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15 Movies You’ll Be Talking About This Awards Season

Strippers, showmen, and sad clowns — with movies like Hustlers, Judy, and Joker, this year’s Serious Movie Season is looking a little less somber than usual.

Posted on September 13, 2019, at 11:15 a.m. ET

From left: Netflix; Roadside Attractions; STX Films; Warner Bros.

Eddie Murphy in Dolemite Is My Name, Renée Zellweger in Judy, Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers, Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.

When it comes to movies, the official kickoff for fall is the Toronto International Film Festival, a glitzy gala where Oscar hopefuls have their premieres and the industry flocks to find out what titles are going to be talked about in the coming season. And, usually, this means a procession of sober, adult movies about sober, adult topics. Feature films steeped in things like unfettered joy, laughter, glee — you know, fun — are usually abandoned to the studio blockbusters of the summer (and spring, and winter).

But not this year. If the just-concluding TIFF is any indication, this year has the potential for being the most upbeat awards season in ages. There are still serious entries, like the wrongful imprisonment drama Just Mercy (which we saw) and the Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet (which we haven't seen yet). But there are also entries like Hustlers, Dolemite Is My Name, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — all daring the industry to be a little less somber when it comes to what it considers prestigious cinema.

It's not that these movies shy away from heavy themes: Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit is, after all, a child's-eye-view comedy about Nazism, while Rian Johnson gives his whodunit romp Knives Out a sharp pro-immigrant edge. But these films approach heavy topics with the kind of light touch that's only appropriate for a moment when all we can do is laugh helplessly as the world burns. Laugh, and then go see a supervillain origin story that may be the weightiest awards entry of them all — why so serious, indeed. —Alison Willmore and Adam B. Vary

Hustlers

Barbara Nitke / STX Films

Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu

Early in Hustlers, there's a moment when Constance Wu's character, Destiny, takes a break on the rooftop of the strip club where she recently started working, and finds Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) already out there, wearing a plush fur coat on top of her scant costume, sprawled out with a cigarette in hand. At the film's premiere, the sheer glory of the shot was enough to prompt a round of applause. Suffice it to say that Hustlers gives Lopez the best role she's had in years as a veteran dancer who takes her less experienced colleague under her wing, eventually enlisting her in a scheme to drug hapless finance guys and then run up their tabs at clubs that give the dancers a cut of the proceeds.

But the movie, directed by Lorene Scafaria and based on a 2015 New York magazine feature by Jessica Pressler, doesn't just coast on the considerable power of its cast, which also includes Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and Julia Stiles, as well as briefer appearances from Cardi B and Lizzo. It's an exuberantly energetic, well-crafted saga about, well, hustling — to get by, to get yours, and to rationalize away any prickles of conscience by telling yourself it's all just brutal capitalism, baby. And at its heart is a depiction of a friendship that's joyous and tender and terrifically complicated, because when you get as good as these women do at telling people what they want to hear, how do you know that you're not just doing the same to each other? —A.W.

Release date: Sept. 13 in theaters

Judy

Roadside Attractions

Renée Zellweger

It’s not that Renée Zellweger transforms herself into Judy Garland in Judy, exactly, at least in the way that, say, Daniel Day-Lewis became Lincoln, or Rami Malek embodied Freddie Mercury’s teeth. It’s more that she discovered how to perfectly capture Garland’s essence and manner — her unmistakable Judy-ness — while also retaining the talent that has made Zellweger’s absence from the movies this decade so acute. It’s uncanny how much these two women seem to be in conversation with each other throughout Zellweger’s performance, and the effect is a kind of sublime alchemy, the sort of acting that can leave you staggered and grateful and awash in tears. She really does that, and it’s so exciting to see.

Often, biopics built around a single virtuosic performance make a big, unsuccessful show of trying to capture the magic of that performance overall — see Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher and The Iron Lady or Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill and Darkest Hour. But director Rupert Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge, adapting Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow, understand that Zellweger’s Judy is their movie, and they calibrate everything to support her. It helps immensely that the story largely covers just a few months at the very end of Garland’s life in the late 1960s, when, unemployable in America, she leaves her young children with their father in Los Angeles so she can make a living with a series of concerts in London. Along with a few pointed and heartbreaking flashbacks to her behind-the-scenes struggles while making The Wizard of Oz, it’s all we need in order to experience how trapped Garland was between the endless, dehumanizing grind of fame and her once-in-a-lifetime, breathtaking talent. Zellweger gets us to feel that tension, and makes it sing. —A.B.V.

