By this point last year, everyone pretty much agreed that La La Land, a delightful, Hollywood-flattering musical, was the frontrunner to win Best Picture — whereas the passionately beloved Moonlight was too artsy, too gay, and too black to actually win. We all know how that turned out. This year, either out of penance, kismet, or some combination of the two, no single film — nor even a tight triad — has emerged as the Oscar favorite or favorites. The field is blissfully wide open.
Which is fine! Wildly speculative odds-making is part of the great fun of the Academy Awards. But if a movie's awards chances become the only conversation about it, then its genuine, ineffable pleasures risk transforming into the film geek equivalent of sports stats, dryly predicting that movie’s chances of winning the race to an Oscar. We stop talking about why the movie is good, and instead only obsess over why it could win.
So bear that all in mind when regarding this year's crop of movies at the center and periphery of the "awards conversation." These films have either won over audiences and critics in theaters, earned praise at the Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Telluride, Venice, Toronto, and New York film festivals, generated genuine buzz in advance press screenings, or garnered awards-y attention based purely on the prestige of the people making them without having screened for anyone else. Some of these movies may go on to win all kinds of awards, while others may be ignored entirely only to emerge years later as 2017's Groundhog Day or Harold and Maude. And they are all for your consideration as feature films unto themselves. —Adam B. Vary
Movies that have opened:
1. Get Out
Feature films generally have a hard time being responsive to current events, given the years-long process from inception to release. For whatever reason, that does not seem to be the case this year! The first of many examples is Get Out. Since it premiered in February, writer-director Jordan Peele's galvanizing social thriller has only grown more trenchant in the wake of the white supremacist marches at Charlottesville, and President Trump's criticism of NFL players protesting police shooting unarmed black men. (Not to mention a cheerless handful of other events, too.) It is rare for a film steeped in the tropes of horror movies to earn awards attention, let alone one that debuted at the start of the year, but Get Out's blistering timeliness — not to mention its superlative box office — should drive more examination its way. Consider that the last horror movie to win Best Picture, 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, also opened in February. —A.B.V.
Release date: Feb. 24
2. Wonder Woman
There was a time when blockbuster movies that earned their massive popularity by capturing the country's imagination — movies like The Exorcist, Star Wars, Ghost, The Fugitive, and The Sixth Sense — also became major Oscar contenders. None of them, however, were superhero movies, one of the last genres to have never earned a Best Picture nomination. Which makes Warner Bros.' reported commitment to doing a full awards campaign for Wonder Woman even more unusual. But if there's anything the last few years have taught us, it's that past performance has less and less bearing on future outcomes at the Oscars. Wonder Woman also tapped into a powerful cultural need, not only breaking box office records but speaking directly to audiences hungry for a female hero driven by goodness and love. And as the industry works through an unprecedented conversation about sexual violence and harassment, Wonder Woman’s message could resonate even more. —A.B.V.
Release date: June 2
3. Beatriz at Dinner
In another movie that benefits enormously from the fraught times we live in, Salma Hayek plays the titular Beatriz, a masseuse and healer who ends up at a high-class, high-stakes dinner party celebrating a Trump-like real estate mogul played by John Lithgow. Because writer Mike White (School of Rock) and director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) keep the inevitable collision between these two characters grounded in realism (for most of the film, anyway), the movie ends up feeling like a chamber piece — you could easily see White adapting this for the stage. What lingers long after the film’s rather controversial ending are two of the most memorable performances of the year from Hayek and Lithgow, who deliver deft and nuanced work as two radically different souls forced to comprehend each other. —A.B.V.
Release date: June 9
4. The Big Sick
The Big Sick was a word-of-mouth sensation over the summer. The romantic comedy is based on the real medical calamity that brought now-married screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani (who stars as a version of himself) and Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan) together. With strong supporting performances from Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily's parents, it provided the kind of "I laughed, I cried" gratification that studio films have largely abdicated in pursuit of franchise bombast. A smart awards campaign by Lionsgate — which had three Best Picture nominees last year in La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge, and Hell or High Water — could easily make this film a major nominee. —A.B.V.
