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On the Radar… (December Edition)

Searchlight Pictures

Ho, ho, ho! Meeerrrrry Christmas! Or Happy Holidays, a phrase that was not invented by woke liberals in the last few years but something that people have been saying to each other since 1863. Now we’re really getting into the final push for the last-minute Oscar contenders. I personally can’t stand how many of these movies are being held back by their studios until the cliff’s edge of eligibility and if I had to lay any blame for the decline of Academy Award ceremony viewership squarely on any part of the entertainment industry instead of broader cultural and technological shifts outside of their control, it would be this cynical marketing practice.

People are not going to watch an event recognizing a bunch of films and performances that most of the country outside of New York City and Los Angeles haven’t been afforded the opportunity to watch. These studios are so insecure in their ability to sell their supposed best movies of a given year solely on their own merits that they gatekeep them away from general audiences and only onto the eyes of Academy voters and a select few critics so that they can then turn around after the trophies have already been handed out and say “Look! These movies were nominated for and won a bunch of Oscars! Don’t you want to watch them, now?” To which most people will understandably say “Huh? Oscars? I hadn’t even heard of these movies last year, which is why I didn’t bother watching the Oscars last week.”

It’s a vicious ouroboros cycle that is cutting off wider audience access to the kinds of movies that win Academy Awards, reducing the relevance of both of them and allowing Disney to continue its monopolization of the entire industry. It needs to stop, and soon. Anyway, rant over! Here are the films to look forward to this month:

FLEE – In Theaters December 3

NEON

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Starring the voices of Fardin Mijdzadeh, with Daniel Karimyar and Zahra Mehrwarz

What is it about? The extraordinary true story of a man, Amin, on the verge of marriage that compels him to reveal his hidden past for the first time.

How am I feelin’ about this one? This, my friends, is that unlikely Cinderella contender competing in several categories slowly but surely becoming the potential little-movie-that-could in Best Animated Feature Film that I alluded to last month. Or the little-movie-that-could in Best International Feature Film. Or maybe the little-movie-that-could in Best Documentary Feature? Is it a documentary? It’s actually a little hard to tell, which might be why Flee has become such an intriguing prospect in this awards season. When there are no obvious frontrunners for any of those categories, it’s not hard to imagine that this movie building up a lot of rave reviews from festivals could break through in one of them.

And let’s be clear, it has been a sensation on the festival circuit, winning awards from Sundance, Annecy International, Toronto, Montclair, Newport Beach, and Out on Film Festivals, and was selected to be the Danish entry for Best International Feature Film… with a very good shot at making the final five.

But can it win? We shouldn’t assume that a category-defying-multi-nominee is an ipso facto favorite to win one or any of them. That was the mistake I made when I believed Honeyland was the frontrunner for Best Documentary Feature since there was no way it was going to beat Parasite for Best International Feature Film and I assumed voters wouldn’t want it to go home empty-handed. On the other hand, the level of rapturous praise heaped on Flee very much dwarfs what Honeyland enjoyed two years ago, and with increased attention on the plight of refugees and renewed threats on LGBT rights all over the world, voters may find the release of this more poignant and relevant than ever before.

Ugh, that sounds like such a cynical horserace note to end my preview of this film on. Personally, this is one of the December releases I am most looking forward to seeing, whether or not it was positioning itself as a major awards contender at all. Chief among those reasons is how rare non-CG animated movies about adult subjects get produced at all these days.

RED ROCKET – In Theaters December 10

A24

Directed by Sean Baker

Starring Simon Rex, with Bree Elrod and Suzanna Son

What is it about? Mikey Saber is a washed-up adult film performer who returns to his small Texas hometown… not that anyone really wants him back.

