Provided you take our word for it and don’t go back into the archives, the A.V. Club’s Oscar-O-Meter feature has quickly become the definitive tool for Oscar prognostication. Through a rigorously scientific process, our writers have quantified each prestige movie based on a set of criteria: 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? And most importantly, will Academy members feel good about themselves when voting for it?

Last year, the Academy awarded Best Picture to Slumdog Millionaire (Oscar-O-Meter rating: 9), a runaway hit at the Toronto International Film Festival. Due to the current recession, and a general slump in the international market, the atmosphere was considerably more muted at this year’s festival, but it still provided a clearer picture of how things might shake down during awards season. With that in mind, here’s the first half of our traditional two-part look at the high-toned entertainments of the season.

Advertisement

Currently in theaters:

The Boys Are Back 
Premise: After his wife dies, hard-drinking, globetrotting sportswriter Clive Owen must juggle professional responsibilities, grief, and caring for his two sons.
Pedigree: Scott Hicks directed Geoffrey Rush to Oscar glory for his scenery-chewing turn as a mentally ill pianist in Shine, and Owen picked up an Oscar nom (that’s fancified industry talk for “nomination”) for Best Supporting Actor for 2004’s Closer.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. If the film gains traction with critics and audiences, or becomes a sleeper hit, Owen has an outside shot at a Best Actor nomination.
Advance word: Middling and middlebrow, Back is liable to attract a modicum of attention for Owen’s fine lead performance, and nothing else.

Advertisement

Bright Star
Premise: In the final years of his too-short life, John Keats fell in love with a neighbor named Fanny Brawne. Dubbing her his “bright star,” he wrote her passionate letters, but he died before they could marry—which would have been difficult anyway, given his financial straits. Jane Campion’s Bright Star revisits those final days, casting Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish as the doomed lovers.
Pedigree: The Piano proved Campion could make a period drama that sidestepped the stuffiness and distance most directors bring to such movies. And in spite of her unsuccessful attempt to adapt Henry James’ unyielding Portrait Of A Lady, returning to the past seems like a good idea after the mixed reviews that greeted contemporary Campion dramas like In The Cut and Holy Smoke. Here, she stays close to the facts of Keats and Brawne’s lives, but brings her usual visual flair and dramatic imagination.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 9. Period costumes, unquenched passion, a tragic ending, great performances (including a supporting turn from a unusually burly Paul Schneider), and the touch of a real artist? Start engraving a few statuettes now.
Advance word: It’s already opened to strong reviews, including one from us.

Advertisement

Capitalism: A Love Story
Premise: Documentarian Michael Moore argues that the American way of business works against the best interests of 99 percent of its citizens.
Pedigree: As one of the few documentary filmmakers who’s a household name, Moore has practically become a brand—albeit one that many viewers find unappealing or unfashionable.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. He has a statue already, but in spite of the Academy’s notorious liberal bent, Moore has lost favor with many on the left, who see him as an off-putting loudmouth, not exactly making the best case for his side. Also… 
Advance word: …the movie isn’t so great. Moore rounds up some powerful anecdotes about greed run amok, but Capitalism is too long and too sketchy, with little daring, investigative journalism to recommend it.

Advertisement

The Informant!
Premise: Based on Kurt Eichenwald’s true-crime book, this story of price-fixing within the world of biochemical food additives—oh Hollywood, always going for the lowest common denominator—stars Matt Damon as an eccentric corporate whistle-blower with mixed motives. 
Pedigree: Though he’s lately been alternating between breezy Ocean’s movies and brainy digital projects like Bubble, Che, and The Girlfriend Experience, director Steven Soderbergh can turn out awards fodder when necessary, as evidenced by the one-two of Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Damon hasn’t courted Oscar’s attention since his Good Will Hunting breakthrough, but not for lack of trying or talent. 
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. By turning Eichenwald’s page-turner into a hilarious farce—complete with a Marvin Hamlisch score not far removed from the one that graced Bananas—Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns sacrificed all-important Oscar gravitas for the sake of an inspired, fast-moving entertainment. Damon might get some attention, though. 
Advance word: Soderbergh and Burns’ comic conceit is an original interpretation of the book, but not an outlandish one: Damon’s slippery, delusional would-be double agent imagines himself as the hero of a John Grisham or Michael Crichton novel, and the film taps into his twisted thinking via funny, wonderfully discursive voiceover narration.

