2016’s pre-Oscar cinematic standouts try to stand out on Academy radar


We are currently entering one of the year’s best seasons for movies. Whereas summertime features most family-friendly franchises and high-budget blockbusters, the last months of the year usually showcase films with a higher profile, which are usually released in hopes of landing some Oscar nomination.

Each studio hopes these releases will be fresh in the minds of Academy members when the nomination ballot comes along in January, which is why “serious dramas” get stacked toward the end of the year. Here’s some of what you can expect in the box office for the next two months.

The winter often brings blockbusters with slightly darker tones than those released during the summer, and this year seems to be no different. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” are both major spin-offs which will expand their respective cinematic universe with noticeably grittier narratives.

It has been noted that “Rogue One” will be a more “war-focused” movie than any other Star Wars film before. Similarly, “Fantastic Beasts” takes on the dark tone of the latter Harry Potter movies, while still maintaining a decidedly teen-friendly edge.

Most importantly, however, these two films will serve as proof of concept for the application of Marvel’s cinematic universe to non-superhero franchises, and their success or failure will likely decide how aggressively studios will continue to expand franchises into multi-storied universes.

As if billion-dollar grossing “Zootopia” wasn’t enough, Disney Animation is looking to make waves with the upcoming “Moana,” an adventure story deeply embedded in Polynesian culture. The film stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – himself a South Pacific Islander – as Maui, a classic hero in Maori culture. Pair that with a soundtrack partially composed by “Hamilton’s” Lin Manuel Miranda, and you’ve got a clear Oscar contender.

There is a pair of early Oscar-profilers which fascinates for their similarity in narrative and wild discrepancy in style. “La La Land” and “Rules Don’t Apply” both tell the story of a young starlet who arrives in Los Angeles with a dream to become a star “” and they could not be more dissimilar.

“La La Land” is a romantic musical comedy set in the present day that stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It’s noteworthy for its highly expressive lighting and coloring, and decidedly modern cinematography. “Rules Don’t Apply,” on the other hand, is set in 1950s Los Angeles, and its style aptly harkens back to films from that period.

“La La Land” has received staggeringly good reviews as it’s made its way through the festival circuit, while “Rules Don’t Apply” has garnered great anticipation as an auteur work by Warren Beatty, who starred in, wrote and directed the film.

Matthew McConaughey headlines in “Gold,” the rise and fall of a man who makes a fortune mining for gold in Indonesia. This Christmas day release is a clear attempt at an acting nomination. I’d make a joke about McConaughey mining for a gold statue, but every major publication beat me to it.

Another Christmas Day release stars Denzel Washington in the adaptation of one of the most important African-American plays. August Wilson’s “Fences” was written as part of a cycle of plays on the black-American experience, and it’s shaping up to be a major event in this year’s movies.

“Birth of a Nation” is another African-American champion, defiantly repossessing the title of W.D. Griffith’s racist 1915 film. Despite some ambivalent-to-negative reviews from the New York Times and the New Yorker, “Birth of a Nation” has performed well in numerous festivals, which makes it a likely Academy nominee. These two films alone give some hope that #OscarsSoWhite won’t be trending again this year.

One last movie to look out for is “Allied,” a Robert Zemeckis espionage thriller set in the dawn of the second World War.

This is only a selection of some titles to look out for in the next few months – naturally, there’s countless others. Staying on top of the latest releases is no easy feat, but hopefully this primer will help you decide where to place your bets, and avoid the crushing shame (we’ve all been there) of having no opinion when the Oscars come around.