Once upon a time, before the world’s long slide into collective attention deficit disorder, movies could be released anytime and Oscar voters might still remember them months later. But as the stakes grew and Academy Awards translated into box office revenue, autumn became designated the unofficial Oscar Season, in which studios open their floodgates to deluge audiences with a year’s worth of good pictures in a matter of weeks. Sometimes a film is enough of a phenomenon to linger in the memory long after its original presentation; early releases Braveheart, Gladiator, Forrest Gump, and The Silence of the Lambs remained indelible enough not to be swallowed up by the fog of time. The Godfather came out a whole year before it won Best Picture, but that kind of proves the point: it was The Godfather, after all. The last time an Oscar winner defied the autumn strategy was The Hurt Locker, 14 years ago.
While the Academy Awards no longer provide a surefire bump at the box office and are waning in relevance, studios have only doubled down on their fall battle plans. These next couple of months will bring to screens the Clash of Oscar Directors: five winners—veterans Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and James Cameron, along with new heavyweights in contention Alejandro González Iñárritu and Damien Chazelle.
Iñárritu is a rare back-to-back Best Director winner for 2014’s Birdman and 2015’s The Revenant; and, at 32, Chazelle was the youngest recipient ever, for 2016’s La La Land. In Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths), Iñárritu returns to his homeland of Mexico after more than five pictures shot in the U.S. or abroad, with Daniel Giménez Cacho (from Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education and last year’s wonderful Memoria) as a journalist investigating his memories or maybe the filmmaker’s. Chazelle follows La La Land with another Hollywood story, Babylon, starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Tobey Maguire as fictionalized versions of, respectively, silent-era matinee heartthrob John Gilbert, “It” girl Clara Bow, and the modern world’s first superstar, Charlie Chaplin. On its way to finally opening, Babylon has run the gauntlet of COVID-19, a budget that panicked the industry, and, reportedly, a half-hour orgy that flirts with an NC-17 rating.
The stars of 2009’s Avatar, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña, reunite in Cameron’s sequel, The Way of Water, with the filmmaker betting that, after almost a decade and a half, everyone hasn’t had enough of cranky overgrown blue elves. And given the success of this year’s Top Gun sequel after more than three decades, who’s to say Cameron is wrong?
Reuniting in Scorsese’s quasi-western Killers of the Flower Moon, based on a true-life murder on Oklahoma tribal lands 100 years ago, are Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. After a teenage DiCaprio stole 1993’s This Boy’s Life from De Niro, the older actor made a point of introducing the younger one to Scorsese for what became six subsequent collaborations.
Whenever Scorsese isn’t regarded as America’s greatest living filmmaker, Spielberg is. And after spending most of the early twenty-first century taking on terrorism, slavery, investigative journalism, the Cold War, and presidents both exalted and disgraced in the likes of Munich, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, and The Post, Spielberg returns with The Fabelmans to the subject of his childhood that dominated much of his earlier work. The film stars Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Paul Dano, and young Gabriel LaBelle as someone bearing resemblance to a young Spielberg already aspiring to be America’s greatest living filmmaker.
Postscript to Academy voters: Unlikely as it may be, you don’t have to like any of these; word has it The Son and Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, also scheduled for fall, are pretty good. Here’s another tip: There are nine or ten other months in a calendar that has included Everything Everywhere All at Once. Give world-cinema treasure Michelle Yeoh an Oscar, and Oscars might start to matter again.
This story is featured in the September 2022 issue of Los Angeles