It’s September, which brings the end of summer, yes, but also the start of the “prestige” film season and Hollywood’s long, long awards circuit. As you read this, the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals are kicking off the conversation about which of 2017’s movies deserve to win an Oscar, even though many of those movies haven’t been officially released yet.
But you know what? Movies that came out in the year’s first eight months boast awards-worthy work as well. And that’s more true in 2017 than ever before, with a handful of big studio releases — especially Dunkirk, Get Out, Baby Driver, Wonder Woman, and War for the Planet of the Apes (roughly in that order of likelihood) — poised to emerge as relatively major Oscar players. The box office might be down, but there are lots of really good movies out there.
We wanted to highlight some Oscar-worthy work from the first eight months of the year — with a particular focus on stuff that might still be a little under-the-radar. If you happen to be an Oscar voter, and you happen to be reading this article, well, here are some names to keep in mind when you fill out your ballot.
Best Picture: The Big Sick
A “romantic comedy” has about an ice cube’s shot in hell of being nominated for Best Picture. Then again, La La Land was a frontrunner for the big prize last year, and The Big Sick has much more in common with that movie — it’s imaginative, it’s charming, it’s ultimately realistic and serious-minded about love — while also being arguably a better movie.
Here are some other reasons to nominate the summer’s funniest and most moving comedy: It’s wise and funny, equally able to make you laugh and make you cry. It’s the rare romantic film with a nonwhite lead (Kumail Nanjiani). It’s based on a true story. Its cast is uniformly stellar, especially Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. And it tackles a common American experience — the conflict that children of immigrants encounter between their family’s traditional culture and the mainstream American norms around them — without treating either disrespectfully. In 2017, The Big Sick is the Best Picture nominee we need. —Alissa Wilkinson
Should also be nominated for: Best Supporting Actor (Ray Romano), Best Supporting Actress (Holly Hunter), Best Original Screenplay (Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon).
Best Picture: Logan
A superhero movie has never been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars — not even in 2009, which saw the hugely acclaimed, hugely popular The Dark Knight earn nominations in eight other categories. And, to be fair, there haven’t been many superhero movies that actually deserve that sort of recognition; most exist in a space where a solid B is considered pretty good.
But 2017 is slightly different in this regard. Wonder Woman was the year’s surprise box office sensation, and its strong storytelling, charismatic lead, and sense of societal importance could very well carry it into the Best Picture race. So while the Academy kicks the tires on the story of Diana Prince, allow us to suggest a different superhero picture: Logan, from all the way back in March.
James Mangold’s blending of the character of Wolverine with the classical Western makes for something beautiful, especially when paired with Hugh Jackman’s final performance as the hero. The last third of this movie is tragically, perfectly right in a way superhero movies rarely are. If the Oscars must nominate a superhero movie (and we’re not saying they should), this is our pick —Todd VanDerWerff
Should also be nominated for: Actor (Hugh Jackman), Film Editing, both Sound categories, Visual Effects
Director: Bertrand Bonello, Nocturama
Nocturama, about a group of French teenagers who carry out a large-scale terrorist attack and then wait out the police response to their actions in a luxury department store, is not really interested in interrogating the reasons for terrorism or condemning it. The assailants’ motives are never revealed. Instead, Bonello’s film is concerned with what participating in a massive crime does to a person, how it affects their sense of themselves and their loved ones and their place in society.
With every choice he makes, from music direction to Nocturama’s loose pacing to the claustrophobia of his shots, Bonello tries to put us in the same mental space as his young criminals; left to their own devices in a giant adult playground, they play dress-up with designer clothes and blast Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” and Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” on deluxe speaker systems. They struggle to kill time while knowing what they’ve done, and that there are police scouring the city trying to find them and kill them for it. Nocturama is about terrorism, but in Bonello’s hands, it’s more importantly about dread and loneliness and fear. —Dylan Matthews
Should also be nominated for: Best Supporting Actor (Hamza Meziani), Best Cinematography. (As a 2016 release in France, it’s ineligible for Best Foreign Language Film, but as a 2017 release in the US, it’s eligible for all other Oscars.)
