Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes is like a cross between The Grapes of Wrath and Glengarry Glen Ross. Set in Florida in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, this is a modern-day morality tale that continually confounds audience expectations. It is about bankruptcy, foreclosures, forced evictions and broken lives. Its characters aren't beleaguered sharecroppers, as in John Steinbeck's novel, but newly homeless middle-class families, preyed on by banks and estate agents.
At the same time as it chronicles despair, the film also plays like a twisted variation on the typical story about the pursuit of the American dream. Its eminently decent hero, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a single father desperate to hold his family together, does some eminently despicable things. What makes the film so jarring is that we understand why and root for him anyway.
99 Homes begins in a matter-of-fact way with a suicide. A man about to lose his home has shot himself. His misery spells profit for the real-estate agent Rick Carver, played by Michael Shannon. Bahrani stages the opening sequence in bravura fashion, from Carver's point of view, with prowling camerawork and no cuts.
This is strictly business for the Gordon Gekko-like entrepreneur, who is utterly unconcerned that there is a dead man in the house. He works with cops, locksmiths and building contractors to secure the property for the banks, who now own it.
“Don't get emotional about real estate,” is Carver's mantra. Dennis Nash is next on his list to have evicted. Like almost every other home-owner behind on his mortgage, Nash has a “sob story”. He is, by turns, defiant, belligerent and then, finally, distraught as he realises that he is losing the family house he shares with his mother (Laura Dern) and his young son. “I need a bit more time,” begs Nash, but when Carver looms, grim reaper-like, on your doorstep, that means that time has already run out. You're given a few minutes to salvage your most valuable possessions while the removal men dump your furniture on the grass in front of your house. The whole grim pantomime is played in full view of the neighbours.
What makes Shannon such a fascinating actor is his habit of coming at roles from the angle you least expect. In The Iceman, he played a serial killer as a dedicated family man who made it a point of principle never to miss his daughter's birthday parties. In Boardwalk Empire, he was an upstanding and very priggish Federal agent who eventually behaved with as much cunning, corruption and violence as the gangsters he was investigating.
Cate Blanchetts next movie was first tipped as an Oscars contender at Cannes, where it received glowing reviews and won her co-star Rooney Mara the Best Actress gong. Both actresses are early favourites. as is the film itself, about a woman in a loveless marriage who sparks a connection with a 20-something department store clerk. Features a stellar score, too.
2/16 The Revenant
Not just any film, but the film that might just prove seventh time lucky for Leonardo DiCaprio. 'Poor Leo' has been nominated again and again without taking home a golden man but, as a 19th century fur trapper hellbent on revenge, he'll be hoping for glory next February. Last year's Best Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is behind the camera and the first trailer looks gritty and awesome.
20th Century Fox
Jennifer Lawrence is set to be back in the front row at next year's ceremony with a nomination for Joy. The previous Best Actress winner plays a single mother turned multi-millionaire businesswoman in David O'Russell's biopic of Miracle Mop creator Joy Mangano. Out at Christmas, just in time for peak Oscars buzz.
20th Century Fox
Baltasar Kormákur’s disaster thriller about the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster is set to open Venice next month, where previous titles selected to kick off the film festival have included Oscar winners Birdman and Gravity. The star-studded cast also bodes well for what looks set to be one of the biggest films of the autumn, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, Robin Wright, Josh Brolin and Sam Worthington.
5/16 Steve Jobs
This film may be somewhat infamous for all its problems en route to the cinema, but with Danny Boyle in the director's chair it's finally making waves. Michael Fassbender plays late tech pioneer Jobs while Seth Rogen is Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Yet another biopic, but the Academy does love them.
6/16 The Danish Girl
Eddie Redmayne returns in another challenging role as pioneering transgender artist Lili Elbe, who became the first man to undergo gender reassignment surgery. The 33-year-old Brit won last time around for his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and was so excited then that we're not sure he could actually cope with the ecstasy of triumphing twice.
Working Title/Universal Pictures
Tom Hardy is playing not one but both Kray twins in this mobster biopic about notorious gangsters Ronnie and Reggie, who ran an organised London crime ring in the Sixties. Surely that deserves some Academy credit?
8/16 Son of Saul
A sure-fire hit in the foreign language category after winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, Son of Saul focuses on the Holocaust in a uniquely horrifying way. The story is told through the eyes of a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner who works in Auschwitz burning bodies after gas chamber extermination and is intent on giving his dead son a proper burial. This is the first film from director Laszlo Nemes, who could well leave Los Angeles with an Oscar or two next year.
9/16 Inside Out
Lego Movie fans were less than impressed when the film was snubbed at the Oscars last year, but there’s little doubt Inside Out will not suffer the same fate. The clever Pixar movie about the inner workings of the mind is already the animated film of the year, winning five star accolades from a number of critics. The ‘children’s film’ succeeds in appealing to viewers of all ages, from under-10s to adults brushing up on Freudian displacement.
