Christmas movies suggest family-friendly, heartwarming tales, designed for peak holiday family moviegoing. And then there’s the other kind — the late-breaking, high-profile, A-list titles designed to hit the box office and Oscar voters’ consciousness. Some of these launched at prestige fall film festivals (“Downsizing,” “Molly’s Game,” “Hostiles,” “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”); others are bonafide awards contenders (Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread”); and some, like Hugh Jackman vanity musical “The Greatest Showman,” will soon skid into either bad reviews or audience reaction, or both.
Herewith, a ranking of the Christmas movies in order of their likely Oscar prospects.
“The Post” (Fox, December 22)
Strengths: Steven Spielberg’s riveting paean to newspaper journalism and freedom of the press couldn’t be more timely. Early reviews are strong for this true story about The Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, which is playing well with the Academy’s overwhelmingly liberal members and should also flourish at the adult box office. The movie celebrates the heroic roles publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) played in the unfolding 1971 drama.
Accolades: “The Post” won Best Film of the Year as well as Best Actress and Actor from The National Board of Review, and earned eight nominations from the Critics Choice Awards, six from the Golden Globes, and landed on the AFI’s 10 movies of the year list.
Oscar nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Original Screenplay, Production Design, Editing, Score.
Weaknesses: This mainstream ’70s drama looks and feels old-fashioned; some in the Academy will embrace, others won’t. Like “Phantom Thread,” “The Post” missed being seen by enough members of the SAG Awards nominating committee to land the coveted Ensemble or any other nominations. Other movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Django Unchained” have gone on to multiple Oscar nominations.
Fox’s awards campaign is leaning into the women who helped to make this movie, from producer Amy Pascal and star Streep to young screenwriter Liz Hannah, as well as the central role Graham played in a patriarchal business culture that was unprepared to accept powerful women in its ranks. This approach may not be playing as well as Oscar strategists would like with the Academy’s still-dominant white male senior citizens.
“Phantom Thread” (Annapurna/Focus Features, December 25)
Strengths: Paul Thomas Anderson’s elegantly wrought chamber piece set in the ’50s London fashion world is beloved by critics and should play well on the arthouse circuit.
Accolades: The Globes singled out Daniel Day-Lewis and composer Jonny Greenwood. “Phantom Thread” also scored Best Screenplay at the National Board of Review and New York Film Critics and four Critics Choice awards, including Actor, Score, Costume Design, and Production Design, but not Best Drama.
Oscar nominations: Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor, Costumes, Production Design, Score.
Weaknesses: Like many of Paul Thomas Anderson’s sophisticated films, this is not a commercial crowd-pleaser and may not sustain a broad audience in expanded release. Like “The Post,” not enough members of the SAG nominating committee saw the film in time to accord it nominations.
“Molly’s Game” (STX, December 25)
Strengths: Debuting director Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game” plays well for audiences and critics, who adore Jessica Chastain in the splashy title role based on the memoir by high-stakes poker wrangler Molly Bloom.
Accolades: Both the Critics Choice and Golden Globes nominated Drama Actress Chastain and Screenwriter Sorkin.
Oscar nominations: Adapted Screenplay.
Weaknesses: While the fast-paced drama (also produced by Pascal) may make money, some Academy members criticize Sorkin’s reliance on over-narration and his television directing style. The Screen Actors Guild gave the movie a complete pass, which is not a good sign for Chastain’s chances of breaking into the competitive Actress category.
“Downsizing” (Paramount, December 22)
Strengths: Alexander Payne’s sporadically brilliant holiday comedy “Downsizing” earned its best reviews for newcomer Hong Chau, who steals the movie from Matt Damon. (Enough with the hapless loser mode. Bring back the smart and charming Damon of “The Martian,” please.) Hong plays Gong Jiang, a remarkable 5-inch dissident woman who befriends Damon’s character and carries the movie’s emotion.
Accolades: Hong landed Supporting Actress nominations from the Critics Choice, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards.
