It’s the same every year: there are only a handful of quality films released all fall, and then suddenly, in the last six weeks of the year, there simply isn’t enough time for all the Oscar-caliber movies you want to see. The message is clear: life is unfair. But in case this life lesson still hasn’t resonated, the 2009 Oscar season will certainly hammer it home loud and clear. This winter’s Oscar bait includes paternal rape, a man who fires people for a living, a prolific philanderer, a murdered daughter … and a post-apocalyptic family drama. Fun times!
The Best Picture race is already underway — “The Hurt Locker,” “Up,” “Inglorious Basterds” and “Where the Wild Things Are” are all likely nominees, given the field was expanded to 10 this year. But the other six nominees are likely yet to be released. Here’s what to look for at Criterion in ’09:
“Precious” (in limited release): “Precious” isn’t short on buzz. Produced by Oprah, the film is the early frontrunner in the Best Picture race and already set a record last weekend, earning over $1.8 million in only 18 theaters. The comparison with last year’s Best Picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire” is unavoidable; both films emerged from Sundance, premiered at Cannes, won the coveted People’s Choice Award at TIFF and produced inspiring stories from the most dire circumstances. This film follows the unflinchingly bleak story of Precious, a 350-pound, illiterate, black teenager from Harlem, who is raped and impregnated twice by her father and abused by her hostile mother. These are only the beginnings of her hardships. But when she is invited to enroll in a special school, her life takes on new meaning. Gabourey Sidibe stars as Precious, and the acclaimed supporting cast includes Mo’Nique, a disfigured Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd and Lenny Kravitz.
“Avatar” (Dec. 18): As James Cameron’s first feature film since the record-setting “Titanic” almost 10 years ago, one would assume “Avatar” would be a shoo-in for a Best Picture spot. But the film is anything but the typical Hollywood fare — the sci-fi film chronicles the story of a paraplegic war veteran (Sam Worthington) who is brought to the planet Pandora, where the human race is pitted against the Na’vi — a blue-skinned humanoid race. The film is historic in its technical breakthroughs. “Avatar” — available in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D — features state-of-the-art technology, which merges CGI and live action in unprecedented ways. The film has been rumored to cost nearly half a billion dollars — whether it ultimately will be simply a spectacle or an Oscar classic remains to be seen.
“Nine” (Dec. 25): Rob Thomas (“Chicago”) returns to the land of musicals with one of the more packed female casts ever assembled. Daniel Day-Louis takes on the role of Guido Contini (played by Antonio Banderas on Broadway), a famous film director balancing relationships with nine women, including his wife, his mistress and his inspiration. The cast of women include Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson, Fergie and Marion Cotillard (2008’s Best Actress winner). The relationship between musicals and the Oscars has been iffy this decade, and buzz on the film has been mixed, but with a cast this weird and over-the-top production values, “Nine” will certainly be worth the $9 ticket.
“The Lovely Bones” (Dec. 11): Oscar-favorite Peter Jackson returns with a more contemplative sci-fi flick based on Alice Sebold’s acclaimed novel. The movie focuses on the aftermath of the murder of a young girl (“Atonement”’s captivating Saoirse Ronan), who presides over the film inhabiting a fantastical sort of purgatory. Early reviews claim Ronan owns the movie, which is quite a feat given the cast also features Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci and Susan Sarandon.
“Invictus” (Dec. 11): “Invictus” is a film so tailor-made for Oscar season that it makes your eyes roll. Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as a rugby star and unlikely political hero. The trailer reeks of Oscar pretension in the worst way — accents, soaring music and standard Morgan Freeman gravitas pervade every moment. Eastwood has never missed the mark in his six films since 2003, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Up in the Air” (Dec. 25): In his first film since “Juno,” Jason Reitman takes on a much less whimsical tale. George Clooney (in his strongest bid for an Oscar ever) stars as a man who is paid to fly across the country firing people. Of course, the job is ironic: if Clooney’s character was fired himself, he would be emotionally unaffected with no attachments left in his lonely life. In a sense, “Up in the Air” (which is receiving incredible reviews on the festival circuit) is as much a coming-of-age story as “Juno” — just the protagonist is a solid 30 years older.
“The Road” (Nov. 25): The production of “The Road” — an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel — has been marred with controversy. The film was originally slated for release last Oscar season, but early screenings tested poorly, and the film was pushed back for reshoots. Trailers for the film have been met with vitriol from fans of the book. While the novel is uncompromisingly bleak and depressing, the trailer portrays the movie as inspiriting and uplifting. The film follows The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son, The Boy, as they trudge their way through a post-apocalyptic America. With plenty of time to rework the film and a stellar cast, one only hopes “The Road” can capture the quiet devastation of the novel.
“2012” (Nov. 13): Of course, if all this Oscar fare is too depressing during the all-too-stressful end of the semester, fear not! You can always pop into “2012,” which promises even less intellectual stimulation than a frat party.