Every year, the Toronto International Film Festival offers a fairly clear picture of the upcoming awards season, as Hollywood unveils many of the serious, self-important, and occasionally half-decent films that it hopes will be considered Oscar-worthy. But in a world where Crash can slip away with Best Picture like a thief in the night, what does that term even mean? Is there much correlation between the movies that win Oscars and the movies worth caring about?
To sort through the glut of prestige pictures, The A.V. Club presents its handy Oscar-O-Meter™ rating, set on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "Bring a dish to share at your neighbor's Oscar-watching party" and 10 being "Remember to thank your agent in your acceptance speech." The Oscar-O-Meter rating is based on a number of tried-and-true criteria, including but not limited to: Is it a literary adaptation? Is it topical without being too controversial? Risky without actually being provocative? Does it feature a star who lost weight, gained weight, or made some sort of radical Method transformation? Does it have a middlebrow sense of grandeur? Will Academy members feel good about themselves voting for it?
Armed with firsthand knowledge from the Toronto Film Festival, second-hand knowledge from other sources, and a few cases of wild speculation, we present an inside look at the high-toned films of fall.
Across The Universe
Premise: A cross-section of young Americans (plus one Liverpudlian) experience the turbulence of the late '60s—from dropping out to turning on—while singing the music of The Beatles in a sometimes-alarmingly modern style.
Pedigree: Director Julie Taymor, a Tony-winning innovator in American theater, has become a cult favorite for the dazzling spectacle of her two films to date, Titus and Frida.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. A simplistic story and borderline campy nostalgia probably won't impress the Academy—not even the Boomers—but dazzling spectacle does have its place on Oscar night, and that place is the Art Direction, Makeup, and Costume categories.
The view from TIFF: A schematic, '60-themed, Beatles-scored movie musical might've resonated with modern audiences, but in spite of some spirited performances by fresh-faced young actors, Across The Universe is frustratingly flat, with mostly mediocre musical numbers that rarely excuse the copious inane chatter surrounding them. Less talk, more rock, Taymor.
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Premise: Near the end of his run as a legendary outlaw, Jesse James (Brad Pitt) was forced to recruit a lot of shady characters to his gang, including Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), the peculiar young superfan who eventually shot him in the back.
Pedigree: Up-and-coming writer-director Andrew Dominik (Chopper). Brad Pitt, nominated for Twelve Monkeys in 1995, won Best Actor at Venice for the role. Five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo).
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. No clear heroes or villains. A narrative that drifts along like tumbleweed. A studio so despondent over poor test scores that it held the film back for a year. These aren't exactly the cornerstones of a successful Oscar campaign. However…
The view from TIFF: …McCabe And Mrs. Miller and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid probably wouldn't have gone over well with the yahoos at some California mall, either, and they've stood the test of time just fine. Dominik's gorgeous, moody anti-Western may not be a commercial juggernaut, but it's one of the most flavorful films of its kind to come along since the Wild West of '70s Hollywood.
In The Valley Of Elah
Premise: Tommy Lee Jones plays an ex-soldier investigating the disappearance of a son who just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. As he and put-upon single mom/police detective Charlize Theron dig deeper into the case, they discover some hard truths about how an ill-defined military mission can crush a man's soul.
Pedigree: Writer-director Paul Haggis is on a prestige-picture roll, following his screenplays for three consecutive acclaimed Clint Eastwood movies (Million Dollar Baby, Flags Of Our Fathers, and Letters From Iwo Jima, the latter of which he co-wrote) and his own Oscar-winning Crash.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. Haggis is an Academy favorite, and even if the movie itself doesn't have enough juice to crack the Best Picture race, the Haggis screenplay (co-written with Mark Boal) has a decent shot. Plus Jones would seem to be a shoo-in nominee, unless his superior turn in the trickier No Country For Old Men takes precedence.
The view from TIFF: Haggis has made a solid procedural here, fraught with tantalizingly ambiguous mysteries, but it all seems a little betwixt and between—too high-minded to be an entertaining genre piece, and too tasteful to say anything earthshaking.
Into The Wild
Premise: Frustrated by a culture of materialism, recent college graduate Emile Hirsch sheds his identity and his possessions and sets out on a cross-country adventure, culminating in a dangerous solo trek through the Alaskan wilderness.
