Yesterday, we launched our annual fall film preview by reminding readers about the Oscar-O-Meter™, a handy prognosticating formula that measures Academy interest in upcoming films on a scale of 1 to 10. Today, we wrap up the rest of the prestige season into a neat little list, suitable for framing, collecting, and trading with your Oscar-prognosticating friends.
The week of November 5
Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer
Premise: Going beyond the sex scandal that led to Eliot Spitzer’s resignation from the governorship of New York, Alex Gibney’s documentary exposes a conspiracy between Wall Street bigwigs and GOP operatives who set out to kneecap Spitzer, a crusading idealist who threatened the way they did business.
Pedigree: Gibney won a Best Documentary Oscar for Taxi To The Dark Side, his harrowing film about an Afghan cabbie who was tortured and killed by his American captors. He also took an earlier nomination for Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. Gibney has won a lot of respect as a left-leaning investigative filmmaker, but the sheer quantity of films he’s producing—four this year, also including Casino Jack And The United States Of Money, Freakonomics, and My Trip To Al-Qaeda—puts him at war with himself awards-wise.
The view from TIFF: Client 9 doesn’t forgive Spitzer his indiscretions or hypocrisy, but it lays out the convincing case that he hastened his downfall with his take-no-prisoners leadership style, which rubbed the wrong people the wrong way. In the end, Gibney’s story is less about Spitzer than about the soft-bellied culture of backroom wheeler-dealers who hold the real power in government and business.
Premise: Cocky dude? Meet heavy rock.
Pedigree: From director Danny Boyle and his Slumdog Millionaire screenwriting partner Simon Beaufoy comes this stirring, gruesome survival tale, starring James Franco as a thrill-seeker who goes on a solo excursion in the canyons of Utah, then runs into trouble when his arm gets pinned by a big boulder. The title refers to the amount of time Franco spends immobile before he makes a grave decision to work himself free.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 8. This true story is often revolting in its clinical detail, but its payoffs are so thrilling that voters may not mind the stomach-turning gore. Also, Franco is a shoo-in nominee for what amounts to a one-man show.
The view from TIFF: 127 Hours starts out with a fine sense of excitement and potential, and hits some real highs along the way, but Boyle just doesn’t fill the gaps that well. He employs a lot of visual gimmickry to indicate the passing of time and what’s running through Franco’s head, but it’s all in service of a pat lesson about how much people need people. Still, it’s an admirable effort, and many viewers are likely to connect with it.
Premise: Various Bush administration meanies and late conservative columnist Robert Novak out Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) as a CIA operative in retaliation for her diplomat husband Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn) casting doubt on the Bush rationale for the Iraq War. Shit gets ugly.
Pedigree: High. Penn and producer Akiva Goldsman are both Oscar winners, and Fair Game boasts fascinating, semi-timely subject matter. Then again, so did A Mighty Heart and Nothing But The Truth (Rod Lurie’s fictionalized take on the Plame affair), and those didn’t exactly set the world aflame.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 3. Fair Game has a lot going for it, awards-wise: a hotshot director, a producer (Batman & Robin scribe Goldsman) festooned with Oscar gold, two heavyweight leads, and an important story ripped from the headlines. But has the Academy overdosed on films about the Iraq War? Is it too late for Fair Game to still feel relevant?
Advance word: Director Doug Liman (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) does an amazingly zingy job of laying out the convoluted CIA-leak scandal, but his later attempts to turn Plame and Wilson into martyrs are a little overblown.
Also in multiplexes: In between directing The Hangover and the upcoming The Hangover 2, director Todd Phillips paused to make Due Date, a road-trip comedy that looks like the second coming of John Hughes’ Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Traveling cross-country to attend the birth of his child, Robert Downey Jr. is saddled with obnoxious boor Zach Galifianakis. Meanwhile, For Colored Girls—a screen adaptation of the acclaimed 1975 Broadway play/poem collection For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, might have registered on the Oscar-O-Meter, given its pedigree, its vast cast of name actors and musicians, and its serious, touching subject matter. But it’s the latest Tyler Perry project, so never mind.
The week of November 12
Premise: Harrison Ford plays a grumpy (what?) hard-drinking (huh?) morning news anchor whose constant quarrelling with co-anchor Diane Keaton imperils their program. Can plucky Rachel McAdams save the day?