Releasing the week of October 2:

Advertisement

A Serious Man
Premise: A Jewish college professor in late-’60s Minnesota deals with a problematic family and a crisis of faith, in another one of the Coen brothers’ deadpan, absurdist era pastiches. 
Pedigree: The Coens have, almost improbably, become the arthouse equivalent of box-office gold; viewers appreciate their mix of dry wit and broad humor, as well as their knack for telling stories that rarely travel a predictable path. Joel and Ethan Coen have developed a recognizable style, yet none of their movies are exactly alike.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. If this were any other year, A Serious Man would be one of those Coen brothers movies that gets no more than a Best Original Screenplay nomination. But now that the Best Picture race has been expanded from five nominees to 10, this odd, philosophical comedy could well find enough Academy fans to make the cut for the big prize. (Still, it’s unlikely to win.)
The view from TIFF: Critical opinion has been sharply mixed, with some admiring A Serious Man’s darkly comic look at spiritual despair, and others turned off by the Coens’ broad Jewish characters and the casually cruel treatment of them. There are very few “Eh, it’s okay” reviews out there. People either think it’s brilliant or repugnant. (By the way, the correct answer is “brilliant.”)

Advertisement

Whip It
Premise: Though groomed as a beauty queen by her domineering mother (Marcia Gay Harden), small-town waitress Ellen Page secretly gets involved in the underground roller-derby scene. As the scrappy, up-and-coming star of a losing team—flanked by Kristen Wiig, Eve, Zoe Bell, and first-time director Drew Barrymore—Page sets up a big confrontation with rival enforcer Juliette Lewis, and a bigger confrontation at home. 
Pedigree: The last Barrymore to win an Oscar was Lionel Barrymore back in 1931, so clearly the storied family is due. After virtually growing up onscreen for three decades, Drew Barrymore steps behind the camera for Whip It, and she has Hollywood’s goodwill firmly in her corner. She also has Page coming off her Oscar-nominated breakthrough role in Juno. 
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. Unfortunately, Barrymore may have to settle for widespread popular adulation, because disposable dramedies about marginal sporting pursuits tend not to win awards. 
The view from TIFF: Barrymore’s directorial debut is almost exactly the movie expected from her: a light, ingratiating, femme-centered ensemble piece with a positive message and a romantic-comedy element thrown in for good measure. But like a lot of actor-turned-directors, she gets the performances right, while her perfunctory direction is always a beat or two behind the action.

Also in multiplexes: Co-written and directed with Matt Robinson, Ricky Gervais’ dark comedy The Invention Of Lying takes place in a world where everyone tells the truth, which gives Gervais plenty of latitude for his merciless self-deprecating humor, as well as a subversive message about the value of dishonesty. Meanwhile, the 3-D explosion brings Pixar’s Toy Story and Toy Story 2 back into theaters for a two-week run, and the buzz-magnet horror-comedy Zombieland pits odd couple Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg against a massive zombie force.

Advertisement

Releasing the week of October 9:

The Damned United
Premise: Based on David Peace’s book, this sports drama chronicles a difficult chapter in the otherwise sterling career of British soccer coach Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), when he took over the top Leeds United club in 1974 and was let go 44 tumultuous days later. 
Pedigree: There’s no more celebrated screenwriter and playwright working today than Peter Morgan, who specializes in bringing recent history to credible life onstage and in the movies. From Idi Amin (The Last King Of Scotland) to Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II (The Queen) to the legendary exchange between David Frost and Richard Nixon (Frost/Nixon), Morgan understands the lives of public figures, on and off the record. This also marks the fourth time he’s collaborated with lucky charm Michael Sheen.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. In terms of social significance, the rivalry between Clough and departing Leeds coach Don Revie (Colm Meaney) ranks several notches below that of Morgan’s past subjects. The film may have trouble rousing English passions, and the U.S. cares little for soccer. 
The view from TIFF: Though engrossing most of the way through, The Damned United gets off to an especially rousing start, as Sheen’s Clough burns bridges before he even gets to town, arrogantly dismissing Revie’s achievements while casting his own players as thugs who don’t play the game the right way. It doesn’t amount to much in the end, but soccer historians and philosophers are given much to chew over.

Also in multiplexes: A Christmas Story child star/professional Vince Vaughn buddy Peter Billingsley directs Couples Retreat, a raunchy, Vaughn-toplined ensemble comedy about a gang of pals who embark on a group trip—from hell! High School Musical’s Corbin Bleu motocrosses up a storm in the sure-to-be-riveting Free Style. Chris Rock explores the wacky world of African-American hair in the delightful comic documentary Good Hair.

