Awards Season Primer: What Movies Should You See Before the Oscars?

With the final Marvel film of the year recently released, it is now time to turn away from the colourful, popcorn-movie fun of the summer and dive head-first into more self-serious, contemplative territory at your local cinema. Fortunately, the films that are set to make serious headway this awards season make quite the eclectic selection, equally comprised of those with exciting new talent as well as some old favourites. But now, with a movie coming out more or less every week with some degree of awards ambition, it is difficult to find time to see everything. So here is a list of those that will most likely dominate the awards conversation until February.

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Image Credit: IMDB

Moonlight

Following a year when those in Hollywood were forced to confront the diversity issue in the film industry, it was refreshing to see a movie that felt so contemporary and needed. It tells a story that is universal yet from a perspective that is not often seen. Divided into three chapters, Moonlight centers around a young black man named Chiron, who grows up in Miami and struggles with his sexuality and his sense of self. Each chapter focuses on a different formative point in the character’s life and the people who help him on his journey. The number of stellar performances throughout are, frankly, an embarrassment of riches. No one should be surprised if Mahershala Ali  receives many best supporting actor nods for his deep and ultimately heartbreaking portrayal as Juan, a drug dealer and father figure early in Chiron’s life. Naomi Harris is equally memorable as Chiron’s frustrating mother, who tragically becomes one of the most consistently present individuals in his life. And the three actors who play Chiron at different ages all effectively highlight different elements of his personality. From Chiron’s careful reserve displayed by young Alex R. Hibbert, to his bottled-up anger shown by Ashton Sanders, and finally his false bravado as shown by the charismatic Trevante Rhodes. The cumulative effect of watching a character’s personality evolve in this way is unexpectedly powerful and unique. The writing also feels authentic and lived-in. With many recurring visual motifs to derive meanings from, expect this awards season to be quite fruitful for Moonlight, possibly on multiple fronts.  Watch the trailer here.

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Image Credit: IMDB

La La Land

If the Oscar telecasts of recent memory have taught us anything, it’s that Hollywood loves to reward movies about Hollywood, as seen from previous Best Picture winners like The Artist, Argo, and Birdman. La La Land is the latest in this pattern, but the idea of taking visual inspiration from cinematic classics to tell a story that feels specific to a younger generation is quite intriguing and innovative. It is the latest film from Damien Chazelle, whose Whiplash impressed audiences with its technical flourishes — it earned well deserved Oscars for editing and sound mixing — as well as for the specificity in the writing; prestigious music academies no doubt seem much scarier and foreboding now. La La Land, as Chazelle has noted in recent interviews, is a long gestating passion project; a musical love story between an aspiring actress and a jazz pianist set in modern day L.A, that is stylistically a throwback to the technicolour crowd-pleasers that were so common in the 1950’s and 60’s. Throw in Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as the main leads (whose on-screen chemistry was off the charts in previous films) as well as John Legend in a supporting role, and the result could very well be something that has the power to turn the bitterest musical cynic into a toe-tapping fool in the theatre aisle. The film has already received the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival as well as the most nominations at the Critics Choice Awards. It feels like this awards season has barely begun and yet it may be safe to say there is already a clear favourite for Best Picture down the road. Watch the trailer here.

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Image Credit: IMDB

Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan has only directed three films over the course of sixteen years yet he has managed to establish a reputation for himself as a director able to mine the most profound and emotionally deep aspects of everyday existence. Manchester by the Sea not only cements that reputation but, given the critical and audience reactions thus far, it may also take his career to new heights in terms of mainstream success and recognizability. The film tells the story of a janitor, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who is forced to become the guardian of his nephew following the sudden death of his brother (Kyle Chandler). Although themes regarding how people cope with grief and loss are explored from multiple angles, the story is also disarmingly funny due to the rapport between Lee and his nephew (the newcomer Lucas Hedges) — which gives the film a quietly uplifting feel throughout — and resonated with audiences during the Sundance Film Festival as well as TIFF. Affleck’s performance is likely to be one of the major on-going conversations during this awards season. Playing a man who has recoiled into himself due to past emotional trauma, the perfomance is a study in subtlety and nuance, easily making Affleck the front-runner for any and all best actor nominations. And although Michelle Williams, who plays the ex-wife to the Affleck character, is only in a few scenes, her performance is powerful enough to warrant attention as well. Expect to hear a lot about this movie in the coming months. Watch the trailer here.

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Image Credit: IMDB

Jackie

It is very plausible that Natalie Portman may be well on her way to receive a second Best Actress nomination — and quite possibly, a win — for her portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in this biopic directed by Pablo Larrain, which tells the first lady’s struggle to maintain her husband’s legacy in the weeks following his assassination. As evidenced by the trailers, Portman seems to give a very disciplined performance capturing the signature grace in the posture and cadence of the former first lady, while also reveling in more melodramatic moments, which suggests how this film could be a very compelling and unsettling real-life character study. The stylistic choices throughout the trailer are also noteworthy. The tight, handheld camera angles on the subjects elicit an uncomfortable degree of intimacy, a choice in stark contrast to other recent biopics of larger-than-life figures where the reverence with which subjects are treated at times rob the films of some humanity. And the score by Mica Levi, who also composed the music for Under the Skin, feels equal parts eerie and transcendent. As such, the marketing of this film gives the impression that there could be many impressionistic or avant-garde touches, which is certainly intriguing. Based on the positive critical reception thus far, this is shaping up to be a film to definitely keep one’s eye on as the award season progresses. Watch the trailer here.

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Image Credit: IMDB

Fences

Denzel Washington may be well on his way to securing a seventh Oscar nomination for acting and, possibly, one for directing as well. The film, an adaptation of the play by August Wilson, takes place in New York in the 1950’s and focuses on the patriarch of a family — a former baseball player who presently provides by working as a garbage man — as he struggles to do what’s best for them. The choices he makes are informed by the discriminatory attitudes of the times that affected him, which nonetheless causes rifts with his son and wife. Based on the trailers, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who plays his wife, seem to give rather intense and raw performances.  Washington portrays a man hardened by life’s disappointments to the point where he can’t adequately express love for his son. And Davis, portrays a woman of quiet dignity who can nonetheless express her boiling frustration with her husband. And the racial discrimination, a subject of the film, and how it affects those within a household differently will likely provide engaging insight into the internalized feelings produced by strained race relations of the past. Watch the trailer here.

silence
Image Credit: IMDB

Silence

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding how Silence will ultimately be received, as it was absent from all film festival schedules this past year with the first trailer having been released less than a month ago. But it is a new film by Martin Scorsese that suggests a production of high ambition, even for a man of his stature. The story involves two fifteenth century Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan, where practicing Christianity is outlawed, in search of their mentor (Liam Neeson). Moments in the trailer imply that a prevalent theme may be the questioning of one’s faith, something very much in Scorsese’s wheelhouse as he has explored similar ideas in The Last Temptation of Christ. And images of people being punished for presumably engaging in Christian practices are no doubt unsettling, evoking conflicting feelings as to how these main characters should be perceived. But perhaps the most interesting aspect may be Garfield and Driver as the main leads; two actors who have been more recently branching-out in exciting ways from the more mainstream fare that granted them initial success (Garfield with Hacksaw Ridge, and Driver starring in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson). It will be interesting to see if either one is recognized this year.  Watch the trailer here.

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