Yesterday, we launched our 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 with the rest of the prestige season, with their weighty, weighty awards-mongering, and we continue to judge which films weigh the most.
The Week Of Nov. 28
Premise: Nicole Kidman plays a proper Englishwoman who inherits an Australian cattle ranch and hires cowboy Hugh Jackman to help her drive the herd cross-country in advance of the 1942 Japanese air raids.
Pedigree: Director Baz Luhrmann has been out of commission since completing his "Red Curtain Trilogy" (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo+Juliet, and Moulin Rouge) in 2001. He's reportedly modified his style, shying away from delirious theatricality and embracing the classical and epic.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 8. Luhrmann's earlier work has a love-it-or-hate-it quality, but so long as he doesn't tone down so much that Australia becomes dry and dull, look for it to figure in all the major categories.
Advance word: Luhrmann's been keeping Australia pretty tightly under wraps so far, but the trailer certainly makes the movie look spectacular: like a war movie, a Western, and a period romance all in one.
Premise: Retiring the dreamy, ethereal style that's characterized his last four films (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park), Gus Van Sant dramatizes the life and death of Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official.
Pedigree: Sean "Is that my Oscar in there?!" Penn looks to score a fifth Oscar nomination in the title role, and Van Sant, a director nominee for Good Will Hunting, knows how to infuse his arty sensibility into accessible entertainment when necessary.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 9. The Academy should feel particularly smug about honoring a tribute to a groundbreaking politician during a post-Brokeback Mountain time when gay rights are expanding.
Advance word: Since the distributor and the filmmakers chose to bypass the Toronto, Venice, and New York Film Festivals in order to première the film in the Castro District in San Francisco, nobody has seen it yet.
Also in multiplexes: Remember Fred Claus, last year's not-so-beloved Vince Vaughn holiday vehicle? Vaughn is back for another overblown go-around in Four Christmases, starring alongside Reese Witherspoon as a couple that visits all four of their divorced parents. And three times is apparently a charm for Transporter 3, which will have to up the ante on a series that's already gone way over the top.
Premise: An accused game-show cheat reflects on how the questions he answered reflect his life as a Mumbai urchin.
Pedigree: Director Danny Boyle has had an eclectic career, ranging from the highs of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later… to the lows of A Life Less Ordinary; screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (adapting Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A;) scored with The Full Monty but whiffed with Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 9. Judging by the ecstatic reaction from the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, Slumdog Millionaire is on pace to be one of the best-reviewed movies of the year. Unless the Academy is put off by Boyle's preoccupation with garbage, shit, and scars, this is the kind of feel-good story (both on and off the screen) that will sneak into a surprising number of categories, including Best Picture.
The view from TIFF: When, oh when, will the Slumdog backlash begin? This is an entertaining film studded with memorable moments, but after a promising first hour, it devolves into a predictable, preposterous love story cut with cartoonish criminal elements. It's far too sketchy and contrived to be as widely acclaimed as it's been so far. As with last year's fest-fave Juno, expect the bloom to fade from the rose once the movie goes wide and reality fails to justify the hype.
The Week Of Dec. 5
Premise: Queen screenwriter Peter Morgan adapts his own critically acclaimed play about David Frost's epic interview with disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Michael Sheen takes a break from playing Tony Blair to play British journalist Frost, while Langella uglies up to play the dark prince of American presidential politics.
Pedigree: Formidable. Ron Howard picked up an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, one of the least-deserved Academy Awards since Al Pacino hoo-ahed his way to glory. Sheen was shamefully overlooked by the Academy last year for his career-making turn in The Queen. Langella is a beloved veteran character actor who generated a lot of Oscar buzz for his acclaimed turn in Starting Out In The Evening. Could this be the film that puts him over the top? It's hard to imagine a juicier role than Tricky Dick in the twilight of his sorrowful existence.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 8. In the hackneyed parlance of industry types, Langella, Sheen, and Morgan are primed for Oscar gold! They're bound to be crushed to death in a landslide of little gold guys!
Advance word: Frost/Nixon hasn't done the festival circuit yet, but retaining the stars and writer of the acclaimed play looks like a smart move. Howard is a bit of an X-factor, though.
Also in multiplexes: Nobody loved The Punisher starring Thomas Jane. So, like the Hulk franchise but on a much smaller scale, the series has been rebooted with even-more-affordable-than-Thomas-Jane star Ray Stevenson. The bullet-dispensing comic-book semi-hero returns in Punisher: War Zone, directed by karate- and kickboxing-champ-turned-director Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans).
