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On the Radar… (December Edition)

A24

It’s December! You know what that means: late-breaking Oscar contenders! And man oh man do we have a lot of them coming down the pipeline in the next few weeks. Literally every single movie I decided to cover this month has a very real shot at a Best Picture nomination, and all but one of them is poised to secure an acting nomination somewhere.

I liken this slate of movies to a bull out in a field with some other cows, and then he saw a vampire, and the vampire was pregnant so you know somethin’ was goin’ on, but I want to be a werewolf, so the bull jumped over the fence but then he found out the cows on the other side of the fence had secret abortions paid for by a former NFL running back who claims to be Georgian when he actually lives in Texas and has a documented history of domestic violence, stalking, multiple head injuries, and impulse control problems.

So what I’m saying is, I’m pretty confident in still predicting that Avatar: The Way of Water is likelier to be the “blockbuster” Oscar nomination leader in a few months, not Top Gun: Maverick. For reasons I’ll get into shortly.

Anyway, let’s get on with these previews:

EMPIRE OF LIGHT – In Theaters December 9

Directed by Sam Mendes

Starring Olivia Colman, with Colin Firth and Toby Jones

What is it about? A love story that takes place in an English coastal cinema during the 1980’s.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Ah, did you really think Steven Spielberg was the only aging filmmaker who was going to give us his nostalgic ode to the power of cinema this year? Oh no, we’re getting one more of them before we put a bow on 2022, this time from Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes reminiscing about his days growing up in an English coastal town forty years ago that is definitely probably maybe Margate.

But the star of this movie is not a precocious little boy who is inevitably captured in a low-angle shot marveling with wide eyes at an image on the screen while a projector shines behind him. The main character of this particular story is the entirely (I think?) fictional character Hilary Small, an owner of a small movie theater struggling with what looks like a slow-but-sure mental health breakdown and the political hardships of the Thatcherite 80’s. She’s played by the now-established One of the Great Actresses of Her Generation™ Olivia Colman, who looks like she’s got a decent chance at yet another Academy Award nomination based on the raves she’s been getting so far for her performance. 

Instead of a bildungsroman, this is more of an adult romance between Hilary and a younger man played by Michael Ward. No, wait, another Michael Ward, a young up-and-comer who has been in some projects that, honestly, I’ve never heard of before researching him for this article. This is by far his biggest movie, and depending on how it’s received, he could be a new and fast-rising movie star on the back of it. Speaking of which, Joey had a great time sharing in Empire of Light’s reportedly genuine and deeply-felt tribute to the power of cinema, but other reviews have been more… muted, arguing that the heart is in the right place but the screenplay is more threadbare than it should be. The mixed reception likely won’t make Empire of Light the awards powerhouse that The Fabelmans almost certainly will be, but I wouldn’t count it out yet for at least some recognition in a few notable places.

THE WHALE – In Theaters December 9

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Starring Brenden Fraser, with Sadie Sink and Hong Chau

What is it about? A reclusive English teacher living with severe obesity attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter for one last chance at redemption.

How am I feelin’ about this one? I’m not really sure what to… “do,” with The Whale, to be honest. I root for Darren Aronofsky, even when his movies exasperate me. He’s always a filmmaker who Goes For It, and in this day and age, that’s a treasure. And then there’s Brendan Fraser, who I am so happy to see enjoying a comeback after being blackballed for speaking out against the then-President of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for sexually assaulting him. The man has been through a lot, and so to see him get all these standing ovations and gushing “Welcome Back!” magazine profiles and be considered the current frontrunner for Best Lead Actor is a wonderful sight.

But centering a story on the miseries of a morbidly obese character brought about via makeup and visual effects is a parade of red flags, and I’ve come around to largely agreeing with the argument that fat suits and fat CGI added to thin actors should be avoided in most instances. The premise of this movie seems to be about how much its protagonist, Charlie, has hit the lowest point of his life by gaining a massive amount of weight. If Charlie’s tragedy is going to be visualized by scenes accentuating his fatness as a kind of grim spectacle… this is not going to be an easy movie to support. Even a little. And because this is directed by Darren Aronofsky, I legitimately have no clue if he’s going to execute an impeccably sensitive and humane portrayal or a luridly unedifying slog through monotonous human suffering. It really is a coin toss from him.

For his part, Joey loved the movie, praising its raw and uncompromising depiction of a man hitting rock bottom in his life, and he was blown away by the performances of Fraser and Hong Chau. He declared both of them the best acting he saw at the Toronto International Film Festival. I imagine the debates surrounding this movie have only begun.

