Oscar-O-Meter™: The A.V. Club’s fifth annual guide to the fall prestige movies, part two

Oscar-O-Meter™: The A.V. Club’s fifth annual guide to the fall prestige movies, part two

‪Yesterday, we launched our annual fall film preview by looking at what’s coming up in cinema over the next few months, from the hopefully good to the probably bad and the decidedly ugly. Here’s what the rest of the year has to offer.‬

The week of November 18
The Descendants

Premise: George Clooney plays a real-estate lawyer and lifelong Hawaiian who tries to resolve some family business while his estranged wife spends her last few comatose days of life in a local hospital.

Pedigree: The Descendants was adapted by Alexander Payne and co-screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and it marks Payne’s return to feature filmmaking after a long layoff. Before the break, Payne had back-to-back award-winning hits with About Schmidt and Sideways.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 9. If anything, the main problem with The Descendants is that it’s too Oscar-baity, with Payne suppressing the more ruthless side he’s shown in films like Citizen Ruth and Election in favor of sentimentality and broad humor. But the approach is effective, and The Descendants should score nominations across the board.

The view from TIFF: Though many in Toronto and at Venice liked the film, some of Payne’s longtime fans were disappointed that his take on death and transition turned out so soft. That said, The Descendants gets stronger once it gets all its complicated backstory out of the way, and throughout, Payne makes magnificent use of his Hawaiian location, spending time in the cluttered family homes and office parks where Hawaiians actually spend their time.

Also in multiplexes: Because the world really needed more cute penguins talking all street and rapping—not to mention more Robin Williams doing horrible ethnic accents—there’s Happy Feet Too, which reverses the first film’s formula about a weird dancing penguin by introducing his weird non-dancing son. There’s bound to be much less dancing in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1, the penultimate continuation of the series about a sparkly vampire and his dishwater-dull inamorata.


The week of November 25
A Dangerous Method 

Premise: For his third straight team-up with Viggo Mortensen following A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises, director David Cronenberg adapts Christopher Hampton’s play about the relationship between Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) and his protégé Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Keira Knightley stars as the challenging Russian patient they attempt to treat. 

Pedigree: Cronenberg’s taste for genre cinema has kept him out of the Academy’s good graces for years, but Hampton won the Oscar for adapting Dangerous Liaisons, scored another nomination for adapting Atonement, and has four Tony Awards under his belt. Add to that Mortensen, Knightley, and Fassbender, the heir apparent to Daniel Day-Lewis, and this horse has a Triple Crown pedigree. 

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. Formidable cast, celebrated playwright/screenwriter, important historical figures—the only thing keeping A Dangerous Method from Oscar certainty is Cronenberg, whose cool, cerebral nature forbids the requisite Academy pandering and flattery. 

The view from TIFF: Critics were largely divided over A Dangerous Method, which finds Cronenberg struggling to open up Hampton’s play into something more cinematic. And in spite of the titanic tête-à-tête between Fassbender and Mortensen, most of the discussion surrounded Knightley’s surprisingly unhinged turn as a woman whose dark past Jung accesses and exploits. 

The Artist

Premise: Director Michel Hazanavicius pays homage to the Hollywood of the late ’20s and early ’30s by making a silent, black-and-white movie, starring Jean Dujardin as a dashing movie star who falls in love with ambitious extra Bérénice Bejo and helps her launch her own career. Then talking pictures arrive, and the Bejo’s star rises while Dujardin’s falls.

Pedigree: Hazanavicius is best known for his two OSS 117 spy spoofs, both starring Dujardin. He’s a filmmaker who knows how to copy the past to entertaining effect.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 8. Though The Artist won’t be representing France in the Best Foreign Language Film race, the movie itself is such a crowd-pleaser that it has a good chance to work its way into the Best Picture conversation, and it may even propel Dujardin and Bejo into the acting categories. (There’s also an outside chance that John Goodman will get a nod in his supporting role as a comically grumpy movie producer.)

The view from TIFF: The biggest problem with The Artist is that its A Star Is Born/Singin’ In the Rain story arc is way too predictable, and nowhere near as emotionally effective as its inspirations. Also, Hazanavicius drags out the “on the skids” section far longer than he needs to. But throughout, Hazanavicius finds clever, poetic ways to illustrate the allure of Golden Age Hollywood stardom, and he ends the movie on such a high note that audiences may well forget the at-times-turgid middle hour.