Release date: June 23
The British army's miraculous escape from the Nazi forces surrounding them at the small French seaside town of Dunkirk was one of the most critical moments of World War II. It's tailor-made to be retold straightforwardly as a classic Hollywood motion picture. Instead, writer-director Christopher Nolan marshaled just about every filmmaking technique in his arsenal to make, essentially, an art film about the event, using a time-fractured triptych of stories that studiously avoids traditional movie tropes like, you know, a central main character. The result is as stirring and astonishing as anything Nolan has made, and it has every chance of finally earning the god of movie geeks his first Oscar nomination for Best Director. —A.B.V.
Release date: July 21
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal both won Oscars and wide acclaim for their gritty, gripping journalistic approach to the Iraq War in 2009's The Hurt Locker. But when they used those same techniques to depict the Detroit riots of 1967 — specifically how three black teenagers were killed by white police officers in the Algiers Motel — Bigelow and Boal were criticized for treating brutal, racialized violence as an opportunity for virtuosic filmmaking. Producer Megan Ellison used Detroit to launch her company Annapurna Pictures as a bona fide indie studio, and there are few people with better Oscar track records this decade than she has. Still, while Detroit is an expertly made and well-acted film about a terribly important subject, it is also a grueling experience to sit through, and Academy voters may simply choose not to. —A.B.V.
Release date: July 28
7. First They Killed My Father
Here's another high-profile film about a real event that was slammed for its seemingly tone-deaf approach. In this case, a profile of Angelina Jolie in Vanity Fair suggested that the production for her fourth film as a director tricked young Cambodian children into taking money they thought was real, which Jolie said later was a "false and upsetting" mischaracterization of the audition process.
That controversy nearly overshadowed the film, which has earned Jolie by far the best reviews of her directorial career. BuzzFeed News' Alison Willmore praised her "experiential" approach to telling the story of the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from the perspective of a child (Sareum Srey Moch). "The film is freed from having to explain the whys of what's happening," she wrote, "allowing it to be an act of sensory overload, a rush of unsettling images." First They Killed My Father even qualified as Cambodia's entry for Best Foreign Language Film.
Ironically, the biggest hurdle for this film's awards prospects may not end up being the casting controversy or its challenging subject matter, but the fact that it was released by Netflix, a disruptive force in the movie industry that the Academy has been reluctant to honor. (More on this later.) —A.B.V.
Release date: Sept. 15
For four consecutive years now, Jake Gyllenhaal has delivered go-for-broke performances — in 2013's Prisoners, 2014's Nightcrawler, 2015's Southpaw, and 2016's Nocturnal Animals — that impress and surprise, and ultimately get overlooked by the Academy. In his latest film, Stronger, Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and he commits to depicting the waves of anguish and self-pity that buffeted Bauman as he struggled to recover. Whether the Academy will overlook Gyllenhaal once again remains to be seen, but voters (and audiences) should at least also take a long look at Tatiana Maslany's equally striking performance as Bauman's on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin Hurley. —A.B.V.
Release date: Sept. 22
9. Battle of the Sexes
Yet another weirdly relevant movie! This one is about the media circus around the exhibition tennis match between feminist pioneer Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and self-styled male chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Directed by Little Miss Sunshine's Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, Battle of the Sexes is also a personal examination of King's sexual awakening with her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough), as well as a portrait of how Riggs' gambling obsession and stiflingly wealthy wife (Elisabeth Shue) drove him to reclaim the spotlight by any means necessary. It's about a lot of things, this movie, which may be one of the reasons why its box office has been so tepid. But Stone and Carell's strong performances, and the film's impressive attention to detail, may win over Academy voters in not-so-straight sets. (I’m sorry.) —A.B.V.
Release date: Sept. 22
10. The Florida Project
Director Sean Baker's last film Tangerine was one of the genuine delights of 2015, bringing an eye-popping beauty to the often disregarded world of trans sex workers in Los Angeles. His follow-up, The Florida Project, also cowritten with Tangerine's Chris Bergoch, focuses a similarly stunning gaze on the down-and-out lives of Halley (Bria Vinaite), a young ex-con, and her 6-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). They live week-to-week in a motel just miles from Disney World that's become the last rung before homelessness for many of its tenants. The motel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) becomes a kind of surrogate father figure for both Halley and Moonee, but the film’s lasting power comes from its clear-eyed understanding of how the wonder and recklessness of childhood can cut both ways. —A.B.V.