Advertisement

[pagebreak]Releasing the week of October 16:

An Education
Premise: In early 1960s England, a precocious, gorgeous high-school student (Carey Mulligan) receives an education in life when she begins dating a mysterious older Jewish man (Peter Sarsgaard) who introduces her to a glamorous adult world of trips, fancy dinners, snazzy nightclubs, and art. But at what cost? 
Pedigree: Acclaimed novelist Nick Hornby adapts Lynn Barber’s bittersweet coming-of-age memoir in a film rife with heavyweights like Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson, and Olivia Williams. 
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 9. An Education could and should dominate the acting categories. The luminous Mulligan is already generating Oscar talk for her star-making turn, while Sarsgaard has shamefully never been nominated, perhaps because he eschews the kind of flashy showboating that excites Oscar voters. He’s long overdue. Other possible contenders: the hilarious Molina as Mulligan’s pathologically status-obsessed dad, and Thompson and Williams as, respectively, the stern headmistress of Mulligan’s school and a teacher whose prickly exterior hides a surplus of passion and idealism. Nick Hornby looks likely to pick up a Best Adapted Screenplay nod for his pitch-perfect adaptation of Barber’s book. 
Advance word: Strong. An Education was a breakout hit at Sundance and has been gaining momentum ever since. It could very well be the sleeper hit of the season.

Advertisement

Where The Wild Things Are 
Premise: Based on Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s picture book, the film follows an angry, disobedient boy who, locked in his room without supper, sails away “through night and day, and in and out of weeks, and almost over a year, to where the wild things are.”
Pedigree: There’s a lot of dubious speculation on the Internet—home of dismissive, often angry knee-jerk dubiousness—about how a 48-page picture book could become a theatrical-length feature without copious padding. But director Spike Jonze has earned a great deal of goodwill with his previous films, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and a Best Director nomination for the former, so the doubt comes heavily weighed with respect for his vision. Trailers that make the whole thing look like a marvelous fantasia certainly don’t hurt.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. This is the kind of quirky film that might wind up in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, and the look of the thing might earn it some technical awards, but the Academy takes itself far too seriously to grant the big awards to a children’s-book adaptation with nary a Holocaust survivor in sight.
Advance word: Much like The Road, Where The Wild Things Are was scheduled for a 2008 release, then shelved for a year for retooling, which has even Jonze’s most ardent fans feeling uncomfortable. Particularly problematic: the rumors that Warner Brothers objected to the movie’s dark content, and wanted the entire thing reshot, but settled for some new scenes to “broaden” the story for younger audiences. All of which sounds fairly dubious. Advance word has been minimal, but Sendak, at least, has been highly enthusiastic about the finished film.

Also in multiplexes: Manly man’s man Gerard Butler gets his Death Wish on as an ordinary fellow who turns vigilante on the people who killed his family in Law Abiding Citizen, a revenge thriller co-starring Jamie Foxx as a compromised district attorney. Nip/Tuck’s Dylan Walsh steps inside Terry O’Quinn’s mighty big shoes as a deranged mass murderer who wants the perfect family so badly he’s willing to kill for it, over and over again, in The Stepfather, a remake of the Donald Westlake-penned, Joseph Ruben-directed 1987 cult classic.

Advertisement

Releasing the week of October 23:

Amelia
Premise: Hilary Swank plays pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who bucked the scoffers by doing a lot of flying, at least until she disappeared in 1937. Also in the mix: Ewan McGregor as Gore Vidal’s dad Gene, and Richard Gere as Earhart’s husband.
Pedigree: That cast is a pretty good start. And, behind the camera, Mira Nair, director of Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, who knows her way around a handsome image, though she isn’t always successful at matching them with dramatic moments.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. Nair’s films can be beautiful but inert. Still, the subject alone should keep Amelia moving. Then there’s Swank, who… How to put this delicately? When Swank plays feminine women, she can be pretty good. When she plays sexually confused or simply tomboyish roles, she’s great. Could the plucky, doomed aeronautical pioneer net her a third Oscar? (Answer: Sure!)
Advance word: Little beyond the question of whether anyone could upset Meryl Streep’s Julie & Julia performance at the Oscars. The trailer looks good, though.

