For last year's preview of the prestige films of fall, we introduced the Oscar-O-Meter, a handy prognosticating formula that measured, on a scale of 1 to 10, just how much interest the Academy might have in a given film. The formula was very scientific—unimpeachably rigorous, if you ask us—and considered each film through the following 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 voting for it?
Last year, the Academy surprised us by handing out its biggest prize to the bleak, violent, and not-terrible No Country For Old Men (Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 7), which has given us some pause. Was this an anomaly, or cause to recalibrate the system? (Since we're just a couple of years off Crash, we're leaning toward the latter.) Fresh off the yearly unveiling of Hollywood prestige projects at the Toronto International Film Festival, The A.V. Club offers part one of our two-part semi-informed look at the high-toned entertainments of the season.
Premise: Based on the Robert Parker novel, Ed Harris' Western stars director/co-writer Harris and Viggo Mortensen as traveling lawmen-for-hire who try to bring order to a small town terrorized by a rancher (Jeremy Irons) and his cronies. The appearance of an attractive widow (Renée Zellweger) complicates the mission.
Pedigree: The four principal cast members—Harris, Mortensen, Irons, and Zellweger—have nine Oscar nominations and two wins, and Harris' directorial debut, Pollock, netted inexplicable praise and an inexplicable Oscar for Marcia Gay Harden's supporting performance.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 3. Westerns are enough of a novelty these days to catch the Academy's attention—Unforgiven and Dances With Wolves being the most prominent examples—and actors love to honor their own, but Harris' modest seriocomic oater lacks some of the gravitas necessary to win awards.
The view from TIFF: Harris the actor is still brilliant, but Harris the director lacks the visionary touch needed to distinguish Appaloosa from other, better Westerns cut from similar cloth, most notably Rio Bravo. His nuts-and-bolts approach to storytelling serves the performances just fine, but leaves the movie lamentably flat-footed.
Premise: Keira Knightley plays Georgiana Spencer, a late-18th-century aristocrat remembered for her fashion sense, her democratic politics, her colossally crappy marriage, and being an ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer (also known for fashion, politics, etc.).
Pedigree: Between Knightley, Ralph Fiennes (who plays her husband), and Charlotte Rampling (who plays her mother), The Duchess corners the market on "haughty."
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 5. The movie itself isn't strong enough to get much attention, but Knightley and Fiennes are both terrific, and could score nominations if the field proves thin. Also: movie set 300 years ago = costumes, costumes, costumes!
The view from TIFF: Some critics have been down on The Duchess for being too dry, too safe, and too on-point, but director Saul Dibb and a team of screenwriters do a fine job of exploring the contradictions of a woman who espoused unlimited liberty for the people in her public life, yet settled for limited liberty in her private life. The Duchess is hardly high art—it's more like Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette played straight—but it's strong middlebrow fare, and well-acted by Knightley, who always seems more comfortable in corsets.
Miracle At St. Anna
Premise: After long griping about World War II movies' failure to factor in the contributions and sacrifices made by African-American soldiers, director Spike Lee finally gets the chance to tell the story of four black soldiers trapped in a Tuscan village in 1944.
Pedigree: Though he's scored two Oscar nominations—for his Do The Right Thing screenplay and his documentary 4 Little Girls—and multiple Emmy wins for his recent documentary When The Levees Broke, Lee's achievements have far outpaced the Academy's willingness to honor them. But there's no denying a résumé that includes She's Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour, and Inside Man, among many others.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 10++. In theory, Miracle At St. Anna is exactly the sort of movie Academy voters fall for, a reverent tribute to African-American history they can feel good about embracing, especially in light of their failure to acknowledge Lee in the past. Add to that Lee's resolutely old-fashioned approach to the war movie, which owes something to Saving Private Ryan, and it seems like a can't-miss proposition. Except…
The view from TIFF: …it stinks. The film telegraphs its leadenness in the its first 10 minutes, then departs two and a half hours later, having left behind maybe two or three memorable scenes and a battlefield littered with clichés. Special demerits are in order for Terence Blanchard's overblown music score and an approach to broad comedy that borders on shuck-and-jive.
