Oscar Watch: The Contenders are Lining Up

This year’s Oscar race started early with some quality blockbusters. As fall settles in, the early batch of contenders continue to pile up with an eclectic blend of comedy and tragedy including forbidden love, childhood wonder and an unsolved murder. Here are some Oscar-worthy movies and performances playing on a screen near you:

Get Out – Available to rent

Writer/director Jordan Peele (best known for his sketch series “Key and Peele”) grew up with a deep-seated passion for horror films, but has long been disillusioned by the underrepresentation of African-American characters in such films. So, with his directorial debut, he not only makes the black guy the protagonist, he dives straight into the subject of racism and ignites a comedic social thriller.

The film begins as a modern-day Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) accompanies his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), on a weekend getaway to her parent’s (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) in upstate New York. Initially, he is apprehensive about the family’s overly accommodating behavior, then strange encounters and disturbing discoveries bring about paranoia. As a photographer, Chris is in-tune with finite details, and just as he begins to piece together the truth of his situation, he is subdued by the terror he suspected.

Peele made box office history when the film earned a record amount of money for a directorial debut, and it scored a rare 100% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes (it has currently slipped to 99%). If the movie stays on its current trajectory, it will nab nominations for best picture and original screenplay.

Mudbound – Available on Netflix & in select theaters

Writer/director Dee Rees hit a home run with critics with her films Pariah and the Emmy award-winning Bessie. This year, she should be prepared for Oscar stardom with her latest film, which explores the tense social climate in the 1940s Mississippi Delta.

The story focuses on two families — the McAllans (white farm owners) and the Jacksons (black sharecroppers who live on the farm). Jamie McAllan (Carey Mulligan) struggles to raise her children in a place she finds foreign and frightening. Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige) is keeping her wholesome family ebullient despite poverty and prejudice. Eventually, Jamie’s brother-in-law (Garrett Hedlund) and Florence’s eldest son (Jason Mitchell) return from war, only to find the Delta their new battlefield.

The film is an adaptation from a novel of the same title, and Rees’ directorial eye weaves story and narration together in unique fashion. She allows common themes of family, racism and love to resonate with a nuanced style.

The Big Sick – Available to rent

Sometimes the truest love is the one that’s most inconvenient. You can be gently coasting on the road of life when the perfect person you’re not looking for appears in front of you, forcing you to slow down. There are a multitude of signs pointing you in a different direction, but instead, you give in to this crazy love and it’s incredible. On paper, the two of you are a mess, but when you’re together, everything makes sense.

Such is the case for Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) when they accidentally fall in love. She’s working towards her Masters in psychology with zero interest in having a relationship; he is a Pakistani Muslim who will be expelled from his family if he doesn’t enter into an arranged marriage. Nonetheless, they attempt to juggle life’s complexities while their relationship blossoms. Suddenly, Emily comes down with an illness that leaves her in a coma, and Kumail finds himself in the precarious position of bonding with her grief-stricken parents, portrayed by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.

SPOILER ALERT: Kumail and Emily are now married, and together, they wrote the pitch perfect screenplay. There are no weak links in the vibrant cast, and Hunter and Romano have never been better. The film is expected to be an Oscar contender in multiple categories.

Dunkirk – Available to rent

Writer/director Christopher Nolan is a psychological wonder. He’s created mind-bending thrills with the films Interstellar and Inception, and now, he throws audiences into the perils of war. Nolan eloquently choreographs action, cinematography and music into a unique piece of cinematic gravitas.

The film depicts the battle and evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II in three distinct settings and time frames — there are troops on land awaiting rescue, a boat of volunteer sailors attempting to evacuate them, and a group of pilots providing air support. The mission is harrowing as every serviceable naval and civilian vessel in the area is utilized to rescue 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers.

Nolan’s choice to abandon back stories and personal introspection is an effective endeavor; there’s barely time to take a breath during the 90 minutes of gripping cinema. His directorial eye has the capacity to pull viewers onto the land, and into the air and water, to experience the rage of this largely unknown story.

