By Liam MacLeod

With the closing of the summer blockbuster season this is the time of year that critics like to limber up their intellectual muscles in preparation for the winter months. The kids are back at school, cinemas are quieting down and the big awards like the BAFTAS and Oscars are right around the corner. So now is the time we’ll start to see the more notable art-house films and ostentatious awards bait lining up for recognition. You know the type, the films making noise at festivals like Cannes, Toronto and the upcoming London Film Festival. These are the lavish period pieces, hard hitting biopics and the all-important ‘issue’ films vying for your money and attention before the Christmas Holidays. The question then is which films are these and are they actually worth your time?

Black Mass

The first entry goes in our ‘long-shot’ category thanks mostly to the now execrable reputation of its leading man. Scott Cooper helms the biopic of Whitey Bulger, the Boston mob boss who effectively played rival gangs and the FBI against each other for thirty years while working as an informant. If any of this sounds familiar it’s because Bulger was largely the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s coked-out crime lord in The Departed. Cooper’s last noteworthy film was the country music biopic Crazy Heart which earned the Best Actor award for leading man Jeff Bridges. For what it’s worth Johnny Depp’s performance as Bulger seems closer to Fear and Loathing territory than, say, Mordecai. Whether or not Black Mass can redeem the actor in the face of critics and Academy Members though is another question.

In the Heart of the Sea

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Ron Howard has been tipped for Oscar glory as a director for some time now, but despite the success of Frost/Nixon and Rush it’s an honour he’s been thus far denied. In the Heart of the Sea reunites Howard with Rush star Chris Helmsworth for a seafaring adventure based on the real life sinking of the whale ship Essex. In addition to being an epic man-versus-beast story (the events inspired the book Moby Dick) the film also looks set to be an intense survival story. In depicting the ninety days the crew spent stranded at sea the film will cover the survivors battling starvation, thirst and inevitably each other. This is a genuine opportunity for Helmsworth to demonstrate his range as a dramatic actor and one I’m eager to see. The film is set to open in December, the very heart of awards season, so if nothing else it has Warner Bros confidence behind it.

Joy

Yeah I know, I can’t get enthused about the invention of the Miracle Mop either. However like it or not David O. Russell’s last two films have earned awards recognition seemingly by default so his latest entry goes on the list. Joy stars frequent collaborator Jenifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano and will follow her life before and after inventing the mop which allowed her to build a multi-million dollar business empire. If you didn’t get that from the incredibly vague and incoherent trailer, don’t worry you’re not the only one.

Steve Jobs

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From one innovator’s biopic to another. Steve Jobs is the long-awaited, chaotically-developed biography of the eponymous Apple founder. With a script from Aaron Sorkin the project has been stalled in development hell for some time, seeing a number of actors, directors and even studios become attached to the project only to drop out. Finally however Danny Boyle has been able to bring the film to completion, with Michael Fassbender donning the turtleneck. It’s an intimidating prospect for Fassbender, playing one of the most famous and divisive men on the planet. While a genius of tech and business Jobs was also a demanding perfectionist who fired employees without warning, screwed colleagues out of stock options and denied parentage of his daughter. Not to mention the question of ‘is it too soon?’ with Jobs only passing away almost four years ago.

Carol

Moving onto this year’s big success story at Cannes, Todd Hynes’ 1950s romance Carol. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith the film stars Cate Blanchett as a married woman who begins an affair with Rooney Mara’s young store clerk. While Hynes is a compelling visual director this looks set to be a showcase of Mara and Blanchett’s considerable skills which have already won accolades (Mara tied for Best Actress with Emmanuelle Bercot). With one Academy Award under her belt Blanchett won’t be under too much pressure but a Best Supporting nod for Mara could seriously legitimise her reputation as a talented actress.

The Danish Girl

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Last year Eddie Redmayne won the award for Best Actor for his performance in The Theory of Everything. Now with the release of The Danish Girl in 2015 he may actually earn that award. Kidding aside this looks to be one of the big ‘issue films’ of the year with Redmayne playing Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery. Tom Hooper is in the director’s chair for this one so expect a high value reproduction of 1920s Denmark. As with Carol the big draw will likely be Redmayne’s return to glory after his less than well-receive performance in Jupiter Ascending. Also look to see Best Supporting buzz around Redmayne’s co-star Alicia Vikander who has already delivered compelling performances this year. However do expect the film to be coloured by the conversation of why we’re still casting cisgender actors in transgender roles.

Suffragette

Another of the ‘issue’ films, a fictional account of a battle for civil rights that many are still fighting today. Suffragette promises to focus on the early years of women’s suffrage with an emphasis on the little discussed violence the movement endured. Controversially the film is told through the lens of fictional protagonist Maud Watts, played by the ever charming Carey Mulligan. Alongside Mulligan will be the likes of Meryl Street and Natalie Press will be playing the historically factual suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davidson. It feels like the film is attempting to court the Selma press for being a portrayal of the ‘real’ protest with all the pain that gets exercised from history books. Whether it’s in good taste to court the Selma press with a cast that’s whiter than marshmallow fluff is probably another matter.

And that’s what you’ve got to look forward to in the next few months. It’s true that some of these seem fairly targeted at the Academy’s sensibilities if we’re being cynical. At the same time though many of these look like very powerful stories; battles for survival, love, dignity, identity. All have the makings of the best stories and all still have the potential to surprise us.