For film connoisseurs, autumn doesn’t just mark the return of football and pumpkin spice lattes — It’s the advent of Oscar season! This crop of contenders has a little bit of everything, including a prisoner exchange, crime in the Catholic Church and forbidden love. Here are the fall flicks with potential to make headlines at the 88th Academy Awards in February.
Black Mass (Currently In Theaters)
There is an undeniable truth unifying American pop culture: We love our gangsters. Michael Corleone, Al Capone, Tony Soprano… Whether they are figures of fact or fiction, we consume their ideology with devotion. Black Mass dives into the life of notorious Irish mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, portrayed by Johnny Depp. The story is set in 1970s Boston when Bulger is propositioned by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to take down his Italian counterparts. To complicate matters, Bulger’s brother, Bill (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a force in the Massachusetts Senate trying to mediate his brother’s antics. This deluge of relationships spirals out of control, as Bulger increases his power and evades capture to become one of the most notorious criminals in U.S. history.
Under the direction of Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) Depp’s solid performance is highlighted by supporting roles from Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon and Peter Sarsgaard. It’s too early to tell if the film has the gravitas to capture Oscar glory, but it is a must-see tryst of gangster seduction.
Grandma (Currently In Theaters)
Writer-director Paul Weitz (About a Boy, Antz) has created a portrait of truth and consequence with Grandma. Lily Tomlin shines as Elle Reid — a matured hippie with relationship woes. Fresh off a breakup, Elle is caught off guard when her pregnant granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), shows up requesting $600 for an abortion. Unfortunately, Elle is broke, thereby sending the two on a daylong escapade to secure the necessary funds before sundown. With visits to old friends and flames, some of Elle’s closeted skeletons emerge and long kept secrets are exposed.
Grandma, a quintessential art house flick, served as the closing night film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Resounding praise from critics and supporting roles from Sam Elliot, Marsha Gay Harden, Judy Greer and Laverne Cox have Tomlin poised to capture her first Best Actress nomination.
Steve Jobs (Currently In Theaters)
Once in a great while, two artists converge to produce a cinematic explosion — in this instance, it’s director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network). These master storytellers have adapted Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs into a candid biopic.
The film is a timeline through Jobs’ (Michael Fassbender) technological crusade to change the face of history. As Apple Inc. co-founders Jobs and Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Seth Rogen) prepare to unveil the first Macintosh in 1984, audiences are introduced to the mad genius willing to sacrifice anything to release his digital masterpiece. Throughout his subsequent termination at Apple, his launch of NeXT Inc. and his eventual return to the company he founded, Jobs abandons personal obligations to revolutionize the industry.
With supporting roles from Jeff Daniels and Kate Winslet, this spectacle is destined to make a date with Oscar.
Bridge of Spies (Currently In Theaters)
The dynamic duo of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are back in action, and they have teamed up with screenwriting powerhouses Joel and Ethan Coen to create a Cold War thriller.
When U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down over Soviet territory and sentenced to 10 years in prison, the CIA recruits James Donovan (Hanks) to negotiate his release. The deal involves a prisoner exchange, which would free Rudolph Abel, (Mark Rylance) a convicted Russian spy who Donovan defended in court.
Spotlight (In Theaters Nov. 6)
In 2001, The Boston Globe embarked on an investigative journey into allegations of abuse in the Catholic Church. Editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) recruits a “spotlight” team of journalists — Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — to interview victims and unearth sealed documents linking a local priest to the abuse of more than 80 boys. The year-long investigation reveals a web of entanglement involving decades-long cover-ups that reach the highest levels of Boston’s religious, legal and government establishments.
With supporting roles from Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup and John Slattery, writer/director Tom McCarthy’s (Win Win, The Visitor) influential film is billowing with Oscar buzz.
Room (In Theaters Nov. 6)
Brie Larson is the latest darling of indie flicks. Her soul-penetrating performance in last year’s Short Term 12 galvanized audiences and critics alike; now her most recent role has made her the front-runner in the race for a Best Actress nomination.
Held captive for five years in a single room with her son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the two devise and execute a calculated escape. While Jack experiences the enchantment of the outside world; his mother tries to navigate the beauty of her newfound freedom all the while impaled by the psychological torment of her captivity.
Brooklyn (In Theaters Nov. 13)
Seduced by “the American dream,” Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) departs the shores of Ireland for the promise of New York City. Initially suffocated by homesickness, life quickly turns vibrant amid a sweeping romance. However, a tragedy back home forces her heart into a violent game of tug of war when she must choose between the life she left behind and the one she has started anew.
Director John Crowley (True Detective, Boy A) and screenwriter Nick Hornby (Wild, An Education) provide this film with the perfect combination of grit and romanticism to entice Oscar’s wandering eye.
Carol (In Theaters Nov. 20)
In an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt, director Todd Haynes (I’m Not There, Far from Heaven) reveals a story of agony and ecstasy.
Therese (Rooney Mara) is a young, idealistic Manhattan shopgirl captivated by an alluring customer, Carol (Cate Blanchett). Older, sophisticated and trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience, Carol is enticed by Therese’s innocence and intrigue. The two are thrust into an intoxicating love affair, but conventional norms of the 1950s threaten the reality of their liaison.
The Danish Girl (In Theaters Nov. 27)
Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables) is a film composer dedicated to the gospel of passion. He challenges his audiences to suspend their beliefs and surrender to raw emotion; his latest endeavor is no exception.
Painters Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) are a power couple gallivanting through the early 1900s Europe art scene. After settling in Paris, their lives take an unexpected turn when Einar explores his authentic self, and reemerges as Lili Elbe. Emboldened by her wife’s devotion, Lili becomes a transgender pioneer undergoing one of the first documented sex change operations.
Stay tuned for my winter film preview coming in December. Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Ron Howard and a handful of other filmmakers are ready and waiting to shake up the current race to Oscar.
*This piece also appeared in the Loyola Phoenix.