Audience-friendly, family-friendly, and peak-holiday appeal: Those are the films of December. Some are bonafide awards contenders (Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” Jay Roach’s “Bombshell,” and Sam Mendes’ “1917″); and some are more challenging year-end fare intended mainly to impress critics, arthouse patrons, and Academy voters (“Uncut Gems” and death-row dramas “Clemency” and “Just Mercy”).
And then there are two December 20th openers, from Oscar-winner Tom Hooper (his furry adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cats”) and J.J. Abrams (the conclusion of the Skywalker saga, “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker”) that will skid into contentious reviews, audience reaction, or both. Chances are if Universal and Disney, respectively, were concerned with awards consideration, they would have unveiled the costly spectacles a little earlier.
Herewith, a ranking of the Christmas Oscar hopefuls in order of their likely prospects.
“1917” (December 25, Universal)
This World War I action drama directed by Sam Mendes and shot by Roger Deakins has earned raves for the technological feat required to pull off what looks like a one-take-wonder, as well as the young actors (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) who carry the narrative about two privates trying to deliver an urgent message to the front.
Strengths: “1917” is audacious cinema executed by masters at the top of their craft. The single takes serve the story, as the viewer follows the immersive action with two British infantrymen through a landscape of destruction, anxiously searching the space for the next deadly rifle shot. The narrative is interrupted once: The screen goes black when one of the soldiers is knocked out flat. The movie moves pell-mell from the trenches through no-man’s-land and the German front line, with unseen danger at every turn. The actors had to execute on a dime after months of rehearsals. After each take, they trudged back to the starting line to repeat the entire shot. Sometimes they were so far away that they couldn’t hear the director call “cut.” Sometimes they did 20 takes.
Accolades: The movie earned three Golden Globe nominations: Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director – Motion Picture and Thomas Newman for Best Original Score – Motion Picture. It landed on the AFI Top Ten List; earned a nomination for Dennis Gassner from the Art Directors Guild; seven nods from the Critics Choice Awards, including Best Picture and Director; Deakins and Newman won Best Cinematography and Score from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association; and the film was included in the Top Ten list of the National Board of Review, which gave Deakins a special cinematography award.
Oscar Nominations: Think “Dunkirk” or “The Revenant”: “1917” will likely land nominations for Best Cinematography, Directing, Picture, Production Design, Score, Sound Editing and Mixing. If “1917” were to win Best Picture, it would follow 20 years after Mendes’ debut feature, “American Beauty.” That’s never happened before.
Weaknesses: Some see the film as a technological feat more than an emotive drama. As strong as the actors are, they don’t talk much, and do a lot of running. The late-breaking movie did not register with SAG voters, possibly because the young actors are relative unknowns. Chances are wordier scripts will score recognition (the last 45 minutes of the film boasts only 20 lines of dialogue) and the seamless knitting together of two hours of seven-to-10-minute unbroken sequences by Lee Smith could be overlooked as well, given the degree to which the film was pre-planned.
Lionsgate / screencap
“Bombshell” (December 13, Lionsgate)
Oscar-winning “The Big Short” writer Charles Randolph and “Trumbo” director Jay Roach’s true story focuses on the women at Fox News — Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and fictional Fox News associate producer Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) — who rose against their boss Roger Ailes (a jowly John Lithgow).
Strengths: This ripped-from-headlines #MeToo docudrama, focused on the women who confronted the toxic male culture of Fox News by taking down the formidable Ailes, is a mainstream crowdpleaser that is building strong box office as it heads into wide release. The entertaining ensemble is led by the almost unrecognizable Theron, who could unseat Renee Zellweger in the Best Actress race. Producer-star Theron, who wrestled with how to portray powerful Fox news anchor Kelly, finally decided not to worry about whether she was likable. Both Randolph and Roach (who directed HBO Emmy-winners “Game Change” starring Julianne Moore and Ed Harris and “Recount” starring Laura Dern) come from Fox-friendly family backgrounds, and artfully crafted the movie without taking political sides.
Accolades: “Bombshell” scored four acting nominations for Screen Actors Guild Awards, including the coveted Cast in a Motion Picture, Theron for Best Actress, and Kidman and Robbie for Supporting Actress; Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations for Theron and Robbie; and CCA and guild nominations for Makeup and Hair.
Oscar Nominations: While the movie is not a slam dunk for a Best Picture slot, it could score Best Actress (Theron), Supporting Actress (Kidman and Robbie), Original Screenplay (Randolph), and “Darkest Hour” makeup star Kazuhiro Tsuji could win another Oscar for a series of remarkable transformations including Theron, Kidman, and Lithgow.
Weaknesses: Reviews are mixed. The film’s main support comes from the acting branch; don’t expect many tech nods beyond hair and makeup, as the Costume Designers Guild overlooked the contemporary film.
“Little Women” (December 25, Sony)
Greta Gerwig follows up the Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird” with her modern adaptation of the American classic “Little Women.”
Strengths: The film benefits from strong writing, directing, and performances from a sprawling cast led by “Lady Bird” stars Saoirse Ronan as headstrong writer Jo and Timothée Chalamet as her best friend Laurie, with strong support from Florence Pugh as Jo’s angry younger sister Amy, and Meryl Streep as mercenary Aunt March.
