Oscar-O-Meter™: The A.V. Club’s fourth annual guide to the fall prestige movies, part one
Forged in the fires of Mount Doom and calibrated by the finest engineers cheap promotional swag can buy, the Oscar-O-Meter™ has become the definitive predictor of awards-season glory. Using a complex matrix that factors in elements like actorly showiness, grating self-importance, middlebrow sense of grandeur, and the varying degrees to which a movie flatters its audience, the machine has consistently outshined professional prognosticators (who, by the way, are evil). Why just last year, the hit musical Nine swept all major categories, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Fergie), and Most Authentic Representation Of Italian Culture Outside The Olive Garden Down The Street.
As usual, the Toronto International Film Festival provided more information to feed into the machine, and in the cases where no festival showings were offered, the Oscar-O-Meter™ relied on buzz, intuition, and half-assed speculation. With that in mind, prepare to lock up your Oscar pools five months in advance.
You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger
Premise: In the latest comedy from the WoodBot 2000, infidelity threatens two couples from different generations. An elderly woman (Gemma Jones) consults a kooky fortune-teller after her husband (Anthony Hopkins) leaves her and takes up with a call girl half his age. Meanwhile, their daughter (Naomi Watts) sidles up to an art dealer (Antonio Banderas) out of exasperation with her husband (Josh Brolin), a failed novelist who’s also doing a little flirting.
Pedigree: With three Oscars and 21 nominations, Woody Allen was once an automatic contender every year—even his Mighty Aphrodite screenplay got a nod—but his prolonged late-period slump has yielded only one nomination (Original Screenplay for 2005’s Match Point) in the current decade.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. If this were the late ’70s, ’80s, or early ’90s, that rating would be multiplied by four, but save for occasional signs of creative life (Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona specifically), critics and audiences have been largely united in the apathy with which they greet the latest Allen. Or as Allen himself quipped at a festival intro of Tall Dark Stranger, “I know how it ends: low grosses.”
The view from TIFF: Allen’s evident lack of investment in his characters turns Tall Dark Stranger into a no-stakes Husbands And Wives, recycling old types and situations from past Allen films into a comedy that presents the complications of infidelity, but misses the fallout.
I’m Still Here
Premise: In this irreverent
documentary stunt, director Casey Affleck follows brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix as he retires “retires” from acting to pursue a career as a rapper.
Pedigree: A two-time Oscar nominee from a creative family, Phoenix is considered one of the finest young actors of his generation. Such a shame that retirement should have to spoil his seemingly unlimited potential. Unless…
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 1. …I’m Still Here turns out to be a Borat-like piece of performance art, in which case Phoenix has just given the performance of his career! Or so says Affleck, who recently came clean about I’m Still Here being 100 percent put-on. The real challenge now comes in convincing the few Academy members who saw the film to get over their irritation and recognize Phoenix’s brilliant feat of anti-comedy.
The view from TIFF: The hoax-or-not question helped illuminate the recent documentary/prank Exit Through The Gift Shop, but I’m Still Here doesn’t have much to offer outside of long-winded riffs on celebrity narcissism. Give Phoenix credit for committing to the madness, but the highlight of his yearlong misadventures, a notorious appearance on David Letterman’s show, has already circulated outside the context of this movie.
Premise: A group of professional armed robbers led by Ben Affleck (who also directed) begins to disintegrate as Affleck falls for a victim of their latest robbery, while his partner and best friend Jeremy Renner becomes progressively more violent and out of control.
Pedigree: Affleck hasn’t spent much time in the major-awards spotlight since sharing a screenwriting Oscar with Matt Damon for their first writing project, Good Will Hunting. Renner was up for a Best Actor Oscar (among other awards, many of which he won) last year for The Hurt Locker.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. Given that Affleck’s richer, weepier, prettier, more prestige-y period-piece directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, got its only Oscar nomination for Amy Ryan’s supporting role, this slicker, more populist piece of action-entertainment isn’t likely to sit any better with the Academy.
The view from TIFF: “Good but not great” sums up a wave of reviews that praised the cast, a couple of thrilling key setpieces, and the movie’s several heists, but found the whole package too conventional and predictable. Less predictable: the film’s restrained, oddball sense of humor, which is a lot of fun, but almost never plays well with the stuffy Academy.
Waiting For Superman
Premise: The United States public-school system is all kinds of fucked-up. But why? Can anything be done to fix it? Davis Guggenheim, the non-vice-presidential man behind An Inconvenient Truth, went looking for answers and uncovered some unfortunate, vexing truths.