The Week Of Oct. 3
Premise: Based on José Saramago's novel, Blindness takes a Lord Of The Flies approach to the breakdown of civilization following an epidemic that blinds much of a city's populace. The first afflicted are quarantined in an abandoned mental hospital, including Julianne Moore, who feigns blindness in order to take care of her husband.
Pedigree: The book, by Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author Saramago, was one of the rare instances of a literary favorite crossing over into mainstream popularity. And Moore has long been considered one of best actresses around, with four Oscar nominations to her credit, including two in the same year. Director Fernando Meirelles, hot off City Of God and The Constant Gardener, seems ideally suited to shepherd it to glory.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 8. There's no questioning the film's prestige bona fides from the top down: Saramago, Moore, and Meirelles are all highly respected and honored, and the story of society on the brink will surely resonate with many in our uncertain, unstable world. And a bunch of performers acting blind (or fake-blind)? That's gotta be good for an Oscar or two.
Advance word: Blindness won a prime rollout spot as the opening-night movie at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and preceded to get a high-profile beating from disappointed critics. Variety singled out its "excess of stylistic tics" and Salon called it "earnest and dreary," and noted the loneliness of a female viewer clapping vigorously after the screening.
Flash Of Genius
Premise: Greg Kinnear stars in the true-life story of Robert Kearns, who invented intermittent windshield wipers for cars, and was then royally ripped off by Ford, Chrysler, and other big auto companies. Mostly a small-scale character study, it focuses on his troubled family life during his years-long patent battle with Ford.
Pedigree: Minimal. Kinnear is a solid actor who carries the film, but he's its only real star, and first-time director Marc Abraham is mostly known as a producer on a handful of films that varied widely in quality, from Playing God to Children Of Men.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 3. While the film boasts the kind of Erin Brockovich-like battling-underdog plot the Academy loves, it's devoid of the fireworks the Academy demands.
Advance word: A solid, enjoyable plugger, but not far-reaching awards-bait.
Rachel Getting Married
Premise: Jonathan Demme's Dogme-style kitchen-sink melodrama stars Anne Hathaway as a junkie home from rehab to attend her sister's wedding. Though the weekend is supposed to be about the bride (Rosemarie DeWitt), Hathaway's troubled past and present become a persistent issue, threatening to sabotage the proceedings.
Pedigree: Demme's The Silence Of The Lambs became only the third film to sweep all five major categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay) at the Oscars, joining One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and It Happened One Night. First-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet comes from prime Hollywood stock as well: Her father is the venerable director Sidney (12 Angry Men), who has been making movies for 50 years and counting.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 8. The film's grungy, handheld indie aesthetic may put off Academy members accustomed to glossier awards bait, but Demme's vaunted humanist touch and Hathaway's career-best performance seem likely to bring them back.
The view from TIFF: Stories of addiction and family dysfunction are a dime a dozen, but few are this warm, incisive, and emotionally devastating. Hathaway's performance is as revelatory as advertised, but the group dynamic Demme achieves with his cast recalls Robert Altman at his most compassionate and purposeful.
Premise: Comedian Bill Maher travels the world, asking devout Christians, Muslims, and Jews to defend the stranger aspects of their faith, then ridiculing them before they can finish a sentence.
Pedigree: Though Maher is the driving force behind the film, director Larry Charles gives shape to his ramblings—something he's well-experienced at, having worked on Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Borat.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 2. The Academy has shown a lot more tolerance for popular, rabble-rousing documentaries lately, but Religulous may strike them as more of a stand-up routine than a serious issue-doc, and the way Maher excoriates people of faith may be too outré for a Hollywood community currently smarting over the perception that they're hostile to traditional American values.
The view from TIFF: Though Maher's methodology is skewed and unfair, and his points overly familiar to anyone who's ever sat around the dorm gabbing about God, Religulous is still consistently hilarious, and maybe even significant. Sure, Maher is preaching to the converted (so to speak), but his climactic sermon—delivered over a montage of organized religion's lowest moments of the past 20 years or so—should give the casually religious and religion-neutral something to ponder.