Release date: Oct. 6
11. Blade Runner 2049
For the second year in a row, director Denis Villeneuve has delivered a prestige sci-fi movie suffused with astonishing visuals and a hypnotic examination of the very nature of existence. Unlike Arrival, however, Blade Runner 2049 divided critics, some reveling in its outrageously stunning cinematography (courtesy of perpetual Oscar also-ran Roger Deakins), some frustrated by its glacial pace and skin-deep characters. All it takes to do well at the Oscars, however, is a core group of passionate voters — and given the film’s vast technical achievements, it is certainly likely to earn more than the two nominations the 1982 original did (Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects). —A.B.V.
Release date: Oct. 6
This not-quite biopic of Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) — set decades before he became the first black Supreme Court justice — focuses on a single case from the start of his career that defines the pursuit of justice Marshall made his life’s mission. When a white woman (Kate Hudson) accuses her black valet (Sterling K. Brown) of rape and attempted murder, Marshall is paired with a Jewish lawyer (Josh Gad) who is too busy trying to skate by in 1940s Connecticut to recognize the injustice all around him. The film is anchored by a trio of remarkable performances: As he’s done twice before (as Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get On Up), Boseman captures Marshall’s larger-than-life aura; Josh Gad gives the best dramatic performance of his career as a lawyer who is, effectively, waking up from a self-imposed moral slumber; and two-time Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown proves he’s one of the finest and most capable actors working today with a deeply nuanced take on a complicated character. The film only drew $3 million on its opening weekend, so it might fall out of the conversation as awards season carries on, but these are three performances we should be talking about through the Oscars. —Jarett Wieselman
Release date: Oct. 6
There was a time when Breathe would have seemed like an awards season shoo-in, checking off a litany of so-called "Oscar bait" boxes. It's about a real man (check), Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), whose polio leaves him paralyzed below the neck and unable to breathe without a respirator (check). Cavendish's dedicated wife Diana (Claire Foy) brings him home against doctor's orders (check), determined to allow him to watch his infant son grow up. Then his good friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) helps him invent a wheelchair with a battery-powered respirator that allows him to leave the confines of his bed — and radically improves the lives of many other people with quadriplegia as well. (Check.) It’s the directorial debut of beloved and respected actor Andy Serkis (check), working with his longtime producing partner, Jonathan Cavendish — who is Robin and Diana’s real-life son. (Check.) There’s even a scene where a crowd of people give Robin a round of applause. (Check!) As endearing as these elements ultimately are in the film, one big check is missing: box office returns. It remains to be seen whether Breathe will have a similar (lack of) impact with the Academy. —A.B.V.
Release date: Oct. 13
14. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
When writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young) debuted his latest dysfunctional family dramedy at Cannes last May, it got swept up in the film industry’s ongoing frustration with its distributor, Netflix, and the company’s insistence on debuting its films on streaming at the same time they're in theaters. Lost in that kerfuffle were The Meyerowitz Stories’ many prickly charms, including a nuanced, moving, awards-worthy performance from — brace yourself — Adam Sandler, as the put-upon son of Dustin Hoffman’s frustrated, narcissistic artist. The entire cast — including Ben Stiller as Sandler’s successful, high-strung half brother; Elizabeth Marvel as their diffident sister; and Emma Thompson as Hoffman’s flighty third wife — is fabulous, as is Baumbach’s witty, thoughtful script. Whether it’s enough for the industry to get past its worries about Netflix — let alone Academy voters — is one of the big questions of this awards season. —A.B.V.