The Week Of Dec. 12
Premise: Based on an autobiographical novel by Francois Begaudeau, who also appears as himself, Laurent Cantet's drama employs real teachers and students as a way of illustrating a school year at a rough Parisian middle school.
Pedigree: Cantet isn't much of a name yet in Hollywood, but since breaking out with Human Resources in 1999 and Time Out in 2001, he's been recognized internationally for his John Sayles-like ability to balance character with social consciousness.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 5. The Class won the Palme D'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival through the unanimous consent of all nine members of the Sean Penn-headed jury. It's also slated to open the New York Film Festival, which is a prime slot. Still, there's only an outside chance it can parlay critical support into a mainstream Oscar bid.
Advance word: Coming out of Cannes, the only complaints about The Class is that it recalls the fourth season of The Wire, and doesn't come out favorably in the comparison. (What could?) But by most accounts, it's an accessible, powerful look at a multi-ethnic classroom dynamic.
Premise: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell play three Polish brothers hiding from and fighting the Nazis and building a secret refuge for Jewish escapees during World War II.
Pedigree: Director Edward Zwick has a long history of grand-scale, war-centric, tremendously pretty but overwrought prestige pictures that rightly flew under the Oscar radar: Blood Diamond, Legends Of The Fall, Courage Under Fire, The Last Samurai. This looks like more of the same.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 5. The cast and the story (summed up with the tagline "based on the most incredible true story you have never heard") sound promising, but Zwick ends up on the middlebrow side of the prestige pile more often than not.
Advance word: Early discussion of Defiance has mostly focused on how it glosses over the darker side of the brothers' story, including their partisan group's massacre of civilians, and the one surviving brother's legal troubles over a Holocaust survivor he reportedly bilked out of her life savings. Count on swelling music, grimly determined inspirational line readings, and explosive partisan-on-Nazi setpieces to drown out the relatively minor din of reality.
Premise: A younger nun mediates when her mentor and a priest get involved in a he-said/she-said dispute over whether the priest had a dalliance with their school's first black student.
Pedigree: John Patrick Shanley directs the big-screen adaptation of his own Tony-and-Pulitzer-winning play, and has Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams as his principal cast.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 9. The awards history of the material and cast are impossible to ignore. (Not to mention Shanley, who has an Oscar already for his Moonstruck screenplay.) There's a chance that this very talky play won't translate well to cinema, but these actors certainly have the skill to put it across.
Advance word: Doubt ducked the fall festival circuit, which isn't necessarily a knock against it. (A lot of major year-end contenders stay out of the fest fray and try to leave an impression in the waning days of list-making season.) Still, unlike other big end-of-the-year movies, Doubt is maintaining a relatively low profile right now, perhaps not wanting to build up too much expectation for what is, essentially, a filmed play.
Wendy And Lucy
Premise: In Kelly Reichardt's follow-up to Old Joy, Michelle Williams stars as a near-broke young woman who stalls out in small-town Oregon with her beloved dog while attempting to drive to Alaska.
Pedigree: Reichardt's quiet, ultra-low-budget films have flown well under Hollywood's radar to this point, but she's gained considerable prominence lately in the independent world, and Wendy And Lucy will have plenty of champions.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 2. While Williams' presence in the lead role instantly raises the film's profile, especially coming off her Oscar-nominated turn in Brokeback Mountain, her performance is a subtle, delicately modulated picture of underclass desperation. Subtle isn't what the Academy is about.
The view from TIFF: Reichardt shows the reality of a woman living on the brink of catastrophe without the means to get out of town, much less think about the long term. The film also has shades of Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D., which also revealed societal ills through a poignant dog-owner relationship.
Also in multiplexes: If there were a master list of things the entertainment world doesn't really need, a remake of the science-fiction classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, all tarted up and starring Keanu Reeves, would probably be in the top 20. Maybe we should start doing annual Least Essential Movies lists. Also not hugely relevant, but likely to rake in the dough: Twilight, the big-screen adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's bestselling book about teen angst and sparkly vampires. And an Atlanta-based animation studio makes the leap from commercials to features with the CGI fantasy Delgo, featuring a bunch of dinosaurish humanoids voiced by the likes of Val Kilmer and the late Anne Bancroft.
The Week Of Dec. 19
The Brothers Bloom
Premise: Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo are con-man brothers working on a long-range scam involving heiress Rachel Weisz—one that requires Brody and Weisz to fall in love.
Pedigree: Director Rian Johnson won a cult following (and a substantial number of haters) with his stylized high-school noir Brick, and The Brothers Bloom is similarly colorful, nodding to the not-quite-real cinema of David Mamet and the two Andersons (P.T. and Wes).