Stronger – Available to rent Dec. 19

Imagine surviving a near-death tragedy witnessed by the entire world. Your body, soul and psyche have been ravaged, but your mind is intact, so you have to learn how to navigate daily activities in a seemingly foreign body. With the media spotlight bearing down, you’re slapped with titles “hero” and “inspiration,” and despite your current psychological torment, you’re placed on a pedestal as a national symbol of hope.

This is the reality for Jeff Bauman, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, after surviving the Boston Marathon bombing and losing both legs. The film focuses on Bauman’s relationships with his mother (Miranda Richardson) and girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany) as he battles post-traumatic stress. Not only does he have to combat the demons that haunted him prior to the bombings, now he must endure the perils of physical and emotional rehabilitation, all while the entire country is begging for a piece of him.

Gyllenhaal spent a significant amount of time with Bauman in preparation for the role, which is evident in his all-consuming performance. He immersed himself into the character and is on path to earn his second Oscar nomination.

The Florida Project – In theaters

Last year, writer/director Sean Baker gave audiences a fresh style of storytelling with his film Tangerine. He presented hard-hitting subject matter (the lives of trans sex workers) with remarkable tenderness. The film charmed critics and viewers, and he’s back this year, hitting the same emotional chords with a poignant look at childhood.

The film takes place on a stretch of highway just outside Disney World, where six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) are living week-to-week in a budget motel. Despite her harsh surroundings, Moonee, her best friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and their crew of playmates fill their days with mischief and adventure. The kids create their own family together and the hotel’s tough, yet empathetic, manager, Bobby (Willem Defoe) emerges as a pseudo father figure. When times get tougher for Halley, and she has to resort to drastic measures to make ends meet, the unlikely playground Moonee has created begins to disintegrate.

Prince and Vinai were breakout stars on this year’s film festival circuit, and Defoe delivers a career-defining performance. This intimate, art-house flick has all the characteristics to entice Oscar’s wandering eye.

Breathe – In theaters

In his directorial debut, Andy Serkis has teamed up with screenwriter William Nicholson (Les Miserables, Gladiator) to tell the true story of passion and perseverance between Robin and Diana Cavendish, portrayed by Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy.

Robin acquires polio at age 28 and becomes paralyzed from the neck-down. Without the ability to breathe on his own, he’s confined to a hospital bed and given only a few months to live. The couple refuse to accept his prognosis, and with the help of Diana’s twin brothers (Tom Hollander) and inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), the first ambulatory ventilator is created. Robin and Diana are able to escape the hospital and lead fulfilling lives as parents, travelers and advocates for other polio patients.

Garfield received his first best actor Oscar nomination last year for Hacksaw Ridge; this year’s follow-up performance places him as a front runner for back-to-back nominations in the same category.

Lady Bird – In theaters

Indie darling Greta Gerwig has captured the hearts of critics and audiences with her roles in Jackie, Francis Ha and Mistress America (the latter two she also co-wrote). This year, she’s shrouded in Oscar buzz with her third screenplay and directorial debut, which examines the complex relationship between a middle-aged mother and her teenage daughter.

The film is set in Sacramento in 2002 when the American economic landscape was rapidly shifting. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is loving, opinionated and strong-willed… Unfortunately, her mother, Marian (Laurie Metcalf), has the exact same personality. Lady Bird attends an all-girls Catholic high school, dies her hair pink, and always welcomes a verbal battle. Marion works tirelessly as a nurse to keep the family afloat after Lady Bird’s father (Tracy Letts) loses his job.

Gerwig’s keen directorial eye illuminates the profound life experiences that both mother and daughter are attempting to navigate. Her distinctive take on a classic theme is poised to make the film an Oscar contender in multiple categories.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – In theaters

Writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) has amassed an all-star cast that includes Francis McDormand (Burn After Reading, Fargo), Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games, Out of the Furnace) and Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back, Conviction) for one of the most anticipated films of the year.

The quirky dark comedy is centered around Mildred Hayes (McDormand) who takes matters into her own hands after living months without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case — commissioning three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at the town’s chief of police, William Willoughby (Harrelson). Eventually, the chief’s second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Rockwell) gets involved, which only inflames the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement.

The movie was awarded Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival and won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. It is expected to be a heavy contender in Oscar’s top categories.

Stay tuned for my next Oscar Watch, which will preview this year’s second crop of contenders.


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