s any major outcry that Tarantino is being glib or exploitative.
Advance word: Django Unchained hasn’t begun screening widely yet, but the trailer certainly makes it look like classic Tarantino: colorful, mythic, violent, and just inappropriate enough to become a useful conversation piece.
Premise: Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of inequity and persecution set against the tumultuous backdrop of Paris in the early 19th century has been filmed countless times. (The Lumière brothers even did an adaption of sorts, filming an actor putting on makeup to play the parts of Hugo and his characters.) But this is the first go-around for the stage musical, which has wowed audiences looking for spectacle and song since 1980.
Pedigree: The musical has fans upon fans, but any adaptation will have to match the bigness of the theater experience. That’s no mean feat, and while many loved Tom Hooper’s previous film, The King’s Speech, it wasn’t the cinematic qualities of Hooper’s filmmaking that made audiences rave. Also, its cast’s musical bona fides could be stronger. Hugh Jackman has the Broadway experience to back up his casting, but Anne Hathaway isn’t known for her singing, and Russell Crowe’s best-known musical venture is his work fronting a rock band nobody particularly liked.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. If pulled off, this could win all the awards ever awarded, but movie musicals have had a rough time of late, and the last attempt to bring a big ’80s musical to the big screen was the not so fondly remembered The Phantom Of The Opera.
Advance word: The trailer features Hathaway movingly singing the musical’s famous song “I Dreamed A Dream” against some appropriately grand-looking imagery, so it might work out okay.
West Of Memphis
Premise: In 1994, three West Memphis teenagers were tried and convicted of sexually mutilating and murdering three younger boys, in a case that drew national attention—first because the accused were tagged as Satanists, and later because the HBO documentary Paradise Lost raised serious questions about their guilt. And now—even though the Paradise Lost filmmakers continued to follow this story with two other documentaries over the ensuing decades—here’s another documentary, rehashing the facts and weighing alternate theories.
Pedigree: Director Amy Berg is backed by Oscar-winning producer Peter Jackson, who’s been a major advocate for “The West Memphis Three” for years.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. It’s a strong year for documentaries overall, and Oscar voters will likely (and rightly) feel they’ve already seen this one.
The view from TIFF: Unlike Paradise Lost and its sequels, West Of Memphis doesn’t go deeply enough into the sociology of the case, which means it misses how a bunch of smart legal minds could be so arrogant as to railroad three teenagers, then dismiss all arguments in favor of their innocence. On its own merits, though, West Of Memphis is a well-assembled, well-argued doc that shows how our advocacy model of trial law can lead to the state spinning stories they know are probably untrue, then using their authority to stand strong against any alternate theory, no matter how many millions of people believe it.
Also in multiplexes: After graciously sparing film audiences his grating presence as a leading man for a blessed decade, Billy Crystal returns to the big screen with Parental Guidance, a dire-looking Babaloo Mandel/Lowell Ganz-co-written comedy about a grandfather (Crystal) who uses old-school tactics when his grandkids are left in his care. Speaking of long-overdue, ambiguously welcomed returns, The Guilt Trip marks Barbra Streisand’s first starring role in a movie since 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces. The cultural icon plays a mother who accompanies her son (Seth Rogen) on a cross-country trip where life lessons will be learned and cultural stereotypes involving Jewish mothers affirmed.