Release date: Sept. 27 in theaters

Joker

Niko Tavernise / Warner Bros.

Joaquin Phoenix

Since Joker premiered at the Venice Film Festival in early September (and won its top prize), the anxious notion that director Todd Phillips transformed the iconic Batman villain into an 8chan-y incel antihero began to seep all over Twitter. I’m not sure those fears are entirely warranted. To be sure, Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix have created a vivid portrait of how a man suffering — and I use that word pointedly — with a vaguely diagnosed mental illness ends up becoming a violent psychopath, and, in doing so, they pluck at some particularly resonant cultural strings. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck lives in an impeccably designed Gotham City, which evokes the anarchic grime of early ’80s New York City, in a rathole apartment with his housebound mother (Frances Conroy). He has no real friends or love life; he can barely hold on to his job as a rent-a-clown; and everyone treats him like he’s a freak, thanks largely to a brain injury that causes him to laugh uncontrollably.

The film’s nominal story kicks into gear when Arthur, in an otherwise empty subway car, guns down some Wall Street–y assholes who were violently tormenting him. And yes, that inspires, largely off camera, a “kill the rich” movement in Gotham. People wear clown masks, angrily protest, and (spoiler alert but not really) eventually riot, and Phillips shoots it all kind of like Tucker Carlson’s wet dream of an antifa nightmare.

But Arthur doesn’t participate in that movement. He’s not a vigilante, and unlike other past movie Jokers — Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, even Jared Leto — there’s nothing thrilling or dynamic about Phoenix’s Arthur. Instead, his path in the film is inward, pitiful, apolitical, and (I think deliberately) monotonous. Phillips just keeps piling trauma and suffering onto him as we witness scene after scene of Arthur, often sitting alone in his underwear, doubled over in choking laughter. Ultimately, the most daring thing about Joker is that it’s a big studio comic book movie about how misery can drive you mad. —A.B.V.

Release date: Oct. 4 in theaters

Pain and Glory

Sony Pictures Classics

Antonio Banderas

Pedro Almodóvar has drawn from his own biography for his entire, sumptuous career as Spain’s most renowned filmmaker — especially for his stunning run of All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002), Bad Education (2004), and Volver (2006). And yet he’s never made anything quite as self-reflective as Pain and Glory — starting with its protagonist, Salvador Mallo, an aging Spanish filmmaker played in a poignant, career-best performance by Almodóvar’s longtime friend and collaborator Antonio Banderas.

We watch Mallo grapple with his failing body, opiate dependency, and lingering heartaches as his mind slips back to his childhood living in an underground cottage that his mother (Penélope Cruz) laments is little more than a dilapidated cave. It’s only one of a few disparate storytelling strands that Almodóvar stitches together — another involves Mallo’s complicated relationship with addiction and a long lost lover — but unlike so many of Almodóvar’s earlier melodramas, this film’s plot gently saunters more than it twists. It’s enormously touching, and all too rare, to watch this accomplished gay man reflect on his life. And it’s yet another milestone for Almodóvar, who has spent a career breathing lush life into all manner of queer lives. —A.B.V.

Release date: Oct. 4 in theaters

Dolemite Is My Name

Netflix

Eddie Murphy

As Rudy Ray Moore, a struggling musician/comic/showman who transformed himself into an underground comedy legend, Eddie Murphy has never had a better, richer showcase for his enormous talents, full stop. Dolemite Is My Name tracks how, in the 1970s, Moore reworked the tall-tale, rhyming shit talk of his local neighborhood vagrants into a hilariously profane comic persona, and then used the proceeds from his popular comedy records to bankroll a feature film based on his act. Director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) has assembled a killer cast as the community of fellow strivers Moore corrals to help him make his so-inept-it’s-genius movie, including Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, and Tony nominee Da’Vine Joy Randolph (who needs to be cast in all the things). Wesley Snipes, meanwhile, absolutely devours every scene he’s in as a legit professional actor horrified he let Moore talk him into not only starring in his film, but directing it as well.

It’s all enormously funny, but Murphy also brings surprising depth to Moore’s striving, which evokes (but never overplays) the harder truths about what compels him to tell the kinds of stories about black lives that no one else is telling. Like so many Netflix productions, it runs a bit too long. But still, this movie is — to use Moore’s parlance — a motherfucking delight. —A.B.V.