Accolades: Many critics’ groups have given visibility and credibility to “Little Women” — the Critics Choice Awards accorded the film nine nominations including Picture, Screenplay and Director — so it was a shock when the SAG Awards shut out the film, and the Golden Globes, while recognizing Best Actress Ronan and composer Alexandre Desplat, ignored Pugh and Gerwig. The film did score a slot on the AFI Top Ten list.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress (Ronan), Supporting Actress (Pugh).
Weaknesses: The Christmas film skipped the fall film festivals and screened late for the early-breaking Costume Designers, Art Directors, and Hair and Makeup Guilds. The Academy will have more time to catch up, but guilds are more predictive of final Oscar support than critics.
“Uncut Gems” (December 13, A24)
Josh and Benny Safdie’s loud, rousing “Uncut Gems” is a wild, wild ride. The New York-indie rising stars, who showcased Robert Pattinson’s dark side in Cannes entry “Good Time,” turned to Adam Sandler for this fierce portrait of Manhattan’s diamond district.
Strengths: The Safdies crank up the volume and never let go, while letting Sandler loose. The comedic actor dives into this dramatic role as a reckless diamond district gambler, delivering the best performance of his career. The Academy screening was well attended, and reaction to the movie is upbeat.
Accolades: The film won Best Director from the New York Film Critics; Best Actor for Adam Sandler and Original Screenplay for the Safdies from the National Board of Review, which included “Uncut Gems” on their top 10 list; the Critics Choice Awards gave the film four nods, including Picture, Director, Actor and Editing. The film is likely to score some wins out of its five Independent Spirit Award nominations.
Oscar Nominations: Much like Damien Chazelle’s indie breakout “Whiplash,” this movie could score some craft nominations. Directors, writers, editors, and sound technicians could vote support.
Weaknesses: While the Safdies see Sandler’s crazy diamond merchant as a hero, Sandler had some trouble warming up to this sordid character who winds up stuffed naked into the trunk of his own car over a gambling debt. He delivers and then some, but SAG did not recognize the movie, which is a major blow to Sandler’s Oscar chances. The movie is relentless, noisy, and off-putting for some. But the Academy, especially, recognizes cinematic achievement.
“Richard Jewell” (December 13, Warner Bros.)
Clint Eastwood’s true story “Richard Jewell” stars “I, Tonya” discovery Paul Walter Hauser as the maligned hero of the 1996 Atlanta bombings, Kathy Bates as his beleaguered mother, and Sam Rockwell as his kindly lawyer.
Strengths: Eastwood knows what he’s doing, and how to appeal to his audience; every detail builds to the right moment; his cast and crew deliver.
Accolades: Kathy Bates landed a Golden Globes slot, but no SAG nomination.
Oscar Nominations: None. Eastwood’s customary restraint may not grab enough Oscar voters, who tend to lean into showier fare. Still, the Academy likes the 89-year-old filmmaker — see “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Letter from Iwo Jima,” and most recently, “American Sniper.”
Weaknesses: The movie delivered the worst opening weekend in Eastwood’s career. And controversy surrounds the script’s depiction of an Atlanta Constitution newspaper reporter (Olivia Wilde) who is willing to sleep with an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) to get the scoop. Unfortunately, the late writer can’t defend her name. While Eastwood and his fans may not care, the more liberal Academy could be turned off.
“Just Mercy” (December 25, Warner Bros.)
The true story of death row advocate and defense attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and his client, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black man falsely accused of murder, is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”).
Strengths: This mainstream crowdpleaser boasts strong performances and won audience awards at Chicago, Mill Valley, and Virginia.
Accolades: Jamie Foxx scored a surprise Supporting Actor nomination from SAG and a win from the African American Critics Association as well as the National Board of Review’s Freedom of Expression Award.
Oscar Nominations: If enough voters sample the movie, Foxx has a shot at Supporting Actor.
Weaknesses: The movie is a straightforward studio entertainment that does not take enough artistic chances to win critics’ favor.
NEON / screencap
“Clemency” (December 27, Neon)
Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu delivers a death-row drama from an unexpected perspective: the African-American woman prison warden (Alfre Woodard). This movie is not so much about trying to prove that a prisoner is innocent as to dramatize the impact that killing prisoners has on everyone around them.
Strengths: Woodard and Hodges dig deep into their performances, and the film does not take us to predictable places. Woodard is superb as a prison warden under duress from executing too many prisoners. She’s trying to do her job while under head-splitting pressure that exacts its toll on her husband (Wendell Pierce). This kind of hard-hitting social-action drama has a long history with the Academy: Think Oscar-winner “Dead Man Walking,” which earned a Best Actor nomination for Sean Penn and a Best Actress win for Susan Sarandon.
Accolades: After winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the movie picked up three Independent Spirit nominations including Best Feature, Screenplay for director Chukwu, and Actress for Woodard, seven Black Reel Award nominations, and two Gotham nods for Actress Woodard and Actor Aldiss Hodge.
Oscar Nominations: Woodard has an outside shot at her second Oscar nomination, following “Cross Creek” in 1983.
Weaknesses: While this prison drama was never an easy sell, Neon picked up the film almost a year ago at Sundance and gave it some play at the fall festivals to bring it back into the awards conversation, but the film was overshadowed by a second December death-row drama, “Just Mercy,” and didn’t get support from SAG. It also faced competition from Neon’s unexpectedly rich awards slate that includes “Parasite,” “Honeyland,” and “Apollo 11.”