Until now, the big question was not which films would get Oscar nominations, but which might actually be eligible. A few expected contenders — including George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, and the Nicole Kidman-led Grace of Monaco — shifted their release dates to next year, citing a need for more time to finish. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street nearly did the same, but ultimately settled on the deadline-teetering date of Dec. 25, maintaining its status as an awards favorite (even though no one has actually seen it yet).
The race is still wide open, although many voters and pundits have already predicted a face-off between two powerhouse films: 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. Oscar nominations aren’t announced until Jan. 16, and we could again get between five and 10 films on the Best Picture list, depending on how many films are the No. 1 choice of at least 5 percent of Academy voters. As of now, though, here is what Hollywood is liking, anticipating, and buzzing about — along with a few outsiders we feel deserve to be part of the Oscar conversation.
12 Years A Slave
Steve McQueen’s gripping survival saga won the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival, where it became the first sure thing of this Oscar season. The true story of a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is kidnapped and sold into bondage in the 1840s leaves audiences speechless, but some Academy voters have been intimidated by descriptions of its violence. (In theaters now)
Imaginative, funny, and emotional, writer-director Spike Jonze’s near-future tale of a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with an artificial intelligence program (the warm, witty voice of Scarlett Johansson) could not have stronger word of mouth. Critics swooned when it debuted last month at the New York Film Festival. Expect Oscar voters to fall head over heels for it too. (Out Dec. 18)
When Somali hijackers seized control of an American shipping freighter in April 2009, many watched the fatal standoff play out in real time on cable news. Director Paul Greengrass’ harrowing re-creation makes the conflict intimate and personal, generating sympathy not only for Tom Hanks’ working-class hero but also for the desperate, misguided men holding him captive. (In theaters now)
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
It didn’t receive the strongest reviews, but it’s one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the year. The multi-decade story of a black White House butler (Forest Whitaker) who serves — and influences — eight U.S. presidents is partially fictional, but it has three true-life Oscar heavyweights behind it: costars Oprah Winfrey and Whitaker and distributor Harvey Weinstein. (In theaters now)
The second sure thing of the awards season, Alfonso Cuarón’s visually stunning drama about stranded astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) debuted in Toronto just days after 12 Years a Slave, quickly launching an intense two-way race between the films. The wow factor of Gravity’s special effects is rivaled only by its blockbuster box office popularity. (In theaters now)
All Is Lost (In Theaters Now)
American Hustle (Out Dec. 13)
Blue Jasmine (In Theaters Now)
Nebraska (Out Nov. 15)
Saving Mr. Banks (Out Dec. 13)
August: Osage County (Out Dec. 25)
Dallas Buyers Club (In Theaters Now)
Fruitvale Station (On Dvd Soon)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Out Dec. 6)
The Wolf Of Wall Street (Out Dec. 25)
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
Ejiofor has more than earned his first Oscar nod not just for inhabiting the confusion of a free man who is staggered to find himself a slave, but for enduring the physical and emotional torment that undoubtedly accompanied the role. The impulse is to turn away, but his performance makes that impossible.
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Fierce determination, rapid-fire calculation, and a rough, blue-collar accessibility make this one of the richest characters the two-time Oscar winner has ever played. When his final breakdown arrives, the only thing voters in the Academy’s actors’ branch will dislike is that they didn’t get this part.
Robert Redford, All Is Lost
He barely says a word, but that’s the power of the 77-year-old’s performance. Redford stars alone as a man stranded on a damaged sailboat in the middle of the ocean, methodically fighting for survival. His only previous acting nod was for The Sting 40 years ago, but this will surely be his second.
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Matthew Mcconaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Joaquin Phoenix, Her
Forest Whitaker, Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Leonardo Dicaprio, The Wolf Of Wall Street
Idris Elba, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station