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Awards bait and blockbusters: Checking out Hollywood’s year-end offerings

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As we come to the end of another cinematic year, certain elements of the Hollywood machine are ramping up.

We’re entering into prestige season, where studios have traditionally trotted out their awards contenders in order to ensure that they are fresh in the minds of voters when balloting takes place.

Granted, that has changed somewhat in recent years – the combination of an expanded Best Picture field and a willingness to recognize more mainstream and commercial fare has led to less specificity with regards to where a film lands on the calendar. As such, there are a number of prominent prestige films either already in theaters or already come and gone.

Plus, there’s the recent entry into the fray of the streaming behemoths. We’ve also included a few movies from Netflix and Amazon, films that received limited theatrical releases in order to qualify for these awards but whose REAL release date is when their availability for streaming arrives.)

On the flip side, this late part of the year has also become a sort of summer redux as far as blockbuster fare. Films expected to do massive box office are no longer just the purview of June and July – November and December have now become perfectly acceptable spots to drop your nine-figure franchise powerhouse, turning the always-popular holiday movie season into something truly huge.

What follows is a look at some of the upcoming films that are closing out 2019. We’ve got some movies looking to win awards, others just looking to have a good time. As for what YOU are looking for? Well – whatever it is, you might well find it somewhere on this list.


Awards Bait

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Nov. 22)

We’ll kick it off with this biopic, which explores the relationship between children’s TV icon Mr. Rogers and the cynical writer assigned to do a profile on him. Based on a real-life relationship, this movie will almost certainly garner a lot of attention going forward. Specifically, there’s going to be a LOT of love for Tom Hanks, who stars as Mr. Rogers in the role that he has been steadily moving toward for years now. Biopics can be tricky, but the match of role and actor could not be more perfect. There are plenty of other folks involved here – Matthew Rhys, as journalist Lloyd Vogel, has a bigger role – but all anyone cares about regarding this movie is Mr. Rogers. If anyone can find a way to capture the spirit of the man while also understanding the long shadow he casts, it is Tom Hanks. It’ll be a beautiful day indeed.

Bombshell (Dec. 13)

There’s a “ripped from the headlines” vibe to this one that could really go either way, depending on your own ideas about how the world works. It’s hard to argue against the compelling nature of the source material – it’s based on the story of several women at Fox News who sought to expose the alleged sexual harassment committed by CEO Roger Ailes. The behind-the-camera team is solid – Jay Roach directs from a script by Charles Randolph. And the cast is exceptional – the central trio consists of Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie, with supporting turns from folks like John Lithgow (as Ailes), Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell, Mark Duplass, Kate McKinnon and more. It’ll be a polarizing film, to be sure, but regardless where you fall on the political spectrum, it’ll be hard to argue that “Bombshell” doesn’t warrant attention come awards time.

Little Women (Dec. 25)

This movie – adapted from Louisa Mae Alcott’s beloved 1868 novel of the same name – has a chance to make a lot of noise. Directed by critical darling Greta Gerwig (who also adapted the screenplay), “Little Women” has an all-star cast; it’s a powerhouse ensemble led by a handful of the best young actresses currently working in Hollywood. Seriously – Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson and Florence Pugh are doing what they do, but you’ve also got notables like Laura Dern, Tracy Letts, Timothee Chalamet, Bob Odenkirk and, oh yeah, MERYL FREAKING STREEP. Sure, there was an adaptation that came out last year, but come on – look at these names! Not only will this one find its way into numerous awards conversations, it is also positioned as ideal counterprogramming; don’t be shocked if it puts up big box office numbers along with some fawning reviews.