Hugo

Premise: In the Paris of the early 1930s, an inventor’s son safeguards the automaton left for him by his late father, spiriting it away in the train stations where he makes his secret home.

Pedigree: Based on the Caldecott-winning children’s novel The Invention Of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Hugo stars Asa Butterfield as the title character and Chloë Moretz as the girl he befriends, with supporting performances by Sacha Baron Coen, Richard Griffiths, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Ben Kingsley (playing legendary filmmaker Georges Méliès). At the helm? Only Mr. Martin Fucking Scorsese

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. This looks to be Scorsese in box-office mode, not grubbing for awards. Still, it’s a period picture with a high level of technical challenges and a cast full of fine actors. Those are Oscar-friendly qualities.

Advance word: Film buffs initially griped when the trailer was released, saying that it didn’t look especially Scorsese-ish. But the story of Paris just after the silent-movie era seems likely to have captured Scorsese’s imagination, and the trailer does seem to show him playing around with the possibilities of 3-D, looking for ways to create movement in layers.

Also in multiplexes: Does Piranha 3DD have a reason to exist beyond the snickering double entendre in its title? Probably not. Does a gleefully vulgar B-movie like Piranha 3DD need a reason to exist beyond that? Of course not. On the opposite end of the wholesomeness spectrum, beloved felt superstars The Muppets return from a lengthy hiatus with some help from human pals Jason Segel and Amy Adams in their very own vehicle, The Muppets. Santa needs an assist from his bumbling son Arthur in Arthur Christmas, a 3-D collaboration between Sony and Aardman Studios that marks the studio’s first theatrical release since 2006’s underrated Flushed Away. 


The week of December 2
We Need To Talk About Kevin

Premise: Based on Lionel Shriver’s provocative novel, Lynne Ramsay’s first film since 2002’s Morvern Callar stars Tilda Swinton as the mother of a teenager responsible for a Columbine-like high-school killing spree. John C. Reilly co-stars as Swinton’s husband, who misses all the signs. 

Pedigree: Swinton won an Oscar for her supporting performance as a corporate shark in Michael Clayton, and Shriver’s book won the 2005 Orange Prize for UK-based female writers, but Shriver and Ramsay’s instincts are far from commercial, especially in this case. 

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 1. Though disturbing and graphic in its depiction of a teenage monster, We Need To Talk About Kevin may be more off-putting because of the way it expresses ambivalence about motherhood, which is arguably a more taboo subject than school shootings. Add to that Ramsay’s style, which collapses time in an impressionistic flurry of images—dominated by a super-saturated red—and most Academy members would be prone to dive under their chairs. 

The view from TIFF: Whenever Ramsay leaves the script behind and represents Swinton’s trauma visually, the results are extraordinarily liberated, moving back and forth in time in a free-associative horror show that takes advantage of the medium’s strengths. But when the film pauses to detail the relationship between harried mother and monstrous son, the latter’s persistent, inhuman glower makes the psychology seem too reductive and one-note. 

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The week of December 9
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Premise: John le Carré’s classic tale of espionage and treason stars Gary Oldman as an ex-agent who returns to the fold to sniff out a mole. Is it Toby Jones? Colin Firth? Ciarán Hinds? Some other amazing actor?

Pedigree: Seriously, the cast for this movie is ridiculous: Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch… all under the direction of Tomas Alfredson, making his first film since 2008’s international hit Let The Right One In.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. Ordinarily, the Academy doesn’t go for thrillers, but this looks to be a classy one. Also…

Advance word: … critics and audiences flipped for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy at the Venice Film Festival, hailing it as a smart, stylish, magnificently acted drama.

Young Adult

Premise: Charlize Theron plays a young-adult novelist who returns to her hometown to win back her unfortunately married high-school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) and ends up forming a strange bond with a former high-school classmate, played by Patton Oswalt.

Pedigree: When screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman collaborated on Juno, the result won Cody an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and the film picked up four nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Reitman’s Up In The Air was similarly festooned with Oscar nominations. Theron is an Oscar-winner, and Oswalt is a familiar face who has earned lots of good will in the industry. If Young Adult connects with audiences and critics, its Oscar chances could be solid. 

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. Oscars often go to the actor or writer who does the most work, not necessarily the best, and nobody writes bigger than Cody, with the possible exception of Aaron Sorkin, who picked up the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay last year. 