How am I feelin’ about this one? The year is not over yet, so he might see something that will bowl him over even more thoroughly between now and the end of the month, but so far, this is Joey Magidson’s favorite film of 2021. He adores Red Rocket so much that in one of his Oscar chart update announcements last month, he made a heartfelt plea to Academy voters and critics orgs to seriously consider it for all the eligible categories when they start handing out their awards and nominations in a few weeks. He loved Simon Rex in what he described as a vibrant and painfully authentic performance. He hailed Sean Baker’s direction for what he observed as a seamless juggling of a variety of difficult tones. He praised Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch’s screenplay, which rang true to him in every scene and every line of dialogue. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single element of the film that wasn’t a home run with Awards Radar’s Editor-in-Chief.

This is not an isolated opinion, either. The movie currently enjoys a high percentage on Rotten Tomatoes, with many critics also commending its unflinching look at seedy characters on the margins of society in a way that’s compelling but also watchable and funny. I have no doubt it will show up on a lot of critics’ top ten lists later this month, but will it be a contender for Academy Awards? That’s a little less certain, since it’s not only about someone in the adult film industry (a subject most elites don’t really want to think about or call attention to) but also about working-class Americans depicted in a light that isn’t poetic or easy to empathize with if you’re an old white person in the most affluent parts of Southern California. To give you some historical context, Boogie Nights is widely regarded as the definitive chronicle of the pre-internet American adult entertainment industry and it managed only three Academy Award nominations. And that’s the best a film about pornography has been able to manage so far.

Still, that was almost a quarter-century ago, and the mainstream culture’s view of sex work has changed dramatically since (largely because of an invention that most people didn’t have access to back in 1997). So Red Rocket might be able to benefit from a more progressive body of voters if enough of them love it as much as Joey does.

WEST SIDE STORY – In Theaters December 10

20th Century Studios

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Ansel Elgort, with Rachel Zegler and Rita Moreno

What is it about? A forbidden love blossoms amidst a bitter rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.

How am I feelin’ about this one? 

***CONTENT WARNING FOR SEXUAL ASSAULT***

Okay. Um, well. Let’s first address the punchable-faced elephant in the room.

The leading man of West Side Story, Steven Spielberg’s remake of the beloved 1961 Hollywood musical that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, was accused by a woman who only identified herself as “Gabby” on Twitter of sexually assaulting her when he was 20 and she was 17. He fervently denies the allegations (the specific details of which are very disturbing and I will not be recounting them here), though he admitted to having a sexual encounter with her at that time, and both his and her Twitter accounts were deactivated shortly after the accusation was made public.

Amblin, TSG, and 20th Century Studios have not, as far as I’m aware, put out any official statement on the possibility that the star of their big musical release of the Christmas season is a man who allegedly inflicted sexual violence on a teenage girl. Principal photography wrapped on the movie eight months earlier, and unlike with Kevin Spacey in All the Money in the World, Ansel Elgort plays one of the leads of the movie and almost certainly would have been too expensive to replace in reshoots (the limitations of COVID-19 probably didn’t help, either). So that’s who they’re stuck with. Will it matter? I mean… for the film’s quality, probably, since Elgort is an exceptionally repellent screen presence even in the best of circumstances, and the knowledge that the dude is allegedly a creep in his personal life will make it all the harder to buy him as an inamorato that María would believably risk everything in her life to be with.

Even setting aside for just a moment this terrible dark cloud, though, I can’t shake the nagging question of what exactly the “point” of this remake is. I understand you could ask that question of any remake ever made, but this seems like an especially weird movie to update, since the original is such an iconic part of the Golden Age of Movie Musicals and we’re long past the point when youth street gangs are considered a credible threat to anyone’s safety anywhere in the United States. Take the Oscars out of the equation for a minute and ask yourself, if you’re itching to see this story and hear these songs… why not just watch the original movie again? It doesn’t even look like it meaningfully challenges the drawbacks of the original film that a more modern retelling could theoretically address. Remember all those criticisms of In the Heights for its overly-polished, touristy, white bougie depiction of Washington Heights? Just from the trailers, it looks like In the Heights will come off like an unflinching documentary by comparison.

