La La Land La La Land 'La La Land,' a new musical from Damien Chazelle, is currently leading the Best Picture race with critics. (Photo: La La Land)

5 films you need to watch before Oscars big night

From 'Jackie' to 'Arrival,' here are the cinematic juggernauts to catch during Hollywood's big awards season.

While it may feel like only yesterday that we all watched Leonardo DiCaprio and "The Revenant" walk away with the Oscar for Best Picture, the time is once again upon us to look forward to this year's contenders. As you might expect, the field is crowded with an eclectic group of genres covering everything from science fiction to musicals and historical biopics. Below are just a few promising films, out of a maximum of 10 possible nominations, that could make the ballots for Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards as well as the Golden Globes and other award lists.

'Jackie'

After wide praise following recent screenings in Venice and Toronto, Chilean director Pablo Larraín's "Jackie" has quickly become a top contender for Best Picture. The biopic, which chronicles key moments in the life of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, is scoring critical laurels for both its story and principal acting from Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman.

"Natalie Portman’s performance as the title character is remarkable," writes critic Matt Hoffman. "Portman’s approach is not only incredible, but it is truly unprecedented. Words simply cannot do justice to this portrayal."

The 35-year-old Harvard graduate, who earlier received an Oscar for her performance in American director Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," says she was moved by the First Lady's ability to mask her true feelings.

"I mean, I always had this icon respect, like, ‘Oh, she’s so elegant,'" Portman explained to Vanity Fair. "But not this sort of interior respect of the inner strength it took to be that composed to the world, as a sort of gift to the world, because she understood how symbolic her reactions to all of these events would be while she was obviously crumbling inside."

"Jackie" is slated for a Dec. 9 release.


'La La Land'

Could "La La Land" become the first Hollywood musical since "Chicago" in 2002 to take home the Best Picture Oscar? It's less a question at the moment and almost something of a certainty, with critics nearly everywhere falling over themselves to sing its praises.

"'La La Land' is both a love letter to a confounding and magical city and an ode to the idea of the might-have-been romance, in all its piercing sweetness," gushes Stephanie Zacharek for Time magazine. "It’s a movie with the potential to make lovers of us all. All we have to do is fall into its arms."

According to American director Damien Chazelle, "La La land" is a traditional musical grounded in the sometimes-harsh realities of falling in love. What starts out as a sweet romance between leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling isn't necessarily promised to end on a high note.

“A lot of things can happen after ‘happily ever after.’ But when you have two people who share a memory, there is something very pure and nothing can taint that memory,” Chazelle told The Hollywood Reporter. “The idea was to take the old musical but ground it in real life where things don’t always exactly work out.“

Riding a wave of enthusiasm for American musicals from "Hamilton" to "ONCE," "La La Land" is positioned to dance into theaters on Dec. 2.


'A Monster Calls'

Based on the award-winning children's fantasy novel of the same name, "A Monster Calls" tells the heartbreaking story of a young boy who copes with his mother's terminal cancer diagnosis with the support of a giant tree-like monster. Directed by Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona, the film has apparently been leaving audiences emotionally raw.

"Whether you start sobbing early on, or if you’re able to dam the tears until nearer the climax, rest assured, the floodgates will be opened," writes Matt Maytum. "Unless your heart is made of actual stone, you’re running a serious risk of dehydration. This movie probably actually counts as therapy. The tears feel earned though, rather than cheaply stolen."

According to Bayona, bringing the film's monster, voiced by Irish actor Liam Neeson, to life required more than 200 design iterations. “Because it’s a movie that mixes very different tones, we had to keep the fantasy very grounded,” he told Inverse. “The ultimate meaning of the story is how we need fantasy to cope with reality… I didn’t want a lot of CGI to distract from the more dramatic stuff.”

While "Monster" is something of a dark horse to win Best Picture, we wouldn't be surprised if the fantasy drama's emotionally gripping story earns it at least a solid nomination. Bulk order the tissues and get ready to sob when "A Monster Calls" hits theaters on Dec. 23.


'Manchester by the Sea'

Could this be the year Amazon courts its first Best Picture nomination? The streaming giant outbid everyone earlier this year for the domestic rights to "Manchester by the Sea," the new drama from American director Kenneth Lonergan. The film, also likely to score Best Actor and Best Actress nominations for Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams respectively, tells the story of a man who suddenly becomes the guardian of his nephew after tragedy strikes.

"Loss is not prejudiced," writes Adam Chitwood for Collider. "It happens to us all, some sooner than later, some more devastating than others. But its effects are unique and unpredictable – the body has no automatic response mode for grief. "Manchester by the Sea" understands this in a fundamental way."

Should Affleck score an Oscar, he'll have Matt Damon to thank for the opportunity. The actor was originally slated for the lead role in "Manchester," but was forced to reduce his role to producer after scheduling conflicts with "The Martian" and "Jason Bourne."

"Manchester by the Sea" will premiere in theaters on Nov. 18 and on Amazon Prime Video in February.


'Arrival'

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival" is likely the first film about aliens since 1997's "Contact" to garner serious awards buzz. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, the sci-fi drama focuses on the sudden arrival of alien vessels on Earth and the efforts by a team of scientists to figure out their intentions. While the scares reminiscent of other beloved alien films are there, "Arrival" also features some heavy drama and big questions for audiences to ponder.

"Without venturing into spoiler territory, there are some very big ideas in 'Arrival' that make us question not just how we interact with our planet and each other, but the very ways we perceive space and time," writes critic Ryland Aldrich. These are handled delicately but beautifully and the impact has ramifications that keep the viewer reconsidering common assumptions long after the credits role."

While no science fiction film has ever won Best Picture before, "Arrival's" smart story and engaging character development gives it an honest shot. As a testament to its critical appeal, the film is currently sporting a rare 100% approval rating from more than 35 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. It's slated to invade theaters on Nov. 11.

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5 films you need to watch before Oscars big night
From 'Jackie' to 'Arrival,' here are the cinematic juggernauts to catch during Hollywood's big awards season.