Also in multiplexes: David Zucker's An American Carol promises to bring the right-wing yuks with its reworking of A Christmas Carol as the story of a Michael Moore-like documentarian who learns to love America as only conservatives can, apparently. If talking Chihuahuas are more your thing, you won't want to miss what promises to be this year's finest talking-Chihuahua movie, Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Still not seeing anything you like? Cruise over to the misanthropic comedy How To Lose Friends & Alienate People, starring Simon Pegg, or Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist, a cute teen Juno-wannabe rom-com starring Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, and the music of every indie-rock band in the world.
The Week Of Oct. 10
Body Of Lies
Premise: A CIA operative (Leonardo DiCaprio) is dispatched to Jordan to hunt down a major terrorist/big-time evildoer in this adaptation of David Ignatius' novel. Once there, he forms an uneasy alliance with the head of Jordan's secret service (Mark Strong). Oscar-winner/phone-tossing-enthusiast Russell Crowe plays DiCaprio's shadowy boss.
Pedigree: Remarkable. Three-time Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio joins two-time Oscar-winner Crowe in a film by the director of Alien, American Gangster, Gladiator, and Blade Runner, and the Oscar-winning scribe (William Monahan) behind The Departed. So why does Body Of Lies look so doggedly generic, from its title onward?
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 3. For a film with an Oscar-laden cast and crew and a plot with plenty of contemporary political resonance, this looks suspiciously like a direct-to-DVD thriller. Then again, Michael Clayton didn't appear Oscar-licious last year either.
Advance word: Disturbingly nonexistent. Not a good sign.
Premise: A relentlessly, almost obnoxiously chipper primary-school teacher endures the skepticism of her friends, relatives, and one twitchy driving instructor.
Pedigree: Happy-Go-Lucky is the latest low-key slice of life from one-of-a-kind writer-director Mike Leigh, whose films Naked, Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy, and Vera Drake have been hits with critics and arthouse audiences.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 6. It seems unlikely that Happy-Go-Lucky star Sally Hawkins won't get a nod for her unforgettable rendition of a borderline-psychotic optimist, unless voters find her too annoying to bear. The same could be said of the film: It's sweet and moving enough to draw some attention, but the constant nattering may turn some viewers off.
The view from TIFF: Leigh and his cast (all collaborators on the story and dialogue) skillfully contrast Hawkins' character with other teachers who have different methods, and other manic types who are more legitimately crazy. Hawkins can be a bit much to take, but her friends do acknowledge that, and frequently tell her to grow up (or at least shut up). In Leigh-world, final judgment is generally withheld, leaving audiences to interpret for themselves whether Hawkins is a delight or a nuisance, and whether the drama Leigh springs on her toward the end will prompt a change of ways.
Also in multiplexes: As a generator that has powered an underground city for 200 years starts to fail, residents search for a secret passageway to the surface in City Of Ember. (Bill Murray, donning a gangsta's gold necklace, is their leader.) The life of football great Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, gets the most generic rendering imaginable in The Express. RocknRolla is Guy Ritchie's comeback attempt after the epically dismal one-two of Swept Away and Revolver. And on the heels of Cloverfield, the science-fiction thriller Quarantine reveals mass human catastrophe through a Blair Witch video lens.
The Week Of Oct. 17
Premise: An ignorant hillbilly (James Brolin) with an incongruously aristocratic bloodline fucks around for 40 years with the aid of mountains of cocaine, gallons of booze, and enough loose women to stock a Texas whorehouse. Then he discovers Jesus, buys a baseball team, becomes governor of Texas, and kills a bunch of people through capital punishment. Then, in a far-fetched, credibility-straining plot twist, this funny-talking, semi-literate yahoo becomes a two-term President Of The United States and nearly destroys the world in the process. This sounds like the premise for a zany farce like President Baseball—albeit with a lot less baseball—but director Oliver Stone swears it's based on a true story. Like anybody should trust that crackpot.
Pedigree: Stone's previous spins through presidential history, JFK and Nixon, garnered plenty of Oscar nominations, but few wins outside of technical categories. This promises to be more boisterous and consequently less Academy-friendly than those two trips down memory lane.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 2. The film's Oscar chances look slimmer than Mischa Barton, but Hollywood reportedly boasts a disproportionate number of leftists, which may bode well for Stone's riotous ride through the life and times of the man liberals (and an increasing percentage of the general public) love to hate.