Although… it is Spielberg directing, and he’s at the point in his career where he’s so thoroughly mastered the craft of filmmaking that it’s become impossible for him to not churn out a competently-executed feature film at the very least. At a minimum, we know the movie will be entertaining because the musical has always been entertaining in its sixty-four-year-long existence. Some stories are basically impossible to completely screw up, and the early word on it from most critics is very positive. Joey’s also-positive-but-with-some-caveats review will be published tomorrow.

DON’T LOOK UP – In Theaters December 10 and On Netflix December 24

Netflix

Directed by Adam McKay

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Timothée Chalamet

What is it about? Two low-level astronomers must go on a media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth.

How am I feelin’ about this one? In last month’s preview article, I admitted to harboring some fanboyish bias toward The Power of the Dog and C’mon C’mon, and that I wasn’t going to be able to suppress my excitement for those two movies when going over them. Now it’s time for me to warn you that I must let my professional guard down in the opposite direction for two upcoming releases that I will cover in this piece. I’m sorry if you’re stoked for them; I hope you end up being vindicated and my skepticism is proven wrong… but I just cannot muster any enthusiasm whatsoever for Don’t Look Up.

If you enjoyed Adam McKay’s brand of humor and messaging in The Big Short and Vice, you are probably in for a treat with this unabashedly polemic satire about beleaguered scientists trying to warn of impending existential disaster against a lackadaisical populace and a political/corporate infrastructure with a vested interest in doing nothing about it, but for me, like… Jesus Christ, DO YOU GET IT? LOOK, EVERYONE! DOES THIS REMIND YOU OF ANYTHING HAPPENING RIGHT NOW IN AMERICA????? Remember how the last punchline in Vice was a mean-spirited dig at two stereotypically vapid millennial women chattering about the new Fast & Furious movie looking “totally lit?” Every trailer released for Don’t Look Up has that exact same tone to me. Where every character is set up as an obvious strawman exactly as stupid as McKay and story co-creator David Sirota need them to be for us to agree with every heavy-handed message they’re clubbing us over the head with, like Meryl Streep as a Lauren Boebert-esque right-wing politician wearing a “Don’t Look Up” ballcap and Michael Chiklis headlining a TV show called “Patriot News.” Golly gee I wonder if he’s going to say something similar to what we hear from Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson?

I really hope I’m wrong; Joey appears to be a fan and his full review is on the way, along with many critics who have seen it so far. I hope McKay has crafted an intelligent and nuanced satire because God knows we’ve been starving for one of those over the last few years, especially after living through a one-term President who so thoroughly transcended parody it feels like the concept of humor, in general, has dramatically changed in our culture. But right now, all I can think of is how many of these same Oscar pundits waiting with bated breath and giddy excitement for this movie then turn around and trash Kirk Cameron’s propaganda for being full of one-note archetypal outlines of characters spouting heavy-handed messages to knock down easy strawman arguments and then turning to stare directly at the camera to make sure its audience of already ideologically-aligned Evangelical Christians “get it.” Do we only object to preachy, didactic movies that we personally disagree with?

But even if I’m right and this movie ends up being an unwatchably smug left-wing circle jerk, it could still be a huge Oscar player. Academy voters love being reassured of their pre-existing moral superiority, and this is a truly stacked cast featuring two Academy Award-nominated actors and five Academy Award-winning actors. The Big Short and Vice did not have a shortage of detractors but that didn’t stop either movie from being embraced by the Academy. You can’t boast that kind of pedigree in your upcoming release and not at least be a part of the conversation.

BEING THE RICARDOS – In Theaters December 10 and On Amazon Prime December 21

Amazon Studios

Directed by Aaron Sorkin

Starring Nicole Kidman, with Javier Bardem and J. K. Simmons 

What is it about? Follows Lucy and Desi as they face a crisis that could end their careers and another that could end their marriage.

How am I feelin’ about this one? How convenient, here’s the other movie I can’t even pretend to muster any enthusiasm for: Being the Ricardos. If you really want to see this, I apologize for not communicating your excitement and, just like with Don’t Look Up, hopefully Aaron Sorkin proves me wrong. But I find his style of writing exhausting in every movie other than The Social Network (where his snide rat-a-tat zingers were an apt fit for the conceited, emotionally-stunted Harvard litigants driving the narrative) and Moneyball (where he was reined in from his worst instincts by co-writer Steven Zaillian) and in literally every show he’s ever done, especially the backstage dramas he’s been so obsessed with like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Sports Night and The Newsroom.

