The best films I’ve seen this year you could count on one hand. Critics who attended Sundance and Cannes will no doubt have a much broader and complete idea of the Oscar contenders so far, but of those already released in theaters and out on VOD, there are a few that are worthy of our attention. The others here that make up the most promising Best Picture contenders are films I haven’t seen but have garnered buzz from festival attendees in the know.
Best Picture (films I’ve seen)
1. Midnight Special
Writer/director Jeff Nichols also has his film Loving comoing out in November which is probably the one that will land in the Oscar race by year’s end (after screening in Cannes to raves), but Midnight Special is nonetheless one of the most exciting sci-fi films I’ve seen since, well, Ex Machina. The moody character drama leaves much of its mystery off the page. The reviews I read of avoided as many spoilers as possible, thus I was able to come to the film fresh. While it would be easy to write it off as having some similarities to movies like E.T. or Starman, what makes it unique is how slowly and brilliantly it reveals the surprise at the end. Midnight Special creates magic and suspense throughout with minimal use of visual effects – but when those effects are brought out in full – wow. For me, Midnight Special is one of those genre films that serves as a reminder that good sci-fi is rare. Bad sci-fi is ubiquitous. Jeff Nichols dabbled in this realm already with Take Shelter and in a way, Midnight Special lives on that same street – awe and mystery hovering on the edge of an elusive plot, and the same way Take Shelter builds to a muted but spectacular end, so does Midnight Special, even if it’s done with bigger effects and a more spectacular ending. The cinematography (Adam Stone, who also shot Loving), Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton are great.
2. The Witch
Like Midnight Special, The Witch is an art movie within a genre movie. Taking us back to the 17th century during the time, or just before, the Salem Witch trials, it tells a story of a young woman coming of age in a family conflicted by three major forces – God, evil and nature. It’s a textured, moody piece that becomes frightening by the end, while always maintaining a bit of tongue in cheek. Also like Midnight Special it doesn’t feel the need to explain too much of the story but lures the viewer in slowly, until at last the big reveal at the end. In both films, lingering images remain haunting long after the film ends.
The directorial debut of James Schamus touches on themes like political and sexual expression within an oppressive environment. Again, the gifted storyteller, adapting the Philip Roth novel, does not come out and say things directly. But a sexually forward woman becomes a curiosity and even a dangerous force, though we are left wondering why that is. Does it mean we’re judging her? Do we need there to be some form of corruption in her past to accept her as someone who likes to get men off? Who takes pleasure in giving pleasure? Whose ideas are well advanced for the time? Indignation is really about just that – indignation to the point where it thwarts expression. Logan Lerman and his co-star, the luminous Sarah Gadon, are fascinating to watch as they navigate the treacherous waters of sexual attraction, adherence to strict “moral” codes and religion. Schamus takes his time telling this story and it, like The Witch, seems as though you can feel and smell its textures, like the wood desks, the scratchy wool sweaters, the musky dusty halls of a dorm. And of course, since it’s Roth, there is the Jew/Gentile thing to work out. The standout supporting turn in this wonderful film is by Linda Emond as Lerman’s mother, and of course, the always brilliant Tracy Letts as the headmaster.
4. The Fits
The absolutely stunning feature by cinematographer/photographer/director Anna Rose Holmer has to be among the most beautifully filmed of these mentioned. It follows a young woman boxer who longs to be a dancer. Told mostly without dialogue, taking us deep inside the head of this young person, the film plays on finding the inner mojo that drives the dance — there is both the need to let go and to move without fear of those watching. The story is elusive and probably up for interpretation, the ending especially, but wow, Holmer is an exciting new find. If producers in Hollywood don’t take notice and hire her to do more, there is something very very wrong with the system and this is the smoking gun.
5. Hail, Caesar!
It has become a joke to say that if Roger Deakins doesn’t win for THIS… Deakins could win for Hail, Caesar! but cinematography is often tied into Best Picture. Either way, this Coen brothers send up of the Hollywood studio systems, its fixers, its stars, its scandals, its high illusion is silly, for the most part, but in the best way. One of the best things about it is the juxtaposition between the celebrated/elevated and the imperfect humans who portray them. The cameos are the main reason to see it, other than Deakins’ work — at the top of that list, Scarlett Johansson as a trash talking blonde, Channing Tatum as a studio actor in musicals and in war epics, Tilda Swinton as twin sister gossip columnists and of course, George Clooney as the big time Hollywood actor playing Caesar. One of the problems with the Coen brothers, or any major director like Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg is that every film you see must be compared with their best ever. Without that legacy, of course, this would be an easy call as one of the best so far.