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER – In Theaters December 16

Directed by James Cameron

Starring Sam Worthington, with Zoe Saldaña and Sigourney Weaver

What is it about? Jake Sully lives with his newfound family formed on the planet of Pandora. Once a familiar threat returns to finish what was previously started, Jake must work with Neytiri and the army of the Na’vi race to protect their planet.

How am I feelin’ about this one? You know, it’s interesting: when it comes to determining which movie is truly the “objectively best” of the year, as much as we may want to deny it, there is not just one criterion one could use. You could say “well, the movie I personally enjoyed the most was [x], therefore [x] was the best of the year.” Which is fine. But what if you wanted to mount a convincing case for it to others? What outside support would you call upon? Would you argue for its popularity among the mainstream (the “CineScore Argument”)? Or its esteem among scholars and prominent critics (the “Sight & Sound Argument”)? Do you argue for its longevity, and say that it’s the best because it was a cultural phenomenon that people will be quoting and referencing decades from now (Get Out vs. The Shape of Water)? This is rare, but can you claim that it demonstrably changed politics or society (Dr. Strangelove vs. My Fair Lady)? Or can you hold it up as an industry pioneer, and say it’s also the best because it made a tangible, lasting technological or craftmanship advancement (Gravity vs. 12 Years a Slave)? 

And it’s that last one that I think contains the best case for the argument that James Cameron’s Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time for about a decade, was the true best film of 2009. I do not agree, personally; I don’t think the world of Pandora was nearly as imaginatively realized as its fans insist it was and its plot was the same racist mighty whitey hoo-hah that we should have left behind in the 90’s. However… Cameron was able to convince every major theater chain to swap out their celluloid projectors for digital ones and make the leap to full 3D conversion accommodations in their equipment. That one successful feat of persuasion this film facilitated, divorced from everything else about it, automatically makes Avatar one of the most important movies ever made and rivaled only by The Avengers as the most important film of the 21st century so far.

And then, just as Cameron had done after Titanic grossed an amount of money at the box office that seemed literally incomprehensible at the time, he decided to just… quietly work on his next project. And continue to work on it for twelve years. He didn’t rush anything out or try to keep his name on the public’s attention. He’s pretty confident, justifiably so since he keeps doing it over and over, that he will prove his doubters wrong once again when he releases this long-awaited sequel, where the Native American stereotypes Na’vi have to go underwater to defeat the humans returning for Round 2. Avatar: The Way of Water is one of the most expensive movies ever made, is making headlines for its new advancements in high frame rate and motion capture technology, and is intended to be the springboard for at least three more sequels if this movie is profitable… which would require it to be one of the highest-grossing movies in history to have any hope of achieving that.

And, yeah, that’s a big gamble. But if anyone in Hollywood has earned a reputation as one hell of a good gambler, it’s James Cameron.

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY – On Netflix December 23

Directed by Rian Johnson

Starring Daniel Craig, with Janelle Monáe and Edward Norton

What is it about? Famed detective Benoit Blanc travels to Greece for his latest case.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Knives Out was, to me, a perfect example of a kind of movie that I am still terrified is going extinct: the “middle-shelf movie.” It’s a film for adults that is expensive enough to afford real production values and big movie stars and an actual marketing campaign, but isn’t some massive franchise “four quadrant” behemoth that has to gross a quarter of a billion dollars in its first weekend just to be considered mildly profitable, nor is it some heady niche drama that maybe a few thousand people in New York and Los Angeles will want to see in theaters during its initial limited run if it’s lucky. The center cannot hold in show business if all it’s selling is the high-end art films to snobs like me and gigantic effects-driven superhero juggernauts and almost nothing in between.

So what a minor miracle, then, for Rian “LOL The Last Jedi Wasn’t So Bad In Hindsight, Now Was It?” Johnson to step up to the plate with exactly the kind of movie that used to be popular in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s: a generally accessible, decently-budgeted, slick thriller with movie stars and mainstream appeal that doesn’t end with pre-existing I.P. characters fighting a CGI beam of light in the sky. And it made money! What a jolt of life-sustaining energy to an endangered species of cinema for a while, now, for reasons Matt Damon articulated quite well in an interview over hot wings. If this kind of movie goes extinct, that is going to be bad news for the entire film industry, in the same way the automobile industry would be in big trouble if they found themselves only able to sell cheap crappy rovers or high-end expensive luxury cars because the mid-sized sedan market just vanished.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I’m very pleased with how we now have what may be a long-term franchise unrelated to a pop culture darling originating from a comic book or an 80’s-era Saturday morning cartoon show. The best part is, it doesn’t look like you need any pre-existing knowledge of the first installment to just dive right in and enjoy Benoit Blanc’s newest whodunnit surrounded by viperous elites played by an all-star cast. Joey (not the biggest fan of Knives Out back in 2019, may I remind you) had a blast with Glass Onion, reporting that it’s funnier, smarter, and more engaging than its predecessor.