Pedigree: It's based on a beloved, bestselling nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer, adapted for the screen and directed by Sean Penn—whose work behind the camera has lately been more compelling than his work in front of it.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 8. The Academy loves Penn and loves actors-turned-directors in general, and though this true story goes to some dark places, Penn softens the edges for once in his career, creating a warmly humane film with themes that will resonate with a lot of fuzzy-hearted Hollywood types. And if cinematographer Eric Gautier doesn't get a nomination, that branch should be shut down.
The view from TIFF: Penn possibly imposes too much of his own concerns on the story, making it all about the importance of family and natural preservation instead of one man's maddening egocentrism, but he still tells the story superbly, crafting one of the most fluid, intimate mainstream movies in recent memory.
Premise: In a Chinese twist on Black Book's sleeping-with-the-enemy World War II espionage tale, Ang Lee's drama follows a revolutionary (Tang Wei) who seduces a powerful leader (Tony Leung) in Japanese-occupied Shanghai.
Pedigree: Director Ang Lee was nominated for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and won the directing Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, but lost Best Picture to Crash. His longtime screenwriting collaborator, James Schamus, is also a two-time Oscar nominee.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. This classy production, beautifully staged by the reliably intelligent Lee, won the Golden Lion at Venice and has the exotic period sheen of Oscar winners like The Last Emperor. But if the NC-17 rating doesn't kill it, the torpid sex scenes will.
The view from TIFF: Judging from The Ice Storm and Brokeback, Lee is a master at depicting sexual repression, but he's never been much of a sensualist; for all the acrobatic NC-17 eroticism in Lust, Caution, it lacks real passion. And compared to the sexy spy heroics in Black Book, it's a cold fish.
The week of October 5:
Grace Is Gone
Premise: When John Cusack's career-soldier wife dies while serving in Iraq, Cusack takes their two young daughters on the road and tries to figure out how to break the news.
Pedigree: Perhaps Sundance's best hope, the film won the Audience Award and the Screenwriting Award at this year's festival. The Weinsteins paid a princely sum for it with the intention of pushing Cusack—who's never been nominated for an Oscar, let alone won—during awards season.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. With Rendition, Redacted, No End In Sight, and In The Valley Of Elah all in play, there's no shortage of Iraq films out there, though Grace goes for the softer, less political Coming Home approach. It also isn't Must Love Dogs, which seems to be about as good a role as Cusack can get lately.
The advance word: Reviews were mixed out of Sundance, with some complaining about the film's conventionality and lack of visual panache. But audiences clearly responded to it, and Harvey Weinstein will personally break the thumbs of Academy voters who don't.
Premise: In a plot that feels like it was pilfered from a John Grisham bestseller, George Clooney stars as a once-idealistic lawyer reduced to cleaning up the messes left by his high-powered law firm. When Clooney's manic-depressive mentor (Tom Wilkinson) goes loco, the slumbering conscience of the sexiest man in the world begins to stir.
Pedigree: In spite of the airport-paperback trappings, this one has pedigree up the wazoo, from first-time director Tony Gilroy (best known as the scribe behind the Bourne movies) to a cast top-lined by Clooney, Wilkinson, and arthouse diva Tilda Swinton.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. Clooney is an Oscar favorite, but the real contender is Wilkinson, whose incendiary performance echoes Peter Finch's legendary mad-as-hell Oscar turn in Network.
The view from TIFF: Believe the hype. This downbeat, melancholy drama does for the legal thriller what Gilroy's Bourne movies did for big-budget action thrillers; it imbues a sturdy commercial genre with refreshing moral ambiguity and infinite shades of grey.
Also in multiplexes: The Farrelly brothers' remake of The Heartbreak Kid looks primed to transform Elaine May's poisonously brilliant anti-romantic comedy about a young newlywed with a serious case of buyer's remorse into standard-issue Ben Stiller slapstick. The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising adapts Susan Cooper's bestselling novel about a young man who learns he's the last of a band of warriors destined to fight evil.
The week of October 12:
Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Premise: Elizabeth is Queen Of England and all is going well, except for a Catholic rival who wants her throne, a Spanish king who wants her dead, and a love life that's summed up in her nickname: The Virgin Queen. What's a girl to do?
Pedigree: This sequel to 1998's Elizabeth re-teams director Shekhar Kapur and star Cate Blanchett. Also on board: Thinking person's dreamboat Clive Owen and Samantha Morton (as Mary, Queen Of Scots).
