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8 movies out this month that are looking for Oscar season glory

A gleefully cartoonish Western, a Mexican masterpiece, a James Baldwin adaptation, and a deliciously wicked palace intrigue are all on the docket for November.

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Roma, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Green Book are all awards contenders releasing in November.
Roma, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Green Book are all awards contenders releasing in November.
Netflix/Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

By November, Hollywood’s annual awards cycle is in full swing. Movies that are angling to capture the attention of both critics and members of various Hollywood professional guilds often come out in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, hoping to impress audiences and then stick in awards voters’ memories as voting begins.

It’s also a busy month in “prestige season,” when the public is finally able to see some of the critically lauded or otherwise buzzy films that debuted at film festivals and are hoping to remain in the awards conversation all the way until the Oscars in February. (For a movie to qualify for the Oscars, as well as for many critics and guild awards, it must premiere in New York and Los Angeles at least one week before the calendar year ends.)

November 2018 is full of movies with wide appeal. New movies from Oscar-favorite directors like the Coen brothers, Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) are about to hit theaters and, in some cases, Netflix as well. The selections include a biopic about Van Gogh, a heist movie, a crowd-pleasing historical comedy, and a wickedly funny tale of palace intrigue. And that’s just the beginning.

To prepare you for the oncoming onslaught of awards-season prognostication, here are eight films premiering this month that you can expect to hear more about in the months to come.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (November 8 in theaters; November 16 on Netflix)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a return to the Old West for Joel and Ethan Coen (who’ve traveled there before for two of their best films, No Country for Old Men and True Grit). It’s a trope-heavy sextet — six short films strung together, without any obvious connections between them except a kind of dream logic. It’s an episodic, dark-hearted romp through a series of stories about outlaws, gold diggers, robbers, pioneers, and mysterious strangers. Thematically, all six are loosely linked by a sense of how absurd death can be, how unfair and irreverent and sometimes even funny it is.

So even though The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t a typical ballad, in that it doesn’t construct a single, continuous narrative, its thematic connections nonetheless give it the feel of a murder ballad. It’s not the tale of a single murder — more of a pile of them — but as the film’s individual pieces and parts accrue meaning, the culprits of its stories emerge: chance, human cruelty, and the unfeeling universe. In other words, it’s a Coen brothers movie, and one that, thanks to its fine darkly comic timing and steady directorial hand, could net them another Oscar nomination for writing or directing.

Widows (November 16)

Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, whose 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture in 2014, returns to the awards race with a heist movie that has all the trappings of a typical heist movie: the plans, the machinations, the twists. But there’s a lot more going on, too, in a tale about women who know the world is stacked against them and decide to fight back against it anyhow.

After a group of women, previously strangers to one another, are widowed following their husbands’ deaths in a botched and seemingly inexplicable scheme, they band together to finish the job against the backdrop of a corrupt election on Chicago’s South Side. Viola Davis, who’s a strong contender for acting awards this season, leads a star-studded cast that also boasts Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Carrie Coon, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Brian Tyree Henry, Jon Bernthal, and Robert Duvall.

At Eternity’s Gate (November 16)

Julian Schnabel is both a painter and a celebrated filmmaker, and he’s clearly attracted to stories of people who overcome the odds — often some physical or mental challenge — to create art that endures far beyond their time. And he’s no stranger to the Hollywood awards fray: His 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, about a paralyzed man who writes a memoir by blinking his eye, netted him three Golden Globe nominations (two of which he won, for directing and foreign language film) and four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Director.

Eternity’s Gate is about Vincent Van Gogh, but Schnabel crafts a portrait of the artist that’s more broad, impressionist strokes than straightforward biopic. The film depicts Van Gogh’s descent into mental turmoil and constant rebuffing by the world around him, suggesting that he was more of an outsider artist than we’re accustomed to thinking of him, which ultimately makes the film more of a meditation on the nature of artistic calling. Both the film and its screenplay may be part of the awards conversation this year. But its best chance at trophy is perhaps in Willem Dafoe’s performance as Van Gogh, which has already attracted plenty of attention.