Release date: Oct. 13
15. Only the Brave
Based on a true story, Only the Brave chronicles the lives and struggles of a crew of Arizona firefighters, led by Josh Brolin’s hotheaded, hard-charging supervisor, Eric Marsh. He’s great. Jennifer Connelly as Eric’s wife Amanda is given a real role to play well beyond a concerned woman waiting by the phone, and she’s great. Miles Teller, as an ex-junkie who joins the crew, is great. Taylor Kitsch, as a womanizing doofus — also great. Jeff Bridges, as Eric’s wizened mentor — great too. The visually robust, emotionally powerful direction from Joseph Kosinski (TRON Legacy) — so great! Perhaps the film’s accidental timeliness with the deadly fires in Northern California made Only the Brave unpalatable for audiences, but the lack of proper attention for this film — from critics, awards-watchers, anyone — speaks to how crucial it is for non-franchise movies opening in the fall to debut first at a major film festival. Only the Brave deserves better, and should be a part of any conversation about the best films of this year. —A.B.V.
Release date: Oct. 20
Movies that have publicly screened at festivals:
16. Lady Bird
In a year chock-full of movies that evoke so many of the (often painful) aspects of our current times, Lady Bird feels like sweet relief. It’s not irrelevant: It’s a movie written and directed by a woman (Greta Gerwig) and centered on women (Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf), and that remains a very notable thing. But Lady Bird is also the film equivalent of a bop. As it centers on a teenager (Ronan) who's in her senior year of high school in the early 2000s and who has a touch-and-go relationship with her mother (Metcalf), Lady Bird ripples with gentleness and hilarity. Ronan’s already been nominated for an Oscar twice (Atonement, Brooklyn), and Gerwig’s been one of the most noted faces of indie cinema for years. From its directing and screenplay down through its performances, Lady Bird is sparky and touching — a combination that just might attract Oscars voters, especially in a year when anything not grueling or bleak feels like a welcome reprieve. —Alanna Bennett
Release date: Nov. 3
17. Last Flag Flying
This adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s novel centers on three Vietnam veterans, played by Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne, and Bryan Cranston, going on a road trip to bury one of their sons who died in the early days of the Iraq War. Director Richard Linklater has called it his version of a war movie, which means more scenes of intense conversations than intense combat. While Fishburne plays it safe and Cranston tests the audience’s patience for profane baby boomers, Carell delivers a performance more dialed back than what audiences are used to from him, proving he has the range, particularly when paired with his performance in Battle of the Sexes. He's a longshot Oscar contender, and never count out Linklater when it comes to the Best Screenplay race. —Marcus Jones
Release date: Nov. 3
18. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
In following with its very descriptive name, Three Billboards centers on a woman (Frances McDormand) who puts up billboards just outside her small Missouri town, calling local police out on the lack of leads in the case of the rape and murder of her daughter. With Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged sexual assault and harassment sparking larger conversations in the industry, these topics are central this year in Hollywood in a more massive way than maybe ever before. It’s kind of all people are talking about. Whether that will help or hurt Three Billboards is hard to say. But it will undoubtedly make it an even more interesting part of the awards season conversation, and it was already doing pretty well on that front before the Weinstein articles in the New York Times and New Yorker went live.
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), the film exposes tender flesh — maybe even a tender heart — underneath some pretty harsh bristles. It’s also anchored in a bevy of classic powerhouse performances, most notably Oscar winner McDormand as the grieving and perpetually pissed Mildred Hayes, and Sam Rockwell as the puerile, racist Officer Jason Dixon. Given its concept, you’d expect Three Billboards to be weighed down with its own bleakness. It’s not, for the most part. Instead, it twists its own darkness in on itself — and what comes out is surprisingly funny. —A.B.
Release date: Nov. 10
The world premiere of Mudbound at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival ended with half of the audience on their feet as tears welled up in their eyes. One would think that kind of response would start a significant bidding war, but the phones stayed silent on this historical drama, directed and cowritten by Dee Rees, about how a white family and a black family find themselves intertwined for better or for worse in Mississippi during World War II. The conclusion most pundits came to was that Mudbound stood in the shadow of Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, which elicited the same response at its premiere — and then went on to tank at the box office after Parker’s past sexual assault allegations came to light. This all goes to say that what affected Mudbound at Sundance may affect its Oscar chances. It doesn’t help that Jason Mitchell, who has the most harrowing standout role, has recently gotten some negative attention.