As a director, the best I can say about him is that he’s mostly competent if otherwise totally unremarkable. But maybe he’s found a way to tamp down what annoys me about him and deliver something genuinely compelling and memorable. He certainly found interesting subject matter with great dramatic potential – Lucille Ball, the legendary TV comedienne and star of I Love Lucy, had quite a life. She used to be a registered member of the American Communist Party and the House Un-American Activities Committee nearly destroyed her career over that part of her past. The trailer appears to also explore the fraying marriage of Ball and her co-star/husband Desi Arnaz (they divorced in 1960). Ripe for great drama! I just don’t trust Sorkin to depict that drama in an interesting way, even though I totally believe Joey’s rapturous praise of Nicole Kidman’s performance (because, I mean, come on… it’s Nicole Kidman) and have no doubt she’s looking at Oscar nomination number five no matter how the movie is received in every other capacity.

Let’s see… what else is there to say about Being the Ricardos? Oh, right, and then this happened:

“First of all, Amazon’s casting department had a Latina casting consultant [who was focused on all Latinx casting] on board. I found out, for instance, because there was an actor who I was considering who’s Brazilian, and I was told by the casting consultant that Brazilians aren’t considered Latino because they speak Portuguese. So, Javier is Spanish and the casting consultant was fine with it. But I don’t want to use the casting consultant as cover. I want to tell you my opinion on this and I stand by it, which is this: Spanish and Cuban aren’t actable, OK? They’re not actable. By the way, neither are straight and gay. Because I know there’s a small movement underway that only gay actors should play gay characters. Gay and straight aren’t actable. You could act being attracted to someone, but most nouns aren’t actable.”

Sorkin, in his infinite wisdom, then goes on to admit that he doesn’t think I Love Lucy has held up and also – you knew this was coming – complained about “cancel culture.” Yeah, way to stand up for the poor victims of those censorious Millennial and Zoomer kids trying to cancel everyone they don’t like! No entertainer is safe from the Politically Correct Thought Police, which will stifle free expression and creative verve if allowed to go unchecked! Side note, congratulations to Louis C.K., Marilyn Manson, Dave Chappelle, and Kevin Hart on your Grammy Award nominations last month. 

NIGHTMARE ALLEY – In Theaters December 17

Searchlight Pictures

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Starring Bradley Cooper, with Cate Blanchett and Toni Collette

What is it about? An ambitious carnival barker with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Guillermo! He’s back! One of the “Three Amigos” who absolutely dominated the Best Director category in the previous decade is now back with his first feature film project since his unexpected Academy Award-winning hit The Shape of Water, and it’s quite an intriguing one: a story that was already made into a noir thriller in 1947 by Edmund Goulding called Nightmare Alley. This one boasts the only all-star cast that could possibly make Don’t Look Up envious: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, and Rooney Mara have a combined total of twenty-two Academy Award nominations and three wins among them. Despite its somewhat misleading “Is he man or beast?” teaser trailer, there are no supernatural elements in this story of two con artists who get in over their heads.

But one glimpse at the more revealing full trailer shows all the rest of the elements of del Toro’s aesthetic trademarks haven’t gone anywhere – opulent and just-over-the-edge-of-otherworldly production design, moody cinematography with a strong saturated color grade, and Ron Perlman. But is this going to be another case of a “Why Bother?” remake, as I suspect West Side Story will be received by the masses? I don’t think so; unlike Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s immortal movie musical, Goulding’s noir isn’t nearly as well-known among general audiences, and a film of that genre hasn’t been produced or marketed at this scale in years. Also, according to del Toro, this is a more faithful adaptation of the William Lindsay Gresham novel that was the loose basis for Goulding’s movie, which means fans of the original film are probably in for a markedly different experience, along with del Toro’s promise that this will be a “Hard R”-rated feature. Joey will be seeing this one tonight, and I am very interested to find out his early reaction.