Advertisement

Antichrist
Premise: Willem Dafoe plays a psychologist who tries to help his wife Charlotte Gainsbourg get over her grief, and ends up taking a trip inside her personal vision of hell.
Pedigree: Writer-director Lars von Trier is one of cinema’s premier provocateurs, noted for his harsh examinations of male-female and human-God relationships, as well as for his past embrace of visual asceticism. Antichrist is his most sumptuous-looking movie in nearly 20 years, as well as his bluntest take on what he perceives as the evils of feminism and chauvinism.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 3. There’s no chance even in von Trier’s version of hell that the Academy will embrace a movie this politically incorrect (and occasionally nauseating), but the lead performances are so engaging and unflinching that one or both actors might develop an awards-season momentum that even squeamish Oscar voters can’t ignore.
The view from TIFF: In one of those strange reversals that often occur over the course of a festival year, Antichrist was widely reviled when it premièred at Cannes in May, then recognized as one of the most visually striking, deeply personal, curiously riveting movies at TIFF. Antichrist is full of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and patience-testing extremity, but it’s a singular work.

Also in multiplexes: Torture-porn is becoming increasingly passé and played-out, and here’s proof: Saw VI has been handed over to the guy who edited the first five. Supposedly this one will contain grand new revelations that finally explain the long-term plan of the serial killer Jigsaw, who died just a few installments into the series, but only the die-hards (and the die-messies) will care. On the more wholesome side of the spectrum, Osamu Tezuka’s beloved signature creation gets his latest outing in Astro Boy, a Chinese-Japanese-American co-production that brings the good-hearted little robot to CGI. And speaking of CGI, Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas 3-D is hitting theaters again. Here’s hoping Selick’s superior follow-up Coraline eventually attracts this many years of loyalty.

Advertisement

Releasing the week of November 6:

The Men Who Stare At Goats
Premise: Based on a story too crazy not to be semi-true, this absurdist comedy follows a journalist (Ewan McGregor) who uncovers a secret military operation that trained soldiers to use psychic powers in combat—with the idealistic hippie goal of ending war forever. George Clooney plays one such soldier, as does Jeff Bridges, who channels his ’60s burnout Lebowski. 
Pedigree: Director Grant Heslov has been Clooney’s producing partner for the last seven years, and they co-wrote Good Night, And Good Luck, for which they received one of six Oscar nominations. And the loaded cast speaks for itself: In addition to Clooney, Bridges, and McGregor, it includes Kevin Spacey, Robert Patrick, and Stephen Root.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. If done right, a politically loaded dark comedy like this one could be the Dr. Strangelove the current wars need, and the star power certainly doesn’t hurt. Still, the profane British farce In The Loop set an awfully high bar for this sort of thing, and…
The view from TIFF: …The Men Who Stare At Goats was one of TIFF’s bona fide flops, a fitfully amusing trifle that doesn’t get far on its one-joke premise. The jaunty, prodding score is a big problem, but no bigger than the overused voiceover narration, the rampant mugging, and the inability to harness the hippie-dippy notion of a “warrior for peace” into a coherent political statement.

Advertisement

Precious
Premise: An abused, overweight, twice-pregnant Harlem high-schooler learns self-worth from a teacher at an alternative school.
Pedigree: Based on a controversial bestseller (the film’s subtitle is actually Based On The Novel “Push” By Sapphire), Precious has the official approval and financial backing of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and features unglamorous performances by Mariah Carey as a social worker and Mo’Nique as the heroine’s monstrous mother. It also features an underdog-makes-good story-structure that forces audiences to suffer a lot of bleakness before it starts warming hearts.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 10. Initially (and inexplicably) considered too uncommercial when it premièred at Sundance, Precious started generating industry heat when Winfrey and Perry got involved, and when it won the festival’s top audience and jury awards. From the exposé of inner-city misery to the emphasis on education, this is the kind of movie the Academy loves, and it peaks at the end with a monologue by Mo’Nique that practically has “Oscar clip” scrawled between each frame. (It’s damned stunning, too, in spite of its obvious-awards-baitness.)
The view from TIFF: Toronto audiences were every bit as moved by Precious as Sundance audiences were, giving the movie the People’s Choice award. Critics have been largely approving as well, though given the movie’s narrative clichés and Rush Limbaugh-ready excoriation of welfare queens, expect a Slumdog Millionaire-like backlash to build as Precious’ Oscar chances improve.

Also in multiplexes: Can we just forget that whole Southland Tales thing and get excited about the new Richard Kelly thriller The Box? Please? It looks really creepy, and it features Frank Langella. No? Well, can we then forget about the zombie-filled Polar Express and get excited about Robert Zemeckis’ new motion-capture holiday-classic-wannabe A Christmas Carol? It has an animated Jim Carrey playing multiple roles. No? Okay then, how about the horror-thriller The Fourth Kind, starring Milla Jovovich, from first-time director Olatunde Osunsanmi? It’s set in Alaska… okay, fine. Maybe this is a good week to do something else.

Advertisement

For the rest of November up through the first week of January, tune in for part two tomorrow.