Release dates: Oct. 4 in theaters; Oct. 25 on Netflix

Parasite

Neon

Choi Woo-sik, Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin, and Park So-dam

Bong Joon-ho's latest film is a tale of two houses. The one inhabited by the Kim family is a cluttered basement apartment with an awkwardly placed toilet and a window offering a front-row seat to the public urination attempted by passing drunks. The one belonging to the Park family is an immaculately designed modern mansion that's raised and walled off from the street, an airy urban oasis complete with a lush lawn. They're in the same city, but the space between them feels as vast as the elevation between ground-level slums and floating neighborhoods of the rich in a dystopian sci-fi saga. And yet, courtesy of some strategic falsehoods, the economically strapped Kims figure out how to wheedle their way into the Parks' luxurious sanctuary as, essentially, the help, securing various jobs for themselves from employers who have no idea that the people they’ve hired are actually part of the same family.

To say anything more would ruin the pleasure of watching a masterful movie that ratchets up tension and unease without ever giving away where its semi-absurd scenario could be heading. When Parasite starts, it feels like it could be a blackly funny parable about class, with the Kims (headed up by frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho) positioned as lovable outsiders scraping together a living any way they can, up to and including lying to the Parks about their qualifications. You only realize what an angry story it actually is right around the time its characters do, when the film starts to make you consider the degree to which desperation and despair fuels what's happening. And then you realize you’ve been watching a tragedy all along. —A.W.

Release date: Oct. 11 in theaters

Jojo Rabbit

20th Century Fox

Taika Waititi, Roman Griffin Davis, and Sam Rockwell

Of the many bracing lessons of the last few years, one of the most galling has been that, apparently, we still need to remind everybody that Nazism — you know, the fascist ideology built on a foundation of genocidal anti-Semitism — is bad. You can feel that exasperation percolating through Jojo Rabbit. Billed as an “anti-hate satire” from Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi, the film follows young Jojo Betzler (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis), a Hitler Youth member during the waning months of WWII who is so fanatically devoted to the Third Reich that Hitler (as played by Waititi) is his personal imaginary friend. Waititi opens the film with Jojo racing through the streets of Berlin screaming “Heil Hitler!” and doing the Nazi salute at every single passerby.

The film carries on with that kind of blithe irreverence for a while, and your mileage may vary on how hilarious you find Waititi treating just about every adult Nazi around Jojo as either comically cynical, inept, or both. But when Jojo, played by Davis with such exuberance, discovers Elsa — the teenage Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) whom his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding in their home — the film downshifts into something more earnest and resonant. You can see where it’s going, but Waititi arrives there by doing something that feels genuinely risky: reframing Nazi propaganda as not much different than the absurd fantasies of a child. Still, for a movie about Nazis, this one ultimately goes down pretty easy. —A.B.V.

Release date: Oct. 18 in theaters

The Lighthouse

Eric Chakeen / A24

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson

The Lighthouse is a black-and-white horror film about two men slowly losing their grip on sanity while stationed on a barren island outpost together. But it's also a supremely dark comedy about the perils of roommates. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is a lighthouse keeper so grizzled that you can practically smell the brine wafting off of him. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is the greenhorn who's been assigned to work with him for what's supposed to be a four-week stretch. They share a ramshackle bedroom and a nightly meal and not much else — Wake's a garrulous, hard-drinking taskmaster, and Winslow is taciturn, teetotaling, and resentful of how much grueling labor he's getting stuck with while Wake locks himself in at the top of the lighthouse tower with the lamp.

When time and reality start slipping, it might be because of something strange about the island. Or it might just be because of the men themselves, who harbor secrets and seem to be making up for an alarming lack of potable water by drinking booze instead. While The Lighthouse is less overtly scary and a lot funnier than writer-director Robert Eggers' first film, The Witch, it has the same love for period detail and penchant for pairing up people who don’t trust each other. And even in the depths of the movie’s hallucinatory strangeness, it maintains an amusing awareness of all the petty irritants that can accrue when you're in close quarters. Sure, there might be sirens out there, but who can focus on that when what you're really sick of is your roommate's flatulence? —A.W.

Release date: Oct. 18 in theaters

Waves

A24

Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, and Renée Elise Goldsberry

The dazzling, exasperating Waves is a Florida-set family drama with an outrageous amount of style to burn. Billed as a “dramatic musical,” with a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and a soundtrack that includes Radiohead and Kanye West, it’s a movie that’s carried by its heavy use of songs even though the characters don’t actually perform them. They instead spend their time navigating the pressures of being a black suburban family contending with what it means to be successful and admired, especially when it comes to masculinity. An excellent Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry are parents to two teens — star wrestler Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and the shy Emily (Taylor Russell), each the focus of one half of a film bifurcated by a tragedy.

