Waiting for Oscar

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The New York Sun

Each September, the fall movie season springs to life with the same one-two punch: the Venice International Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival. In the span of only three weeks, hundreds of new films are introduced to the critical community. Still, it came as little surprise two weeks ago when the top prize at Venice, the Golden Lion, was awarded to a familiar name: Darren Aronofsky, the art-house sensation behind such epics as “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain.”

But Mr. Aronofsky’s fans will be in for a surprise when they buy tickets to see “The Wrestler,” which is scheduled to make its American premiere next month as the closing-night entry of the New York Film Festival. Rather than delivering a bracing new cinematic experiment, as he has done in the past with “Pi” and “The Fountain,” Mr. Aronofsky has opted to present a standard genre picture, casting Mickey Rourke (in what some are already calling the performance of the year) as a down-and-out wrestler fighting his way back into the light, one match at a time.

Mr. Aronofsky has decided to break form, and he’s not the only one. Next week, Spike Lee will unveil one of the season’s most anticipated Academy Award contenders, “Miracle at St. Anna” — an unusual project for Mr. Lee, who is best known for biopics and searing stories of urban conflict. “Miracle at St. Anna,” to the contrary, is a Disney-distributed war film about four black American soldiers who become trapped in a rural Tuscan village during World War II.

But while Messrs. Aronofsky and Lee have endeavored to upend expectations, moviegoers can still expect the annual onslaught of serious Hollywood cinema, made by and starring all the usual suspects. A half-dozen A-list projects have already been flagged as the season’s safest bets for box-office dominance. The year’s big franchise heavyweight (now that the latest “Harry Potter” film has been pushed to 2009) is “Quantum of Solace” (November 14), the new James Bond film that picks up mere minutes after “Casino Royale” — the movie that reinvented the Bond franchise — left off.

The season’s most prominent period piece is “The Duchess” (Septemern 19), a sweeping, old-fashioned biopic about Georgiana (Keira Knightley), the 18th-century Duchess of Devonshire who finds herself torn between a loveless marriage and a passionate, illicit affair. The two big adaptations of the season are “Twilight” (November 21), the vampire tale based on the wildly popular Stephenie Meyer novel, and the end-of-the-world father-son drama “The Road” (November 14), an adaptation on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy.

“Doubt” (December 12), based on the hit play, makes its big-screen debut with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman starring as a nun and priest who clash over charges that he abused a black student. “Changeling” (October 24), which will be the centerpiece of the upcoming New York Film Festival, is this year’s obligatory Clint Eastwood Oscar entry. This time around, Mr. Eastwood has turned his focus to the real-life story of a Los Angeles couple (Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich) who are relieved to hear that their kidnapped son has been found alive and well, but who become dismayed when they are handed the boy by the police and discover he is not their child. The most eagerly anticipated art-house entry of the season is surely Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” (October 24). His first script since the brilliant “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and his directorial debut, “Synecdoche” tells the story of an artist (Mr. Hoffman) who attempts to create one great lasting work by re-creating an entire city on a movie lot.

For a handful of actors, it looks to be a busy season. With both “Doubt” and “Synecdoche, New York,” Mr. Hoffman finds himself at the center of two major Oscar contenders — and he’s not alone. Brad Pitt, who made an inspired return last Friday as an energized, effervescent physical trainer in the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading,” will also star in the ambitious new David Fincher film, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (December 25), about a man who grows younger with each passing year.

Matching Mr. Pitt are “Titanic” co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Mr. DiCaprio stars as a CIA agent tracking down terrorists in Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies” (October 10), as well as a husband and father overcoming tough times in the Sam Mendes film “Revolutionary Road” (December 26), an adaptation of the Richard Yates novel. Ms. Winslet is also featured in “Revolutionary Road,” and stars opposite Ralph Fiennes in the trial drama “The Reader” (December 12). Viggo Mortensen, however, is the only major actor looking for the trifecta. He stars as a father confronting the apocalypse in “The Road,” a sheriff-for-hire in the Ed Harris-directed Western “Appaloosa” (opening today), and a German professor whose work is used as government propaganda during the rise of German socialism in “Good” (early December).

In all likelihood, all of these performers have the awards season on their minds, not least because the Oscar debate typically revolves around the acting categories. But 2008 may yet prove to be the year of the director. Joining Messrs. Aronofsky and Lee with career-making projects are Gus Van Sant, who has crafted a rather traditional biography with “Milk” (December 5), about the San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official; Baz Luhrmann, who has moved away from the magical realism of “Moulin Rouge!” and “Romeo + Juliet” with “Australia” (November 26), a pre-World War II period epic starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman; Mike Leigh, who returns with a limber and bubbly new film called “Happy-Go-Lucky” (October 10), starring Sally Hawkins as a woman of limitless good cheer who uses her optimism as a shield against the struggles of London life; Kevin Smith, who leaves behind the days of Jay and Silent Bob with the Seth Rogen-Elizabeth Banks comedy “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” (October 31), about two lifelong friends who set out to make some extra cash by starring in their own adult film, and Joe Wright, whose work on such period romances as “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement” is a long way from his new film, “The Soloist” (November 21), about a schizophrenic, homeless musician (Jamie Foxx) in Los Angeles who is discovered by a newspaper columnist (Robert Downey Jr.).


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