These movies have the stars. Which ones will own the Oscars?
There are fewer than 12 days ‘til Christmas, and best picture Oscar contenders have been screening nonstop around town, just as voters prepare to hunker down with a warm mug of Irish coffee (“Sláinte!”) and a slice of (licorice) pizza to check out all the titles available on the film academy’s streaming platform.
Now that all the titles have dropped, what acting ensembles are attracting the most favor, both with academy members and their counterparts at SAG-AFTRA, who will be voting soon? Let’s look at the movies with the highest profiles.
‘BEING THE RICARDOS’
Lucy and Ricky, Fred and Ethel. You know the core four. And if you’ve listened to the excellent TCM podcast, “The Plot Thickens,” you will also know Lucille Ball’s remarkable story, the highlights of which “Being the Ricardos” compresses into a (gulp) five-day period. It feels like writer-director Aaron Sorkin is trying to share every tidbit of information he learned about Ball during his research and filter it through a VitametaSorkinator, churning out a series of blabby dialogue scenes and didactic hectoring. Yet it’s worth a watch if only for the way Nicole Kidman grounds it all with a razor-sharp take on Ball’s perfectionism, insecurities and genius. It’s a great performance that, like “I Love Lucy,” will live forever in reruns.
SAG ensemble? It shouldn’t be nominated. But it is about actors, so it very well might.
Watch for: Kidman and J.K. Simmons, who makes William Frawley an (unbelievably) adorable grump.
Kenneth Branagh’s sentimental look at his childhood in Northern Ireland features gorgeous actors — Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe — playing the mom and dad, along with Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as the caring, loving grandparents that every kid deserves, particularly a tyke like the movie’s adorable scamp, Buddy (Jude Hill). Love, love, love ... all you need is love. If Branagh wasn’t as determined to fill the movie with wall-to-wall Van Morrison, he could have slipped in the Beatles’ anthem, because that’s the “Belfast” vibe. It already won the audience prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, and there will be many more accolades to come.
SAG ensemble? Yes.
Watch for: Balfe and Hinds
“The feel-good movie that will emotionally destroy you” was the headline on my August review of
Siân Heder’s sublime coming-of-age story of a child of Deaf adults. I’ve talked with plenty of people who have been joyfully wrung out by this movie and a bunch of others who still haven’t got around to watching it, either on the film academy’s streaming platform or Apple TV+. But in this year of a fixed 10 best picture nominees, “CODA” has earned a place of honor. It’ll be an easy movie for voters to watch with their families over the holidays.
SAG ensemble?: Only five movies pick up SAG ensemble noms. Can this little movie make good? To invoke the film’s signature song, “Both Sides Now,” sometimes fairy tales do come true. But other times, life’s illusions intrude. To quote another anthem from the era ... you may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.
Watch for: Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin, playing the movie’s loving, incredibly horny parents.
‘DON’T LOOK UP’
I don’t mind Adam McKay taking the world’s problems seriously. But after seeing this smug apocalyptic farce, I’m beginning to miss the days when McKay could savage society and not take himself so seriously. (“Talladega Nights” remains his masterpiece.) “Don’t Look Up” is about a dire, timely subject, climate change in the guise of a deadly meteor hurtling toward Earth, and features an all-star cast headlined by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep. But critics have not been impressed, and any awards headway this misstep makes will come only through reflexive voting and a signaling that, yes, the fate of the planet is indeed important. Very Important.
SAG ensemble?: A nomination would be a sure sign of the apocalypse.
Watch for: Maybe DiCaprio, who delivers a loose, comic turn as the movie’s sky-is-falling scientist.
‘HOUSE OF GUCCI’
The other night, I was watching the great, Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage in the summer movie classic “Con Air,” which earned two Oscar nominations itself, and, really, could have picked up a couple more for its cast members’ hilarious, thoroughly committed work. Will I remember the equally absurd “House of Gucci” as fondly 25 years from now? Probably not. I might smile at the memory of the memes. And I’ll probably marvel at how Lady Gaga did/didn’t commandeer an Oscar for her full-throttle performance and wonder how Al Pacino managed not to laugh and/or punch the ever-straining Jared Leto in the face during the many awful scenes they shared.
SAG ensemble?: If it’s an award for Most Acting, yes.
Watch for: Gaga and the actor who urinated on the scarf.
Title notwithstanding, this is a movie about a family, and every actor portraying a member of the Williams tribe in “King Richard” is wonderful, including Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as, respectively, fledgling tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, Aunjanue Ellis as their quiet, strong mom and, of course, Will Smith in the title role of the demanding, uncompromising father and coach. The movie’s ensemble sports a deep bench too, including Jon Bernthal’s terrific comic turn as an exasperated coach sparring with Richard.
SAG ensemble?: Game, set, match.
Watch for: Smith and Ellis, both of whom could be holding Oscars next year.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s loose, lovable ramble through the San Fernando Valley, circa 1973, stars Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, actors making their movie debuts. It also features Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn and Tom Waits and the great Harriet Sansom Harris and filmmaker Benny Safdie. “Licorice Pizza” picks up a freewheeling energy from the way Anderson combines its disparate cast members. Just watch the scenes in which Cooper, playing lunatic producer Jon Peters, terrorizes young Haim and Hoffman. The fear in their eyes is very real.
SAG ensemble?: Might be too eclectic (read: interesting) for SAG voters’ tastes.
Watch for: Haim and Cooper for his brief, ferocious turn.
Cooper is back, heading the cast of Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous, bloated remake of Edmund Goulding’s 1947 noir classic, the story of a Depression-era drifter looking for a new start in a circus sideshow. Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, Toni Collette, David Strathairn and Willem Dafoe co-star, but, curiously, this stacked ensemble (and the movie’s slow-burn slog of a story) aren’t as memorable as the art direction.
SAG ensemble?: Tarot cards foretell disappointment.
Watch for: Blanchett. Always Blanchett.
‘THE POWER OF THE DOG’
Jane Campion’s western thriller revolves around Benedict Cumberbatch’s commanding turn as a swaggering, banjo-playing cattle rancher who greets the news of his brother (Jesse Plemons) taking a wife, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), by starting a war of psychological terror. The film gains power and tension from the slow reveal that we might be underestimating the frail-looking young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee, playing Rose’s son) on the periphery.
SAG ensemble?: It’d just be that quartet of actors, but sometimes voters go for quality over quantity.
Watch for: Cumberbatch, Smit-McPhee and Dunst. (Plemons’ gosh-darn-nice character never works up the anger or nerve to generate a big, Oscar-clip scene.)
‘WEST SIDE STORY’
The 1961 film version of the Broadway musical won 10 Oscars, including supporting honors for Rita Moreno and
George Chakiris. Moreno, 90, has a small, pivotal role in this Steven Spielberg-directed update, and it’s easy to see sentiment swaying voters to, at the very least, nominate her. But then they would also need to make room in the supporting actress category for Ariana DeBose, playing Anita, the part that won Moreno the Academy Award all those years ago. And they might do just that. Spielberg’s grand, entertaining remake figures to be an awards season juggernaut.
SAG ensemble?: There’s a place for this. Somewhere, there’s a place for this.
Watch for: DeBose and Moreno.
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