Advance word: Cautiously optimistic. If this lives up to its premise and its cast, it could be a doozy, a tart but emotional, ultimately moving little sleeper in the Juno vein. 

Also in multiplexes: David Gordon Green was once seen as Terrence Malick’s creative heir. Then Pineapple Express happened, and the artsy director became an unexpected disseminator of raunchy comedies. First Green unleashed Your Highness, now he’s cycling Jonah Hill through some misadventures in babysitting in The Sitter, a wacky laugher about an unqualified babysitter and his unfortunate charges. In the tradition of Valentine’s Day comes New Year’s Eve, a Garry Marshall-propagated ensemble romantic comedy about beautiful people finding love and laughter [SPOILER ALERT!] on New Year’s Eve. 


The week of December 16
Carnage 

Premise: Two sets of upper-class New York parents come into conflict when their young sons get involved in a park brawl. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz play the parents of the beater; Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play the parents of the beatee. Waltz and Winslet’s attempt to make peace ignites a separate, darkly comic conflict.

Pedigree: Much as with A Dangerous Method, the cast could not be more pedigreed. Director Roman Polanski swept the Oscars with The Pianist, which found the Academy willing to draw distinctions between his dubious personal history and his artistic chops. Yet, also like A Dangerous Method, Carnage is based on a stage play (Yasmina Reza’s God Of Carnage), and its director does little to obscure its roots. 

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. This isn’t the Polanski of The Pianist or The Ghost Writer, but more the Polanski of Death And The Maiden or Cul-de-sac, bringing atmosphere and style to what’s essentially a dialogue-driven chamber piece. The four leads are all accomplished, though, and if they can make the black comedy of Reza’s play sing, anything is possible.

Advance word: Carnage didn’t screen at the Toronto Film Festival, but it was warmly received at Venice, where audiences greeted it with whoops of laughter and applause. Many critics had a more tempered response. Whatever the case, it looked for a while like The Ghost Writer would be Polanski’s last film, so anything at all is a bonus. 

The Iron Lady 

Premise: Meryl Streep is Margaret Thatcher.

Pedigree: Meryl Streep is Margaret Thatcher.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. Meryl Streep is Margaret Thatcher, but director Phyllida Lloyd is the theater vet behind the decidedly uncinematic adaptation of Mamma Mia!, which also starred Streep. The screenplay comes from playwright Abi Morgan, and will no doubt have to perform a careful balancing act in dealing with a still-divisive recent political titan. 

Advance word: YouTube commenter “1986stevensane” on the trailer: “Im sure Meryl Streep is a lovely person to meet, but if there is a god she’ll be going to hell for stepping into the skin of that harpy.”

Also in multiplexes: The poster for Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked is terribly lazy: It largely recycles the art from the second Chipmunks movie, but slaps beachwear on the characters. But surely the film itself is the product of much more concerted, dedicated effort to provide all-new poop jokes and squalling Chipmunk covers of recent hits, right? Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, Guy Ritchie’s sequel to his 2009 film featuring Robert Downey Jr. as the famous detective, looks equally lazy. Remember when this film was called Wild Wild West and everyone hated it?


The week of December 23
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Premise: David Fincher helms the English-language adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Swedish mega-bestseller about a prickly hacker, a dogged journalist, and a decades-old murder mystery. This time around, Daniel Craig plays the journalist, and Rooney Mara the hacker.

Pedigree: Fincher has been up for Best Director twice, for The Social Network and (gack!) The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button; The Social Network was also nominated for seven other Oscars, and won three total. Neither of his leads have ever been up for one, but both are respected actors stepping into by-now-iconic roles that leave a little room for interpretation and a lot of space for intensity.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. Fincher’s films (including Zodiac, Panic Room, Fight Club, and Seven) are almost invariably critically lauded, though they’re often too dark, weird, and/or genre-oriented for the Academy. While it remains to be seen whether this version of Dragon Tattoo is as graphic and horrifying as the Swedish-language adaptation, the book is pretty lurid material, focused on grotesque violence against women in a pulpy, potboiler way. That may prevent it from being taken seriously as awards-bait.