It’s Emily’s section, centered on a developing relationship with a classmate named Luke (Lucas Hedges), that holds more surprises than Tyler’s, which feels like a compressed season of Degrassi. But the reason to watch Waves is its filmmaking, not its sometimes-verging-on-hackneyed storytelling. The third feature from Trey Edward Shults, who got his start with the incredible Thanksgiving drama Krisha before making the disappointing apocalyptic thriller It Comes at Night, Waves emphasizes just how virtuosic a filmmaker can be. His camera spins giddily around in a car with the music blaring, dips into the water during an ocean tryst, and stalks behind some very bad decisions, providing an overwhelming amount of sensory detail that elevates the stories being told. —A.W.

Release date: Nov. 1 in theaters

Marriage Story

Netflix

Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson, and Adam Driver

The year isn’t over yet, so it wouldn’t be responsible to claim that Adam Driver gives its greatest lead performance in Noah Baumbach’s latest film. But holy shit is it hard to imagine anyone doing better work than he does here as Charlie, a New York director whose relationship with his wife and leading lady Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is ending. Driver always seems like he’s the wrong size for the room somehow, out of scale with the furniture, excellent at projecting low-key but constant discomfort. Maybe it’s because of how much of the film takes place in LA, a place Charlie doesn’t feel comfortable in, a place he’s never seriously considered, despite how often his wife has asked him to consider moving there. But now they’re getting divorced, she wants to move there with their son, and he’s realizing that a lot of the happy life he assumed they’d been having was actually just his own projection.

Baumbach’s film is a genuine two-hander, giving equal space for both sympathy and airing of flaws for both its characters as it depicts their increasingly ugly divorce proceedings. If the film feels tilted toward Charlie in its storytelling, it’s because Nicole has already done a lot of figuring herself out before the film even starts, whereas Charlie still has to enact his midlife crisis onscreen as he rethinks what he took for granted and how little he actually compromised. While Johansson portrays Nicole as a woman feeling the future open up as she finally becomes comfortable articulating what she wants, Driver plays Charlie as someone coming to terms with loss and learning, at long last, to adapt. It’s a well-wrought film about the demise of a marriage, with a delayed coming-of-age story tucked inside. —A.W.

Release date: Nov. 6 in theaters; Dec. 6 on Netflix

Ford v Ferrari

Merrick Morton / 20th Century Fox

Matt Damon and Christian Bale

Ford v Ferrari is about how two men — even-keeled American car-racing legend Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and hot-headed British mechanic and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) — created a race car for the Ford Motor Company capable of beating a Ferrari at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.

If that description makes this seem like the dad movie of the year, well, it is. This is a brawny, man-y man production — Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe has the only woman role of any significance, and it’s as Ken’s tough-but-understanding wife. There are lengthy arguments over brake pads and wind displacement and gearboxes, and many scenes are built around Carroll and Ken angrily staring down pencil-pushing Ford executives who just don’t understand what it takes. When I saw this movie at its gala premiere at TIFF, the lovely straight male journalist sitting to my right at one point leaned over to me and whispered, “The sound in this movie is incredible!

Reader, the sound in this movie is incredible, part of a symphony of technical excellence expertly marshaled by director James Mangold (Logan, 3:10 to Yuma). But if none of the preceding description, you know, revs your engine, then allow me to note that at one point during one of the many scenes of incredibly handsome men in impeccably tailored 1960s costumes staring intensely at each other, I leaned over to the lovely straight woman journalist sitting to my left and whispered, “Just kiss already!” Reader, she agreed. —A.B.V.

Release date: Nov. 15 in theaters

Atlantics

Netflix

Mame Bineta Sane

A sleek oceanfront skyscraper looms over Dakar, Senegal, like a mirage in this debut film from actor-turned–writer-director Mati Diop. And a mirage is all the building might as well be for the young men who've been working on its construction. They've gone unpaid for months when, angry, restless, and with families to support, they board a boat in hopes of making it to Spain. Rather than follow them to sea, the movie focuses on the young women who are haunted, first emotionally and then literally, by the men who've left them behind — in particular Ada (first-time actor Mame Bineta Sane), who's caught between her vanished lover and the preening scion of a wealthy local family who wants to marry her.