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. It's just too shallow, and it features a rare weak performance from Blanchett. Still, Oscar has been fooled by worse films.
The view from TIFF: Elizabeth may have grown into her role of queen over time, but the years have made Kapur an even more facile director, trafficking in images with little depth in spite of the meaty historical material.
Also in multiplexes: Writer-director Greg McLean follows up his cult shocker Wolf Creek with Rogue, a horror film involving a killer crocodile. And Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married? finds the prolific one-man industry exploring marriage and the ever-present temptations of infidelity without his beloved/reviled "Madea" character.
The week of October 19
Gone Baby Gone
Premise: Based on the Dennis Lehane novel, this somber procedural follows a pair of private investigators (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) hired to do "neighborhood work" in a high-profile child-abduction case.
Pedigree: Debuting director Ben Affleck won an Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting, and this is his first script since. The previous Lehane adaptation, Mystic River, collected numerous nominations and wins for Best Actor (Sean Penn) and Best Supporting Actor (Tim Robbins).
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. The relentlessly downbeat nature of the story, which often leaves characters choosing between bad and worse, doesn't really work in the film's favor. But the Academy loves to vote for actor-directors, and with this thoughtful, serious effort, Affleck's time in the creative wilderness may be coming to an end.
The advance word: Much like The Departed—and Good Will Hunting, to a lesser extent—the film has an authentic feel for the mood and vernacular of working-class Boston, and unsurprisingly, Affleck coaxes strong performances from his fellow actors. His direction is more workmanlike than inspired, but he follows Lehane closely, step by dread-soaked step.
Premise: The hot-button issue of extrajudicial detentions and torture gets mashed with this Syriana/Traffic-like drama about an American citizen jailed for suspected terrorist activities.
Pedigree: Director Gavin Hood won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year for Tsotsi, and Alan Arkin won Best Supporting Actor for Little Miss Sunshine. Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress the year before with Walk The Line. What could possibly go wrong?
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 3. Here's a serious, "important," well-intentioned Iraq drama that features an all-star cast, is topical without ruffling too many feathers, and will no doubt leave Academy members feeling like they're voting their conscience. So why isn't this a lock for every category not featuring the effects guy from the Lord Of The Rings trilogy?
The view from TIFF: Because it isn't very good. Hood offers up a dozen major characters, but their first impression is the same as their last, which reduces them all to pieces in a politically contrived puzzle. Only Peter Sarsgaard, as a senator's aide who helps Witherspoon find her "missing" husband, exhibits anything like nuance.
Premise: Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo play strangers brought together by a fatal car accident, which shatters their formerly happy upper-middle-class families.
Pedigree: The high-powered cast also includes Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino, all guided by Hotel Rwanda helmer Terry George.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. Award-winning actors confronting tragedy is usually a sure-fire way to get the Academy's attention, but…
The view from TIFF: … no one was doing cartwheels over Reservation Road when it screened in Toronto. After In The Bedroom, Little Children, We Don't Live Here Anymore, Ordinary People, and The Crossing Guard, this kind of extreme domestic melodrama may seem a little overfamiliar.
Also in multiplexes: A comic book getting turned into a movie? It sounds crazy, but that's just what happened with 30 Days Of Night, a Halloween horror flick about a town plagued by a month of darkness. And also vampires. But mainly darkness. After years of fine supporting work, David Koechner finally snags a starring role in The Comebacks, a ramshackle spoof of plucky underdog-sports movies co-starring Carl Weathers. Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro go gunning for that elusive second Oscar in Things We Lost In The Fire, a somber drama about a widow and a reformed junkie united in grief. It's mournful-tastic!
The week of October 26
Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Premise: Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman play financially strapped brothers who decide to rob their parents' suburban strip-mall jewelry store, and deal with the repercussions when the heist goes awry.
Pedigree: Director Sidney Lumet knows his way around subtle, realistic crime dramas, and how to guide top-flight actors like Hoffman, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei to peak performances.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. Because Lumet has already won a lifetime achievement award, the Academy might not be inclined to recognize his fine work here, and the piece might be too low-key and genre-bound to rouse much interest in the actors, terrific though they are. But Kelly Masterson's purposefully twisty script should get a serious look.