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 2. Johnson's screenplay might get a second look, and Weisz certainly deserves consideration, but spotty reviews and the kind of playful style that older Academy voters don't usually dig will likely knock this one out of the running pretty quick.
The view from TIFF: It's hard to make a movie about the existential trials of a fictional character without getting a little cutesy-poo, and sure enough, The Brothers Bloom is the kind of movie that features a woman who "collects hobbies" (for example, juggling chainsaws on stilts), an Asian sidekick who only knows three words of English (apparently "campari," "fuck" and "me"), and an opening Ricky Jay narration in rhyming verse. The movie is too self-serious at times, and too airless throughout, but as Weisz explains at one point, "It's not reproduction; it's storytelling." And there's something sweetly heartbreaking about a story in which a man who's spent his life playing carefully constructed roles starts to believe in the con more than in himself.
Premise: In Darren Aronofsky's unexpected follow-up to The Fountain, Mickey Rourke plays a long-in-the-tooth professional wrestler trying to scrape together a living on the Jersey independent circuit. Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei play his estranged daughter and a stripper with a heart of gold, respectively.
Pedigree: Tomei is the only participant with an Oscar, but Aronofsky and Rourke are both formerly respected artists in need of a comeback vehicle—Aronofsky after the Fountain fiasco, Rourke after myriad distractions in his personal life and a long stint in straight-to-video purgatory.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 7. Rourke is a lock for a Best Actor nomination, and probably the early favorite, provided he can keep out of trouble from now until February. And in a weak year, the film's underdog charm could prove irresistible: Keep in mind, Rocky bested Taxi Driver, Network, Bound For Glory, and All The President's Men to win Best Picture in 1976, and this movie is a whole lot better than Rocky.
The view from TIFF: Without question the funniest Aronofsky film to date—and you can quote us on that!—The Wrestler has a few stock elements, but Rourke's performance as a wrung-dry former superstar has poignant real-life resonance and Aronofsky's visceral direction captures the grit and glory of the off-brand wrestling scene.
Also in multiplexes: Will Smith reunites with The Pursuit Of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino for Seven Pounds, a drama about a man who changes the lives of seven strangers. Barf? The Tale Of Despereaux brings Kate DiCamillo's fantasy book about a heroic mouse with huge ears to the big screen via the magic of animation. It's a Universal release, which makes sense, since Disney hasn't had much luck with animated mice. Jim Carrey said "Hell yes" to receiving no upfront salary in exchange for a cut of the gross for Yes Man, Peyton Reed's adaptation of Danny Wallace's memoir about a year spent saying "yes" to just about everything. Is Carrey a fool for taking such a huge risk on his rapidly fading career? Eh, probably.
The Week Of Dec. 26
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
Premise: F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story about a man who ages in reverse comes to the big screen through the magic of computer tricknology and the heavy-duty acting of Brad Pitt, who portrays the title character at pretty much every stage of his life. Such audacious stunts typically wow the Academy.
Pedigree: The last time director David Fincher and star Brad Pitt teamed up, the result was 1999's Fight Club, a box-office flop that has subsequently become one of the defining films—maybe the defining film—of its generation. The Fitzgerald connection gives it a literary pedigree as well. Oscar-winner Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) wrote the script.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. It remains to be seen whether Pitt and Fincher can pull off such a tricky, difficult subject, but Pitt's performance seems eminently Academy-friendly. Fincher's masterful Zodiac received not a single Academy Award nomination—he's never been nominated, so he's way overdue. (Or likely to be snubbed again.)
Advance word: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button has been in development hell for ages. Everyone from Charlie Kaufman to Spike Jonze to Jim Taylor and Gary Ross has been attached to the project. The early buzz is mixed, and the studio has reportedly been fighting Fincher over the film's length. Still, Fincher has yet to make a bad film, and this has the potential to be absolutely heartbreaking.
Marley & Me
Premise: John Grogan's sentimental memoir about "the world's worst dog" has Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson adopting a destructive but beloved Labrador, who teaches them life lessons.
Pedigree: Director David Frankel is largely known for TV episodes and his last feature, 2006's The Devil Wears Prada, which made vast buckets of money and even garnered Oscar nominations for costume design, and for co-star Meryl Streep. Like Prada, Marley & Me is based on a runaway bestselling book, so it comes with a built-in audience and a couple of reliably bankable stars.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. Nonetheless, this screams "family picture," not "award-winner."
Advance word: "Cute."
