2016 Fall Movie Preview: 23 Awards Contenders To See This Season

All this week, IndieWire will be rolling out our annual Fall Preview, including offerings that span genres, a close examination of some of the year’s biggest breakouts, all the awards contenders you need to know about now and special attention to all the new movies you need to get through a jam-packed fall movie-going season. Check back every day for a new look at the best the season has to offer, and clear your schedule, because we’re going to fill it right up.

“The Light Between Oceans,” September 2

“The Light Between Oceans”

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Entertainment One

Fresh off her Oscar win for her supporting role in “The Danish Girl,” Alicia Vikander might want to prepare herself to get back into the wilds of awards campaigning thanks to a very strong showing in Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of “The Light Between Oceans.” Michael Fassbender stars alongside Vikander in the feature as a haunted lighthouse keeper who falls in love with an effervescent young lady (Vikander, obviously) and promptly hauls her off to the private island where he lives and works. As the pair fall deeper into love, they also struggle to conceive a baby, and when a dead man and a live infant wash up on-shore one day, who’s to say the baby isn’t really a gift from God they should just keep? As the film moves towards a series of crushing climaxes, Vikander holds steady and strong. -KE

“Sully,” September 9

“Sully”

Considering how reflexively his films are looped into the awards conversation, it’s easy to forget that Clint Eastwood hasn’t released a legitimate contender since “Letters From Iwo Jima” in 2006 (yes, “American Sniper” picked up a handful of nominations, but that film was always more of a populist favorite than anything else). “Sully,” despite its not-so-confident early September release date, has a decent shot at turning things around. For one thing, the film has one of America’s sweethearts (Tom Hanks) playing another (Captain “Sully” Sullenberger). For another, it tells a story that virtually every American is at least somewhat familiar with. “Flight” never took off with the Academy, but if Eastwood can find a way for this seemingly similar drama to go beyond the headlines and grasp on to something that resonates with the world today, he might be able to land a few more pieces of hardware for his mantel. -DE

“Cameraperson,” September 9

“Cameraperson”

One trend that has developed in the Best Picture category is the Academy’s tendency to celebrate stories about people working in the film industry: “The Artist,” “Birdman” and “Argo” being three recent, big winning examples. It’ll be interesting to see if the non-fiction professionals responsible for creating the 15 film short list for Best Documentary will have the same affinity for “Cameraperson.” It’s a fantastic film in of itself, but it is also a fascinating window into the process of making a nonfiction film. It’s both a meditation on the art form and a poignant memoir of what it means to dedicate one’s life to traveling the globe to capture important stories — a combination that could resonate with the early Academy nonfiction decision makers. -CO

“Snowden,” September 16

“Snowden”

It’s been awhile since Oliver Stone has made a film that has been well received by critics. Yet “Snowden” might be the perfect material for the director’s comeback. The director often accused of being a lefty conspiracist might be uniquely qualified to tell the story of the young man who opened the world’s’ eyes to America’s massive spying operation, which included its own citizens and was aided by large telecommunication and social media companies. Snowden’s backstory — a pro-military professional, who becomes disillusioned by what he sees — also follows the arc of many of Stone’s most celebrated protagonists. The ability to pick up where Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour” left off and tell the backstory of how Snowden came to make the choices he did could be interesting. Which is why the real Oscar contender coming out Snowden maybe star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose talents and charms seem ripe for some “for your consideration” attention. Yet underlying any potential awards consideration will the larger question: Does Hollywood want to embrace a heroic portrait of someone who is still extremely controversial. -CO

“Queen of Katwe,” September 23

“Queen of Katwe”

Disney

Chess is one of those time-tested storytelling metaphors that represent any kind of clash. This true life story, directed by Mira Nair, follows young Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), whose aptitude led her from poverty in Uganda up through the global chess ranks. Perennial awards players Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo star as Phiona’s mother and mentor, making for a trio of performers that are sure to receive attention after the film’s upcoming TIFF premiere. Awards voters sure love biopics, so this might have screenplay potential as well. Regardless, this looks to be another solid Disney entry into the “sports movies for people who don’t like sports” canon. -SG

“Deepwater Horizon,” September 30

“Deepwater Horizon”

Peter Berg specializes in stories about groups of ordinary Americans trapped in difficult situations. Based on films like “Lone Survivor” it’s easy to imagine how Berg will capture the life and death suspense of the men working the BP oil rig when it exploded and burst into flames. This film is told from the point of view of the “everyday heroes” whose lives are put at risk by the  powers that be, with real life hero Mike Williams’ (Mark Wahlberg) family (Kate Hudson) and a cost-cutting BP exec (John Malkovich) being used to emphasize the depth of these men’s needless sacrifice. Certainly a story that addresses the oil spill that devastated the Gulf Coast and revealed callous corporate greed has Oscar potential, but it’s hard to tell if the film will have that big picture/big message most often associated with “based on true events ” Oscar films. -CO