There is one small problem, though – this movie was announced and put into pre-production before Searchlight Pictures was officially acquired by the Walt Disney Company, and Disney has not even tried to hide their disdain for all the movies they’ve acquired from their Fox merger that isn’t part of an existing IP. So out of what I can only assume is pure spite, they are making this compete with Spider-Man: No Way Home in its opening weekend, which I am not covering in this preview article because doing so would depress me. Needless to say, Nightmare Alley will almost certainly get crushed in its opening weekend and be held up by Disney as proof that adult dramas are no longer financially viable so it’s all four-quadrant franchises, all the time, from now on.

Amazing to me how many deranged nonsense conspiracy theories people concoct about this company when what they’re doing out in the open is more than odious enough.

THE NOVICE – In Theaters and On Demand Streaming December 17

IFC Films

Directed by Lauren Hadaway

Starring Isabelle Fuhrman, with Amy Forsyth and Dilone

What is it about? A queer college freshman joins her university’s rowing team and undertakes an obsessive physical and psychological journey to make it to the top varsity boat, no matter the cost.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Now here is a movie that I hadn’t even heard of until just last month, and now I’m highly intrigued by. We’ve seen actors, producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, film editors, and even a fashion designer make the leap from their primary cinematic occupation to the director’s chair, but I can’t think of too many sound engineers stepping up to that role. Lauren Hadaway has apparently changed that trend, having broken into the business about a decade ago as a dialogue and ADR editor on films like Whiplash, Selma, Unbroken, The Conjuring 2, and Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League.

Now she’s written and directed a feature film of her own called The Novice, and it’s been making waves on the festival circuit, most notably at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won Best Actress for Isabelle Fuhrman (best known to general audiences as the evil little girl in Orphan… yes, really), Best Cinematography, and Best Feature Film in the U.S. Narrative Competition. Critics call it a visceral thriller of almost unbearable intensity as we plunge into a young woman’s obsessive quest to become the one freshman who makes it onto the varsity boat on the collegiate rowing team through sheer force of will.

Mitchell Beaupre was also highly impressed with this movie, describing it as “an experiential film that offers up so much meat to chew on, practically demanding repeated viewings whenever the viewer is emotionally ready to take the plunge back into this headspace again.” Joey, for his part, was slightly less enthusiastic in his endorsement but wholeheartedly agreed with the Tribeca Film Festival jury’s decision to award Furhman their Best Actress award. My only skepticism of its awards chances comes from the fact that it’s still a pretty low-key release that may not get the kind of push one needs for a robust campaign from IFC Films. This is a studio with an admirable track record of releasing several festival powerhouses in its two-decade-long existence but has only managed to get one – just one! – of their movies to a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars: Boyhood. Outside of that, it’s mainly a smattering of acting, documentary, and international film nominations for their offerings if they’re lucky. My only skepticism of my own anticipation for its quality as a film is the simple reason that it’s been most often compared to Damien Chazelle’s feature debut, which I… didn’t care for (I realize I’m in a distinct minority on this viewpoint). But I’ll only know for sure if that’ll be a problem for The Novice when I see it for myself.

THE LOST DAUGHTER – In Theaters December 17 and On Netflix December 31

Netflix

Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

Starring Olivia Colman, with Dakota Johnson and Jessie Buckley

What is it about? A woman’s beach vacation takes a dark turn when she begins to confront the troubles of her past.

How am I feelin’ about this one? You already know The Story, right? The story of when Maggie Gyllenhaal auditioned for a role and was told by the producers that, at 37, she was supposedly “too old” for the part, even though the actor playing her love interest was 55 at the time? This has become a legendary story encapsulating all of Hollywood’s sexism, ageism, and double standards, and she is still asked about the incident in interviews. Well, it looks like she’s decided to extend the largest middle finger one can to those executives by directing and writing her own movie, The Lost Daughter, featuring a generationally-diverse cast of women in big dramatic showcases in a story adapted from a novel by the mysterious Italian author Elena Ferrante (that’s not even her real name, by the way – no one outside of her close associates knows her true identity).

