A guide to autumn's biggest Oscar-Bait films
In case you hadn't noticed—or you're one of those rightly smug folk who don't live in a place where it's face-meltingly hot during the summer—the weather has changed. The mercury is dropping to tolerable levels as we leave behind the summer and enter the season of Oscar. That's right. It's that time. Again.
Five long months of superficial coverage that devalues the very hard work of thousands of people who only ever wanted to make something that moves and excites us. Five long months of arbitrarily pitting one great work of art against another, and asking audiences to buy into the charade of a multi-billion dollar industry patting itself on the back.
And will we subject you to this painful nonsense, you ask? You're damn right!
The trouble with Oscar season isn't the impossible task of deciding which film deserves to be called 'Best Picture', or whose commanding monologue is loud enough to earn the 'Best Supporting Actor' nod despite having only one scene. That's all fun and games, in the end. No, the real trouble is seeing all the movies. There are too many!
How can one person even keep track of what's coming out, and when, and which ones to pay attention to, and which ones you'll have to see even though you don't want to but you know they're going to get nominated for Best Production Design and you're a completist despite having a job and a spouse and three kids and it's hard enough to find a sitter in this town but, dammit, Dame Helen Mirren is in it and…
Sorry. Sorry about that. Oscar season gets us pumped. The point is, we're here to help you sort it all out. And since it's not an Oscars write-up without creating meaningless categories and shoving films into them practically at random, let's start with the first category:
1. The Bait
Look, let's not pretend Oscar-bait exists. It's real. There are films that only get the green light because they may later come home with a golden statue. What divides bait from not? Impossible to tell, especially when we haven't seen the films. So here goes nothing!
Hacksaw Ridge (November 4)
World War II? Check. Anti-violence message? Check. Appeal to Christians? Hmm. Mel Gibson directing? Hoo boy. Hacksaw Ridge, horror movie-esque title aside, looks on paper like perfect Oscar bait. Andrew Garfield stars as a soldier who refuses to carry a weapon, and manages to save the lives of over 75 men. It's going to be thrilling, and moving, and an inspiration. Unfortunately, it's also directed by Mel Gibson, so despite its baity qualities, it's easy to see the Academy treating him like a persona non grata unless the thing is an enormous hit. Maybe some technical award nominations?
Lion (November 25)
Dev Patel plays the real-life Saloo Brierley, who was adopted and raised by parents in Australia, and manages to find and reunite with his biological family using Google Earth. Now this is some quality bait right here. It'll have laughter and tears, and it'll make you feel great about life and humanity and our relationship with our technological corporate overlords. It's also got Nicole Kidman! I mean, really. What more can you possibly ask for? One of the Mara sisters? Well, this one's got Rooney. You're welcome.
Miss Sloane (December 9)
There's always an issues movie. Because what would Oscar season be without at least one movie about a scrappy, undeterred white collar worker stickin' it to the man and fighting for the little guy, uncovering injustice and changing the world? This year, that film is Miss Sloane, which stars Jessica Chastain as a Washington lobbyist, stickin' it to the gun industry by trying to get meaningful reform legislation passed through congress. Are we looking at the next The Insider or Erin Brockovich? I guarantee its distributor is hoping so.
Collateral Beauty (December 16)
Will Smith stars as a man grieving the death of his daughter, while his friends try to help him overcome the tragedy and carry on with his life. Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Edward Norton, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, and the Dame herself, Helen Mirren, all co-star. You don't assemble a cast like that around a subject like parental loss without intending to bait some Academy voters.
2. The Dignified Bait
See, there's bait, and then there's dignified bait. What's the difference? We have no idea, but you kind of know it when you see it. They're the films that function like bait, but seem like they contain some deeper layers.
The Birth of a Nation (October 7)
Yes. This one is going to be hard. It comes with controversy surrounding director and star Nate Parker, and that may keep Oscar voters and audiences away. Then again, it's a film about Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in the 18th century, touching on America's racist past and foregrounding the experiences of black Americans trapped in the bonds of enslavement. Buzz at Sundance was so hot it won the film an unprecedented distribution deal. It's a film to watch out for, controversy or not.
Moonlight (October 21)
Barry Jenkins directs Trevante Rhodes in a film about a black man working through his youth growing up during the War on Drugs, and his sexual orientation. Moonlight looks like a powerful, artful, extremely emotional tale. While it stars some great actors, including Naomie Harris and Andre Holland, it isn't exactly screaming for awards attention. It may get some, though, and by all accounts it's entirely deserving.
Loving (November 4)
The true story of the husband and wife whose case went before the Supreme Court and led to the overturning of laws banning interracial marriage would ordinarily be straight up bait. But add director Jeff Nichols, and stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton to the mix, and you're sure to get something much more. Word from Cannes and Toronto indicates that it's not the standard inspirational courtroom drama you might expect, instead focusing intimately on Mildred and Richard Loving's marriage.
Manchester by the Sea (November 18)
Casey Affleck stars as a man who has suffered serious loss and must go back to his hometown after his brother passes away. The film, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is as spare as can be, but packs an extraordinary punch. It will make you cry. A lot. But it's not just a tearjerker. It's a film of great warmth, and often very funny. Meanwhile, Affleck delivers a performance that deserves every award he will surely receive. He's extraordinary to watch.
Jackie (December 2)
Natalie Portman stars as Jackie Kennedy. That's Oscar bait right there. But Jackie also happens to be directed by Pablo Larraín, whose 2012 film No made waves on the foreign film scene. If the hype is to be believed, Jackie is far more that your typical biopic, even drawing comparisons to the sci-fi thriller Under the Skin. Color me intrigued.
La La Land (December 9)
Academy voters love musicals, so it's no surprise that Damien Chazelle's second feature is getting awards attention. But in this case, the attention is less to do with the fact that its characters break into song than with the fact that it's pretty damn fantastic. It's stylish as hell, features beautiful, charged performances, and its story—about a young jazz pianist and would-be actress falling in love and then facing the hardships of pursuing art and a relationship—has surprising depth. Plus, it's got song and dance and will remind you of old Hollywood.
Fences (December 2)
Denzel Washington directs himself and Viola Davis in an adaptation of August Wilson's classic play (in which Washington and Davis also starred on Broadway). There was already awards talk surrounding the film, and then the trailer dropped and blew everyone away. They could release those two-and-a-half minutes alone, call it a day, and still Washington and Davis would be frontrunners for Oscars. Let's hope the film lives up to the hype.
3. The Stalwart Bait
There's the bait, and the dignified bait, but then there are the stalwarts—those filmmakers that get their films nominated just because they took the time to make one.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (November 11)
Releasing on Veteran's Day, Ang Lee's new film about an Iraq war veteran returned home, but still dealing with his harrowing experiences, hits all the buttons of classic Oscar fodder. Throw in the fact that it's also shot in 3D and at 120 frames per second, look for this one to get a lot of technical awards attention.
Allied (November 23)
Robert Zemeckis has had a mixed relationship with the Academy, sometimes getting too much attention, and other times not enough. It's hard to say which camp Allied will fall into, but a WWII romance starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard is not nothing. Then again, it might just get swallowed up by a busy season and all the Brangelina talk and end up ignored like last year's The Walk.