A month into the fall movie season, with filmgoers still burping from the fatty, junk food-like aftertaste of summer blockbusters, we are witnessing the emergence of “serious” films that might go on to gain buzz and momentum for an Oscar nod, making them early contenders – an entrée, if you will – for the awards season race that will end with the Academy Awards ceremony next year – the main course. Let’s take a look at some of the releases this October, as well as November, and assess whether they are solid enough to endure the race and become actual Oscar entries.
The Birth of a Nation
The Menu: The true story of an enslaved Baptist preacher on a Virginia plantation, who is persuaded by the plantation’s owner to give sermons to other slaves in order to supress any kind of uprising. But as he struggles with his conscience upon seeing the mistreatment of his fellow slaves, he goes on a quest for justice and freedom that leads him to a violent, history-making rebellion.
The Ingredients: This film is an ambitious labour of love from filmmaker Nate Parker, who wrote, directed, and starred in it. You may recognize Parker from his roles in films like The Secret Life of Bees and Non-Stop. The film also stars Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, and Gabrielle Union.
The Oscar Recipe: The film already garnered a great deal of positive response, including an enthusiastic standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival, and is believed to be the next 12 Years a Slave – the one to beat – come Oscar time. Plus, the Academy is still getting over last year’s White Oscar uproar, so they might see this film as a shot at redemption. However, the film is also surrounded by a controversy about the rape charges against Parker and the film’s co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin. And, as the Academy Awards are also a political arena, this controversy might seriously damage the film’s chance at an Oscar glory.
The Girl on the Train
The Menu: A bored woman struggling with alcoholism notices something unusual about a couple whose house she passes every day on her commuting train, and gets tangled in a mystery much darker then she thought.
The Ingredients: A best-selling novel dubbed as the next Gone Girl, a director with a solid body of work (Tate Taylor, who directed The Help and Winter’s Bone), and a promising performance by Emily Blunt in the title role.
The Oscar Recipe: A chance for a Best Picture nod is quite slim. Gone Girl started out much, much stronger in the award season and look what happened to it at Oscar nomination time. But, director Taylor has had a pretty amicable relationship with the Academy in the past. He also seems to have a Midas touch with his leading ladies, having ushered Viola Davis (The Help) and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) to their first Best Actress nomination. So, based on this – and also the fact that Gone Girl was snubbed but still managed to score an Oscar nomination for its female lead’s strong performance – the film might just have a pretty good shot at giving Emily Blunt her first Oscar nomination.
The Menu: The peaceful life of an art gallery owner is disrupted when she receives a manuscript written by her first husband. As she reads it, the manuscript forces her to examine her past and come face to face with some grim truths.
The Ingredients: Writer-director Tom Ford (yes, the Tom Ford from the fashion world) follows up his successful debut A Single Man. Actors Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Shannon, and Isla Fisher star.
The Oscar Recipe: A lot of people still think that Ford’s critically acclaimed A Single Man was unfairly overlooked and should have gotten more nominations at the Oscars. Will the Academy make up for it? They just might. Plus, the film is already starting to collect accolades (Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival), and some of the names in the cast have been known as those that the Academy likes to acknowledge.
The Menu: A linguist is recruited by the military to communicate to an alien craft, in order to find out whether they come in peace or are, in fact, a threat.
The Ingredients: Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), and actors Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker.
The Oscar Recipe: The Academy was warming up to Villeneuve with Sicario last year, with a few but quite key nominations, so this year they might just make it official. Of course, that is more than just a wild speculation. Arrival has gained glowing reviews (100% on Rotten Tomatoes so far), and Amy Adams is well on her way to a sixth Oscar nod, with the movie resting on her shoulders. But let’s not be premature. That’s what everyone thought when Interstellar – a fellow sci-fi movie – came out, but the Academy only acknowledged it with predictable technical nominations. Of course, there’s also the possibility that Arrival will be the next Gravity in terms of Oscar love. This early in the race, the chance is still 50-50.
Manchester by the Sea
The Menu: A janitor in Boston returns to the fishing village where he grew up after learning that he is made a sole guardian of his teenage nephew. There, he reconnects with his estranged wife and the community.
The Ingredients: Director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) and actors Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams.
The Oscar Recipe: Rave reviews have made this film highly talked about as one of Oscar’s early contenders, as well as Michelle Williams for a Best Supporting Actress nod, and Casey Affleck’s – Ben’s little brother – wildly praised performance has turned him into a Best Actor frontrunner.
The Menu: Set in 1967, and based on a true story, the Lovings – yes, that’s their name, Richard and Mildred Loving – take their case to the Supreme Court after violating the law in Virginia that prohibits interracial marriage.
The Ingredients: Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special) takes the helm and also wrote the film, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth is one of the producers.
The Oscar Recipe: The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to a standing ovation, and went on to become probably the best reviewed fall release this year. Nichols’ direction, as well as Edgerton’s and Negga’s performances are highly praised. The film carries an important – and, in other contexts, still relevant – issue. And if The Birth of a Nation’s Oscar chance will be crippled by the controversy as discussed earlier, the Academy might just turn to Loving to maintain its cause for diversity. It might be too early in the game, but a Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress nomination might just be in the bag already.