1917 (Dec. 25)

We just had a big WWII movie with “Midway,” so it’s only fair that WWI gets some run this awards season. Director Sam Mendes co-wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns; it is reportedly based in part on an account of wartime activities told to Mendes by his grandfather. Here’s the thing: it just wouldn’t be awards season without some period drama laden with historical significance and British actors. While the two leads aren’t the biggest names, the supporting cast has plenty, with folks like Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and Mark Strong showing up to do what they do. This movie likely won’t be as spectacle-driven as many of its fellow war films, but rest assured that the performances will be top-notch. WWI hasn’t necessarily received the same sort of depth of big-screen treatment as WWII; it’s nice to see that change a bit with “1917.”

Uncut Gems (Dec. 25)

This film is probably the one that officially lands indie-film darlings Josh and Ben Safdie on the mainstream radar, thanks to the high profile of their star. This follow-up to their acclaimed-but-underseen film “Good Time” stars Adam Sandler as a jewelry store owner whose compulsive gambling has left him with a mountain of debt that has come due and will result in dire consequences if it isn’t settled. Early reports are that Sandler is once again flashing the dramatic chops that we’ve seen only sporadically over the years. It’s got a great (and weird) supporting cast, with talents like Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield, Judd Hirsch and Eric Bogosian sharing the screen with former NBA star Kevin Garnett and musician The Weeknd playing themselves. Oh, and NYC sports talk radio legend Mike Francesa is here for reasons beyond understanding.


Awards Bait: Streaming Division

The Irishman (Netflix; Nov. 29)

Perhaps nothing is as indicative of the move of streaming services into the awards space as this movie. Even a decade ago, this Scorsese-directed, De Niro/Pacino/Pesci-starring vehicle would have been a massive studio film. Instead, the folks at Netflix coughed up the reported $150 million-plus budget to make this sweeping, decades-spanning crime saga, the story of a former hitman relating his story at the end of his life. By all accounts, this movie is the odds-on favorite to make huge noise come awards time. It received a limited theatrical release in order to gain eligibility, but the vast majority of people who see this epic (209 minutes; nearly three-and-a-half hours) will see it via streaming. The barriers to film awards have been slowly crumbling … and “The Irishman” is likely the movie that finally punches through.

The Report (Amazon; Nov. 29)

In a lot of ways, Amazon’s in-house productions have lagged behind those of Netflix after their initial breakthrough with “Manchester by the Sea.” But while their streaming competitor has made a harder push in subsequent years, Amazon has some quality offerings of their own. “The Report” – based on the true story of the investigation into the CIA’s interrogation techniques in the years following 9/11 – is the best of what Amazon is bringing to the table this cycle. Writer/director Scott Z. Burns helmed the film, whose cast is led by the always-exceptional Adam Driver. Word is that this is an exceptional film, but there’s a real chance that it gets somewhat lost in the shuffle – it will be interesting to see how much room the Academy and other organizations allow for these streaming service-driven offerings; Netflix has at least two movies that are garnering more attention.

Marriage Story (Netflix; Dec. 6)

The second Adam Driver-fronted streaming service-produced film on this list, this one is probably going to get more attention. Not only is it written and directed by Noah Baumbach, a long-admired filmmaker who is probably due for broader recognition, but it stars Driver and Scarlett Johansson, both of whom are at or near the top of most critics’ lists of year’s-best performances. Telling the story of the grueling dissolution of a marriage between two creatives – a stage director and an actress – it has been glowingly reviewed across the board. In a non-“Irishman” year, this one might be a favorite. As it stands, expect this one to receive a bunch of nods – potentially in all four acting categories (lots of early love for Laura Dern and Alan Alda in the supporting slots). Expect the chatter about this one to only get louder.

The Two Popes (Netflix; Dec. 20)

This one probably won’t quite pull the same amount of attention as the previous films on this list, but that’s OK – it’s still going to get some low-key support, thanks largely to the early acclaim heaped on its two stars. I mean, it’s Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce playing Pope Benedict XVI and Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, respectively. How is that going to be anything other than wildly compelling? Odds are that the film won’t be in the mix for awards like Best Picture or Best Director, but both of the stars are very much part of the Best Actor (Pryce) and Best Supporting Actor (Hopkins) conversations; screenwriter Anthony McCarten might have a shot at Adapted Screenplay, having adapted his own stageplay “The Pope” for the film. All that said, I won’t be shocked if “The Two Popes” can’t quite make the impact it perhaps ought to.



