Most Christmas movies are designed for audience-friendly, peak-holiday family appeal. And then there’s the more challenging year-end fare intended mainly to impress critics, arthouse patrons, and Academy voters. Some December openings launched at prestige fall film festivals (“Destroyer,” “On the Basis of Sex,” “Stan & Ollie”); others are bonafide awards contenders (Adam McKay’s “Vice” and Rob Marshall’s “Mary Poppins Returns”); and some, like Robert Zemeckis’s “Welcome to Marwen” (Universal, December 21) will skid into bad reviews, audience reaction, or both.
Herewith, a ranking of the Christmas Oscar hopefuls in order of their likely prospects.
“Mary Poppins Returns” (Disney, December 19)
Strengths: Set 25 years after the 1964 Disney classic, Rob Marshall’s heartfelt depression-era sequel hews close to the original. “Into the Woods” musical star Emily Blunt in the title role and Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” as an upbeat Cockney lamplighter carry the film, compensating for sad-sack grown-up siblings Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), who are desperately trying to save the ramshackle family house on Cherry Tree Lane. This handsomely mounted escapist musical is visually inventive and charming even if the music can’t match the Sherman Brothers’ catchy songs. The craft side of the Academy, especially, is impressed. While Marshall would love to land another Best Director nod to follow his Best Picture-winner, “Chicago,” another musical, he’s a long-shot.
Accolades: “Mary Poppins Returns” landed on the National Board of Review and AFI Ten Best Lists, as well as nabbing crucial Golden Globe and Critics Choice Comedy/Musical nominations. While the movie didn’t score a SAG ensemble slot, Blunt did grab a SAG nod.
Oscar nominations: Picture, Actress, Production Design, Costume Design, Score, Song.
Weaknesses: To their credit, Disney and Marshall kept the film in the same lane as the musical original, and resisted jazzing it up for contemporary audiences. (Imagine what Jeffrey Katzenberg would have done.) Whether this will play for the masses is still to be seen; reviews are mixed. The December 19 Wednesday opening suggests the studio feels the need to build word-of-mouth momentum ahead of the holidays.
“Vice” (Annapurna, December 28)
Strengths: Adam McKay brings back his “The Big Short” Oscar nominee Christian Bale, who suffered through 40-pound weight gain and layers of delicate prosthetics to play canny political operative Dick Cheney, who, backed by his formidable wife Lynne (five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams), rose to power in Washington, D.C. over four decades, pushing George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) into the presidency and quietly running the show. Steve Carell plays his wily mentor Donald Rumsfeld.
Accolades: Again, this movie (like “The Big Short”) benefits from the comedy categories at the Golden Globes (six) and Critics Choice Awards (nine). Its greatest asset is its two standout Oscar perennial leads, who landed SAG nominations. But the movie, unlike “The Big Short,” did not get an Ensemble mention.
Oscar nominations: Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Makeup & Hairstyling.
Weaknesses: McKay updates his signature “Big Short” filmmaking tricks to keep this deep-dive political character assassination entertaining. Those who lean left (which includes most Academy voters) are more likely to appreciate the movie, whereas “The Big Short” benefitted from its solid Michael Lewis foundation and the country’s post-recession willingness to jump on Wall Street. This movie is a more agit-prop partisan exercise. And popular Sam Rockwell could have scored his second Oscar nomination in a row with just a wee bit more screen time.
“Destroyer” (Annapurna, December 25)
Strengths: This taut thriller from Karyn Kusama is a hardboiled noir (written by Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi) designed to showcase the range of movie star Nicole Kidman. She has earned raves for her layered lead role as a veteran LA cop — athletic, tough, vulnerable, damaged. She is driven to revisit the sins of her past, which could impact her ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) and angry teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn). It’s hard to imagine anyone delivering a better performance than Kidman (as both the younger and older versions of the character), or anyone other than a woman director reaching for the mother-daughter dimension of this drama, which makes it sing.
Accolades: Critics groups and the Academy tend to overlook genre films, much less those directed by women. Kidman landed a nod from her peeps at the Golden Globes, but not the SAG Awards.
Oscar nominations: Kidman is a long shot for Actress — if enough actors branch members catch up with the screener.
Weaknesses: Enjoyable as “Destroyer” is, it faced a mixed reception at fall festivals. The movie should play well on the arthouse circuit, but beyond that it looks tough. Kidman and her extraordinary makeup is the movie’s ace in the hole.
“Stan & Ollie” (Sony Pictures Classics, December 28)
Strengths: This poignant portrait of aging classic comedians Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) tracks them on a 1953 theater tour of the U.K. The bromance plays well for older audiences and should tug the heartstrings of senior Academy members who remember the brilliant comedy duo. Coogan and Reilly not only devise their own brilliant stage numbers inspired by Laurel & Hardy, but reveal how much these two artists loved each other. By the way, the film’s biggest laughs come from their two wives, played by the always-stellar Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda.
Accolades: As a comedy, the movie nabbed nominations from the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards for John C. Reilly, so he will grab more attention. The San Diego Film Critics Society also awarded Reilly for his superb output this year, including “The Sister Brothers” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” while The British Independent Film Awards singled out Coogan among the British film’s seven nominations.
Oscar nominations: Reilly did not land a SAG nomination, so he’s a long shot. But the respected actor did have a strong year.
Weaknesses: As well as he does with this slight biopic, director Jon S. Baird (“Filth”) is not a known auteur. The movie is getting buried in the late-year rush, but could pull some arthouse audiences in January.
Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features
“On the Basis of Sex” (Focus Features, December 25)
Strengths: Coming on the heels of the unexpected summer box office hit “RBG,” this slice of the early life and career of eventual Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“Theory of Everything” Oscar nominee Felicity Jones) could have gone wrong in many ways. Written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman with the Justice’s full participation, Mimi Leder’s return to directing movies brings us the real story, which includes giving Ginsburg’s stalwart handsome husband Marty (Armie Hammer) much credit for supporting her on the road to legal success. She’s not afraid to dig into the groundbreaking Supreme Court case that changed the rules for gender equality. The movie plays (especially for older women) and wrings a few tears from its central true romance. RBG is an iconic liberal superstar and her fans will show up.
Accolades: The movie is up for the Humanitas Prize.
Oscar nominations: None.
Weaknesses: While Focus Features opened the AFI Fest with this mainstream crowdpleaser, the distributor is aware that the film is earning neither the high-end reviews nor the profile that go with an awards player and is wisely chasing box office.