The view from TIFF: It's tempting to overrate this nifty, at times nasty little caper movie because it's such a pleasure to watch, and full of well-observed, human-scaled moments. It's a fine, fine film—yet pretty far from a masterpiece.
Also in multiplexes: The astonishingly generic posters for the romantic dramedy Dan In Real Life could just as well consist of the words "Steve Carell is in a movie" in a nice font. Then again, the plot, starring Carell as a nice-guy single parent in love with his brother's girlfriend, sounds astonishingly generic too. Warning: Dane Cook. Run Fat Boy Run has Hot Fuzz's Simon Pegg instead of Cook, but also features an unpromising romantic-comedy plot, about a pudgy guy running a marathon to win back the pregnant fiancée he dumped. Warning: David Schwimmer's feature-film directorial debut. Then there's Saw IV. Warning: Yet another Saw movie.
The week of November 2
The Kite Runner
Premise: Khaled Hosseini's beloved historical novel about boyhood friendship and betrayal in Afghanistan comes to the big screen, epic sweep intact.
Pedigree: Director Marc Foster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction) has so far shown only promise, not greatness, yet screenwriter David Benioff (The 25th Hour, Troy) has a shown a remarkable flair for dialogue and structure. Still, the last time these two guys collaborated, the result was the pretty lousy Stay.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. A story that spans a long stretch of time, set in a political hot spot, based on a bestseller, featuring kite-flying contests and rape? Foster and Benioff are going to have to work pretty hard to screw this up.
The advance word: Some controversy has already risen over the treatment of the child actors in the film; they were reportedly paid little, and are now afraid that their fellow Afghanis will confuse them with their characters and torment them. Dreamworks and Paramount Vantage should pay these kids' way out of Kabul unless they want some ugly pre-awards-season buzz.
Also in multiplexes: Ridley Scott's latest, American Gangster, features Denzel Washington playing '70s drug kingpin Frank Lucas, and Russell Crowe as the detective out to bring him down. It also features Scott's usual love of sharp visuals filled with snow, rain, dust, and other flying particles. Bee Movie continues a trend that didn't need continuing: CGI kids' movies about wacky animals voiced by celebrities. In this case, Jerry Seinfeld as a bee unhappy about hive life, in what really seems like an Antz retread. Another trend that didn't need continuing—films about precocious, special children who change lives—gets another outing with Martian Child, starring John Cusack, doing the About A Boy thing with an alienated kid who insists he's from Mars. At least the grave, super-sincere trailers suggest it won't be The Game Plan redux.
The week of November 9
Lion For Lambs
Premise: The fate of two idealistic students-turned-soldiers in Afghanistan rests on the revelations a Democratic senator (Tom Cruise) offers to a TV journalist (Meryl Streep).
Pedigree: Director Robert Redford stole the Picture and Director Oscars from Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull in 1980. Streep has been nominated 14 times and won twice, though not since Sophie's Choice in 1983. Cruise has been a Best Actor bridesmaid three times. Streep and Redford appeared together in Out Of Africa, which also won Best Picture, inexplicably.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. Much is at stake for Cruise, who needs a classy title to launch his revitalized UA label and put the shine back on his tarnished image. Redford was the safest possible choice to direct, given the movies about rehabilitation he's directed, like A River Runs Through It and The Legend Of Bagger Vance. (Will Smith doesn't carry Cruise's golf bag, however.) But didn't A Few Good Men cover this territory already?
The advance word: Conspicuously quiet. Cruise and UA chose to bypass a Toronto unveiling for a bow at the much more modest Los Angeles Film Festival, barely a week before opening day. Is this damage control, or is Redford busy polishing a diamond?
No Country For Old Men
Premise: Sociopathic killer-for-hire Javier Bardem tracks a suitcase full of money across Texas, intersecting with laconic hunter Josh Brolin, slick mercenary Woody Harrelson, and exhausted sheriff Tommy Lee Jones.
Pedigree: Based on a popular novel by Cormac McCarthy, one of America's greatest living writers, and adapted for the screen by Joel and Ethan Coen, who broke out of the cult-movie ghetto long ago.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. The success of The Departed last year—and the fact that the Coens were nominated for Fargo—shows that the Academy isn't always turned off by violent crime sagas, but No Country For Old Men is really violent, and both chilling and elusive in its meaning.