Pedigree: Better than you might think. J.J. Abrams produced. The Devil Wears Prada screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna scripted. And the thoughtful Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes, Venus) directed. Plus it has Patrick Wilson and the always-watchable Jeff Goldblum.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. It looks kind of thrilling for awards consideration, but it’s best never to underestimate what Keaton can do with even the slimmest material.
Advance word: Crickets. Nobody’s seen it yet, even though the whole world would have, had it been released last summer as originally planned.
Also in multiplexes: Denzel Washington continues his pointless collaboration with the increasingly obnoxious Tony Scott in the unpromising runaway-train thriller Unstoppable. If the film is half as good as The Taking Of Pelham 123, it’ll be a giant pile of crap. Special-effects wizards the Strause brothers make their feature directorial debut with Skyline, an intriguing-looking science-fiction film about a mysterious beam of light that attracts urban dwellers like a moth to a flame.
The week of November 19
The Next Three Days
Premise: Russell Crowe tries to help his wife escape from prison after becoming convinced that she was incorrectly accused of murder in this remake of the 2007 French thriller.
Pedigree: Crowe is nearly as famous for choosing challenging roles and classy films as he is for his explosive temper and devastating blues-rock chops. Teaming up with a fellow Oscar-winner like Crash writer-director Paul Haggis looks like a smart move come awards time, but the Academy has never been overly indulgent toward genre movies.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. Crowe and Haggis will probably pick up further Academy Award nominations in the future, but probably not for a film like this. Co-star Elizabeth Banks has earned plenty of goodwill for her comic turns in television and film, so it’ll be interesting to see what critics and the Academy make of her heavy dramatic performance here.
Advance word: Timid. Unless buzz begins forming, this could be the promising-looking, largely ignored Body Of Lies of this year’s holiday season.
Also in multiplexes: Okay, to be fair, J.K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows is nearly 800 pages long. But isn’t, like, half of that just Harry hanging out in the wild and whining? Did we really need the film adaptation split up into two movies over two years? Whether we did or not, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is on the way, and Warner Bros. is no doubt badly torn between gleefully calculating the doubled profits over this doubled movie, and mourning the end of the profitable franchise.
The week of November 27
The King’s Speech
Premise: In the mid-1920s, King George VI engages a speech therapist to help him overcome a stammer that’s making him the laughingstock of international politics.
Pedigree: Director Tom Hooper (who made last year’s very good The Damned United, and also helmed every episode of the superb HBO miniseries John Adams) shepherds a cast that includes Colin Firth as the king, Helena Bonham Carter as his queen, and Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 10. Some are already saying that it’s a horse race between The King’s Speech and The Social Network for Best Picture.
The view from TIFF: Though many wrote it off in advance as the kind of mediocre Oscar-bait that often clutters up the festival’s “Gala” section, most of the critics who bit the bullet and actually watched The King’s Speech were duly impressed, calling it a sterling example of how to make this kind of snoozy historical drama into a crowd-pleaser.
Love And Other Drugs
Premise: Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a Viagra salesman who strikes up a relationship with Anne Hathaway in this adaptation of Jamie Reidy’s memoir Hard Sell.
Pedigree: Reliable craftsman Edward Zwick returns to the director’s chair for the first time since the solid World War II thriller Defiance.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. Even with the title change, the subject matter still looks a little too cutesy and smutty, but if Love And Other Drugs works at all, its cast should get consideration.
Advance word: Nothing yet, but we can comfortably predict plenty of erection-based puns when the movie gets released. (Here’s a few to get entertainment reporters started: “Love And Other Drugs faces stiff competition at the holiday box office.” Or “Love And Other Drugs hopes to penetrate the year-end awards.” Or, if the movie tanks, “Edward Zwick pulls a boner.”)
Also in multiplexes: With his flashy, colorful directorial debut Burlesque, actor-turned-director Steven Antin clearly wants to be Rob Marshall, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be the Marshall of Chicago or of Nine. Either way, Burlesque—a rags-to-riches dance story starring Christina Aguilera, Cher, and Stanley Tucci—sure looks shiny. Also shiny-looking, and also potentially pretty dubious: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson glowers his way to explodey, fast-paced revenge in Faster, an ensorcelled boy tries to reclaim his kingdom in the special-effects-heavy kids’ fantasy The Nutcracker 3-D, and Disney takes on the Rapunzel story in the irreverent-looking Tangled.