Apparently, Gyllenhaal’s debut is a knockout, winning the Golden Osella Award for Best Screenplay at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Most of the early reviews have been very positive, with most critics singling out Olivia Colman’s performance and Gyllenhaal’s confident exploration of tricky subject matter to be among the very best of 2021. Competition is stiff in Best Lead Actress this year, but Colman is a previous winner who has established a committed base of admirers, and if this really is one of her best performances it may be impossible to deny her return. Best Adapted Screenplay is a lot less stacked, though, and while I see her having a tough time outright winning over the even-more-acclaimed The Power of the Dog and easier-to-digest crowdpleaser CODA, I can’t imagine Gyllenhaal not at least being nominated there. 

Joey was ambivalent about what he felt was a mean-spirited and arch story, but was highly impressed with Gyllenhaal’s skills behind the camera and the across-the-board strong acting from the entire cast, ultimately ending up excited for this new stage of her career. Reportedly, this movie makes some… uncomfortable observations about the tolls of motherhood, which could make the still mostly-male voting membership of the Academy hesitant in fully embracing it. I mean, look at the Boomers on cable news networks still at a loss to explain why Millennial women aren’t super-excited about having children in an economy openly hostile to modern families…

THE TENDER BAR – In Theaters December 17, and On Amazon Prime January 7

Amazon Studios

Directed by George Clooney

Starring Tye Sheridan, with Ben Affleck and Lily Rabe

What is it about? A boy growing up on Long Island seeks out father figures among the patrons at his uncle’s bar.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Man, George Clooney has had a weird directorial career, hasn’t he? His debut was filming the only script from Charlie Kaufman that he later went on to disown, then Clooney’s sophomore effort earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Director in what was hailed as the first truly great movie about journalism produced in the 21st century, then he follows that up with a goofy screwball comedy about early American football that bombed at the box office, films a play about “dirty politics” that Steven Spielberg exposed as laughably pearl-clutching and naïve in its moral edicts only a year later, then he made a historical light-hearted dramedy most people received with a resounding “meh,” then he put out another dark… comedy? I guess? That was a box office bomb and the few people who did bother to see it (including yours truly) hated, and then a ponderous sci-fi thriller that got an Oscar nomination for its visual effects which it predictably lost to Tenet.

So what’s going on with this guy? This man who seemed to have been created in a lab to be the ultimate squared-jawed handsome Hollywood leading man who has instead settled into a strangely idiosyncratic career diving headfirst into interests and film concepts no matter how alienating they are to general audiences with a zeal rivaled only by Warren Beatty in his directorial heyday. But in a few weeks, we’ll be getting his first straightforward drama film since The Ides of March, called The Tender Bar. It looks like a nice story about the formative years of Pulitzer Prize-winning author/journalist J. R. Moehringer and overcoming his hardscrabble upbringing to make it to Yale and launch a successful writing career. Yes, I’m aware that the premise on its face shares a lot of similarities with Hillbilly Elegy, which is… distracting. Let’s not hold that against the film.

Daniel Ranieri will be playing Moehringer as a boy and Tye Sheridan will be portraying him as a young man. Lily Rabe will be playing his struggling mother and Max Martini will be playing his deadbeat dad, Christopher Lloyd (hey, haven’t seen him in a major role in a while!) is his grandfather, and most prominently (at least based on the trailer), Ben Affleck is positioned as Moehringer’s mentor and uncle in the narrative. He’s already mastered the dad bod and the dad getting-my-life-back-together-in-my-late-forties stage of his life, so this role is kinda perfect for him right now.

