THR's matrix shows how the new dynamics under the president-elect may pull different levers.
In the immediate wake of Donald Trump's election as president, every aspect of American society suddenly seems to have taken on even more of a political dimension than usual. And that includes the choices that the Academy will make as it ponders this year's best picture contenders, for which the nominees will be announced Jan. 24.
Will voters opt for the relative escapism of a feel-good romance like Damien Chazelle's La La Land, which presents Los Angeles in the best possible, sunset-tinted light? Or will they be more invested in recognizing movies that tackle social issues, such as Denzel Washington's Fences, which looks at the repercussions of race in working-class 1950s Pittsburgh, or Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, which opens amid the near-tropical blight of public housing in Miami in the 1980s? Will it give a sympathetic hearing to the ennui of the one percent as depicted by Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, or will it be more drawn to the sufferings of average folk like the middle-class denizens of Manchester by the Sea?
After two years of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the Academy now is making its choices amid a culture reeling from new evidence of its deep and pervasive divides — and voters may select movies to highlight or heal them. — Gregg Kilday
(Notable films from each quadrant of the grid highlighted below)
The Birth of a Nation hoped to provide moviegoers with a history lesson about Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion. But the movie was overshadowed by director Nate Parker's involvement (and acquittal) in a 1999 rape case, and the conversation turned to sexual assault.
A labor of love pursued by Parker for seven years, the film vividly captures an assortment of slavery's brutalities while also emphasizing the religious underpinnings of Turner's justifications for his assaults on slaveholders.
Fences is as faithful, impeccably acted and honestly felt a film adaptation of August Wilson's celebrated play as the late author could have possibly wished for. But whether a pristine representation of all the dramatic beats and emotional surges of a stage production actually makes for a riveting film in and of itself is another matter.
Having both won Tony Awards for the excellent 2010 Broadway revival of Wilson's 1986 Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis know their parts here backward and forward, and they, along with the rest of the fine cast, bat a thousand, hitting both the humorous and serious notes. But with this comes a sense that all the conflicts, jokes and meanings are being smacked right on the nose in vivid close-ups, with nothing left to suggestion, implication and interpretation.
All the same, public reaction to the material likely will be strong, resulting in a much-needed year-end commercial hit for Paramount.
The beguilingly credible CGI rendering of real-life animals takes its biggest leap forward since Life of Pi in Disney's The Jungle Book. Exceptionally beautiful to behold and bolstered by a stellar vocal cast, this umpteenth film rendition of Rudyard Kipling's tales of young Mowgli's adventures amongst the creatures of the Indian jungle proves entirely engaging, even if it's ultimately lacking in subtext and thematic heft.
From the embracing opening image (extra effective in 3D), which smoothly backtracks from the Cinderella castle logo right into the jungle setting, director Jon Favreau makes his new film instantly welcoming with its wonderfully detailed wilderness environment anyone would swear is real.
Even as the drama and its treatment become increasingly conventional and familiar as the film moves toward its patly (and arguably overly) audience-pleasing wrap-up, the exceptional visual quality and lifelike animal renditions remain stunning throughout.
The setting is Boston, the year is 1926, Prohibition is in effect, and that means mobsters rule. That's the setup for the crime drama, directed by and starring Ben Affleck as a police chief's son.
At this point, Warren Beatty has been off the big screen for 15 years — or five years longer than Howard Hughes, the man he plays in his new serio-comedy Rules Don't Apply, was a recluse so mysteriously out of the public eye.
At once an amusingly eccentric take on a billionaire fixated with controlling other people's lives and a romance about a young couple constipated by the conservative religious and social sexual mores of the 1950s, this is a fitfully funny quasi-farce that takes off promisingly, loses its way mid-flight and comes in for a bumpy but safe landing.
The Hollywood in which the film is set (and in which Beatty first set foot) is beautifully decked out to evoke a very specific time and place according to Beatty's memory of them, from the house above the Hollywood Bowl from which you can listen to concerts to dinners at Musso and Frank's and trips down a Hollywood Boulevard where Ben-Hur is playing at the Egyptian Theatre.