Pedigree: Ridiculously high. The last time Guggenheim got idealistic, he made a film that won the Best Documentary Academy Award and the Nobel Prize. Throw in support from dudes like Bill Gates (who has thrown his weight behind the film) and John Legend (who recorded the theme song, alongside The Roots), and you have a prestige picture that is classy as fuck, with pedigree up the wazoo.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. This is an instant frontrunner to win Best Documentary, or at least snag a nomination. It’s also the rare muckraking exposé that, like An Inconvenient Truth before it, might actually prompt some meaningful social change. Don’t be surprised if Legend gets a nomination as well.
Advance word: Strong. Waiting For Superman looks primed to escape the non-fiction ghetto and cross over to the mainstream to become a big news story, not just a pop-culture phenomenon.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Premise: Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), the stock-market tycoon who told the world “Greed is good” in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street, is out of jail and ready to settle into a quiet role writing doomy books about the current state of the economy as the stock-market collapse of 2008 plays out in the background. But is he really repentant? Maybe idealistic young trader Shia LaBeouf, who’s dating Gekko’s daughter (Carey Mulligan) will have to find out the hard way.
Pedigree: Stone is back, for what that’s worth, though his stock has fallen considerably since his ’80s heyday. Still, this is familiar turf for him, one that lets him chide the movers and shakers who destroyed the American economy without getting too specific. (Unless after The A.V. Club saw the film, he added a coda in which he singles out the Jews as the problem.)
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. It lets Douglas revive one of his most famous characters, and his own health problems give his performance an added layer of poignancy. But even if Stone hadn’t turned himself into a PR disaster shortly before its release, the messy film would still have problems.
Advance word: It’s Stone’s best film in years, but it’s still an Oliver Stone movie.
Also in multiplexes: Zack Snyder’s Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole has approximately one thing going for it: slick, impressively realistic owl protagonists, who nonetheless are playing out a familiar Chosen One Vs. Looming Evil plot. The snarky comedy You Again should have more positives on its tally sheet, given a cast that includes Kristen Bell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, and Betty White, but it mostly just coughs up semi-serviceable hijinks in service of a plot about ladies meeting up with old rivals.
The week of October 1
The Social Network
Premise: In 2003, precocious Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) started building a campus social-networking site. As the idea flourished into what we now know as the massively popular Facebook, Zuckerberg became the youngest billionaire in history, facing more than his share of legal and personal battles along the way.
Pedigree: Director David Fincher is rightly considered one of the most talented filmmakers around, but it wasn’t until his last movie, the Oscar-baiting The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, that he emerged from the darkness of Fight Club, Seven, and Zodiac, and started grubbing for awards. Writer Aaron Sorkin made his bones in Emmy-worthy TV shows like The West Wing, but his walk-and-talk scripts for A Few Good Men, An American President, and Charlie Wilson’s War got some Golden Globe attention.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 8. Fincher’s grim genre movies have kept him from the podium in the past, but if a Forrest Gump wannabe like Benjamin Button can score him a Best Director nom, surely a sweeping chronicle of the times rates one, right? And if Justin Timberlake stands any shot at an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), it’s “O” time now.
Advance word: Great movie or greatest movie? Studios are normally inclined to muzzle critics until closer to the release date, but reviews and plaudits have flooded the Internet throughout the entire month of September. All are united in hailing the film’s Citizen Kane-like complexity and relevance, but they’re sharply divided over whether it can cure cancer, or merely the common cold.
Let Me In
Premise: Based on the Swedish cult horror hit Let The Right One In—which itself is adapted from the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist—this English-language version stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as a bullied middle-schooler and Chloe Moretz as the like-aged (in appearance, anyway) vampire who befriends him.
Pedigree: Most of the pedigree comes from the original film, which even critics normally allergic to bloody genre fare admired for its ambiguity and somber tone. It also has two unusually precocious—and more atypically non-annoying—child actors in Moretz (Kick-Ass) and Smit-McPhee (The Road), both of whom are comfortable with adult material.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 1. The Academy occasionally hands out awards for “classy” horror like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Silence Of The Lambs, but generally, its members would rather be watching Driving Miss Daisy, or movies that courageously affirm their humanity and moral rectitude. Those kids are really good, though.
The view from TIFF: Like the Swedish version? Here it is again, more or less, slavishly translated into English. Haven’t seen it because you’re averse to subtitles? Let Me In is an uncommonly muted, atmospheric horror movie that makes a great antidote to the moony-eyed vampirism of the Twilight series. Also, what’s wrong with you, you illiterate clod?
