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)