The view from TIFF: After diddling about with two frothy comedies they didn't originate, the Coens reach a new peak on their first real literary adaptation. No Country For Old Men is assured, exact, suspenseful, funny, and haunting—synthesizing the best of the brothers' past work into a new, mature aesthetic.
Also in multiplexes: No, Fred Claus isn't yet another Santa Clause sequel, but it should tide over the people who can't make it through a holiday season without one. The lame goofery involving Santa's troublemaking older brother Vince Vaughn sure looks mighty Tim Allen friendly…
The week of November 16
Love In The Time Of Cholera
Premise: Javier Bardem and Giovanna Mezzogiorno play childhood sweethearts who reunite in their old age, after spending a lifetime avoiding and missing each other in ways both desperate and mundane.
Pedigree: Gabriel Garcia Márquez's novel is one of the few late-20th-century books that has both sold well and garnered a strong literary reputation.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. A story this floridly melodramatic, with a cast of non-WASPs, could break either way with the Academy, though director Mike Newell and screenwriter Ronald Harwood have been involved with a few Oscar-nominated films in the past.
The advance word: Magical realism had a good run in the movies after the success of Like Water For Chocolate, but by the mid-'90s, everyone was sick of it. Is it time for a revival? And are a pair of middling British filmmakers the right men to make it happen?
Margot At The Wedding
Premise: In Noah Baumbach's follow-up to The Squid And The Whale, bride-to-be Jennifer Jason Leigh plays an emotionally unstable woman who invites estranged, judgmental Manhattanite sister Nicole Kidman to her Long Island home. Not surprisingly, Kidman doesn't approve of Leigh's goofy fiancé, played by Jack Black.
Pedigree: The Squid And The Whale fetched an Original Screenplay nomination after becoming the year's biggest indie sleeper. Kidman has long been one of Hollywood's most glamorous and talented stars, and she was rewarded an Oscar for her nose-job in The Hours.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 1. Squid may have established Baumbach as Woody Allen's heir apparent, but here, he spends all that currency on a prickly, discomfiting family drama with no sympathetic characters, no clean resolution, and no obvious "message."
The view from TIFF: Fortunately, the same qualities that make it repellent as awards fodder are what make it special, too. Margot doesn't coddle its audience, and its uncompromising nature leads to some devastating (and devastatingly funny) observations about its screwed-up characters.
Also in multiplexes: Stardust pretty well tanked in theaters; it'll be interesting to see whether filmgoers are author-savvy enough to notice that writer Neil Gaiman was also behind the similarly large and mythic classic fable Beowulf. More likely, though, they'll flock to Robert Zemeckis' latest because the visuals make it look like 300 II: More Muscley Near-Naked Dudes Posing In Awesome Computer Environments. Meanwhile, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium closely resembles a misbegotten mating between Toys and Tim Burton's Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. Dustin Hoffman is rapidly becoming the new Robin Williams, the man who puts the "Oh God, PLEASE NO" in a preview trailer.
The week of November 23
I'm Not There
Premise: Six periods in the life of the mercurial Bob Dylan get interpreted by six different actors—including Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere and Cate Blanchett—in a radical re-imagination of the biopic.
Pedigree: Writer-director Todd Haynes has built his reputation on offbeat movies that toy with pop's deeper meanings, from the impact of a Barbie-doll mentality (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) to the subtext of '50s Douglas Sirk melodramas (Far From Heaven).
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. Outside of Blanchett's riveting turn as the mid-'60s "electric" Dylan, this isn't really a movie pitched at the Academy's frequency.
The view from TIFF: When pop-culture historians look back at 2007, I'm Not There is going to be one of those movies they cite to prove this was a landmark year. For all its muddled purpose and awkward experimentation, this film represents the kind of chance-taking and rich vision that our top auteurs should be attempting more often.
Also in multiplexes: Robin Williams lends his oppressive twinkle to August Rush, a precious-sounding music-filled drama about a pair of photogenic young musicians (Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and the son (Freddie Highmore) who got away. Old-school fairy tales get yet another contemporary spin in Disney's Enchanted, a live action/animation hybrid about a magical princess (Amy Adams) exiled to New York city by evil queen Susan Sarandon. Moviegoers' love affair with video-game adaptations continues with Hitman, an action-thriller based on the popular Hitman: Code Name 47. Quirky character actor Timothy Olyphant takes on a rare lead role. Will the world ever tire of Stephen King adaptations? The makers of Stephen King's Mist—a Frank Darabont-directed shocker about a sinister mist containing terrifying beasties—sure hope not.
