Each November, the American Film Institute presents AFI Fest, a film festival which has the privilege of showcasing the year’s best work in short, independent, world, and feature-length film. 2013 was no different and as the festival came to a close Nov. 14, we were left with a number of must-see films that have created a lot of buzz as they head into theaters during awards season. Here’s a sampling of the best and an early look at what accolades each might take away from Hollywood’s biggest night, the Academy Awards:
August: Osage County
If you thought Meryl Streep couldn’t get any nastier than a calculating nun (Doubt) or an icy editor-in-chief (The Devil Wears Prada), think again.
As the overbearing, pill-popping matriarch in John Well’s latest big screen venture, she’s this and more, plus her animosity is directed towards her own daughters (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and Julianne Nicholson) who return home when their father goes missing.
Streep is the driving force of the film as she seamlessly (and almost startlingly) portrays a cancer-stricken woman bent more on ruining lives than attending to her own health. Lewis’ character contrasts her mother as a (seemingly) perky bright spot set in a dark story while Roberts and Nicholson don’t have enough personality to fill the big screen. And that’s a problem that pops up too often throughout the film as it’s based on a stage play and adapted by the playwright, Tracey Letts.
While particular scenes- a cringe-worthy family dinner, a final mother-daughter battle of wits- are darkly delightful, others that may have worked well in a smaller setting or in front of a live audience don’t. The script isn’t quite adapted to the speed and magnitude required by a feature length film and it bogs down the pace and entertainment factor of the story.
In theaters December 25th
Oscar Chances: Best Actress (Streep), Best Supporting Actress (Roberts, Lewis), Best Adapted Screenplay
Out of the Furnace
Director Scott Cooper’s second film begins with a promising setup for a good, old fashioned blockbuster.
Two brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck), reside in the Rust Belt of America. Stuck in the economically-depressed area caring for their sick father, his eventual passing gives them the chance to start new lives until Russell is sent to prison and Rodney becomes involved with a violent, bare-knuckle fight crime ring. Russell is soon released but these twists of fate prove costly for both brothers.
Although Bale and Affleck each give emotionally raw performances and Woody Harrelson is great as the sadistic, cold-blooded crime boss, they’re not supported by the film itself, which gets caught between genres- it’s neither able to be taken seriously enough to be a full blown drama nor rousing enough to be a revenge thriller. Though there’s a semblance of a story at every turn, Cooper doesn’t seem willing to stay in one direction and any plot twists that may be are predictable.
In Theaters: December 6th
Oscar Chances: Best Actor (Bale), Best Supporting Actor (Harrelson)
The Past (Le Passé)
As Iran’s entry into the Academy Awards Foreign Film Category, director Asghar Farhadi once again beautifully captures what he perfected in 2011’s A Separation: a study of intertwined lives and how decisions not only affect the individual, but everyone involved.
The film stars Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) as Marie, a mother seeking divorce from her husband (Ali Mosaffa) who has been away from the family for several years. Against her eldest daughter’s wishes, she’s ready to move on with life and marry an Arab man (Tahar Rahim) whose wife is currently in a coma.
But things aren’t always as they appear a Marie starts to realize she still has feelings for her husband and there’s far more to her daughter’s objections than she imagines. If the family is to move on, they first need to confront the past and that proves difficult as tensions rise and actions create irreparable consequences.
Farhadi, who also wrote the screenplay, unfolds his moving drama about the choices we make in a slow-burn and effective manner that ultimately leaves some loose ends which only make the story all the more relatable. A charming cast, both young and old, backs up a well-versed script.
In theaters: December 20th (limited release)
Oscar Chances: Best Foreign Language Film
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Like most biographical films based on famous names, Mandela was poised to be either an epic hit or a long and rambling miss. With inspiring performances from its leads and a script that stays true to the real life story and figure, Justin Chadwick’s tribute to a great leader most definitely lands a spot on the hit list.
Running nearly two and a half hours, the film begins with Mandela (Idris Elba of The Wire) as a young lawyer before his involvement with the ANC and anti-apartheid movement. Following his relationship with Winnie (Naomie Harris of Skyfall) and 27 year imprisonment, it touches on nearly every aspect of Mandela’s “long walk” to presidency without ever dragging or feeling like it needs to be cut tighter. This is due largely to performances that demand the audience’s attention and dialogue that tugs at the heartstrings.