The week of October 8
It’s Kind Of A Funny Story
Premise: Based on Ned Vizzini’s serio-comic novel, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story follows a suicidal teenager (Keir Gilchrist) who checks himself into a hospital psychiatric ward. Once there, he finds patients in much worse shape than he is, including a moody-but-adorable cutter (Emma Roberts) and a longtime resident (Zach Galifianakis) with family problems.
Pedigree: The writer-director team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden earned widespread critical respect for their first two features, Half Nelson and Sugar. Both were earnest, thoughtful social dramas that posited them as a young, two-headed John Sayles. A mainstream coming-out party seems imminent.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. A psych-ward comedy with dramatic elements? That’s how you’d describe One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, one of only three films (alongside It Happened One Night and The Silence Of The Lambs) to win all five major Academy Awards: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay. Then again, that’s also how you’d describe The Dream Team.
The view from TIFF: Finding humor and pathos in a mental institution is tricky, because it’s hard to laugh at these quirky patients without trivializing their debilitating problems. Fleck and Boden direct with warmth and good intentions, and Galifianakis is a standout, but they struggle badly in their clunky transition to comedy.
Premise: Documentarian Charles Ferguson, whose No End In Sight detailed America’s tragic mistakes after the fall of Baghdad, returns with a comprehensive study of the global financial crisis of 2008, and the deregulation that let it happen.
Pedigree: Ferguson won an Oscar nomination for No End In Sight, and looks like he’s prepped to steal Michael Moore’s mantle as the progressive muckraker of choice.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. A nomination is all but certain, and the inevitable flattering comparisons to Oliver Stone’s confused Wall Street sequel will only bolster its chances. And as this election cycle seems poised to teach us, voter anger over the economy likely will play here, too.
The view from TIFF: If you haven’t paid much attention to financial news for two years—or haven’t enjoyed more entertaining primers, like This American Life’s “The Giant Pool Of Money” or Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short—Ferguson’s summary is a clear, accessible overview. But unlike No End In Sight, which limited itself to Green Zone ineptitude and shenanigans, Inside Job lacks a fresh angle.
Premise: Diane Lane stars in the true-life story of the legendary horse that won the 1973 Triple Crown… and America’s heart. (Note: Secretariat did not technically steal America’s heart.)
Pedigree: Familiar. After Disney made Remember The Titans, the studio held onto the mold for other inspirational period sports films. And as with Titans, they remembered to bring in some good actors (Lane and John Malkovich, who gives a colorful performance as Secretariat’s French-Canadian trainer.)
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. Good performances and well-timed uplift don’t disguise the fact that Secretariat’s story lacks the drama of Seabiscuit’s, and that writer-director Randall Wallace doesn’t have Gary Ross’ aptitude for getting beneath the surface of the horse’s era.
Advance word: Middlebrow thoroughbred.
Premise: In a bid to get a parole recommendation from a veteran corrections officer (Robert De Niro), a convicted arsonist (Edward Norton) enlists his sexy wife (Milla Jovovich) to help seal the deal.
Pedigree: Though the younger set know him as the grumpy retiree who makes squinty faces at Ben Stiller, De Niro was once considered the greatest actors of his time, winning Oscars for The Godfather, Part II and Raging Bull. For his part, Norton took a nomination right out of the gate with his creepy turn in Primal Fear, and got another for playing a slightly harder (and much more racist) convict in American History X.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 8. De Niro and Norton, the master and the prodigy, go toe-to-toe in an act-off for the ages, though it’s really just a relief to see De Niro care enough to give an effort this time. Writer-director John Curran adds to the air of Oscar-y importance with weighty themes of sin and moral judgment.
The view from TIFF: As strong as De Niro and Norton are in their scenes together, Stone belongs to Jovovich, whose work as a duplicitous sexpot draws from a grand tradition of femmes fatale. But whenever the film moves away from genre into serious moral inquiry, the weight of its ambition feels oppressive.
Premise: Gemma Arterton stars as a breezy journalist who returns to her late mother’s estate in the country and causes trouble for the people at a nearby writers’ retreat.
Pedigree: Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Moira Buffini work from a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, loosely based on Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd. It’s an update of the classic English pastoral, bringing together a cross-section of modern British society and keenly observing their interactions.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 3. If the actress field is thin, Arterton or Tasmin Greig (as the longsuffering wife of a bestselling crime novelist) could sneak into the fray, but otherwise, this movie is too low-impact to sway the Academy.
The view from TIFF: Tamara Drewe is full of bed-hopping and erudite banter, and sticks to the “lies and misunderstandings” mode of classic English literature, even as it acknowledges that things have changed in an era of gossip magazines and weekend rock festivals in farmers’ fields. The movie is enjoyable throughout, but way too scattered. The story might’ve been better told by the pair of local teenage girls who watch all the action from the periphery, mocking the adults’ pedestrian concerns.