“American Honey,” September 30

“American Honey”

A24

Andrea Arnold is finally back on the big screen, and with a long-promised and much-anticipated passion project that only illuminates just how much we need the director’s keen eye and unique attitude in today’s cinema. “American Honey” follows a ragtag group of magazine sellers — “a mag crew” — as they crisscross the Midwest selling their wares and getting lit, all told through the eyes and heart of their newest member, Star (revelatory newbie Sasha Lane). Arnold has always excelled at depicting the inner lives of young women, and “American Honey” is no exception. Star’s experiences are various and specific — from her fraught romantic relationship with co-star Shia LaBeouf to her incendiary rivalry with Riley Keough — but also wonderfully relatable and gorgeously depicted. Brimming with music and hormonal energy, “American Honey” is infectious, and after a strong showing at Cannes, just might thrust Arnold into the awards spotlight. -KE

“Denial,” September 30

“Denial”

Rachel Weisz is poised to have a very big — and very emotional — September, thanks to turns in both the wrenching “The Light Between Oceans” and the infuriating “Denial.” From lauded director Mick Jackson — back behind the camera for the first time since 2010’s TV movie “Temple Grandin” — comes the story of writer and historian Deborah E. Lipstadt (Weisz plays her in the film, and David Hare’s screenplay is based on her book) after she is sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). The film boasts an absolutely stacked cast (any film that has Tom Wilkinson in a supporting role has got something good going on), and early looks at the project show a focused and fiery Weisz taking hold of every frame. Pairing her with Spall will likely lead to some major actorly fireworks, but Hare’s screenplay seems like a solid bet for some awards love. -KE

Check out October’s awards contenders on the next page. 

“The Birth of a Nation,” October 7

“The Birth of a Nation”

Fox Searchlight

Anticipation for “The Birth of a Nation” was so intense at Sundance 2016 that the audience gave writer-director-actor Nate Parker a standing ovation before they saw the period drama; as he took the stage with his cast and crew during closing credits, the crowd enthusiastically rose to their feet again. Outside in the Eccles lobby, the Fox Searchlight team huddled as they started their negotiations on the film, which in a bidding war they eventually nabbed for $17.5 million. And it’s a strong entry: Yhe tension builds inexorably as educated antebellum Virginia preacher/slave Turner (Parker), enraged by the horrific and inhumane treatment of his fellow slaves by their white masters, foments a rare uprising against the oppressors. Parker went with Searchlight because he knew the distributor who took “12 Years a Slave” to a Best Picture win could boost his movie about the historic Nat Turner slave rebellion. What he did not know was that an old rape case from his days at Penn State would resurface, or that his accuser would turn out to have committed suicide in 2012. Now Searchlight and Parker will doggedly move forward through Toronto and a wide October 7 release, hoping to build a popular hit that is sure to rouse mainstream African-American as well as adult arthouse audiences, despite a tainted frontman who was looking forward to riding a surge of positive momentum. The movie itself will tell the story with audiences, critics and the Academy, which has been known to forgive and forget in the past. -AT

“Voyage of Time,” October 7

“Voyage Of Time”

In Terence Malick’s films his characters’ personal problems can be somewhat dwarfed in the larger context of the director’s meditation on the meaning of life and man’s existence. Which is why in “Tree of Life” intercutting footage of the creation of universe into a story of a boy growing up in 1950’s Waco, Texas actually felt organic to the film. That remarkable footage it turns out was actually the by-product of Malick’s 40-year attempt to make a film about the birth and death of the universe, which after a couple false starts and a crazy lawsuit, is finally complete. We’ll have to wait to see what the reviews are like out of Venice, but the back story of a beloved auteur’s passion project, mixed with the unique visual effects, could potentially generate some Oscar buzz. Distributor Broad Green is going to have to come up with an unique campaign to flame that buzz, because one thing is for certain — the notoriously press shy Malick won’t be out giving interviews or glad handing at luncheons in support of a golden statue. In fact, one wonders if he’d even go to the ceremony. -CO

“The Handmaiden,” October 21

“The Handmaiden”

Amazon Studios

“Oldboy” director Park Chan-wook’s well-received Cannes entry marks the filmmaker’s return to South Korea after his 2013 English-language debut “Stoker.” “The Handmaiden” is a gorgeous and erotic portrait of two women, a con artist servant (newcomer Kim Tae-ri) and her seemingly powerful mistress (Korean star Kim Min-hee, “Right Now, Wrong Then”), who band together and rise up against their male oppressors. Or do they? Park’s deliciously twisted and kinky adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith” keeps us guessing as he parcels out tidbits of information in satisfying ways. Will South Korea submit this as their official submission? In any case, the movie deserves technical consideration for cinematography, production and costume design. -AT