Frozen 2 (Nov. 22)

Disney trots out the first of its box office behemoths a little earlier than usual, bringing it to theaters the weekend before Thanksgiving rather than the pre-holiday Wednesday. Not that it matters when this particular movie drops; it will spend the subsequent few weeks raking it in. The big stars from the first film are back – Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Josh Gad – but more importantly, the team behind the camera as well. The directors are back, as are (thankfully) the songwriters and composers. So we can expect more great music (although the odds of us getting another “Let It Go”-level earworm seem slim; still, I wouldn’t necessarily bet against it) as well as a more grown-up story. The original is the biggest animated movie ever in terms of box office; we probably won’t see that again. That said, a billion-dollar haul is definitely in play.

Knives Out (Nov. 27)

Everything that I’ve seen or heard about this movie indicates that it is going to be a big winner. There’s a throwback vibe to it – a star-studded murder mystery the likes of which we rarely get from Hollywood anymore. Writer/director Rian Johnson surprised pretty much everyone with this one, his first film since helming “The Last Jedi” (whose sequel lands not even a month after this film). But early reviews are glowing and the ensemble is astonishing. Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer, Lakeith Stanfield, Don Johnson – the list goes on and on. “Knives Out” promises to be smart and sharp; it’s probably the one film on the blockbuster side of the ledger with any shot at garnering awards attention beyond a few tech nods and/or a song nomination. More than anything, it just looks FUN.

Jumanji: The Next Level (Dec. 13)

Look, I was as surprised as anyone when 2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” was not just commercially successful but actually good. But hey – bet against The Rock at your peril. The gang’s back together for the not-at-all-surprising sequel, with all of the previous players (get it?) returning, along with the addition of cranky old guys Danny DeVito and Danny Glover. Is it going to be more of the same? Probably. But it looks like there are just enough variations on the theme to make this worth a look. If nothing else, it’s a charming cast – Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas and others join The Rock and the rest. Expect strong action set pieces and some decent jokes in what will likely prove to be a perfectly cromulent adventure that falls just a bit short of its predecessor.

Cats (Dec. 20)

Man, doesn’t this look like a disaster waiting to happen. On paper, the notion of making a screen version of the beloved Broadway musical “Cats” probably makes a lot of sense. And other big-screen adaptations of musicals have been successful (commercially, anyway – creatively, perhaps not so much), so why not? But while there’s an undeniable amount of talent involved – Tom Hooper is directing a cast that includes Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, James Corden, Idris Elba and Taylor Swift – the early returns are … not great. And if you’ve seen a trailer, you probably have an idea as to why – there’s some pretty serious uncanny valley weirdness happening with the CGIed faces on weird anthropomorphic cat bodies. It’s unsettling enough to look at that it likely won’t matter how good their rendition of “Memory” is. Now and forever? I guess?

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (Dec. 20)

This is it. Sure, the Disney machine will continue to churn out “Star Wars” content until the Earth is dark and cold, but this marks an end to the story that so many of us have been following for four decades. One hopes that director J.J. Abrams – working from a script he co-wrote with Chris Terrio – has found an appropriate conclusion to the saga. His abiding love for the story is clear, as is the affection held by the tremendously talented cast – expect Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega and the rest to leave it all on the field. The reality is that there’s no world in which this film perfectly satisfies everyone – there are too many different people with too many different attitudes regarding the story and their fandom connection to it. All we can do is cross our fingers and put our collective faith into the very talented people tasked with bringing this 40-plus year epic to the finish line.

Last modified on Tuesday, 19 November 2019 06:43


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