Atlantics is a fascinatingly unpredictable mixture of romance, mystery, and the supernatural. It’s a movie that moves fluidly between the magical and the realistic. But it's also an essential exploration of migration to Europe from the perspective of characters who feel they have no choice but to go, and others who watch helplessly as their loved ones risk their lives for the promise of better opportunities. In Diop's film, its Dakar neighborhood is rendered a ghost town because of how many young men don't see a future for themselves there. —A.W.

Release date: Nov. 15 in theaters; Nov. 29 on Netflix

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Sony Pictures

Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys

Fred Rogers was a singular and sometimes strange figure, not to mention someone a large chunk of the TV-watching American public grew up with. Making a scripted movie about someone who's simultaneously so familiar and so unique poses an unusual challenge, and filmmaker Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) solves this problem by centering the film on someone else instead. Matthew Rhys plays the magazine writer Lloyd Vogel, a fictionalized version of Tom Junod, who profiled Rogers for Esquire in 1998 and who, in this screen incarnation, is struggling with anger at his absentee father (Chris Cooper) and insecurities about his own parenting skills.

Is Lloyd initially resistant about interviewing the host of a children's show? You bet. Does his time with Rogers lead him to reconsider his relationships with his dad and his infant son? Also yes. But Heller isn't interested in doing the equivalent of a "what Mister Rogers means to me" essay. Instead, she uses Lloyd's skeptical perspective to explore how applicable Rogers' simple (but never easy) approach to the world is for those of us who are no longer children, avoiding cheap sentimentality in favor of more grounded displays of emotion. Hanks doesn’t disappear into Rogers, and he doesn’t need to — the distance lets him play a combination of the man and the beloved, slightly uncanny icon occupying space in our heads. —A.W.

Release date: Nov. 22 in theaters

Knives Out

Lionsgate

Daniel Craig, Noah Segan, and LaKeith Stanfield

The less you know about writer-director Rian Johnson’s crackerjack murder mystery, the better. So let’s do this BuzzFeed style!

7 Spoiler-Free Reasons You Should See “Knives Out”

1. You’ve never seen Daniel Craig — as a famous private detective with a flawlessly overbaked Southern accent tasked with sorting out a whodunit — have more fun doing anything ever.

2. You’ll think you know where the movie is going, but you really, really won’t.

3. The rest of the cast is overflowing with exactly the kind of actors you want in this kind of movie: Jamie Lee Curtis! Chris Evans! Toni Collette! Michael Shannon! Lakeith Stanfield! Christopher Plummer!

4. The movie is slyly about The Way We Live Now in ways that are surprising and often really funny.

5. You’re a fun person who likes to feel joy.

6. The film’s true lead is Cuban actor Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049), who will costar with Craig in the next James Bond movie, No Time to Die, so if you squint and put in earplugs, Knives Out is kind of like a prequel to that movie.

7. Listen, at this point, I’m just trying to get this list to the magic BuzzFeed number of seven, because this really should be the very last thing you read about Knives Out before you see it. So go see it! —A.B.V.

Release date: Nov. 27 in theaters

Just Mercy

Warner Bros.

Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan

Part of the great fun of this year’s TIFF was witnessing the stream of actors we’ve loved for decades — Jennifer Lopez, Renée Zellweger, Antonio Banderas, Eddie Murphy — delivering the kinds of robust, fully realized performances they haven’t been able to give in years, if ever. In Just Mercy, there are two.

In 1988, Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) was wrongfully convicted of murdering a white woman and sentenced to death in Alabama, based solely on the absurdly flimsy testimony of Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), a career criminal. As Johnny D., Foxx captures the man’s rage, regret, and resignation with a lived-in conviction we haven’t seen from him really since he won his Oscar for 2004’s Ray. Johnny D. is so beaten down by a system that, he says, believes he’s guilty from the moment he’s born that at first he rejects the assistance of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard-educated lawyer who’s made helping men like Johnny D. his life’s work.

Once Johnny D. agrees to let Stevenson take his case, director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) shifts focus to Stevenson’s efforts to get Myers to recant, and, like Foxx, Nelson commands every second he’s onscreen. Nelson’s the kind of character actor who has built his career playing vaguely menacing hillbillies, but under Cretton’s humane gaze, Nelson is able to make Myers into far more than a racist hick, and he’s unforgettable. Yeah, it’s a bit reductive and premature to talk about the Oscars race, but I’m going to anyway: If there is any justice, Foxx and Nelson will be walking the red carpet at the Dolby Theater together next year. —A.B.V.

Release date: Dec. 25 in theaters

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