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The Oscars won’t be given out until March, but Oscar season is already well underway as studio flacks hold parties and special screenings intended to sway voters. The leading contenders so far are:
10 and 9. American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street
Both films make the list solely because of the track record of their respective directors, David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) and Martin Scorsese. Unlike all of the other movies on this list, these two haven’t been publicly shown yet. Scorsese is still editing his Leonardo DiCaprio-starring film about finance-industry debauchery and isn’t expected to be finished until the end of November.
Russell says his movie, which stars Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in a drama about a 1970s political scam, is almost ready. American Hustle is due in theaters Dec. 18, Wolf a week later.
Likely Oscar nominations: Best Picture?
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8. Inside Llewyn Davis
A typically oddball effort from Joel & Ethan Coen, this early-1960s period piece stars little-known actor Oscar Isaac as a floundering Greenwich Village folk singer who fails in various amusing and depressing ways in the months before Bob Dylan hits town.
It’s a hard film to like and it won’t be a box office hit, but graybeard Oscar voters are likely to chuckle at the Coens’ recreation of Kennedy-era America. The atmosphere, the reputation of the Coens, the many superb folk song performances and the fine supporting actors (including Carey Mulligan and John Goodman) may be enough to barely carry the film to Oscar attention.
Likely Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay.
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7. Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Carefully crafted to follow in the path of The Help, this fictionalized civil rights drama about the quiet dignity of a White House butler (Forest Whitaker) who serves presidents Eisenhower through Reagan as his son becomes a radical activist was released in The Help’s August slot and carefully positioned as a sentimental favorite.
Critical protests that the film is hokey and contrived will be ignored, just as they were for The Help, and the movie has become a smash at the box office.
Likely Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Oprah Winfrey), Best Original Screenplay.
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6. All Is Lost
Robert Redford stars in a movie with virtually no dialogue about a lone yachtsman who is in the Indian Ocean when he discovers his vessel has been severely damaged while he slept.
The film, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, hasn’t caught on at the box office, but Redford is such a beloved figure in Hollywood for what he has done to help younger filmmakers through his Sundance Institute that he is seen by many as the leading candidate for his first ever acting Oscar. And the film has earned strong critical praise for its daring decision to depend solely on action to define character.
Likely Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor.
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This one is a bit dour and bleak but also very human. This black-and-white road movie by Alexander Payne (Sideways) is about an elderly curmudgeon (Bruce Dern) and his long-suffering son (former “SNL” star Will Forte, in his first dramatic role) who drive from Montana to Nebraska, where the older man has convinced himself he can collect lottery winnings after receiving one of those publishers-scam junk mail notices telling him he is a winner (if he has the winning number).
As the two men check in on family they haven’t seen in years, the younger one learns increasingly surprising truths about his father’s darkest days.
Likely Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay
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4. Saving Mr. Banks
Tom Hanks stars as a charming but canny Walt Disney in a film about Disney’s two-decade negotiations to buy the rights to Mary Poppins from author P.L. Travers (played with impeccable English frostiness by Emma Thompson).
Given that the typical Oscar voter is an older man, the film’s themes about fatherhood (Colin Farrell plays Travers’ dad in flashbacks to her miserable childhood in Australia) seem guaranteed to impress. Plus the film is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser.
Likely Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay.
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3. Captain Phillips
The film may not be holding up well to fact-checking, but Hollywood doesn’t much care about that. The important thing is that Tom Hanks gets to be a hero again, and incidentally the film is a highly entertaining high seas adventure. That it’s proven to be a big hit at the box office won’t hurt.
Likely Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay.
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2. 12 Years a Slave
The critical acclaim has been massive for this brutally agonized look at the true story of a free Northerner (Britain’s Chiwetel Ejiofor) who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery before the Civil War.
Social-issues films and historical works are always big at the Oscars, and no topic obsesses Hollywood liberals more than race. British director Steve McQueen, after his films Hunger and Shame, has built up a lot of artistic credibility, and the movie is doing surprisingly well at the box office also. But it may be too harsh to win the biggest Oscars. And it faces mighty competition from…
Not only does everyone love this gorgeous and transporting Alfonso Cuaron film, which is by far the biggest hit of the year among those that are about relatable human beings rather than fantasy figures, but thanks to Sandra Bullock’s winning performance as a scientist cut off from her space station and fighting for her life, it has real emotional ballast.
It’s not nearly as hard-edged as 12 Years a Slave, which is why it is the overwhelming favorite to not only win Best Picture but sweep the Oscars.
Likely Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (George Clooney), Original Screenplay.
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