10/16 Black Mass
Warner Bros is touting this crime drama as a definite awards season favourite. Following the recent trend for biopics, the film is based on the true story of violent American criminal Whitey Bulger, who became an FBI informant. Johnny Depp stars as Bulger, and - should the Oscars campaigning pay of - this could be the film that turns his career around after a series of box office flops
Michael Fassbender stars as Shakespeare’s Scottish King in this thrilling, blood-spattered adaptation directed by Justin Kurzel. Marion Cotillard appears alongside the Irish-German actor as Lady Macbeth in the film, which was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The movie shares the same producers as The King’s Speech and Shame.
Expect uproar from feminist campaigners if this film doesn’t get any Oscar nominations. Directed by Sarah Gavron (a rare female director) and based on a screenplay by Abi Morgan, the movie - as the title suggests - follows the early members of Britain’s women’s suffragette movement. Meryl Streep, who starred in Morgan’s The Iron Lady, returns to play another historic British woman, Emmeline Pankhurst, while Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter, Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw also star.
Oliver Stone's political thriller brings to life the recent news story about American computer professional Edward Snowden's decision to leak classified information from the NSA to the Guardian in 2013. Based on The Snowden Files by Guardian journalist Luke Harding, the film sounds promising, but whether teen movie favourite Joseph Gordon-Levitt can give a convincing performance as Snowden will be up to the critics to decide.
14/16 In the Heart of the Sea
Chris Hemsworth takes on a huge whale in Ron Howard’s ocean-based drama about the true story of a whaling ship attacked by a whale in 1820. Warner Bros clearly backs it, moving its release date from March to peak-awards season in December and the trailer suggests we're in for a stormy ride at sea.
15/16 Jurassic World
We're not predicting this one to make a showing in the acting categories, but Colin Trevorrow may be in for a shot as Best Director. This blockbuster scored the highest opening of any movie ever earlier this year, and is tipped to pick up some gongs for visual effects and sound editing.
16/16 The Lady In The Van
Could an adaptation of an obscure-sounding Alan Bennett story win over US Academy voters? British films have fared well across the pond in recent years (The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything and The King’s Speech to name a few), which could give Nicholas Hytner’s movie a boost. Starring Maggie Smith (and we all know how much Americans love Downton), Dominic Cooper and James Corden, this charming film deserves a look in.
Here, Carver seems utterly ruthless but Shannon somehow manages to invest the character with pathos and at least a hint of a lost decency. He is behaving as he does because of what happened to his own father. “America doesn't bail out the losers” is one of his maxims, a justification for pursuing his own interests even when it means leaving homelessness, poverty and despair in his wake. He dresses sharply, smokes calmly on his e-cigarette as home owners rage around him. He seems blithely unconcerned by the misery of others as he pursues ever more ambitious property deals.
And yet Carver is hardly a contented figure in himself. He “flips” homes continually. He barely sees his own daughters, has no time for his girlfriend and wears a gun on his ankle to protect him from the rage of the families that he evicts.
Nash ends up striking his own Faustian pact with the real estate agent. Carver offers him a job, working on the houses that have been foreclosed. There is a tremendous early scene, with a very obvious symbolic undertow, in which he proves himself to his new employer by helping to clean up a house whose dispossessed owner has backed up the sewage in a final act of defiance.
You can't get dirtier work but, by taking on the job, Nash begins to salvage his own self-respect. Unlike the other homeless fathers cooped up with their families in cheap motels, he refuses to accept the role of victim.
The ironies multiply. Nash excels as the devil's apprentice, Carver's new right-hand man. He works very hard. Like his boss, he tries to steel himself not to be affected by the misery of the families he is evicting. Andrew Garfield is well cast. He has a likeable, everyman-ish quality, reminiscent of a young Henry Fonda. It just so happens that, in his attempt to salvage his home and livelihood, he has mislaid his moral compass.
We want Nash to succeed and admire him in his battle to reclaim the family home. We become as blind as he is to the sufferings of the families who can no longer make their mortgage payments.
The screenplay (by Bahrani and fellow film-maker Amir Naderi) subverts the tropes of the typical self-help story. It portrays a society in which the only opportunities for success are provided by the failures of others. This is a film without conventional heroes and villains. The behaviour of all the characters, from the defaulting home owner who makes his house a fortress, to the predatory estate agents who are trying to capitalise on his misfortune, is driven by circumstance.
99 Homes is largely set in suburban Florida. The houses which become its battlefields are often spacious and luxurious. There are no obvious signs of poverty and the sun always seems to be shining. Even so, the contemporary US that Bahrani portrays is every bit as lawless, corrupt and insecure as the frontier communities terrorised by robber barons in old Westerns. The courts, the cops and the property developers work hand in hand. That is what makes the film seem so chilling and finally so pessimistic.
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