The week of November 30
Premise: Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play working-class brothers who agree to do a criminal favor for their rich uncle Tom Wilkinson in order to pay off some gambling debts.
Pedigree: It's Woody Allen, still in UK tourist mode, kicking out another deliberate crime drama à la Match Point.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. The word on this when it played the Venice film festival was pretty toxic, with critics calling it a preposterous potboiler that verges on self-parody. Then again…
The view from TIFF: …the critics who saw it in Toronto were far more forgiving, with some saying that had Cassandra's Dream been released first, it would have been hailed as fresh and invigorating, and Match Point would be considered the pale retread.
The week of December 7
Premise: Based on Ian McEwan's novel, this period piece looks at the devastating consequences a single lie has on two would-be lovers, played by Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.
Pedigree: McEwan is one of an elite handful of novelists who's both highly regarded and widely read. Formidable playwright Christopher Hampton wrote the adaptation. Knightley and director Joe Wright last collaborated on 2005's lively, stylish version of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 9. A gorgeously appointed period piece, a classy literary adaptation, and a sweeping war romance all at once? In case The English Patient didn't immediately spring to mind, its director (Anthony Minghella) actually turns in a cameo appearance here. Only its cerebral nature is holding it back.
The view from TIFF: Though it initially looks like another frilly Merchant-Ivory romance, Atonement pulls the rug away and becomes another kind of movie, one that deals with uglier human impulses like jealousy, self-interest, and possibly unforgivable lies. It's beautifully orchestrated, though curiously unaffecting.
Premise: George Clooney co-writes, directs, and stars as a football-team player-owner who suffers a crisis of conscience when comely reporter Renée Zellweger questions the war-hero past of star player John Krasinski. It's a little like Bull Durham, but with football. And set in the '20s.
Pedigree: The last time Clooney stepped behind the camera, he made the very respectable Good Night, And Good Luck.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. Clooney's award chances this year are most likely pinned to his performance in Michael Clayton, because…
The advance word: …this is reportedly a rough-and-tumble throwback romantic comedy, equal parts Coen brothers and Howard Hawks. As The Good German proved last year, self-indulgent stylistic exercises rarely play outside the director's private screening room.
Also in multiplexes: Is there a studio out there right now that isn't hoping to lay hands on some of that sweet, sweet post-Lord Of The Rings fantasy-fan dough? Certainly not the makers of The Golden Compass, a big-budget, epic-scale fantasy starring Nicole Kidman, and based on the terrific first book of a Philip Pullman fantasy trilogy that started going pretty sharply downhill as of the second installment.
The week of December 14
Premise: When 16-year-old wiseacre Ellen Page gets knocked up, she finds a squeaky-clean yuppie couple (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) that's excited about adoption, but their lives soon become uncomfortably intertwined.
Pedigree: Director Jason Reitman, son of comedy mainstay Ivan, won a lot of good will with his snarky debut comedy, Thank You For Smoking. Stripper-turned-ad-copywriter-turned-debut-screenwriter Diablo Cody has a colorful backstory to match her talent. Page, so electric in the disturbing psychodrama Hard Candy, looks ready to establish herself as an up-and-coming star.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. With its precious, winsome story of eccentric alternative families, Juno seems primed to be this year's Little Miss Sunshine, and it has the same distributor (Fox Searchlight) to boot. As a tale of unplanned pregnancy, it has Knocked Up's sweet irreverence, but none of the crudity.
The view from TIFF: Explosive applause at the public première, and why not? The first 10 minutes or so are insufferably quirky, but from the moment Page decides to put the baby up for adoption, this bittersweet comedy starts to click and doesn't stop, thanks largely to her dynamic performance, which masks deep feeling behind protective layers of irony.
Premise: The alleged real-life rape and murder of a teenage Iraqi girl by a troop of U.S. soldiers gets reenacted by writer-director Brian De Palma, a cast of young actors, and a dozen different media sources, from security cameras to video blogs.