Director: Steven Soderbergh, Logan Lucky
In the build-up to Steven Soderbergh’s rural-set heist movie Logan Lucky — the director’s return to big-screen movie-making after a brief hiatus he’d previously labeled as “retirement” — it was impossible to escape how every story about the film became a treatise on Soderbergh himself, and especially on his status as a big-name filmmaker who’s tired of the Hollywood machine.
But you know what? Logan Lucky, with its perfectly staged action scenes and clean visual storytelling, only underlines just how good Soderbergh is at his job. There are few directors who could handle the tonal shift this film undergoes in its last 20 minutes, but Soderbergh is right up there at the top of the list. —TV
Should also be nominated for: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Daniel Craig), Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing
Actor: Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Only a handful of early 2017 releases have a shot at Oscar gold, as per most prognosticators, but Get Out, that surprise smash hit, is one of them, despite its genre (horror) and release month (February) not being all that Oscar friendly. But if Get Out is nominated for Best Picture (and it should be!), then it should tug along with it its star, Daniel Kaluuya, who gives one of the best scared shitless performances in years.
As his character’s weekend with his white girlfriend and her parents slowly devolves into an absolute nightmare, so much of Get Out’s horror relies entirely on Kaluuya’s face, on how his eye twitches, or on a tear trickling at precisely the right moment. And the actor delivers every time. —TV
Should also be nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Jordan Peele), Best Supporting Actress (Allison Williams), Best Original Screenplay
Actor: Robert Pattinson, Good Time
Robert Pattinson is having a good year; it started with his turn as an intrepid adventurer alongside Charlie Hunnam in The Lost City of Z and reached its peak in Good Time, which premiered in competition at Cannes this summer. In the latter film, Pattinson, with a shock of bleached-blonde hair, plays an unscrupulous petty crook named Connie who’s trying to break his mentally handicapped brother out of jail after their joint robbery attempt goes awry.
Besides his love for his sibling, there’s nothing terribly likable about Connie; he seems mainly interested in using everyone around him, whether he’s prevailing on the kindness of strangers, dating an older woman prone to hysterics, or creeping on a teenage girl. But Pattinson slips into the role in a way that imbues Connie with pathos and humanity. He is graceful and clumsy, cruel and hapless, kinetic and passive all at once. —AW
Actress: Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman
Superhero movies — from both Marvel and Warner Bros. — aren’t usually recognized by the Academy, save for rare instances like Heath Ledger’s 2009 Best Supporting Actor Win for The Dark Night, nods in the visual effects category; or Suicide Squad’s fluke-ish 2016 win for Best Makeup. That’s a shame, because Gal Gadot turned Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman into a hopeful, winsome hero.
Gadot made Prince feel like a fish out of water, a goddess among mortals, while also managing to avoid portraying her as foolish or icily aloof; just ask her Batman v. Superman costars Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill how hard that is. Superhero movies these days often bleed into one another and hit the same beats, but Wonder Woman shined with a dignified, bright humanity. And that’s a credit to Gadot’s dazzling performance. —Alex Abad-Santos
Should also be nominated for: Best Director (Patty Jenkins)
Actress: Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth
In Lady Macbeth, relative newcomer Florence Pugh locks down the kind of stone-cold, vengeful role that leaves audience shaken, from the men she encounters in the film to the viewers in the audience — all while laced up in corsets and bustles.
Pugh’s dark eyes and placid expressions at first give her character, Lady Katherine, the illusion of being passive and docile. But she lets her passion and anger bubble beneath, only slowly working its way to the surface, and by the end those same looks and mannerisms have transformed from unremarkable to terrifying. Pugh’s is the kind of performance that foretells the coming of a star. —AW
Should also be nominated for: Best Adapted Screenplay and Costume Design
Supporting Actor: Cillian Murphy, Dunkirk
Truth be told, Dunkirk doesn’t really need our help. It’s the one film from the first nine months of the year that will almost certainly be nominated for a bounty of Oscars. But when the Academy asks itself, “Which of the film’s many fine performances deserves a nod?” we hope they turn to Cillian Murphy.