The week of December 3
Premise: Cast as the prima ballerina in a new production of Swan Lake, a high-strung dancer (Natalie Portman) displays the grace and precision necessary to play the White Swan, but has trouble with the sensuality and mystery of the Black Swan. When a rival dancer (Mila Kunis) displays the attributes she lacks, events in her life start to mirror the drama in the ballet.
Pedigree: Outside of Supporting Actress noms for Natalie Portman (Closer) and Barbara Hershey (The Portrait Of A Lady), the principals involved in Black Swan have a slim awards history.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. Director Darren Aronofsky has served his actors well in the past—Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For A Dream, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler—but his dark, graphic visions of abuse and transformation haven’t, to their great credit, been deemed all that “Oscar-worthy.” That pattern stands to repeat itself with Black Swan, which gives Portman the role of a lifetime.
The view from TIFF: Whatever his faults—and he’s one of the most polarizing directors around—Aronofsky could never be accused of doing anything halfway. Black Swan is sometimes silly and overwrought, but it’s committed to its central concept, and it moves with a thrillingly persuasive intensity and panache.
Premise: The story follows infamous D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) and his protégé (Barry Pepper) as they work their political connections to corrupt, murderous ends.
Pedigree: Spacey’s career has been in freefall for so long that it’s easy to forget he’s a two-time Oscar winner (Supporting for The Usual Suspects, Lead for American Beauty) who was the top of his profession until Pay It Forward, K-PAX, The Life Of David Gale, and other bombs chipped away at his reputation.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. In spite of his thin Hollywood connections—he produced the anti-Commie Dolph Lundgren vehicle Red Scorpion—Abramoff isn’t considered a redeemable figure, and Spacey’s signature smarm isn’t intended to make him so. Casino Jack is a satire at heart, and that’s yet another that’s anathema to Oscar.
The view from TIFF: The list of Abramoff’s dirty dealings on K Street is immense, from extorting Indian casinos to supporting overseas sweatshops to a sour deal for a gambling cruise line, but rather than finding some clever way to integrate all that information, the script sticks it right in the dialogue. The agonizing pace and indifferent direction don’t help matters either.
Premise: A Palestinian teen is torn between the cause of her people and her allegiance to the Israeli orphanage that raised her in this story of Jerusalem in the ’60s and ’70s.
Pedigree: Acclaimed artist/director Julian Schnabel adapts Rula Jebreal’s screenplay, based on her own novel.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 3. The subject matter is certainly sober enough, but…
The view from TIFF: …early screenings in Venice and Toronto did not go well. Even fans of Schnabel’s previous films, Basquiat, Before Night Falls, and The Diving Bell And The Butterfly have called Miral distractingly expressionistic and heavy-handed, with a lead performance (by Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto) that lacks charisma.
Also in multiplexes: Not in the mood for ballerinas? How about The Warrior’s Way from debuting writer-director Sngmoo Lee? It stars Kate Bosworth, Geoffrey Rush, and Korean star Jang Dong-Gun. Can you guess which one plays an Asian warrior hiding out in the American Southwest?
The week of December 10
Premise: Christian Bale stars as Dick “Dickie” Eklund, a hard-living heavyweight contender who trains younger brother “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) after his own career and life bottom out due to his addiction to crack.
Pedigree: High. The project was initially announced as a directorial vehicle for Darren Aronofsky, though he was understandably reluctant to tackle another movie about fighting following The Wrestler, so he retreated to executive-producer status. Aronofsky subsequently handed the project over to David O. Russell, a writer-director as brilliant as he is half-insane. Oh, and Bale and Wahlberg are no slouches.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. Hollywood loves real-life tales of overcoming adversity, and Bale and Wahlberg have both done fine work without receiving much in the way of awards.
Advance word: The buzz has been good. Between this and Black Swan, Aronofsky looks like he’ll have a strong year, and Hollywood finds the eccentric Russell both endlessly fascinating and semi-frightening.
Premise: Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck (The Lives Of Others) directs this remake of the 2005 French thriller Anthony Zimmer, about an elusive master criminal. Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie co-star. Beyond that, this seems like one of those films better watched without too much prior knowledge.