Advance word: Fincher’s moody, wordless trailer, cut to a shrieking Trent Reznor/Karen O cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” instantly reignited interest in a property that had dominated bestseller lists for so long that it had become overly familiar. The cinematography is beautiful and brutally severe, with a blue-black-bruise palette that’s become far too familiar in thrillers, but suits the material in this case. Regardless of whether Oscar pays any attention, Fincher has an almost surefire hit on his hands just based on the books’ fame and his own good name.

In The Land Of Blood And Honey

Premise: This star-crossed love story between a Serbian man and a Bosnian woman is set against the backdrop of the Bosnia War in the ’90s, featuring a no-name cast under the direction of the biggest female star in Hollywood. Little is known about the project, though a behind-the-scenes film could be constructed out of paparazzi photos of the set, La Jetée style. 

Pedigree: Un film de Angelina Jolie. 

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. If Jolie pulls it off, Academy members will take a knee, bow their heads, and lightly kiss her slender fingers. (And even if she fails miserably, the Golden Globes will still erect a statue in her honor.) But actors aren’t often the strongest directors, and word that Jolie shot two versions—one in English, the other in the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian language—doesn’t seem promising. 

Advance word: Zip. Asked about it at Toronto, Brad Pitt repeated the word “nothing” four times in rapid succession. 

Pina

Premise: Wim Wenders directs the dance troupe of late choreographer Pina Bausch in a combination documentary and performance film. In 3-D.

Pedigree: Wenders was one of the leading lights of the German New Wave in the 1970s, and broke through to American arthouses in the ’80s with classics like Paris, Texas and Wings Of Desire, though his career over the last decade-plus has been in a bit of a lull. 

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. Already selected by Germany as its official entry in the Best Foreign Language category, Pina has a good chance to be one of the five finalists.

The view from TIFF: Wenders errs in his decision to break up the longer routines with interviews about Bausch’s spiritual, aesthetic, and personal influence, which prevents the dances from developing properly. But the 3-D effects are often stunning, and Bausch’s work is as original as advertised.

We Bought A Zoo

Premise: Cameron Crowe directs this Americanized adaptation of Benjamin Mee’s memoir about an eccentric writer who buys and runs a crumbling zoo in the English countryside. Crowe changed the action to California and cast Matt Damon as Mee and Scarlett Johansson as his maybe-sorta love interest.

Pedigree: Crowe won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 2000’s Almost Famous, the ultimate writer’s movie, after picking up nominations for Best Picture and Director on Jerry Maguire. Damon won the Oscar for Good Will Hunting while still in his mid-20s, and hasn’t exactly been coasting on his achievements in the interim.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. This is exactly the kind of moderately classy, not-particularly-challenging, heartwarming material the Academy loves, and after Elizabethtown, Crowe is due for a big comeback.

Advance word: The trailer makes We Bought A Zoo look more than a little sappy, but Crowe has never been afraid of emotion, for better (Jerry Maguire) or worse (Elizabethtown). 

Also in multiplexes: The beloved (especially in Europe) comic-book character Tintin comes to the big screen courtesy of fan Steven Spielberg—with some help from Peter Jackson, Edgar Wright, Steven Moffat, and others—in The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret Of The Unicorn. Also, Pixar vet Brad Bird goes live action and directs Tom Cruise in the fourth Mission: Impossible film, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, co-starring Jeremy Renner and various ghosts. (Note: Information on this film remains sketchy. It may not feature actual ghosts.)


The week of December 30
Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close

Premise: In this adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel (after Everything Is Illuminated), a precocious young boy loses his father in the 9/11 attacks on New York; two years later, he goes on a city-wide quest to unravel the mystery of a key his father left behind. 

Pedigree: Director Stephen Daldry is essentially an Oscar-nomination-generating machine; his three features to date (The Reader, The Hours, and Billy Elliot) racked up 17 total Oscar nods, though only two wins, both for Best Actress. (Nicole Kidman in The Hours, Kate Winslet in The Reader.) All three earned him Best Director nominations as well. His credited stars here include Tom Hanks (currently 2-for-5 on Oscar wins to nominations), Sandra Bullock, who took home last year’s Best Actress award for The Blind Side, and Viola Davis (nominated for her striking small role in Doubt).

