Mea culpa, I’ll admit it. Movie guides to upcoming seasons are generally could be/should be/might be guesswork based on raw intuition, and they’re often as accurate as predicting next month’s weather. The movies I have been most psyched about in the past sometimes have been disappointing mediocrities, if not worse. This season, though, more films than usual have been available for viewing long before their release dates. Here are five movies I vouch for with confidence, because I’ve already seen them, their cast will surely be at the very forefront of this year’s Oscar race or they are just totally awesome.
“Rules Don’t Apply” (Opens Wednesday)
It’s been 15 long years since the great Warren Beatty graced the screen. His return as director, writer, producer and star in this tour-de-force deserves a national day of celebration. He has turned his decades-long fascination with aviator/entrepreneur/movie tycoon/ladies man Howard Hughes into a knockabout farce, an entertaining romp with a light touch of tragedy. It’s also a lovely romance featuring the most charming original love songs in recent film memory. As the increasingly unhinged billionaire, Beatty shares the screen with Lily Collins as a virginal pageant queen just added to his bevy of contract starlets, and Alden Ehrenreich as her equally chaste driver. Beatty directed movies as savvy, diverse and enjoyable as “Reds,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “Dick Tracy” and “Bulworth.” He’s done it again.
“Nocturnal Animals” (Wednesday)
Fashion guru turned writer/director Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) turns toward the sinister in a thriller layered with complex mystery. A melancholy art gallery owner (Amy Adams) receives a package that gives her a paper cut even before it’s opened. It contains a manuscript from her novelist ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), which spins an unsettling story about a couple (Gyllenhaal and Isla Fisher, very nearly Adams’ twin) whose drive across west Texas takes a very nasty turn. Is it fiction or a sadistic warning of something that awaits? The ensemble includes Laura Linney, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Shannon and Armie Hammer, all in top form.
“Manchester by the Sea” (Friday)
A humane, honest, deeply moving gem about the complicated lives of a working-class family. Casey Affleck delivers a showcase performance as a solitary apartment custodian forced to deal with a family emergency in his New England hometown. His return and family repair efforts expose scars from his own long-buried crisis. The emotional depths are plumbed in impressionistic detail by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan toggling between small talk and communicative silences, painfully funny humor and poignant drama. Newcomer Lucas Hedges glows as a flippant 16-year-old suddenly in Affleck’s care; Michelle Williams brings her A-game as a woman on the outskirts of the story. It is relatable real life and pure artistry hand in hand.
“Jackie” (Dec. 2)
What Natalie Portman accomplishes in “Jackie” is at a level beyond mere performance. She channels the spirit of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, forcing viewers to consider the first lady through a new, deeper perspective. Avoiding the standard biographical blueprint, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín turns his incisive focus on the anguished days following her husband’s assassination. Both the public and private person are revealed as she plans the president’s public funeral and labors to protect his legacy. It’s a stunning portrait of inner strength, vulnerability and grace under heartbreaking pressure.
“La La Land” (Dec. 16)
Is Damien Chazelle the king of the Hollywood musical? After his Oscar-honored debut “Whiplash,” he’s back with a wondrous, technically dazzling sonic boom. It’s both a rapturous appreciation of beautifully choreographed, chorus-filled classics and a fresh take on the form. Boy (Ryan Gosling) meets girl (Emma Stone), boy loses girl, and the rest you need to see for yourself. The warmly comedic relationship between the bitter jazz pianist and the ambitious actress sparkles with song and buoyant dance numbers that literally send the lovers wafting sky-high. In most films, it’s easy to name the standout moment. Here, they’re all standout moments.