Pedigree: De Palma began his career as a socially conscious avant-garde filmmaker, and to his devotees, he's never stopped commenting on the culture at large, even when making neo-noirs and Hitchcockian thrillers.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 0. De Palma has never been an Academy favorite, even at his most mainstream, and this intentionally off-putting exercise in media criticism—which even riffs on his own far superior Casualties Of War—is unlikely to get a full screening by most Oscar voters.
The view from TIFF: As in Venice and Telluride, Redacted was heralded in Toronto by some camps and derided by others, though frankly, the former seemed to be reacting more to the intent than the result, and the latter were too annoyed by that result to properly credit De Palma for his intentions. Still, on its own merits, even accounting for De Palma's filmmaking eccentricities, Redacted is pretty much a botch.
Youth Without Youth
Premise: Based on a novella by Romanian author Mircea Eliade, Francis Ford Coppola's first feature in 10 years stars Tim Roth as a professor whose involvement in a cataclysmic incident prior to World War II sends him on the run through places as far-flung as Switzerland, India, and Malta.
Pedigree: Coppola won his first Oscar for his Patton screenplay, then later got Best Picture and Director nominations for both Godfather movies (he won for II) and a Palme D'Or for Apocalypse Now. But that was all three decades ago.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. Coppola is touting Youth Without Youth as his return to "personal filmmaking," which presumably means it has more personality than The Rainmaker or Jack, but implies a close connection to idiosyncratic projects like The Rain People and One From The Heart.
The advance word: The film is shrouded in mystery, with no festival premières planned and not even a synopsis on its official website. Even the teaser trailer only offers a jumble of pretty images and Bruno Ganz thickly whispering, "We are running out of time."
Also in multiplexes: There's really only one thing to say about a live-action Alvin And The Chipmunks, featuring attituded-up CGI rodents opposite Jason Lee as Dave Seville: "Make it stop make it stop I'm begging you I'll be good aaauuuugh!" Okay, you could probably also say "Screw that, I'm going to go see Will Smith put his Serious Hero hat back on in the Richard Matheson adaptation I Am Legend instead, even though it really looks like they turned it into 28 Days Later."
The week of December 21
The Diving Bell And The Butterfly
Premise: Director/artist Julian Schnabel follows up Basquiat and Before Night Falls with yet another biopic, this one about Elle France editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who blinked out a memoir when a stroke left his entire body—save for his left eye—debilitated.
Pedigree: Schnabel's knack for biopics about tortured artists finally paid off for him at Cannes this year, where Diving Bell scored him a Director prize and a special technical award for cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Writer Ronald Harwood won an Oscar in 2001 for adapting The Pianist.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. Schnabel's respect in the art world has thus far carried over to the mainstream, because his films, though about eccentric geniuses, aren't terribly eccentric themselves. Here, his painterly collage of dreams and memories proves similarly accessible.
The view from TIFF: Though widely celebrated at Cannes, Diving Bell received an unexpectedly muted reaction at Toronto, though that may be a consequence of having premièred at another festival first. At worst, it could fade like Alejandro Amenábar's similar The Sea Inside, but it's also much better liked.
Premise: Johnny Depp plays a falsely accused ex-con who returns to London to take revenge on the aristocracy—and in particular, on the man responsible for his wife's death—by slitting the throats of the customers in his barber chair, and giving their corpses to Helena Bonham Carter to be ground into meat pies. And oh yes, it's a musical!
Pedigree: The original Tony-winning Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler stage production has been revived and performed in repertory ever since it debuted in 1979.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 8. A year ago, just about any prestigious big-budget movie musical would've been considered a shoo-in for multiple nominations and awards. Then Dreamgirls happened. Other mitigating factors: director Tim Burton might not be able to resist embellishing the material with his cartoon-gothic sensibility, and as Sondheim musicals go, Sweeney Todd is aimed more at the brain than the heart. Still, even Dreamgirls had a presence at last year's Oscars, and it's hard to believe that this won't as well.
The advance word: Can Depp and Carter sing? Will the movie be too bloody? Who cares? Sondheim fans have been waiting for decades for a respectable film version of his work.
Also in multiplexes: All the mysteries left lingering at the end of the not-at-all-ridiculous "Nicolas Cage must steal the Declaration of Independence" adventure blockbuster National Treasure will be resolved in the achingly essential sequel, National Treasure: Book Of Secrets. Crack screenwriter turned director Richard LaGravenese solidifies his reputation as the best thing to happen to women's movies since George Cukor with P.S. I Love You, a tearjerker about a young widow (Hilary Swank) who's sure to have Oprah viewers reaching for the tissues. Super-producer Judd Apatow expands his kingdom of chuckles with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a John C. Reilly vehicle that spoofs biopics like Walk The Line.
