Right now you are saying to yourselves, "But Cinema Siren! It’s only September! Football has barely started! How can we be expected to concern ourselves with the Oscars already?!"
Well, movie lovers, it's never too early to be prepared—especially when, from time to time, there will be a movie that pops up only to be frustratingly absent when the required viewing list is presented one early morning this winter.
For that reason, and because we critics have special crystal balls into which we can stare and intuit the cinematic future, here is a list for you all to consider, so you are prepared ahead of the hype. Now you can be the coolest kid in your movie-loving clique!
· Gravity : An amount of praise that seems almost hyperbolic and beyond belief makes this one of the leading movies likely to garner nominations. Especially noteworthy are the special effects, cinematography and editing. There is almost without question a Best Actress nomination for Sandra Bullock, for whom the new category "Most Time Spent Suspended in a Space Suit" should be invented. Opens Oct. 4, wide release.
· All Is Lost : J.C. Chandler (nominated for best original screenplay for Margin Call) is both writer and director on this suspenseful action indie that pits lone actor Robert Redford against an angry ocean. At this point, advance buzz says the Best Actor win is his to lose, although Chiwetel Ejiofor is going to offer challenge with his breathtaking performance in 12 Years a Slave. Opens Oct. 18, limited release.
· Prisoners : Can a suspense thriller about child abduction and vigilantism sporting an Oscar nom top-heavy cast break through to get the Academy's attention? Is this Denis Villeneuve-directed movie good enough to do it, or is it just two stars—Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal—directing viewer traffic toward a decidedly dark and unpleasant story with their talent? The greats Viola Davis and Melissa Leo add their acting prowess, so it's worth a look-see, and it’s already doing very well at the box office for so dark a tale. Note to female viewers: Even in sleepless and panicked mode, the Jake and Hugh show still brings on the pretty. In theaters.
· 12 Years a Slave: It was only a matter of time before director Steve McQueen (of Hunger and Shame) released his version of a Hollywood movie. This story is based on a book by real-life freeman-turned-slave Solomon Northup. It is brutal and unflinching in its portrayal of his struggle to survive and maintain dignity, but it's the closest McQueen will ever get to mainstream. It stars a ton of heavies: Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender — whose nomination is assured, and win is very possible, for Best Supporting Actor — and Paul Giamatti. And as the lead, the vastly underrated Chiwetel Ejiofor is said to be brilliant. If as is often the case, winning the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival is any indication, this movie will be one of the most nominated this year. Opens Oct. 18, limited.
· Lee Daniels' The Butler: Arguments among the critics have already ensued when The Butler gets big Oscar talk. Forrest Whittaker and Oprah Winfrey will be deservedly promoted by the Weinstein machine in Best Actor and Supporting Actress categories, but they are what propel the movie forward, and thus other nominations such as Best Picture should be considered before offered. Likely this film as a whole will get swept up by attaching itself to the talent of its stars, but the subject matter is worthy so the film is worth a viewing, and the leads put their heart and soul into their work. In theaters.
· Inside Llewyn Davis: This year's offering by writer/director brothers Ethan and Joel Coen stars Oscar Isaac as a young folk singer and his attempts to work his way up up the musical food chain in 1961 Greenwich Village. Davis has been working up the Hollywood food chain for years now, and he's getting great buzz as the title character. Unfortunately, he is a dark horse this year. The film won the Grand Prix at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and for those who appreciate these auteurs, is something to see so as to legitimately gripe about his exclusion. Opens Dec. 6, limited.
· Blue Jasmine: Hollywood legend Woody Allen has brought arguably the best acting performance of Cate Blanchett's career in this clever yet difficult to watch study in dysfunction, making it a must-see for any Blanchett fan. Never willing to rest on his back catalogue or phone in the light comedies, Allen has written his best drama in years, and the darkness of the film is balanced with a skewering of the ruling class that is at times so wickedly funny the audience can't decide whether to laugh or cry. The great script, and Blanchett and her brilliant co-stars' acting, make it worthy of a close look at awards time. In theaters.