It’s also moving that this film comes at a time when Mandela is in the news mainly because of his ailing health and hopefully Chadwick’s powerful depiction will restore the leader’s image to something greater than a fallen hero.
In theaters: November 29th (limited), December 25th (wide release)
Oscar Chances: Best Picture, Best Actor (Elba), Best Actress (Harris), Best Feature Documentary, Best Adapted Screenplay
Alexander Payne’s dramedy about a father-son road trip from Montana to Nebraska to claim a sweepstakes prize might be the biggest surprise Oscar contender this year- It’s shot in black and white, it doesn’t have any well-known names attached to it (unless you count Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk), and it’s mainly about old people living in a Mayberry-style town.
But the director’s sixth film is the first one he hasn’t written and giving up that credential might have also made it his finest. Bob Nelson’s screenplay is chocked full of laughs while remaining heartfelt and true to the vivid characters Payne is known for crafting. The lack of colors not only plays tribute to the setting but to the characters driving forces- Woody’s (Bruce Dern) stubbornness leaves him searching for any sign of hope that might break the monotony of old age and his son and reluctant companion (Will Forte) is facing nothing more than a bleak future.
Bruce Dern gives a flawless performance as Woody and June Squibb is perfectly paired as his nagging, fed-up wife.
In theaters: November 15th (limited), November 22nd (wide release)
Oscar Chances: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Dern), Best Supporting Actress (Squibb), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score
Following the eyewitness account of sole survivor Marcus Luttrell as detailed in his book, director Peter Berg crafts a powerful, intense, and often harrowing depiction of the failed 2005 Navy SEAL mission to capture or kill Ahmad Shah, a Taliban leader, in the mountainous forests of Afghanistan.
While the film begins with the typical armed forces camaraderie Hollywood loves to detail, the audience is quickly thrown into the thick of things when a moral dilemma arises and the mission is compromised by local goatherders. The team ultimately decides to let them go for fear of backlash should they kill unarmed civilians, but the four marines, unable to establish communication with their base, are subsequently ambushed and overwhelmed by Taliban troops in a truly remarkable, white-knuckle fight for life.
Mark Wahlberg, an unlikely choice to star given he’s about a decade older than both his fellow actors and Luttrell at the time of the mission, gives a stunning portrayal of bravery alongside co-stars Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, and Taylor Kitsch (yes, that Taylor Kitsch). Ali Suliman also inspires as the Afghan that took in Luttrell until he was rescued by American forces, an event that cements the complexity of Survivor and its themes of war, morality, and courage.
In theaters: December 27th (limited), January 10th (wide release)
Oscar Chances: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Wahlberg), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Makeup & Hairstyling
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
In a departure from his usual slapstick fare, Ben Stiller both directs and stars in this remake of the 1947 film which was itself based on the 1939 short story of the same name. It follows Walter Mitty, an introverted staff member at Life Magazine, who daydreams of adventure and an exciting life until he finds himself actually traveling the world to recover a lost negative for the cover of the magazine’s final print issue.
The film buzzes along with subtle yet effective humor, cashing in on gags that revolve around eHarmony profiles and David Bowie’s Space Oddity as well as a budding romance between Mitty and his co-worker (Kristen Wiig).
But as his “real life” adventures become more comical and far-fetched, they also become less distinguished from Mitty’s daydreams and while that may be a point- that dreams can become reality- it lowers the standards of the movie from being anything above family fare and a child-like fantasy piece.
After so much build up, the final act shrugs off the revelation of the lost negative and we never truly get to see our hero come full circle. Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt, and Kathryn Hahn all give memorable supporting performances.
In theaters: December 25th
Oscar Chances: Best Cinematography, Best Production Design
Eric Miller is a marketing professional with experience in creative writing,
journalism and corporate communications. He has been writing in some way,
shape, or form for nearly all his life with plans to eventually publish a novel or
screenplay. He is also an entertainment enthusiast with the latest news on
movies, pop-culture, and events. A born and bred resident of the Baltimore Metropolitan area, he enjoys visiting the Inner Harbor as well as traveling the country, watching movies, and experimenting with mixed drinks. He is currently a member of the Sundance Institute, American Film Institute, and Maryland Film Festival.