Films I haven’t yet seen that appear to have a strong shot right now based on what other people have been saying:
1. Birth of a Nation
This film exploded out of Sundance, with Nate Parker at the center of the buzz. The excitement over the film will propel it towards the Oscar race, not just because the Oscar race doesn’t want to get stuck in the situation it was last year, almost completely ignoring any black filmmakers or actors. But more than that, Birth of a Nation is about the rare story never told: a slave uprising, of which there were many. Cinema has long given us the image of the submissive and powerless slave when the truth is that there was a constant effort to suppress such uprisings with violent, unimaginable consequences including castrations, cutting off limbs, killing family members. Oh America, we have not properly atoned for our sins. It will be yet another fight, as it was in 2014, when 12 Years a Slave won — a struggle between ideals where some will push back on what they perceive as feeling obligated to vote for something. All that really amounts to in the end is harsher judgment on women and people of color when it comes to choosing Oscar favorites.
This is Jeff Nichols’ other (and probably more “Oscar friendly”) film this year, a true story based on an interracial marriage at a time when it was illegal in most states. Robbie Collin writes, “Jeff Nichols’s sensational new film Loving, which screened earlier today at Cannes, retells Mildred and Richard’s story with clear eyes, a cool head, and a heart as hot as molten silver. It follows the Lovings from their marriage in 1958 in a courthouse across the state line in Washington D.C., where no law preventing interracial marriage had ever been enacted, to the Virginia court hearing that saw them banished from their home state under threat of imprisonment, and through the years of legal and social tumult that followed. The couple’s relationship finally prompted the overturning of those laws nationwide.”
3. Manchester by the Sea
This was one of the two biggest films out of Sundance. Variety’s Justin Chang says about it, “A superb performance by Casey Affleck and a haunting sense of place give flesh and blood to Kenneth Lonergan’s emotionally overwhelming third feature. The persistence of grief and the hope of redemption are themes as timeless as dramaturgy itself, but rarely do they summon forth the kind of extraordinary swirl of love, anger, tenderness and brittle humor that is “Manchester by the Sea,” Kenneth Lonergan’s beautifully textured, richly enveloping drama about how a death in the family forces a small-town New Englander to confront a past tragedy anew. That rather diagrammatic description does little justice to Lonergan’s ever-incisive ear for the rhythms of human conversation, as he orchestrates an unruly suite of alternately sympathetic and hectoring voices — all of which stand in furious contrast to Casey Affleck’s bone-deep performance as a man whom loss has all but petrified into silence. Giving flesh and blood to the idea that life goes on even when it no longer seems worth living, “Manchester” may be too sprawling a vision for all arthouse tastes, but Lonergan’s many champions are scarcely the only viewers who will be stirred by this superbly grounded and acted third effort.”
4. Florence Foster Jenkins
With a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, this is mainly viewed as a vehicle for another magnificent role for Meryl Streep. If the films is beloved enough, it might have other nominations going for it. Though a comedy, sort of, it’s directed by Stephen Frears, and co-stars Hugh Grant. The London Standard said, “Florence Foster Jenkins is played by Meryl Streep, wearing a fat suit and, as always, committing herself wholly to the part in a way that transforms the performances of those around her. As we know from her last film, Ricki and the Flash, Streep can sing for real — and here she uses that talent to sing for real really badly. The performances were recorded live and they are amazingly good impressions of the true horror of FFJ’s original.”
5. I, Daniel Blake
The Cannes Palme d’or winner probably has zero shot at the Oscars (although stranger things have happened) it could absolutely be in play for the Spirit Awards. Here is what THR wrote about it, “Veteran leftie director Ken Loach’s latest, about two honest people caught up in an uncaring British welfare system, features a familiar framework and perspective, but exerts a powerful emotional grip. Anchored by incisive performances (lead Dave Johns is terrific) and an urgent, surprisingly potent simplicity, this is Loach’s best film in years. — D.R.”
Some of the strong contenders out of the gate appear to be Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky, Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, Ruth Negga in Loving. They will have some competition with other performances upcoming, like Viola Davis in Fences, for starters. The Fits’ Royalty Hightower might not get an Oscar nod, but she could be up for consideration for the Spirits.
So far, probably Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea and Nate Parker in Birth of a Nation have the strongest Best Actor buzz heading in, and I would love to add Michael Shannon from Midnight Special to this list (along with Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton). But if anything, probably Edgerton will be considered for Loving. Best Actor this year, like Best Actor every year, will be filled and flourishing by Telluride and beyond. Most Oscar movies are built around Best Actor – so those performances down the road may or may not blow away some of these early ones.
Of these early films so far, I’m betting (and hoping) Jeff Nichols will get some Oscar love. With only five slots, that seems like an impossibility this far out, but one never knows. Perhaps Midnight Special can help boost his chances with Loving. There is always the chance Ken Loach will get some recognition, certain with the Spirit Awards. Nate Parker, of course, is a potential nominee, along with Kenneth Lonergan. James Schamus could sneak in if Indignation strikes a chord with voters. But we’ll have to wait for Telluride to make that call.