Dunkirk’s complicated structure — which nests three separate timelines inside of each other — allows Murphy to play both a confident man of action and a shell-shocked wreck, sometimes in scenes placed right next to each other. It’s a showy performance, but in understated fashion, and Murphy’s been responsible for many great performances over his career, without an Oscar nomination. The Academy should rectify that. —TV
Should also be nominated for: Honestly, most categories it’s eligible in.
Supporting Actor: Jon Hamm, Baby Driver
Jon Hamm came to personify a certain type of cool as Mad Men’s Don Draper, all slick stoicism and chilly masculinity. But with his performance as Buddy in Edgar Wright’s joyride of an action flick, he communicates an entirely different, more jagged strain of cool, in service of a character whose dangerous nature is always simmering just below the surface, until it boils over in spectacularly violent fashion.
Buddy evolves over the course of the film from an ally to an adversary, an arc that could scan as arbitrary were it not for the undercurrent of brutality Hamm brings to the role, even when Buddy’s at his most charming. It’s an old acting cliché that villains are more fun to play than heroes, but with Buddy, Hamm clearly relishes blurring the line between the two. In a film with no shortage of antiheroes to root for and/or against, Buddy stands out as the epitome of the bad dude you hate to love. —Genevieve Koski
Should also be nominated for: Best Director (Edgar Wright), Best Film Editing
Supporting Actress: Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip
Tiffany Haddish’s breakout role as wild card Dina in the summer comedy smash Girls Trip is one of those supporting performances that often seems to be operating on its own plane within the movie — it’s of the film, but it’s so distinct from everything else that it becomes a discrete element, too.
In that sense, it’s highly reminiscent of Melissa McCarthy’s role in Bridesmaids, for which McCarthy was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, a rarity for purely comedic roles. Haddish’s go-for-broke approach to the outspoken, gives-zero-shits Dina is the sort of performance that tugs at the expectations of mainstream film comedy, and ultimately helps propel the form forward. For that alone — okay, and for coining the term “grapefruiting” — Haddish deserves a nod. —GK
Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton, Okja
Whether she’s giving iconically weird performances or getting involved in teachable moments about how white people should not respond to accusations of basking in their white privilege, Tilda Swinton always guarantees her many fans one thing: some crazy, crazy bullshit. But even by her own standards, her work with director Bong Joon-ho, on Snowpiercer and Okja, is something else.
In Okja, she’s a malevolent corporate overlord, and her performance blends equal parts horrible boss, Fox News host, and terrifying cereal box mascot come to life. That she somehow finds an emotional reality for this character makes her work all the more impressive. —TV
Should also be nominated for: Director (Bong Joon-ho), many technical categories but especially Visual Effects
Original Screenplay: A Ghost Story
Perhaps the best reason to nominate A Ghost Story for Best Original Screenplay is that it’s practically a silent film for long stretches, and yet the story it tells is somehow best classified as a cosmic epic love story.
Director David Lowery wrote the screenplay, and the way he takes a simple, small story of love and tragedy, then expands it until it’s about everything feels both natural and like a magic trick. The history of the galaxy contained in a tale about an ordinary couple in rural Texas? That’s a screenplay worth celebrating. — AW
Should also be nominated for: Best Original Score (Daniel Hart), Best Original Song (“I Get Overwhelmed”)
Adapted Screenplay: The Lost City of Z
The Lost City of Z writer-director James Gray began adapting the 2009 David Grann nonfiction book it counts as its source before the book was even published, after production company Plan B bought the rights to the story of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett’s lifelong (and, most likely, life-ending) obsession with proving the existence of a lost advanced civilization in Amazonian jungle.
Fawcett’s ultimate fate remains a mystery, one Gray’s film doesn’t attempt to solve so much as explore, teasing out the “why” of Fawcett’s quest rather than the “what.” Structuring the film’s three acts around Fawcett’s three visits to the Bolivian jungle — in reality, there were seven, but such is the nature of adaptation — Gray uses an episodic approach to telegraph the character’s emotional arc, both as an individual and as a family man. The tragic confluence of those two sides of Fawcett’s identity is what Gray’s film ultimately builds toward, in a methodical, emotion-driven, character-based fashion that manages to explore the nature of obsession without resorting on the spectacle of madness. —GK
Should also be nominated for: Best Director (James Gray), Best Cinematography (Darius Khondji)
Documentary Feature: Casting JonBenét
The sensational, decades-old case of the 6-year-old beauty queen found murdered in her family’s home on Christmas night in 1996 is a popular subject for filmmakers looking to capitalize on the current taste for "true crime" documentaries and docudramas. But Casting JonBenét pulls off something much more interesting, and much more relevant to 2017’s celebrity and sensation-soaked America: It focuses on the people of Boulder, Colorado, where the murder took place, and the ways the relentless media coverage of the crime affected their lives.