Advance word: For an irreverent biopic by one of our most controversial directors about one of our most controversial leaders, W. has generated shockingly little controversy so far. Are folks suffering from W fatigue, or are they merely bored with Stone's eternal-adolescent shenanigans?
The Secret Life Of Bees
Premise: A white teenager and her black mother-figure flee racism and seek refuge with three beekeeping sisters in South Carolina.
Pedigree: Sue Monk Kidd's original novel was a critically acclaimed bestseller, and writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood won praise for her debut feature, Love & Basketball. Co-stars Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, and Alicia Keys all have folders full of rave reviews and shelves full of awards.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 3. Unless this movie catches a major swell at the box office, it's likely to be dismissed as too saccharine to be a contender, though there might be some "Best Supporting Actress" traction for one of the movie's quartet of classy non-white ladies.
The view from TIFF: Bees left Toronto the way it entered: without buzz.
The Week Of Oct. 24
Premise: In 1920s Los Angeles, Angelina Jolie's child is kidnapped. Eventually, she gets the kid back. Or at least she gets a kid back. Suspecting she's received a different child, Jolie takes her cause public with some help from fiery preacher John Malkovich.
Pedigree: The script comes from J. Michael Straczynski, the respected creator of Babylon 5, whose other recent work has mostly been for Marvel Comics. Clint Eastwood directs.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 8. This looks to be a welcome return to real acting from Jolie, and Eastwood is reliably great when working from a good script. (And †he's no stranger to the Academy.) If it avoids the magnificent-but-distant feel of Mystic River, we could be seeing this one a lot at awards time.
Advance word: The film was a smash at Cannes, where praise for the performances could be heard in every language known to humanity.
Pride And Glory
Premise: A family of respected New York City cops deals with the possibility that one or more of their number may be corrupt.
Pedigree: High-powered actors galore: Edward Norton, Colin Farrell, and Jon Voight. Behind the camera: Gavin O'Connor, who helmed the well-respected Tumbleweeds and Miracle.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 1. This movie was supposed to be released in March 2008—not exactly an awards-friendly date—and then was pushed to January of '09, before being dragged back onto the fall calendar. This one clearly isn't going to be getting much of an Oscar campaign.
The view from TIFF: Pride And Glory was described in one of the Toronto papers as maybe the worst movie ever to get a Gala Screening at the festival. A few prominent critics have praised the film as a solid police drama, but no one seems to be doing cartwheels over it.
Synecdoche, New York
Premise: In his directorial debut, Charlie Kaufman, the brains behind such metaphysical comedies as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, follows a down-on-his-luck playwright (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who turns his life into a mammoth, ever-evolving stage production.
Pedigree: Arguably the most original screenwriter of his generation, Kaufman has been nominated for three of his five screenplays and won once, for Eternal Sunshine. His onscreen surrogate Hoffman collected a Best Actor award two years ago for Capote, and heads a cast of ringers including Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, and Michelle Williams.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 2. Hoffman's brilliance is hard to ignore, but Kaufman has gone out of his way to make the film as inaccessible as possible, starting with a title few can pronounce and a script that goes so deep inside his twisted mind that only Samuel Beckett would know how to climb out.
The view from TIFF: It may sound hard to believe, but Synecdoche is a denser, pricklier film than anything Kaufman has done to date, and not necessarily for the better. Still, he piles on the matter-of-fact absurdities and comes to self-deprecating, surprisingly poignant conclusions about how writers use their lives as grist for creative ventures.
Also in multiplexes: Pretend it doesn't exist if you like, but if even half the 17 million viewers who tuned in to the first broadcast of High School Musical 2 last year queue up on opening weekend for High School Musical 3: Senior Year, Disney will be looking at a record opening weekend for a musical. Meanwhile, the older siblings of the HSM3 crowd will likely be next door in Saw V, imagining Zac Efron caught in the "glass box trap."
The Week Of Oct. 31
Also in multiplexes: In The Haunting Of Molly Hartley, a troubled teenager discovers that her mother believes she's a hellspawn who must be killed. And in Kevin Smith's surprisingly likeable Zack And Miri Make A Porno, Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks play best friends who decide to pay their bills and consummate their secret desires by making a dirty movie together.