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 9. So far Daldry has been a sure thing when it comes to Oscar interest, though with so little else to go on, that rating amounts to the kind of far-advance blue-sky attitude that postulated Dreamgirls as the inevitable winner of absolutely every Oscar 2006 had to offer. Once there’s an actual trailer and the tone of this adaptation is clearer, the reading may surge up to 10 or drop precipitously. It’d be far too easy to address this material too portentously and render it too picaresque and precious, along the line of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, but with the science-fiction wonder cut out. Also, an awful lot depends on the protagonist, played by first-time actor Thomas Horn, currently known largely as a Teen Jeopardy winner.

Advance word: All speculative as far as the adaptation goes, though Foer’s book has a mixed reputation. Some critics accused him of mining the September 11 attacks for instant pathos and reputability, while others praised the book immensely. Hollywood (and audiences) didn’t much care for the Everything Is Illuminated film, though it remains a quirky little joy.

Pariah

Premise: The coming-of-age movie and the coming-out movie join forces in this Sundance favorite about a black teenager (Adepero Oduye) from a conservative family who keeps her sexual proclivities a secret she shares only with her best friend (Pernell Walker). When she falls for another girl, Oduye’s double life is inevitably exposed. 

Pedigree: Newcomers all, including writer-director Dee Rees, who expanded an award-winning short for her feature debut, and Oduye, whose breakthrough performance is getting the biggest push from distributor Focus Features. 

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. “This year’s Precious” was the tag out of Sundance, but Pariah, by all accounts, is a subtler, more delicately wrought drama—it would have to be, really—and thus less attractive to the Academy. And where’s the gimmicky cameo by a deglammed Mariah Carey? Or the Oprah Winfrey executive-producer credit?

The view from TIFF: The kind notices from Sundance carried over, with critics citing the film’s strong performances and its complex treatment of racial and sexual politics. 

A Separation

Premise: Winner of the Golden Bear (top prize) at the Berlin Film Festival, this drama by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi begins with the marital separation of the title. With the wife gone, a caretaker is hired to look after the husband’s ailing, Alzheimer’s-ridden father, but when the caretaker makes a serious mistake, the consequences are devastating for all parties involved. 

Pedigree: Farhadi’s previous effort, 2009’s About Elly, won Best Director at Berlin, and he’s considered one of the emerging masters of the repressed-but-vibrant Iranian film scene. 

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. There have been conflicting reports over whether A Separation is Iran’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film or merely one of five possibilities. Should it be submitted, the film stands a great chance to win the award: It’s accessible, beautifully written and acted, and full of rich themes on morality, religion, justice, marriage, and parenthood. And if it can break out of the Best Foreign Language Film ghetto, Farhadi’s screenplay deserves serious consideration. 

The view from TIFF: A Separation turns on a split-second moment that seems simple and unambiguous enough, but spins out into a high-stakes battle between two families who put their honor and livelihood on the line. But what emerges most powerfully is the teenage girl stuck in the middle of the conflict, and the cruel but non-deliberate ways her parents manipulate her. This was among the most widely embraced films of the festival, for good reason. 

War Horse

Premise: Relative newcomer Jeremy Irvine plays a boy who travels across Europe to reunite with his beloved horse Joey, which is serving in the British army in World War I.

Pedigree: Steven Spielberg directs a Lee Hall/Richard Curtis screenplay, adapting Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel, which also inspired a Tony-winning stage play.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 8. War. Spielberg. A horse. A boy. The Academy members won’t even need to watch this one before they start throwing nominations at it.

Advance word: No big screenings yet, but the trailer makes it look stirring and beautiful, in the classic Spielberg tradition. 


December TBD
Albert Nobbs

Premise: Glenn Close (who also co-wrote and co-produced) stars as a woman who disguises herself as a waiter at an upscale Irish hotel in the late 19th century, in order to make a living and save enough money to buy a shop.

Pedigree: Solid middlebrow director Rodrigo Garcia directs a strong cast that includes Brendan Gleeson as the hotel’s resident doctor, Mia Wasikowska as an ill-bred maid whom Close attempts to court, and Janet McTeer as another woman passing as a man.

Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. Close isn’t all that convincing as a fake man, but this is the kind of stunt-y role that draws attention. Really though, the better bet is McTeer, who has a richer character to play and is more reliably masculine.

The view from TIFF: The premise is intriguing, and prompts some striking scenes of Close and McTeer bonding over their abandoned womanhood, but Close’s character remains nearly a complete blank throughout, which makes her challenges hard to relate to, and her dreams hard to understand.

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