“American Pastoral,” October 21

“American Pastoral”

The second Philip Roth film adaptation this year, “American Pastoral” follows screenwriter and veteran film executive James Schamus’s respected directorial debut “Indignation.” In that case, the novel was less well-regarded than 1997 Pulitzer-Prize winner “American Pastoral.” After longing to direct for 15 years, Ewan McGregor finally stepped up to the task while taking on the plum lead role of New Jersey Jewish football hero The Swede, who runs a prosperous and diverse Newark glove factory while his gorgeous shiksa wife (Jennifer Connelly) runs their dairy farm. They boast a sharp as a tack daughter (Dakota Fanning) whose embrace of 60s activism finally drives a wedge through her picture-perfect family. McGregor hews close to the book, which skillfully undercuts the American dream as achieved — if temporarily — by one seemingly golden, faultless man. -AT

“Moonlight,” October 21

“Moonlight”

A24

With “Room” and “Ex Machina,” upstart indie distributor A24 proved that they could go toe-to-toe with the major studios. With Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” the first movie that they’ve developed in house, the boutique company that built its brand on millennial-skewing films like “Spring Breakers” and “The End of the Tour” will prove that they’re here to stay, a force to be reckoned with on an annual basis. Split between three separate chapters in the life of a black man in Miami and following him as he grows up and grapples with his sexuality (and the shattering love that it leads him towards), “Moonlight” kicked up a whirlwind of hype on the strength of its mesmerizing first trailer, and has already earned some esteemed championsamong those lucky enough to have seen it. This has all the makings of a movie that can’t come up out soon enough, and could linger in the public consciousness for long after its initial release, to the bitter end of Oscar season and far beyond. -DE

Check out November’s awards contenders on the next page. 

“Hacksaw Ridge,” November 4

“Hacksaw Ridge”

It’s going to take a lot to get someone as disgraced as Mel Gibson back into the awards race (and by a lot we sure do mean a lot), but the first trailer for “Hacksaw Ridge” that dropped earlier this summer hinted that if any movie can do the trick, it’s this one. The WWII drama stars Andrew Garfield as US Army medic Desmond T. Doss, who was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman for saving the lives of over 75 of his comrades despite being a conscientious objector who refused to bear arms. It’s the kind of remarkable and inspiring true story the Academy loves to recognize, and Garfield looks downright incredible in the lead role. Could the actor be Gibson’s ticket back into the Dolby Theater? One thing is for sure: It’s his best shot in years. -ZS

“Loving,” November 4

“Loving”

Focus Features

Last February in Berlin, Peter Kujawski saw footage from writer-director Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” and swiftly made his first buy as head of Focus Features, scooping up all available world rights for $9 million. Nichols’ finished film is a sincere and restrained portrait of biracial married couple Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), who were arrested under miscegenation laws in 1962. For them to avoid prison and continue to live together, a local judge demanded that the couple leave Virginia for 25 years. Eventually the ACLU supported their landmark civil rights case and took it to the Supreme Court; its 1967 ruling made illegal the remaining such laws across the country. Many Americans remember the Lovings’ story from Life Magazine, which showed the rugged construction worker and housewife at home with their three children. Nichols and his cast were able to draw from that material (Nichols regular Michael Shannon cameos as the photographer) and other footage from the period, including Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary “The Loving Story.” Edgerton brings muscular conviction to this strong but tender man who wants nothing more than to be able to take care of his wife and family. Well-received in the Cannes competition and moving on to the fall festivals, “Loving” should go all the way to the Oscars. -AT

“Arrival,” November 11

“Arrival”

Paramount Pictures

At this point, the only thing that’s keeping Denis Villeneuve from being an Oscar darling is Denis Villeneuve — for better or worse (often for better), the French-Canadian filmmaker has followed his muse to places that are are too dark and / or genre-driven for prestige tastes. Hollywood may want the severe stylist to make something akin to “The Revenant,” but there’s always going to be a part of him that’s drawn to things like “Enemy.” But, given Villeneuve’s rising profile, it only seems like a matter of time before the two meet in the middle somewhere, and “Arrival” is poised to be the moment when it happens. A brainy, big-budget sci-fi spectacle that stars Amy Adams as a linguist tasked with establishing first contact with the aliens who land on Earth, “Arrival” is touching down at a time when the promise of communication has never felt more apocalyptically urgent. This could be the movie that transforms Villeneuve from a shooting star to a supernova. -DE