The week of December 28
Charlie Wilson's War
Premise: Tom Hanks plays a congressman who, in the early '80s, with the help of a Houston socialite (played by Julia Roberts) and a CIA grunt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), funneled money and arms to the Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Pedigree: Between them, director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (adapting a non-fiction book by George Crile) have received enough good reviews to wallpaper a mansion.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 9. Sorkin can be an annoying writer, but the high-living world of Charlie Wilson and his cronies—and the irony of their success—seem to be right in his wheelhouse. And Nichols has been decidedly more engaged as a director over the past several years than he was in the '90s.
The advance word: This one has been kept on the down-low so far, which isn't necessarily bad. Every year, the studios hold one or two of their major contenders back, hoping to catch critics and Academy members looking for some fresh meat at the end of the warmed-over awards-season buffet.
Premise: Marjane Satrapi's graphic-novel memoirs become an animated feature, following her secular girlhood in Iran during the Islamic revolution of the late '70s, and her disillusionment with the Euro-punk crowd she falls in with when she travels abroad.
Pedigree: Satrapi's books have become surprise bestsellers around the world, and have won piles of comic-book and publishing awards.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 8. Remember that no-doubt Best Animated Feature win for Ratatouille? Well, now there's doubt.
The view from TIFF: Even people who've never read Satrapi's comics have responded warmly to the way the movie pops with poster-ready imagery and snappy cartoon gags. Satrapi and animator Vincent Paronnaud maintain the episodic nature of her original story, but find a strong thread in the theme of how freedom begets responsibility, no matter where you live.
Premise: When their irascible elderly father (Philip Bosco) loses his wife and his mental faculties, siblings Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are left to figure out what to do with him.
Pedigree: Writer-director Tamara Jenkins debuted impressively with 1998's Slums Of Beverly Hills, but hasn't made a follow-up until now. Hoffman won Best Actor for the title role in Capote. Linney has been nominated twice (for Kinsey and You Can Count On Me), but hasn't won.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. Though a common problem in the real world, grown children having to take care of their ailing parents is a rare premise for a movie, and rarer still for being treated with such unsparing gravity. (That's an Oscar minus, incidentally.) But Linney is overdue for some recognition, and her fine work here should earn her some.
The view from TIFF: As in Beverly Hills, Jenkins defines her characters well and has a knack for observational humor, but her tone is muted and sad, and she refuses to tack smiley-faces onto a tough, possibly lose-lose situation. Hopefully, Jenkins won't wait another nine years to make another movie.
There Will Be Blood!
Premise: Loosely based on Upton Sinclair's book Oil!, Paul Thomas Anderson's first effort in five years stars Daniel Day-Lewis as an misanthropic turn-of-the-century Texas oil prospector who makes his fortune alongside a charismatic preacher (Paul Dano) more skilled at winning over the locals.
Pedigree: Anderson has always been one of those directors whose films (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) are more popular with critics' groups than mainstream bodies. Day-Lewis has won one Oscar (My Left Foot) and only deigns to appear in substantial projects.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. Anderson isn't the sort to compromise for Academy fogies, but the film's literary and period trappings are more in line with what they usually go for. The reclusive Day-Lewis doesn't come out of semi-retirement often, but he always makes it count when he does. The film's gorgeous, Days Of Heaven-era Terrence Malick look won't hurt, either.
The advance word: Outside of a cryptic teaser trailer, the only footage anyone has seen of Anderson's film was a single completed reel, shown as part of a tribute to Day-Lewis at Telluride. Those in attendance were reportedly wowed by what they saw, but the film is still a big question mark.
Also in multiplexes: Know what the world needs? More aliens, more Predators, and more naked fanboy wish-fulfillment films like Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem. But if instead it needed more Eragon and The Secret Of Roan Inish, it could probably meet both needs just about equally with the kids' fantasy The Water Horse: Legend Of The Deep. Unfortunately, the film isn't likely to meet anyone's Oscar-related needs. But it's always vaguely possible that we're wrong. We'll just have to wait and find out when the statuettes get handed out on Feb. 24, 2008.