Joey, on top of loving the film itself, strongly believes Affleck is a serious threat to win Best Supporting Actor, and yeah yeah, I know, he has an affection for Affleck that rivals my own fondness for Tilda Swinton. So blah blah bias yada yada some wishful thinking in that prediction. But here’s the thing: he’s not alone. Quite a few early reviews have singled Affleck out as the standout of a pretty strong cast, describing his performance as the warmest and funniest and most natural he’s ever given. Unfortunately, a lot of those early reviews also claim that the rest of the movie is insipid middlebrow feel-good fluff, so if there is anything that’s going to keep him from winning his third Academy Award, it’ll be the less-than-enthusiastic reception the rest of the movie has received. Keep in mind that Belfast, Licorice Pizza, The Power of the Dog, and Being the Ricardos not only have their own Best Supporting Actor contenders but are also movies with more substantial buzz at the moment. It’ll likely come down to the critics’ orgs and precursor awards to keep his odds favorable.

THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS – In Theaters and HBO Max December 22

Warner Bros.

Directed by Lana Wachowski

Starring Keanu Reeves, with Carrie-Anne Moss and Jada Pinkett Smith

What is it about? Um… your guess is as good as mine, honestly. 

How am I feelin’ about this one? Here we are, eighteen years after Neo and Trinity sacrificed themselves to end the war with the machines and free all of humanity in The Matrix Revolutions. Twelve years after Sony Online Entertainment shut down the servers supporting the massively multiplayer online role-playing game The Matrix Online, the last remaining canonical entry in The Matrix multimedia franchise. Eleven years after Lana Wachowski’s gender transition and five years after Lilly Wachowski’s gender transition, forever changing our collective interpretation of their seminal sci-fi action franchise’s themes of “reality,” “the system,” and especially “free your mind.” Six years after the Wachowski Sisters put a camera in front of Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne and captured this legendarily delicious ham:

After all of that, Lana apparently looked at the “legacyquels” dominating Hollywood like Creed and The Force Awakens and thought to herself, “hey… why not do that with The Matrix? We’ll call it The MatrixResurrections!” Now, you would think a several-years-later follow-up to a semi-beloved-but-seemingly-concluded movie series where new characters in an existing canon go through familiar conflicts from the earlier movies with a more contemporary spin while also being mentored by aging stars reprising their classic roles would be, let’s just say, hard to pull off from a trilogy ending with pretty definitive deaths of two of the three main characters (and that third main character was unceremoniously killed off in the canonical MMORPG… yes, really), right?

Well, she somehow found a way to do it, and has brought back all three characters from the dead to return to the Matrix, which I guess hadn’t been shut down like the machines agreed to as part of the peace agreement? Or maybe it was and was restarted for some reason? And maybe Neo coming back isn’t an MCU-style cheap-assed retcon but something hinted at during the denouement of the last movie? But then how does that explain Trinity’s return in this movie? She died in the real world. Horribly, in case you forgot. Is Priyanka Chopra Jonas playing a grown-up Sati, the child in the train station from Revolutions? And why, if we’re bringing back resurrected versions of Trinity and Neo being played by the same actors in their fifties, did they recast Morpheus with a younger actor (Candyman’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II)? And what does it say about this new entry in the series that Lana returned to it but Lilly didn’t?

The time we’ll get answers to any of those questions will be on December 22nd.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH – In Theaters December 25 and Apple TV+ January 14

A24 / Apple TV+

Directed by Joel Coen

Starring Denzel Washington, with Frances McDormand and Corey Hawkins

What is it about? A Scottish lord becomes convinced by a trio of witches that he will become the next King of Scotland, and his ambitious wife supports him in his plans of seizing power.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Ah, Shakespeare. The most adapted writer in the history of the written word, in any language, by far. It is rare to live through a year where there isn’t at least one movie version of one of his plays to look forward to, and we have never lived through a decade where there wasn’t at least one notable film version of one of his plays that cements itself as a terrific work of cinema in its own right. It looks like the 2020’s are already set on getting the latter out of the way, with Joel (but notably, not with his brother) Coen giving us a highly ambitious version of one of The Bard’s most well-known tragedies: The Tragedy of Macbeth.