· American Hustle: What can you say about a movie directed by Academy darling David O. Russell, and starring Academy darlings Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale, with con artists, FBI, and the mafia, all embodying personal desperation and the excess of the '70s? If there is a red phone with a direct line to the Academy, it might be used here. At very least watching those four interact will make American Hustle a must-see. How will it do in the Oscars race? It might be an all or nothing proposition. Opens Dec. 13, limited.
Wolf of Wall Street: Marty and Leo together again! Scorsese and DiCaprio
show their partnership still brings box office brilliance in another story of
excess, a black comedy based on banker Jordan Belfort's memoir of indulgence
and corrupt dealings that made headlines in the 1990s. This fifth
collaboration, given its over-the-top subject matter, may or may not find a way
to seduce the Academy, but respect must be given to the fearless filmmaking
these two consummate artists give birth to together. They are making an art
form of debauchery. Opens Nov. 15, wide.
* The Wolf of Wall Street update:Paramount and Martin Scorsese are considering pushing back the date from November to later, potentially even next year, which will knock it out of 2014's Oscar race. I will keep you updated as news is announced. It isn't the first time the director has postponed a film's release, but studios have long learned Marty knows best...
· Nebraska: Ever cool Bruce Dern won the Best Actor award at Cannes in this year's release from director Alexander Payne (The Descendants). It’s a black and white father-son road trip through the Midwest that features a kind of simmering melancholy and captures the awkwardness of two unhappy people in a painfully straightforward way. Anyone who remembers Bruce Dern in one of his many great roles might root for him to be nominated at very least. Opens Nov. 15, limited.
· Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: Based on Nelson Mandela's autobiography, this biopic stars underrated acting powerhouse Idris Elba (of TV's Luther) and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie Mandela. While the film as a whole is said to be flawed, both actors are getting immense buzz for inclusion in the Best Actor and Supporting Actress categories, and not a moment too soon for Elba, who deserves to rise to the top of Hollywood's A list. Nov. 29, limited.
· Captain Phillips: Tom Hanks is in not only this thriller, helmed by Paul Greengrass, but also in Saving Mr. Banks, where he plays Walt Disney, which will be turning voters towards itself as well come later this fall. Is it possible the Academy could pass him over? Captain Phillips is a taut examination of the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. container ship by a crew of Somali pirates. Opens Oct. 11.
· Dallas Buyers Club: Matthew McConaughey has already garnered praise from critics with his dark portrayal in Mud released earlier this year. Again, just in time for your consideration, he ends 2013 starring in Dallas Buyers Club, about real-life Texas electrician Ron Woodroof, a man struggling to gain time after being diagnosed as HIV positive and given 30 days to live. Both his skeletal appearance and his portrayal will make him impossible to ignore this awards season. Jared Leto disappears completely into his co-starring role as a transgender HIV patient, and his name is destined to come up as well. Neither Mud nor Dallas Buyers Club is an emotional walk in the park, but DBC might be what puts McConaughey front-row center at awards time. Opens Dec. 6, limited.
· August: Osage County: Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, this is a dark, hilarious, bittersweet portrayal of a family coming together during crisis and the dysfunction that follows their every movement. It's like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, only with parents and children instead of husbands and wives. Torture and hilarity in equal measure, but brought to you by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, among others in the stellar cast. Those two will be at very least considered come awards time, not least because cancer is involved, and the Academy loves cancer as much as it loves Meryl Streep. The two together? Unstoppable! Dec. 25, wide.
About this column: Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren," is a movie lover and aficionado who aspires to get more people back into the beautiful alternate worlds offered in the dark at movie houses across the world. Alongside Michael Barry, she owns ArtInsights, an animation and film art gallery in Reston, Va. She has a background in film and art history. She often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster, the Harry Potter Fandom discussion, and other film related panels. Visit her gallery at www.artinsights.com and see more of her reviews and interviews at www.artinsightsmagazine.com.