Roma (November 21 in theaters, December 14 on Netflix)

Roma was one of the year’s most anticipated films, and it’s been the subject of rapturous reviews since its fall festival debut. The lushly shot, monochromatic domestic drama from Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men) — who also served as his own cinematographer on the film — tells the story of a family in Mexico City and a girl who works for them.

Focusing on the struggles and strength of the family’s women, Roma is funny, sad, and carefully told — a challenge to the viewer to simply sit and pay attention to people who find themselves overlooked in their own homes. The film is being positioned by Netflix for a run at awards in a number of categories, including cinematography, directing, and writing — and given its sensitive, gorgeous rendering that’s garnered comparisons to world cinema masters like Fellini and Bresson, it’s likely to be a strong contender.

Green Book (November 21)

Green Book was an audience favorite on the fall film festival circuit, earning the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at TIFF, which is often considered a strong indicator of Oscar season success. (Last year’s winner was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.) It’s easy to see why viewers liked it: Green Book is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, based on a true story and starring Viggo Mortensen as an Italian-American New Yorker who’s hired to drive a prominent Jamaican-American pianist, played by Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali, on a performance tour through the south in the 1960s.

In some ways, Green Book feels too old-fashioned, with blithe characterizations that seem ripped from an earlier era of filmmaking. It often feels similar to movies like Driving Miss Daisy and others like it, which have more recently been criticized for whitewashing the true nature of racial tensions in America in favor of making audiences feel good. But it’s a broadly funny movie, with strong performances from Mortensen and Ali, and it seems obviously poised to be a favorite with some segments of the Academy as well as audiences this fall.

The Favourite (November 23)

A deliciously wicked, loosely historically based drama from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for The Lobster in 2017), The Favourite is a dark comedy about three women: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her closest friend and adviser (Rachel Weisz), and the young woman (Emma Stone) who joins the household and starts to usurp that coveted spot.

The luxurious interiors, cockeyed sensibility, and complex trio of female characters with frank views on power, sexuality, and what they want out of life has already pushed the film into the limelight after its fall festival run. The three performances at its center are all strong contenders for individual acting awards — particularly Colman, a beloved TV and film actress (and the new Queen Elizabeth on The Crown) whose time for recognition may finally have arrived.

Shoplifters (November 23)

Shoplifters, from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, made its debut earlier this year at Cannes, where the jury awarded it the top prize, the Palme d’Or. It’s an intimate and accessible drama about a family of small-time petty crooks who live in a small house, scratch out a living, and take in a young girl who appears to have lost her family altogether.

But as the story unfolds, a mystery seems to emerge almost imperceptibly from the family’s everyday interactions, and the movie eventually becomes something unexpected, surprising, and haunting. With strong performances and an engaging narrative, Shoplifters continued to earn praise and capture hearts throughout its fall festival run; it’s also Japan’s Oscars entry for Best Foreign Film.

If Beale Street Could Talk (November 30)

For his follow-up to Moonlight, which won Best Picture in 2017, director Barry Jenkins chose to adapt James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. Set in Harlem, the story centers on a young black couple (played by Stephan James and newcomer Kiki Layne) who grew up together and fell in love. But then conflict takes over — not originating from inside their relationship, but pressing in from the outside world.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful, expressive film, at times feeling like a tone poem or lyrical plaint, with a stacked cast that also features Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, and Brian Tyree Henry. It’s set in the 1970s, but thanks to the way it confronts how sexual assault allegations, policing, and racism can interlock for communities of color, it feels incredibly contemporary, too. It’s hard not to fall under its beautiful, somber, lustrous spell, and as a story about black American life framed as a love story, its images are indelible.

Given its strong showing at fall film festivals and its combination of visual beauty and contemporary importance, If Beale Street Could Talk is being positioned as an awards contender in categories ranging from acting and cinematography to adapted screenplay, director, and Best Picture.

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