What also doesn’t help is that the film was acquired, more than a week after its premiere, by Netflix, which is viewed by most of the Academy’s executive branch as a major reason audiences have turned away from theaters. Other Oscars favorites, like Christopher Nolan and Pedro Almodóvar, have also rejected the streaming giant’s strategy of putting its films on its platform the same day they’re released in theaters. Their approach has prevented most theater chains from playing Netflix films, which makes it harder for Oscar voters and average theatergoers to see them on the big screen — and for them to gain word-of-mouth recognition.
It really is a shame, though. Rees, who worked with Virgil Williams to adapt Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name, expertly weaves a tight, poignant story, and many of the actors are at their career best, hitting on what the Academy usually looks for: the seasoned ingenue (Carey Mulligan), the overlooked actor finally finding material with which to prove himself (Garrett Hedlund), and the musician making a seamless transition into serious acting (Mary J. Blige). Plus, a woman of color has never been nominated for Best Director, and no women at all have been nominated for Best Cinematographer, but the work Rees and Rachel Morrison do to add soul to shots of a muddy plot of land is definitely notable. —M.J.
Release date: Nov. 17
20. Darkest Hour
If anything's certain in an Oscar year awash with uncertainty, it's that Gary Oldman will get a Best Actor nomination for playing Winston Churchill. Oldman's performance in Darkest Hour, which is set just as Churchill becomes prime minister in the United Kingdom's most desperate period during World War II, is some next-level work. What he does feels less like acting than it does some greater transformation — physically, with Oldman unrecognizable in the role, but also spiritually, with the actor conjuring up a living, breathing, warts-and-all version of the decades-distant historical figure. Like Nolan's Dunkirk, Darkest Hour hinges on the Dunkirk evacuation, on everything seeming lost before the "miracle of deliverance," culminating with Churchill's famous "we shall fight on the beaches" speech. But the film, directed by Joe Wright (who briefly but memorably depicted Dunkirk once before in Atonement), is a story of politics, not combat, and its drama unfurls in cabinet rooms and parliamentary chambers as Churchill faces down colleagues pushing for him to talk peace. It's without a doubt a handsomely made period piece, if a bit of a slog, but it remains to be seen whether it'll have traction beyond Oldman's accomplishments. —Alison Willmore
Release date: Nov. 22
21. Call Me by Your Name
Few films generate as much discussion before their release as Call Me by Your Name has: Luca Guadagnino’s lush gay romance has already been picked apart for its casting of straight actors, the description of its themes as “universal,” and the lack of nudity and explicit sex. It’s not surprising that the film has inspired such passionate debates — it is an unapologetic love story between two young men (Timothée Chalamet’s Elio and Armie Hammer’s Oliver) with a considerable age gap at a time when mainstream cinematic depictions of gay love are still few and far between. But what much of the conversation around Call Me by Your Name has missed is that it’s a stunning, searingly erotic film. James Ivory’s script, adapted from the novel by Andre Aciman, effortlessly captures first love and the specific thrill of burgeoning same-sex attraction. Chalamet delivers a truly breakthrough performance with the kind of openhearted vulnerability that often earns accolades. But attention must also be paid to Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio’s deeply empathetic father. Toward the end of the film, he delivers a speech about the importance of feeling everything — both pleasure and pain — that is so tender and moving it’s difficult to imagine Stuhlbarg being overlooked.
It’s understandable to feel wary of the Academy’s ability to honor a queer love story: The pang of Brokeback Mountain’s notorious loss still cuts deep over a decade later. But this is a brave new post-Moonlight world, and that bodes well for Call Me by Your Name’s chances. And like Moonlight, this is a rich, evocative film that will resonate with viewers across the spectrum of sexuality. (No, that doesn’t mean it’s OK to call it “universal.” This is a gay movie. Full stop.) —Louis Peitzman
Release date: Nov. 24
22. The Disaster Artist
The Disaster Artist could have easily veered into “James Franco vanity project” territory — Franco directs, stars in, and coproduces the tragicomedy about the making of The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s indie film that became a cult phenomenon for being, well, a disaster. But Franco deftly keeps the focus squarely on his fascinating subject. As a result, it's possible he could get nominated in both the directing and acting categories.