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” November 11

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

Ang Lee’s name alone is enough to vault a film into the Oscar conversation, and that’s good news for “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which — in lesser hands — might seem poised to be a glossy tech demo that leaned more towards pop spectacle than prestige success. Based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel of the same name and shot at a groundbreaking speed of 120fps with the help of film pioneer Douglas Trumbull (for comparison, “The Hobbit” was shown at 48fps), the film tells the story of eight Iraq War heroes who grow disillusioned with the conflict after a homecoming tour that involves sharing the spotlight with Destiny’s Child. But if Lee’s “Life of Pi” follow-up sounds like “Flags of Our Fathers” for the Clear Channel generation, the director’s graceful touch — and a wild cast that ranges from Kristen Stewart to Vin Diesel and Steve Martin — suggests this could be one of the rare war stories that truly moves us forward. -DE

“Elle,” November 11

“Elle”

Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, whose “Basic Instinct” opened the Cannes Competition 25 years ago, returned to the festival with the well-regarded psycho-sexual drama “Elle.” The director is back in the realm of dark sexual fantasy with the Americanized French thriller, which Verhoeven compares to Jean Renoir’s classic “The Rules of Game,” “with elements of tragedy, comedy and tension.” After Verhoeven had trouble finding the right star to play the lead role, top French actress Isabelle Huppert expressed interest. So he decided to direct his first French movie. Huppert shines as an elegantly sexy businesswoman who is viciously attacked and raped in her home and refuses to call the police — preferring to deploy pepper spray and do target practice. She chooses to deal with the break-in, rape and continued contact with the rapist in her own way — by staying in control of her active life. Now Huppert has not one but two powerful performances heading toward the fall awards circuit: “Elle” and Mia Hansen-Love’s Berlin hit “Things to Come” (Sundance Selects). -AT

“Manchester By the Sea,” November 18

“Manchester By the Sea”

At Sundance 2016, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s searing family drama “Manchester by the Sea” was hailed by critics as a welcome return to form after “Margaret” and instantly launched into the Oscar race with a $10 million Amazon acquisition. It’s easy to see why. The movie starts as sadsack janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) rushes to his hometown to attend the death bed of his older brother (Kyle Chandler). As the movie unfolds with flashes to the past, we learn more about what happened to this family and to Lee’s marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee has good reason to feel that he can’t go home again, but for now he has to look after his grieving teenage nephew (breakout Lucas Hedges), who wants his beloved uncle to keep things the same. Lonergan and his brilliant cast deliver a raw and bitingly funny tearjerker that will play well at fall festivals and to many branches of the Academy, certainly the writers, editors, cinematographers, actors, and directors. -AT

“Nocturnal Animals,” November 18

“Nocturnal Animals”

Focus Features

Tom Ford. Jake Gyllenhaal. Amy Adams. That’s all we really need to say, right? It’s been seven years since the fashion designer proved he had a powerful eye behind the camera in “A Single Man,” and we’ve been waiting desperately ever since for a followup. Based on the novel by Austin Wright, “Nocturnal Animals” arrives with a dreamy cast and a head-spinning story-within-a-story about a manuscript and the real life people who are the inspirations behind its characters. It’s best to avoid spoilers at all costs and trust the ambition of Ford and his powerful leading duo. -ZS

“Allied,” November 23

“Allied”

Paramount

There’s star power and then there’s Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard teaming up. We’re not sure the screen can even handle that much sizzling chemistry. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, “Allied” stars Pitt as Max Vatan, a British intelligence officer who encounters French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard) during a mission in Casablanca that forces them to appear as a couple. Sparks fly, and years later they’re reunited in London, where their pasts catch up to them and threaten their future together. A big, glossy espionage romance starring two of the world’s most beautiful people? Expect fireworks. -ZS

“Rules Don’t Apply,” November 23

“Rules Don’t Apply”

20th Century Fox

Warren Beatty has been teasing his Howard Hughes film for years now, so what a funny surprise to find that the final product is less concerned with the eccentric billionaire (played in the film by Beatty) than with two young employees under his wing. Newly minted Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich stars alongside Lily Collins as a pair of Hughes’ staff members who battle back big time chemistry in the hopes of keeping things professional (as demanded by Hughes). Will they succeed? We’re thinking no, and the film looks fizzy and fun in a way that so few awards contenders are (though early looks don’t shy away from addressing Hughes’ psychological troubles). But with Beatty finally back behind the camera, it does come with the kind of pedigree the season just loves. This one could surprise us. -KE

“Lion,” November 25

“Lion”

The Weinstein Company

Garth Davis’ last outing behind the camera on the miniseries “Top of the Lake” resulted in some of the best TV of the decade. For his feature debut, he’ll be re-teaming with “Lake” co-star David Wenham and a bevy of performers who are no stranger to prestige offerings. Dev Patel stars as Saroo Brierley, a man searching for his birth parents two decades after being adopted by an Australian family. Also featuring Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman, “Lion” is the first in The Weinstein Company’s hopeful one-two punch (look for a qualifying run for the Michael Keaton-led “The Founder” right before Christmas). We’ll see if Toronto gives this true-story uplift the buzz boost it needs to enter the awards fray. -SG

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