Premise: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play a young married couple in suburban New York in the conformity-happy 1950s. They watch their youthful dreams of happiness slip away until they hit upon a seemingly foolproof plan to make a great escape.
Pedigree: Director Sam Mendes famously trained his eye on suburbia with American Beauty, and stars Winslet and DiCaprio previously teamed up in a movie you might have heard of, about a boat. Kathy Bates, who made a memorable appearance as the unsinkable Molly Brown in that movie, is also on hand.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. We might rank this film's award-nights chances a little higher if we hadn't read Richard Yates' remarkable 1961 novel, which in its own way makes The Road look like the running-across-America scenes in Forrest Gump. (Think Mad Men by way of Contempt. Then add a really dark ending.) Audiences who show up expecting to see the lovebirds from Titanic finally settle down together might walk away fuming.
Advance word: Nothing yet, save for an exclusive teaser trailer on Entertainment Tonight. So if you have questions, take 'em up with Mary Hart.
Waltz With Bashir
Premise: Ari Folman's unique "animated documentary" follows a film director who's having trouble remembering a massacre that occurred while he was serving in the Israeli army during the Lebanon War in the early '80s. He tries to fill in the gaps by tracking down his old comrades.
Pedigree: In spite of two previous features and some experience on Israeli television, Folman is an unknown quantity. The film's warm reception at this year's Cannes Film Festival is the only thing putting him on the map.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 2. The sheer novelty of Waltz With Bashir may earn it the Persepolis slot in this year's Best Animated Feature category, but it has no chance to expand beyond that. It should also be noted that Waltz With Bashir is significantly less inviting than Persepolis.
The view from TIFF: The most immediate comparison is Richard Linklater's Waking Life, not just for its parade of animated talking heads, but for its dreamy, meditative rhythms, which are mesmerizing enough to carry along segments that aren't always compelling on their own. But would anyone care about Waltz With Bashir if it were live-action?
Also in multiplexes: Adam Sandler returns in the family fantasy Bedtime Stories, in which the fairy tales he tells come true. Fantastic Four director Tim Story helms the underdog sports movie Hurricane Season, in which students from five Katrina-wrecked schools assemble into a feisty winning team. And could the sexed-up, fetishy early ads for Frank Miller's film adaptation of Will Eisner's groundbreaking comic The Spirit be any more, well, dispiriting? It might wind up being entertaining, but it still looks like it's going to be much more Miller than Eisner, which is like saying there's a new Peanuts movie that's going to be more Quentin Tarantino than Charles Schulz.
Premise: Steven Soderbergh's four-hour-plus Che Guevara biopic divides neatly into two parts: The first follows Che (Benicio Del Toro) and Fidel Castro as they gather forces for the Cuban revolution, and the second deals with his stalled revolutionary campaign in Bolivia, which never got out of the forest.
Pedigree: One of the most versatile, experimental American directors around, Soderbergh occasionally heads off into odd artistic tangents, but his more mainstream projects have earned him three Oscar nominations and one win, for directing Traffic. Del Toro also won an Oscar for Traffic, and was the unanimous Best Actor choice at Cannes for Che.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 1. Del Toro's exceptionally low-key turn has a shot, but otherwise, Soderbergh has made what was thought to be an impenetrable, unreleaseable epic, at least until IFC (which could handle it well on its cable network) picked it up after Toronto.
The view from TIFF: It didn't seem possible for Soderbergh to make a film as perversely uncommercial as Solaris, but Che deliberately sucks the drama out of history's most galvanizing revolutionary. It's focused admirably and perversely on the grinding labor of forging a movement, with lots of quiet, uninflected scenes of Guevara gathering a force, one villager at a time.
Premise: When an immigrant teen steals the favorite vintage car of grizzled veteran Clint Eastwood (who also directs), Eastwood decides to try to turn the kid's life around.
Pedigree: Eastwood's name has become a signal of quality in the '00s, after three decades of directorial efforts that ran the gamut from brilliant to hacky.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 5. The subject matter seems like the kind of low-key, socially conscious character study that the Academy responds well to, but it's a little odd that Eastwood is trying to shoehorn this movie into the 2008 release calendar, especially when he has the period crime drama The Changeling already on the circuit. He may be stealing his own votes.
Advance word: Up until about a month ago, this project was so shrouded in mystery that some people speculated it was going to be another Dirty Harry movie. Don't expect to hear any reports of early screenings until December at the earliest—maybe even after most critics have submitted their best-of-the-year lists. But remember: Eastwood used the same last-minute strategy with Million Dollar Baby, and it paid off big.