The Disaster Artist avoids poking fun at Wiseau (played by Franco with a near-frightening accuracy reminiscent of Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon) and instead gives us an exercise in appreciative parody. Franco’s made a hilarious, endearing, and joyous character study of one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic outsiders — just do yourself a favor and see The Room first, if only to fully appreciate Franco’s perfect Wiseau accent. —Keely Flaherty
Release date: Dec. 1
23. The Shape of Water
You know it's an unusual year when a movie about a woman falling in love with a fish creature is somehow turning out to be the nearest thing 2017 has to a "safe" Oscar favorite. But it's true — the closest the current race has to a La La Land could well be Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, a '60s-set fantasy starring a wondrously good Sally Hawkins as a mute cleaning woman and Doug Jones as the nonhuman hunk she develops a tendre for. Like La La Land, The Shape of Water is a backwards-looking movie that makes plenty of those self-referential gestures toward cinephilia that Hollywood seems to adore. Its main character lives above a theater, and at one point indulges in a daydream of an old-fashioned big-screen song-and-dance number that is, admittedly, thoroughly enchanting. So is most of the movie, which is spikier and more daring than the La La Land comparison might make it sound. The Shape of Water may revolve around an amphibious being, but the rest of its dramas come from the ways in which its other characters get marginalized and treated as less than human themselves because of disability or race or sexuality. Its interspecies romance is decidedly not chaste, and its relationship with nostalgia is pointedly skeptical, with a memorable Michael Shannon turning up as the villain — a government agent safeguarding a poisonously narrow image of America. —A.W.
Release date: Dec. 1
24. Wonder Wheel
Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen's latest film, unfolds against the backdrop of a 1950s Coney Island. To its credit, the film showcases gorgeous and captivating cinematography, thanks to Vittorio Storaro; the overall vibe of the piece is palpably nostalgic; and Kate Winslet shines, delivering a laudable performance as a housewife who has become bogged down by the mundanity of life — but that’s where praise for the movie ends. What will be most interesting to see is how the Academy grapples with highlighting Allen's work, especially in the wake of the blowup revelations about the "open secret" that was the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations, which has dominated the news for much of the last several weeks and likely will for many more to come. Allen has also been accused of sexual misconduct, but it has seemingly had no effect on how the Academy judges his art. This could this be the year that changes. —Michael Blackmon
Release date: Dec. 1
25. I, Tonya
I, Tonya is no stodgy award-baiting biopic (see the blurb for Breathe above). Craig Gillespie's portrait of disgraced Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding is a giddy black comedy replete with fourth-wall-breaking, dueling unreliable narrators, and the unforgettable sight of its main character crushing a cigarette out with the blade of her skate. At the film's center is Margot Robbie, getting the kind of juicy role she's clearly been waiting for and does more than justice to. Robbie doesn't particularly resemble Harding, but she revels in the character's tragedy and humor — this scrappy, talented outsider from a tough background whose talent couldn't make up for the fact that, in the eyes of the judges, she just didn't fit their image of an ice princess. Between Robbie and a scene-stealing Allison Janney as Harding's estranged mother LaVona Golden (uttering the immortal line "Lick my ass, Diane, she can do a fucking triple"), I, Tonya is destined to be a big part of any acting award conversation. But the film also scooped up an unexpected Best Feature nod at the recently announced Gotham Awards nominations, which might be a sign that it'll be a contender in other categories as well — presuming it gets enough push from Neon, the newbie distribution company that picked it up at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. —A.W.
Release date: Dec. 8
Director Alexander Payne's slice-of-life comedic dramas — 2004’s Sideways, 2011’s The Descendants, 2013’s Nebraska — have made him an Oscar perennial. But Payne has never made anything quite like Downsizing, which matches his dry satirical style with a highly fanciful sci-fi premise: To combat the ravages of overpopulation, Swedish scientists develop technology that can shrink humans to roughly the size of a coffee mug. The massive financial benefits — you can live like a king for life on not much more than a year’s salary — entice Nebraskan couple Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) to undergo the procedure, and, well, to call the ensuing story “unpredictable” suggests one would know what to expect from it in the first place. There’s really never been anything quite like this movie.