The Week Of Nov. 7
In multiplexes: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Sacha Baron Cohen, et. al. return as a wacky band of zoo animals in the CGI kid-flick Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa. Expect more of everything that made the first movie popular, except a mildly original vision. Role Models, the latest wacky/dry comedy from The Ten and Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain, has grown-up-kid fuckups Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott forced to bond with actual kids via a Big Brother program. And Samuel L. Jackson and the late Bernie Mac play a couple of squabbling soul singers reuniting for the first time in 30 years in the dire-looking road comedy Soul Men.
The Week Of Nov. 14
A Christmas Tale
Premise: French master Arnaud Desplechin follows up Kings And Queen by bringing a crazily dysfunctional family together and allowing their myriad private conflicts to collect like gifts under the tree. Open at your own risk.
Pedigree: With films like Kings And Queen, Esther Kahn, and My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument to his credit, Desplechin has earned a reputation as an uncompromising chronicler of human foibles and a natural descendent of the French New Wave. Having the ageless Catherine Deneuve around as the family matriarch doesn't hurt.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 0. On the rare occasions the Academy rescues movies from the Best Foreign Language Film ghetto, they have to feel good about what they're seeing. Desplechin's film seems intent on bringing simmering hatred back into holiday get-togethers.
The view from TIFF: Though it lacks some of the playful diversions that made Kings And Queen so invigorating, A Christmas Tale confirms Desplechin's willingness to immerse himself in the lives of complicated, hyper-intelligent, and generally fucked-up characters.
Premise: It's past the end of the world as we know it, and everyone feels hungry, desperate, and violent. America lies in ruins, and through it trudges a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son, journeying toward an uncertain future that may be worse than what they've left behind.
Pedigree: As Cormac McCarthy enjoyed the success of the film adaptation of his No Country For Old Men—assuming he enjoys such things—his beyond-grim novel reached a surprisingly wide audience, thanks to Oprah and the Pulitzer. The film adaptation comes from Australian director John Hillcoat, who has only one feature to his credit, the Nick Cave-penned Western The Proposition.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. Hillcoat is the X-factor: The Proposition divided audiences, but those who loved it really loved it. But the cast—which also includes Charlize Theron, Michael K. Williams from The Wire, Robert Duvall, and Guy Pearce—is pretty great.
The advance word: None yet, and the film's conspicuous absence from the fall festival circuit is troubling. But the stills look appropriately sooty.
Also in multiplexes: The bafflingly titled Quantum Of Solace continues Casino Royale's revival of super-spy James Bond. The posters and trailer all suggest that Daniel Craig's Bond spends much of the film toting around an extremely large gun, which feels like a good sign.
The Week Of Nov. 21
Premise: Schizophrenic homeless musician Jamie Foxx strikes up an unlikely friendship with a journalist played by Robert Downey Jr. The Soloist sounds like a tepid message-movie, but director Joe Wright, fresh off the success of Atonement, has a gift for imbuing stodgy-sounding prestige projects with passion and life.
Pedigree: Hmm, let's see: Jamie Foxx taking on the challenging role of a disabled musician doggedly pursuing his dreams in a heartwarming drama based on a true story. Unless Foxx plays a mentally handicapped Holocaust survivor in his next film, it'd be hard to imagine a more blatant ploy for Oscar glory.
Oscar-O-Meter Rating: 7. If critics and audiences take to The Soloist, its Oscar potential is limitless. If it does end up with a whole mess of nominations, expect plenty of labored masturbation jokes in next year's telecast.
Advance word: Oscar buzz has been strong for The Soloist, and people are rooting for comeback kid Downey Jr., self-destructive golden boy gone bad, then good. He's had a phenomenal year, and the Academy loves a good redemption story. Just imagine how touching yet wry he'd be during Barbara Walter's obligatory pre-Oscars interview.
Also in multiplexes: John Travolta voices a deluded performing dog who thinks he's a superhero in Disney's CGI movie Bolt; Miley Cyrus is the little girl he's mistakenly out to rescue.
Tomorrow, in Oscar-O-Meter™ part two: The rest of November and December, with the latest from Baz Luhrmann, Gus Van Sant, Danny Boyle, Kelly Reichardt, Rian Johnson, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, and much more.