Director Kitty Green put out a casting call in the Boulder area, inviting people to audition for any role in the story of the Ramsey case. Once they arrived on her set, Green explained that the casting material would be used in the film — that anything they said on camera during the auditions might end up in the final cut, so they should be careful about what they say.
Most of the film comes from these audition tapes, and the result serves to argue that the way we think and talk about sensationalized crime cases is deeply influenced by our own experiences. Casting JonBenét calls into question the real possibility of ever arriving at something like the "truth"; the film isn’t trying to teach us about history, but instead to make us see the present in new ways. —AW
Cinematography: The Beguiled (Philippe Le Sourd)
Director Sofia Coppola’s movies always look gorgeous. She has a talent for building elaborate edifices, then chipping away at them until the pain underneath is visible. That’s not to everybody’s taste — especially if you’re not a fan of deeply restrained storytelling — but in The Beguiled, her work with director of photography Philippe Le Sourd turns a Civil War-era Southern plantation into a kind of horrible alien landscape.
Coppola’s central idea traces the various ways that women of the era were imprisoned by social expectancies, by turning the women hiding out at the plantation into captors of a Union soldier. Every shot in the film increases the sense of creeping, horrible dread that permeates everything that’s coming — and everything that’s already happened. —TV
Should also be nominated for: Best Supporting Actress (Kirsten Dunst), various craft categories but especially Costume Design
Editing: Colossal (Ben Baudhuin and Luke Doolan)
Colossal — whose theatrical run you may have blinked and missed — is one of those movies that maybe doesn’t work in all its particulars but is so strange and one-of-a-kind that you sort of don’t care.
The way it somehow blends the early 30s travails of its heroine (played by a terrific, game Anne Hathaway) with a genuine giant monster movie on the other side of the planet just keeps showing its work, like a child constantly calling to his parents to just look over here already. That it succeeds at all is thanks to the editing skill of Ben Baudhuin and Luke Doolan, which deftly blends the movie’s many, many tones — but especially its dark, domestic horror and loopy comedy — in a way that keeps any of those elements from becoming overbearing. —TV
Should also be nominated for: Best Actress (Anne Hathaway). Shut up. It could happen.
Original Score: War for the Planet of the Apes (Michael Giacchino)
In recent years, Michael Giacchino has been everywhere, becoming the closest thing his generation of composers has to a John Williams — the guy you hire to give your genre picture a memorable theme and series of operatic leitmotifs. Of course, when you’re everywhere, you run the risk of being stretched thin, and Giacchino has recently been just that, even in 2017 (where he wrote the treacly, awful score for the treacly, awful Book of Henry).
But his score for the thrilling War for the Planet of the Apes is, somehow, his best score yet, deserving of awards and then some. He contrasts the primitive instrumentation of the apes with the military fanfare of the last few remaining humans, and everything comes together in the end for a grand, orchestral swell straight out of an old-fashioned epic. —TV
Should also be nominated for: Best Picture, Actor (Andy Serkis), most technical categories but especially Visual Effects
Production Design: A Cure for Wellness (Eve Stewart)
A Cure for Wellness is bonkers, and there’s just no way around it. But what makes its bonkers-ness sing is how it looks, and in particular the spaces and places in which its characters perform their wackery.
The film’s shift from a steely gray corporate boardroom to an idyllic castle-turned-sanitarium with creepy old hospital colors does everything to set the tone for what’s happening, and every inch of the sanitarium — from the grounds to the terrifying room full of bodies to the absolutely outrageous final candlelit incest/ball/wedding scene — is off the hook. Also there is a tank full of eels. — AW
Should also be nominated for: Costume Design