Payne does make one big, risky choice, however, that could easily overwhelm the conversation about his film: Its second half is dominated by Ngoc Lan Tran (Big Little Lies’ Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident who was forcibly shrunk as punishment. Chau brings such emotional power to her performance that many Oscar pundits have pegged her as a major contender for a Best Supporting Actress nomination. But the role nonetheless leans heavily on cringe-inducing stereotypes, and may alienate audiences and voters alike from the film. —A.B.V.
Release date: Dec. 22
27. Molly's Game
What’s the only thing better than razor-sharp, crisply articulated Aaron Sorkin dialogue? When Jessica Chastain’s the one delivering it. Sorkin’s directorial debut chronicling the life of Molly Bloom — a former Olympic skier who ended up getting arrested for running an exclusive high-stakes power game for a decade that, allegedly unbeknownst to her, included members of the Russian mob — provides a perfect avenue for Chastain’s steely charisma. She’s a compelling antihero, honest but unyielding with the garbage men in her life, and unparalleled in her ability to clickity-clack an authoritative stiletto heel.
The first half of the film is a paragon of pacing, and even though the second half slogs a bit in comparison, the film will still likely garner awards buzz for both Chastain and Sorkin. And if there’s any justice in the world, this movie will ensure Michael Cera only ever plays sociopathic villains in nondescript hoodies for the rest of his career. This is his true calling. —K.F.
Release date: Dec. 25
28. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
All you really need to know about this movie — which depicts the real-life love affair between classic Hollywood actor Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) and Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), an aspiring British actor several decades her junior — is that Gloria and Peter first demonstrate their mutual attraction with a sweaty, impromptu, incredible disco-dancing routine in Gloria’s apartment. The story follows a familiar trajectory, tracing how Gloria’s terminal illness affects Peter and his sweet-natured parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham). But the two leads have such electric chemistry that it’s a bracing reminder of how unconvincing so many onscreen romances really are. Bening is fast becoming the premiere “wait, she hasn’t won an Oscar yet?!” actor, and she’s uncanny embodying Grahame’s fragile yet formidable movie star aura. And Bell is truly swoonworthy — Hollywood, cast him in all the tragic romances, please! —A.B.V.
Release date: Dec. 29
Hostiles with Christian Bale is another in a string of Scott Cooper’s very beautiful and very furrowed-brow films — including 2015’s Black Mass with Johnny Depp, 2009’s Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges, and 2013’s Out of the Furnace, another with Bale. Each is led with a gritty, unsympathetic, and/or grizzled leading man in a story where peace or justice lies just out of reach. Hostiles’ weathered Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Bale) is reluctantly sent on his internal and external journey to return a family of Native Americans safely to their home and holy land. Though Bale delivers a quiet, moody, and angry performance, the story plods predictably in a “and then, and then, and then” manner, while barely developing the Native characters at all. Culturally, the audience is aware of the centuries of mistreatment and genocide of the Americas’ indigenous people, while also being tasked to root for the allegedly murderous military antihero who has a bone to pick with the Native Americans he’s tasked to protect. Complex as this journey may be, it remains a slow film with a lot of ambition that doesn’t quite deliver on its gorgeous promises — for audiences as well as voters. —Katie Hasty
Release date: Dec. 22
Movies that haven't yet publicly screened:
30. Murder on the Orient Express
In 1974, a motley crew of legendary performers from Hollywood’s classic era — from Albert Finney to Lauren Bacall — filled out the A-list cast of the original Murder on the Orient Express film, based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name. The suspenseful picture, directed by Sidney Lumet, resonated with moviegoers across the board and was not only a box office success but an Academy Awards favorite, nabbing six nominations, although winning just one, which Ingrid Bergman attained for Best Actress. With a track record like that, it’s no surprise that the reboot machine that is today’s Hollywood hopes the same magic will strike again with 2017’s reboot of the film, opening on Nov. 10. Again, a stellar cast has been assembled, featuring veteran actors like Kenneth Branagh, who also directed the film, as well as Penélope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Judi Dench, among others. But there are some newcomers, too, like The Force Awakens' Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. of Hamilton fame, who are ostensibly tasked with bringing the millennial crowd to theaters. Reboots don’t always do what Hollywood executives hope in terms of profit, but for every Ben-Hur there’s a Planet of the Apes, and Murder on the Orient Express, based solely on the strength of its lineup of talented players, may be a surprise Oscar darling. —M.B.