So hey, good news all around! Even if I’m skeptical that lightning will strike twice in Best Original Screenplay I guess Adapted Screenplay this time since sequels are automatically considered adapted.

WOMEN TALKING – In Theaters December 2 December 23

Directed by Sarah Polley

Starring Rooney Mara, with Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley

What is it about? In 2010, the women of an isolated religious community grapple with reconciling their reality with their faith.

How am I feelin’ about this one? The second of the two “Feminine Noun Verbal Communication” movies being released this year centering on women taking a stand against systemic sexual violence, Women Talking is the first feature film from Sarah Polley in a decade; her last outing behind the camera was her autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell. Just like She Said, this is a movie written, directed, co-produced, and about women sick and tired of men’s shit, and in this movie they’re debating, 12 Angry Men-style, whether to stay in the isolated community protecting these predatory men and forgive them, stay in the isolated community protecting these men and rain hell upon them, or take their chances in the outside world and leave the community entirely despite being illiterate.

Joey was impressed by the film’s dramatic potency and was especially in awe of what he describes as an across-the-board superb acting ensemble. The acting is the most unanimous point of agreement between the critics, with the majority of best-in-show plaudits going to Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and Ben Whishaw. Early awards bodies seem to agree with this, with the Film Independent Spirit Awards already announcing it as the winner of their annual Robert Altman Award. I have very little doubt that this will sail to a SAG Ensemble nomination if not a win, too.

Just like She Said, it is also being campaigned by a studio making the decision, that … not everyone agrees with, to consider Rooney Mara the sole lead role with everyone else marketed as a supporting performer. Once again, I personally can’t speak to the integrity of that choice until I see it for myself. But just as I remarked in my preview of She Said, I would be very curious to see how Buckley and Foy were paid relative to Mara to see if their own salary negotiations reflected this campaign’s public stance. If your agent didn’t consider you a “supporting actress,” perhaps your awards campaign shouldn’t, either.

BABYLON – In Theaters December 23

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Starring Margot Robbie, with Diego Calva and Brad Pitt

What is it about? Set in Hollywood during the transition from silent films to talkies, focusing on a mixture of historical and fictional characters.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Finally, we have not really a “nostalgic” movie about the past so much as a historical fan-fiction-type darkly humorous epic similar to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood. Only more so because Damien Chazelle is much younger than Tarantino and his parents weren’t even born yet during the nascent years of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; if anything, a Millennial looking back so far into the past without the bias of nostalgia could bring a fresh perspective on an era that older generations remember the good parts of but are reluctant to acknowledge the not-so-good parts of.

Chazelle looks like he’s going all-in on this, too. Babylon is the most expensive movie he has worked on yet, which is impressive considering First Man disappointed at the box office… though financiers might have been willing to overlook that as an unfortunate byproduct of such a terrific movie being inadvertently thrust into a stupid culture war by right-wing dorks. Based on what we’ve seen so far, he has put every penny of that impressive budget into recreating all of the lavish Pre-Code 1920’s excess and the glitz and glamour of old-school Hollywood. I wasn’t kidding when I described it as an epic, by the way; this is clocking in at just over three hours.

So you have an all-star cast, amazing production values, an ambitious premise, and a director who (in my opinion, at least) continually improves himself, with each new movie of his better than the last one. Is there any reason to believe this won’t be a home run? Well, early reviews have been divisive. Also, and I realize this is a purely subjective mark against it, the trailers make it look… terrible. Nails-on-a-chalkboard cliché sizzle-reel-type lines, over-amped manic energy like the most annoying sequences of a David O. Russell film, and painfully forced jokes (that scene in the first teaser where Brad Pitt breaks into dancing might be the most irritating eight seconds I’ve witnessed in all of 2022).

But hey, good movies have had bad trailers attached to them, before

Which of these upcoming releases do you think will produce future Academy Award winners proudly holding up their Oscar in front of a podium like Herschel Walker did with his toy badge last month? Let us know in the comments!

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Joey Magidson
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2 months ago
Reply to  Robert Hamer

Right? Can’t imagine why that might be…

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a military veteran who now 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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