Oscar nominations: Hong Chau, Supporting Actress.
Weaknesses: Writer Jim Taylor’s idea for shrinking people to create a sustainable world is brilliant, but the usually reliable Payne doesn’t quite pull off this ambitious and sincere ecological-message movie that feels caught between the accessible studio mainstream and smart specialty sphere.
“All the Money in the World” (Sony, December 25)
Strengths: In a category of its own is “All the Money in the World,” which is nabbing 80-year-old Ridley Scott gobs of press for his costly feat of derring-do in replacing scandal-plagued Kevin Spacey’s performance as greedy billionaire J. Paul Getty with 88-year-old Christopher Plummer. Sony canceled the planned closing night AFI FEST premiere as Scott swiftly lined up locations and actors in order to reshoot 22 exactingly duplicated scenes with Plummer. In the editing room, he seamlessly intercut old reaction shots with the new footage. He literally duplicated (with the exception of a few shots from the back) all of Spacey’s scenes. It’s an amazing accomplishment.
But the real question is whether the well-made kidnap drama, starring Michelle Williams as the anxious mother of the billionaire’s grandson Paul, French star Romain Duris as his empathetic kidnapper, and Mark Wahlberg as J.P. Getty’s cocky lieutenant, will lure audiences when it opens on December 25, a mere three days later than originally planned, with a budget of $50 million instead of $40 million.
Accolades: The Hollywood Foreign Press nominated Scott for Best Director, Michelle Williams for Best Actress, Drama, and Christopher Plummer for Best Supporting Actor Golden Globes. Again, the film arrived too late for the SAG nominating committee to screen it.
Weaknesses: While solid, this true drama will need enthusiastic support from critics, audiences and the guilds to elevate it into the awards realm.
“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (Sony Pictures Classics, December 29)
Strengths: Another movie that festival audiences adored is Paul McGuigan’s “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” adapted from Peter Turner’s memoir about Gloria Grahame, starring Annette Bening as the aging star who has an affair with a younger actor (Jamie Bell). Can Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker and Tom Bernard score Bening the Oscar nod she was denied for “20th Century Women”? Unlikely.
Accolades: The movie landed four nominations from the British Independent Film Awards for Actor Jamie Bell, Casting, Production Design and Supporting Actress Julie Walters. The BAFTAs might come through in the clinch.
Weaknesses: So far though, no dice on the American side of the pond.
“Hostiles” (Entertainment Studios, December 22)
Strengths: In Scott Cooper’s spectacularly shot $40-million 19th-century western, Christian Bale is at his best in a layered athletic John Wayne role as a xenophobic Army Captain who is reluctantly shepherding an ailing Cheyenne warrior (Wes Studi) home to die. Rosamund Pike is excellent as a grieving frontier widow they pick up along the way.
Accolades: Producer John Lesher’s independently financed indie needed support from critics groups to gain a higher profile, and they have not stepped up.
Weaknesses: Cooper wanted the violent but hopeful western to open this fall so that Bale could be in the awards mix. While it is a light year for Best Actor contenders and it’s possible to mount something late (Fox Searchlight bought both Oscar-contenders “The Wrestler” and “Jackie” in Toronto), it’s a tall order for a fledgling studio like Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios, even with top-flight awards wranglers on board.
“The Greatest Showman” (Fox, December 20)
Strengths: In the post-“La La Land” landscape, Fox is betting there’s escapist interest in Hugh Jackman in a showy role as P.T. Barnum in what is truly his avocation: an all-out singing and dancing musical. While Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson and Zac Efron co-star, Jackman’s numbers are the big attraction.
Accolades: “La La Land” songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s “This Is Me” landed Best Song nominations from the Critics Choice Awards and the Golden Globes, as well as a Globe nod for Jackman as an Actor in a Musical.
Oscar nominations: “This Is Me” for Best Original Song.
Weaknesses: This old-fashioned musical is likely to be destroyed by critics when the embargo lifts, which could hurt its holiday box office.