Release date: Nov. 10
First allow me to say that it is a crime against acting that Jacob Tremblay did not get an Oscar nomination for his emotionally ravaging work in 2016’s Room. But I believe that speaks to a larger belief within the industry that oftentimes child actors’ performances are created for them, and not by them, in the editing room. However, if the deeply moving trailer for Wonder is any indication, Tremblay may prove those who doubted him wrong. In director Stephen Chbosky’s new film, the 11-year-old plays Auggie, a fifth-grader who enters public school for the first time following years of surgeries that have helped him breathe, see, and hear. Although those procedures have saved his life, the 27 surgeries have also left scars across his face, and Auggie’s parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) worry about how immature his new classmates will be. The film, based on the New York Times best-selling book, is certain to pull on your heartstrings, and there’s a world in which this possible crowd-pleaser follows in the footsteps of 2009’s surprise Best Picture nominee The Blind Side. —J.W.
Release date: Nov. 17
32. All the Money in the World
After taking us back into outer space with May’s polarizing Alien: Covenant, director Ridley Scott is now turning his attention toward American history and the infamous kidnapping of Getty scion John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) in the 1970s with this drama. While all we have to work with is the film’s single trailer (so who’s to say if below-the-line nominations — for script, costumes, cinematography, editing, and music — will emerge), it’s easy to see that two performances will absolutely be part of this year’s dialogue. First there’s two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey hiding under pounds of prosthetics (which the Academy loooooves) as oil magnate J. Paul Getty, the boy’s morally questionable grandfather. Then there’s four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams as John Paul’s mother Gail, who commits every fiber of her being to rescuing her son when Grandpa refuses to cough up the ransom. —J.W.
Release date: Dec. 8
33. The Post
When Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg — who, between them, have eight Oscar statues (!) and 41 nominations (!!) — decide to make a movie together, it's automatically A Very Big Deal. And that’s before factoring in the film’s subject — how Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Streep) fought the Nixon White House to print the Pentagon Papers. At a time when journalism finds itself once again in a pitched battle with a sitting president, this actually risks feeling too on the nose. But, c’mon, this movie also stars Sarah Paulson, Jesse Plemons, Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon, Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys, Zach Woods, and Alison Brie. This is already the biggest movie of the Oscar season, and no one has even seen it yet. —A.B.V.
Release date: Dec. 22
34. The Greatest Showman
A biopic of circus founder P.T. Barnum is not necessarily destined for Oscars glory — but this is a musical, and the Academy loves musicals. And one with a lauded pedigree, including star Hugh Jackman (Oscar-nominated for Les Misérables) and composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (lyricists for last year’s La La Land, which earned them an Oscar for Best Original Song, “City of Stars”). Like the circus at its center, The Greatest Showman feels, at the very least, like a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, particularly at a time when the uncomplicated joy of escapist entertainment is essential. But there is plenty of opportunity for awards recognition here — not just for Jackman and Pasek and Paul, but also for established talent like Michelle Williams and relative newcomers like Zendaya and Keala Settle, the latter of whom has already earned plenty of acclaim on Broadway. And who knows, perhaps this is the film that finally showcases the full range of Zac Efron’s talent. —L.P.
Release date: Dec. 25
35. Phantom Thread
Paul Thomas Anderson has reached the sort of auteur level where he doesn’t need his films to see the light of day until the final minutes of the award season nomination window. It helps that his new film stars Daniel Day-Lewis, the only person to win three Best Actor Academy Awards, including one for There Will Be Blood, his last collaboration with Anderson. In Phantom Thread, set in the 1950s, Lewis plays a British fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock who becomes infatuated with a young commoner named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who he makes his muse. Lesley Manville rounds out the small ensemble as Woodcock’s sister Cyril, who remains skeptical of Woodcock and Alma’s relationship. Although his last film, Inherent Vice, didn’t get much love from the Academy, Anderson’s films have a great track record for acting and screenplay nominations. Everything is up in the air this season, so Phantom Thread is likely a contender for Best Director and Best Picture, but as a period piece set in the fashion world, it’s also a shoo-in for Best Costume Design. —M.J.
Release date: Dec. 25