Based on the true story of a notoriously talentless singer in early 20th century Manhattan, Florence Foster Jenkins is a warm-hearted celebration of single-minded amateurism over slick professionalism, and romantic fantasy over disappointing reality. Aiming for the same kind of affectionate comic tone as The King's Speech, this gentle musical farce from director Stephen Frears (The Queen) hits more than a few flat notes, but still delivers gentle laughs and classy star performances.
Sporting a padded midriff and unflattering wig, Meryl Streep gives a characteristically robust performance as Jenkins, replicating her glass-shattering shrieks and clumsy stage gestures with meticulous attention to detail. That said, this is one of the veteran Oscar-winner's lighter star turns, all graceless clowning and Absolutely Fabulous mannerisms.
Extraordinary in its piercing intimacy and lacerating in its sorrow, Jackie is a remarkably raw portrait of an iconic American first lady, reeling in the wake of tragedy while at the same time summoning the defiant fortitude needed to make her husband's death meaningful, and to ensure her own survival as something more than a fashionably dressed footnote. Powered by an astonishing performance from a never-better Natalie Portman in the title role, this unconventional bio-drama also marks a boldly assured English-language debut for Pablo Larrain, the gifted Chilean director behind such films as No, The Club and Neruda.
A fragmented mosaic that comes together into a portrait of sometimes almost unbearable emotional intensity, it's also a sharply observed account of how the wheels of the political machine keep turning, even in times of devastating trauma.
The inspirational true story of the Ugandan girl's ascent through the competitive ranks lays out its pieces and strategies all too clearly. Even with director Mira Nair's typically vivid sense of place and the charismatic central performances by David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o and a striking newcomer, the film hits every note of plucky positivity so squarely on the head that it leaves little room for audience involvement.
Critical objections aren't likely to dim the lure of the two topliners, and many moviegoers are likely to find the biopic's against-the-odds narrative rousing and irresistible. That it's the rare mainstream movie set in Africa and not focused on war and deprivation — though they clearly inform the lives of the characters — also will be a draw.
A wrenching family tragedy is dramatized with the depth of a high-quality American stage piece in Manchester by the Sea.
Kenneth Lonergan's third feature film since his debut 16 years ago with his Sundance entry You Can Count On Me is deeply rooted in its New England setting and characters, led by the traumatized, working-class Joe played by Casey Affleck in what is by far his most impressive and deeply felt screen performance to date.
Although Manchester never feels stagy and is deeply enriched by the mostly coastal communities in which it is set, this is clearly the work of a writer who knows his way around creating characters and emotional dynamics in a manner more evident in works for the stage than for screens big or small.
Lovers of classic musicals will be swept away by this utterly unexpected and original third feature from Damien Chazelle.
As did so many American musicals made before the mid-1960s, this one pivots on a simple boy-meets-girl/they fall in love/complications ensue scenario. For this to work at all, you need to have attractive and sympathetic leading actors, and once you see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone go into their moves here, it's as pleasurable to accept them in such roles as it once might have been to embrace, say, Gene Kelly and Shirley MacLaine.
If the gatekeepers of classic screen sci-fi are at all anxious about the stamp that director Denis Villeneuve might put on his upcoming Blade Runner project — a sequel coming 35 years after the iconic original — then the class, intelligence and cool visual style of Arrival should provide reassurance.
How refreshing to watch an alien contact movie in which no cities are destroyed or monuments toppled, and no adversarial squabbling distracts the human team from the challenges of their complex interspecies encounter.
Anchored by an internalized performance from Amy Adams rich in emotional depth, this is a grownup sci-fi drama that sustains fear and tension while striking affecting chords on love and loss.
In his first film since The Imitation Game, director Morten Tyldum takes moviegoers light years into the future. The voyage of the Starship Avalon is supposed to last 120 years, but Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence get a premature wake-up call after just 30.