Pedigree: Troubled. The film went through multiple cast and director changes. Even Von Donnersmarck left the production before returning. That said, any film that replaces Sam Worthington with Johnny Depp has traded up, and The Lives Of Others featured a chilly, paranoid remoteness and great performances, so Von Donnersmarck might be the right man for this sort of twisty Euro-thriller.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: Let’s get optimistic and say 7. Troubled production or not, that’s a heck of a cast.
Advance word: Nothing beyond reactions to the trailer, which has left audiences asking, “Is Angelina Jolie going to talk like that through the whole movie?”
Premise: Remember Shakespeare’s The Tempest? That one about the magician and the island and the monster and the big storm? In Julie Taymor’s new adaptation, the magician is now a woman.
Pedigree: No matter how far afield her vision strays—hello, Across The Universe—Taymor will eternally remain the visionary who ingeniously conceived The Lion King for Broadway. Joining her here are Oscar-winner Helen Mirren (The Queen), Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond, In America), and noted thespian Russell Brand.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. It’s unlikely that changing Prospero to Prospera is all Taymor has in mind for The Tempest. If it’s like her previous Shakespeare adaptation, an outrageous staging of his rarely performed Titus Andronicus, it’s destined to be abrasive—brilliant, maybe, but hard to watch. Then again, Helen Mirren was born to play this role, had it ever been intended for a woman.
Advance word: Reviews coming out of Venice, where it premièred, were mostly unkind, with Variety calling it “kitschy” yet “curiously drab and banal,” and The Hollywood Reporter affirming it as “disappointingly middle-of-the-road.” For maybe the first time, Taymor has failed to fail spectacularly.
Also in multiplexes: It’ll be interesting to see what director Michael Apted and his screenwriters do with The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader to make it work as a movie, given that the book is basically a shapeless series of barely related episodes. Judging from the trailer, though, he mostly made it louder and bouncier. Literally.
The week of December 17
How Do You Know
Premise: Writer-director-producer James L. Brooks returns to movie-making for the first time since 2004’s Spanglish with this romantic comedy about a retired professional softball player (Reese Witherspoon) who divides her affections between a bumbling corporate drone (Paul Rudd) and a major-league baseball player (Owen Wilson).
Pedigree: Those three leads (plus supporting player Jack Nicholson) are crackerjack comic performers, and Brooks has a reputation for delivering humane, unpredictable comedies rooted in reality.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. Brooks also has a reputation for pulling down awards nominations. On the other hand…
Advance word: …the trailer for How Do You Know looks pretty dire. Granted, it can be hard for Brooks’ carefully crafted, character-driven humor to come across in two minutes, but based on the early clips, this movie looks weirdly manic and plotless. Here’s hoping the finished product is more polished.
Also in multiplexes: Okay, honestly, whether TRON: Legacy is the greatest movie of all time or an unmitigated flop, The A.V. Club doesn’t care at this point; it feels like the commercials have been around for years now, and we just want the movie to come out so we can all move on. Then again, first-time director Joseph Kosinski is immediately moving on to directing a remake of Disney’s The Black Hole, so maybe we can live with this slick sequel a little longer. The same doesn’t go for Yogi Bear, though. The less said and thought about that, the better.
The week of December 25
Premise: A musty entertainer struggles to make a living in the UK in the rocked-up early ’60s, while supporting a young Scottish woman who believes he’s actually magic.
Pedigree: The Triplets Of Belleville director Sylvain Chomet dusts off an unproduced screenplay by French comic genius Jacques Tati, and re-envisions it as animation.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. The Triplets Of Belleville was a Best Animated Feature nominee (and won an Oscar for Best Original Song), so it’s hard to imagine that The Illusionist won’t get nominated as well, especially in such a thin year for the category. But unless voters are overly sequel-averse, it’s also hard to picture The Illusionist beating Toy Story 3.
The view from TIFF: Many critics in Toronto rightly noted that Tati’s subtle comic timing—not to mention magic tricks—doesn’t translate well in cartoon form, but The Illusionist isn’t strictly a film by or about Tati. Chomet pays direct and indirect homage to the likes of Jacques Demy, Federico Fellini, Max Ophüls, Powell & Pressburger, and the whole generation of filmmakers who used the medium to cast spells—though Chomet also shows some healthy skepticism about what that kind of magic really means. The result is one beautiful movie, with its own perspective on the sometimes dangerously transformative power of art.