Also in multiplexes: Do you want vicious killings or a Katherine Heigl comedy? Why not both? This week brings a remake of the grindhouse classic (is “classic” the right word?) I Spit On Your Grave and the Heigl-adopts-her-dead-friends’-baby romantic comedy Life As We Know It. Double feature still not doing it for you? How about the young-John-Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy, or My Soul To Take, Wes Craven’s first feature since the terrific 2005 thriller Red Eye?
The week of October 15
Premise: Hilary Swank stars as a high-school dropout who gets her degree and goes to law school so she can free her wrongly convicted brother (Sam Rockwell) from prison.
Pedigree: Casts don’t get much more high-powered than this: two-time Oscar-winner Swank, sure-to-be-nominated-someday Rockwell, and Oscar nominees Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, and Juliette Lewis. And at the helm? Um… Tony Goldwyn, director of the drippy Woodstock melodrama A Walk On The Moon and the middling Zach Braff romantic comedy The Last Kiss. Oh well.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. Even though Conviction couldn’t be more Oscar-bait-y—it’s like Rudy meets A Civil Action—Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray turn this true story into such a middlebrow cliché-fest that even the stodgy Academy will likely be unmoved. Still, the movie is well-acted, with an especially engaging supporting performance by Driver, playing Swank’s fellow non-traditional student chum.
The view from TIFF: The only remotely imaginative element in Conviction is its opening flashback, which explains what happened to Rockwell in a series of free-flowing, not strictly chronological moments. Other than that (and the performances), there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before, and much better.
Also in multiplexes: Through the magic of technology, Jackass 3-D offers the glittering promise of dudes getting kicked in the nuts in all three dimensions! Truly, all of cinema has been building up to this halcyon moment. Red has a nifty premise (retired government operatives led by Bruce Willis get revenge after being double-crossed), a terrific cast (Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Mary Louise Parker), and totally adequate execution.
The week of October 22
The Company Men
Premise: Leading a cast loaded with respected veterans—including Kevin Costner, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, Craig T. Nelson, and Maria Bello—Ben Affleck stars as a well-to-do corporate manager who loses his job to downsizing. Over the course of a year, he struggles to get back on track and maintain a lifestyle he can no longer afford.
Pedigree: As the trailer reminds us, Affleck, Cooper, Jones, and Costner have all won Oscars—though only two of the four for acting—but how about a word for John Wells, who’s making his cinematic directorial debut? Wells produced the Emmy-winning juggernauts ER and The West Wing, so he brings a wealth of awards-grubbing experience to the table.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. Like last year’s Oscar frontrunner, Up In The Air, The Company Men seems plugged into the economic anxieties of the time, addressing the humbling realities that face the newly unemployed, even those with white-collar backgrounds. Then again, Up In The Air faded badly down the stretch.
Advance word: The Company Men premièred way back in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it bowed to polite but unenthusiastic notices. The actors help redeem a script that overexplains everything and treats the story like a set of bullet points about the pernicious habits of publicly traded businesses.
Premise: In three parts of the world, three people deal with loss, then learn what links them.
Pedigree: Written by The Queen/The Last King Of Scotland scribe Peter Morgan and directed by Clint Eastwood, Hereafter is a spiritual drama featuring an international cast, headed up by Matt Damon, playing a blue-collar guy who discovers he can communicate with the dead.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. Eastwood’s track record with the Academy is impressive, but Hereafter might be a little too far out to make the cut for anything but the minor categories.
The view from TIFF: As usual, Eastwood’s latest has divided critics, mostly along generational lines. While older critics and the Hollywood trades hailed Eastwood for trying something new and imbuing a corny story with his own funky energy, the younger, web-based critics couldn’t get past the silliness.
Also in multiplexes: In the proud tradition of Blair Witch 2: Book Of Shadows, the achingly unnecessary sequel to the viral-sensation-turned-blockbuster Paranormal Activity 2 is hoping against hope that lightning will strike twice.
The week of October 29
Also in multiplexes: For a time, it looked like a woeful Night Of The Demons remake with Shannon Elizabeth and Edward Furlong would take a suicidal dash through the torture gauntlet, but once again, the Saw franchise looks like it will open uncontested on Halloween weekend. Saw 3-D (which would be Saw VII in crappy old regular-D) promises to literally come through the screen and decapitate everyone in the audience. It’s that advanced.
Tomorrow: Oscar-O-Meter part two, covering November and December in upcoming cinema.