I have been highly impressed with A24’s marketing push for this one, releasing a series of striking 30 to 45-second teaser trailers firing off jaw-dropping black-and-white shots of sparse interiors and exterior landscapes evoking an elaborate stage in a welcome break from recent frustrating attempts to try to pull Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter into “realistic” settings (lookin’ at you, Coriolanus!). Bruno Delbonnel, who was also responsible for the uncharacteristically soft lighting of the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, is almost certainly going to be in the hunt for his first Best Cinematography Academy Award just based on the few clips we’ve seen and was singled out in Joey’s review as one of the most striking elements of what he described as a brutal and politically-charged version of the play.

Ah, but what about the acting? This is, after all, Shakespeare! Well, Denzel Washington has been getting across-the-board raves from critics, as have Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth (thankfully being campaigned as a lead, contrary to the stupid gamifying speculation from cynical Oscar pundits who refuse to acknowledge that Lady Macbeth has never been considered a supporting role), Corey Hawkins as MacDuff, and interestingly, stage veteran Kathryn Hunter as the Witches. But it should be remembered that, unless your name is Kenneth Branagh, your odds of being Oscar-nominated for a performance in a Shakespeare-adapted film haven’t been great over the last fifty years. Heck, this isn’t even the first time Washington has been in an adaptation of a Shakespeare play (and if you’re looking for a fun movie, do yourself a favor and watch the 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing because it is lovely), and that resulted in no acting nominations. But if anyone can break that dry spell, it’s Joel Coen.

But there is one thing about this movie that… “bothers” isn’t the right word, but it does fill me with trepidation. Maybe even sadness over what is being lost possibly forever. And it’s the absence of Ethan Coen, who apparently has become far more invested in the theatre in the last few years and may not ever return to filmmaking again. Combined with Lilly Wachowski not co-directing The Matrix Resurrections with her sister, and that makes two revered sibling filmmakers possibly splitting apart for the rest of their careers. This feels like the end of something profound, like an artistic era is drawing to a close with not one, but two split-ups of these pairs of filmmakers. I can’t help but head into this movie and not feel a sense of despondency over that.

JOCKEY – In Theaters December 29

Sony Pictures Classics

Directed by Clint Bentley

Starring Clifton Collins, Jr., with Molly Parker and Moises Arias

What is it about? An aging jockey aims for a final championship after a rookie rider arrives claiming to be his son.

How am I feelin’ about this one? You know what’s an underrated performance? Clifton Collins, Jr. as convicted murderer Perry Smith in Capote:

It’s a shame that he wasn’t able to vault his haunting embodiment of such an important character into a Best Supporting Actor nomination, because for my money he was more deserving than all of the men who did get recognized there. Luckily, if enough people feel the same way about Jockey that Joey did earlier this year, he may have a shot at some overdue recognition for his humble but prolific career.

The movie itself seems fairly boilerplate, as far as small-scale character studies go – an aging rider prepares for his final race before retirement while also confronting the personal failings of his past. Sort of reminds me of The Wrestler, and I’m not the first person to draw those comparisons. As for Collins, well… I’ll let Joey take it from here: “He invests everything into the character, bringing a charm and intensity that sums up the best he has to offer. Jackson isn’t always likable, but you always know where he stands. It’s truly an impressive turn. Oscar should keep him in mind, next season.”

The question is, will they? Awards Radar currently has him ranked at #12 among the likely Best Actor contenders, and the top two are pretty much “locks,” but that power ranking could almost certainly shoot up before nomination ballots are due, depending on how it’s received when it hits theaters. On this day ten years ago, Demián Bichir was not seen as a likely nominee for Best Actor by pretty much every prognosticator. How many of us saw Paul Raci or John Hawkes or Steven Yeun coming from this far out?

So what say you, in this final push for Oscar glory? Do you share my skepticism of Don’t Look Up? Do you believe Joey’s faith in Ben Affleck’s Best Supporting Actor push is on to something? Let us know in the comments.

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Anonymous
Anonymous
4 months ago

Nichole Kidman is always good and, for 54, she looks marvelous. Lucille Ball was 40 when I Love Lucy first aired. So sorry, no.

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a veteran who spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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