Premise: In Sofia Coppola’s new tale of stylish ennui, a veteran actor (Stephen Dorff) is stranded in a luxury Los Angeles hotel, where a visit from his neglected 11-year-old daughter forces him to confront his excesses and disconnection.
Pedigree: Coppola is the daughter of five-time Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola. In terms of pedigree, that’s like having Secretariat for a father. She also collected an Oscar for her Lost In Translation screenplay.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. Somewhere’s similarities to Lost In Translation are a blessing and a curse: After her period piece Marie Antoinette, Coppola returns to more comfortable territory in chronicling the melancholic lifestyle of insulated Hollywood types. But can those same woes be resonant a second time?
Advance word: Somewhere won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, but the choice proved so controversial that Italy’s Culture Minister blasted jury head Quentin Tarantino for showing favoritism to Coppola, his ex-girlfriend. Needless to say, critics have generally not been as generous as the jury.
Premise: A teenage girl tags along with a drunken marshall and a gung-ho Texas Ranger as they track down the man who killed her father.
Pedigree: Based on Charles Portis’ classic western novel, the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit promises to be truer and grittier than the 1969 John Wayne movie. The cast includes Jeff Bridges as the marshall, Matt Damon as the Ranger, and Josh Brolin as the outlaw.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 9. Not for nothing did John Wayne win his only Best Actor Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 True Grit: it’s a hell of a role, and perfect for Bridges, who has a strong chance to be a repeat Best Actor winner. In general, the Academy seems to be in step with the Coens lately, and since this looks to be one of their crowd-pleasers and not one of their quirkily personal films, it should be a contender in all the major categories.
Advance word: No one’s seen the movie yet, since principal photography just wrapped fairly recently. But judging by the trailer, True Grit will be visually splendid, evoking both the grandeur and the danger of the Old West. No wild departure here; just the Coen brothers trying to do justice to a great book.
Also in multiplexes: Meet The Fockers essentially remade its predecessor while turning the raunch up to 11 and roping Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand into the distasteful shenanigans. Now the gang is back in Little Fockers and children are apparently involved. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. Jack Black, meanwhile, is a big man in a very small world in Gulliver’s Travels, a dodgy-sounding adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s classic satirical novel. Expect plenty of fat jokes and very little satire in this 3-D romp.
The week of December 31
Premise: Director Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Naked) gathers an all-star list of past cast members—Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Ruth Sheen—for an ensemble slice-of-life about family and friends in working-class North London.
Pedigree: Leigh has collected six Oscar nominations over the years—four for screenplays written in close collaboration with his actors—but he’s become a reliable supplier of great performances, and Manville appears to be next in line for an award.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. At this point, Leigh is sanguine about his dim chances to win an Oscar, saying, “We know we’re never going to win, because the guys from Hollywood do.” But by most accounts, Another Year is his most accessible effort since Secrets & Lies, and his reputation has only been burnished between then and now.
The view from TIFF: Manville will likely be a shoo-in for a Best Actress nomination, though her work as a middle-aged chatterbox who oozes desperation may strike some as overwrought. But like Leigh’s best work, it treats its collection of doomed specimens with robust humor and humanity.
Premise: A working-class couple (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) desperately struggles to save their troubled marriage in this heartbreaking romantic drama.
Pedigree: High. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are two of the most intense, serious, gifted, and fearless actors around, and Blue Valentine’s performances are among their most memorable.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 3. In a perfect world, Blue Valentine would score Oscars for Gosling and Williams, but the movie is probably too intense, non-commercial, and difficult to watch (in the best possible sense) to find favor with middlebrow Oscar voters.
Advance word: Along with Catfish, this was one of the biggest, most buzzed-about sensations of Sundance, though it went home without any major awards.
Premise: A trio of former Mossad agents deal with the ramifications of a botched mission 30 years ago.
Pedigree: Based on the Israeli film Hahov and directed by Shakespeare In Love helmer John Madden (from a script by Matthew Vaughn), The Debt features an A-list European cast, especially in the roles of the older ex-agents, played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 3. A cast this strong always has a chance for some recognition in the acting categories, but…
The view from TIFF: …absolutely no one was buzzing about The Debt at Toronto. The few who saw it shrugged it off as workmanlike, bordering on dry. This won’t be Munich II, in other words.