The Contenders 2012
Behold, the thrifty 30: this year’s leading candidates to earn at least two nominations for Oscar in picture, director, acting, screenplay, foreign language and animation
Sony Pictures Classics
Release date: Dec. 19
Mere minutes after its first screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Amour” was hailed by some breathless observers as a shoo-in for the foreign-language film Oscar.
Whether that pans out or not, North American distrib Sony Classics would seem to be setting its sights both higher and wider, well aware that Michael Haneke’s intimate study of an aging Parisian couple could resonate with arthouse audiences in a way that the Austrian auteur’s earlier films, however critically lauded, have never entirely managed.
Bringing Haneke’s cold, formalist touch to bear on inherently emotional and accessible material, “Amour” has already won the director his second Palme d’Or (just three years after “The White Ribbon”), and its subsequent fest screenings have steadily built a reputation for leaving auds in spellbound silence.
While no foreign-language entry has been nominated for best picture since 2006’s “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Amour” represents perhaps the category’s strongest non-American hopeful in years.
Haneke is a longer shot for director consideration, though celebrated foreign helmers have cracked the race before.
Goodwill toward the film is even more likely to benefit cherished French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, both in their 80s, who give wrenching, perfectly harmonized performances as a husband and wife facing the inevitabilities of illness and death.
Grueling as the results are to behold, it’s hard to imagine Academy voters, particularly those in the characters’ age bracket, emerging unmoved.
– Justin Chang
Release date: Nov. 16
With “Anna Karenina,” Brit director Joe Wright returns to the classic literary terrain that established his reputation in 2005 when his debut feature, “Pride & Prejudice,” announced the arrival of both a highly competent cinematic voice and an actress, Keira Knightley, who placed her unique emotional stamp on a literary icon, Elizabeth Bennet.
Many of Wright’s collaborators on that film — including composer Dario Marianelli, who won an Oscar for Wright’s “Atonement,” production designer Sarah Greenwood, set decorator Katie Spencer and costume designer Jacqueline Durran, all Oscar nominees — have reunited with the filmmaker on “Anna Karenina,” with Knightley in the title role. Equally key is ace lenser Seamus McGarvey, who has worked with Wright dating back to “Atonement.”
Critics are bound to be divided when the film opens Friday, some having already weighed in when the film bowed in London, with Empire magazine declaring it “period drama at its most exciting, intoxicating and modern” and Variety calling it a “dark, expressionist take” on Tolstoy’s novel.” Others were not so taken by the film’s theatrical artifice, which they decried as having a distancing effect from the characters.
Time magazine hailed Knightley’s lead performance as “nervy,” “acutely attuned to the volcanic changes a naive creature must enjoy and endure on her first leap into mad passion. She helps make Anna Karenina an operatic romance worth singing about.”
– Steve Chagollan
Release date: Sept. 14
Several of the top films in the 2012 awards season mix, such as “Argo,” “The Master,” “Promised Land” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” harken to Hollywood’s “Second Golden Era” of the ’70s, when personal, edgy, director-driven films were a staple of the studio production slates of the time. Today, those films generally roll out from independent sources, but as is the case with Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage,” the financing apparatus matters little to movie fans and Oscar voters hungry for provocative, topical fare that is more cinematically nuanced than what appears regularly on the small screen.
First-time feature writer-director Jarecki, the son of two commodities brokers, mined his insider knowledge of the rhythms and tones of the visual environment as well as the mindset of today’s high-rolling Wall Street wheeler-dealers to fashion a somber moral fable about the real meaning of “success.”
To those who live outside the world of Jarecki’s main character, the powerful and astoundingly successful Robert Miller (Richard Gere), his self-inflicted wounds and the damage to those close to him are a horrifying but vivid example of karma writ large. Jarecki’s key achievement is not just in the details of his well-composed, convincing screenplay, but in the film’s resistance to sit in judgment of Miller’s foibles and fate. But for each person disturbed by the film’s morally neutral stance, there are others who will see “Arbitrage” as a worthy companion to the dark portraiture of Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Gere has garnered reviews from respectful to ecstatic, and Jarecki has immediately put himself on the map with the well-regarded screenplay. Also outstanding in a key supporting role is young thesp Nate Parker, whose humanity is in constant jeopardy.
– Steven Gaydos
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Release date: Oct. 12
Since its rapturously received premieres at Telluride and Toronto, Ben Affleck’s “Argo” has boasted all the elements of a formidable fall entry: brisk biz, stellar reviews, industry accolades, even its own memorable catchphrase (“Argo fuck yourself!”).
Yet the Academy-specific appeal of the film, an alternately tense and comedic suspenser set against the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis, runs even deeper. Serving up both historical re-creation and contempo resonance in a briskly entertaining package, this is a picture whose Hollywood-saved-the-day arc makes the biz look and feel awfully good — never a bad tactic for best picture recognition, as last year’s “The Artist” demonstrated.
“Argo” also completes Affleck’s astonishing career rehabilitation, providing the sort of feel-good industry story that should play right into the Academy’s long tradition of honoring actors-turned-directors. An acting nod for Affleck’s subtle turn as CIA operative Tony Mendez seems less likely; John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston would seem to have a better shot for their scene-stealing supporting turns and could benefit from their other high-profile roles this year (in “Flight,” “Stand Up Guys” and TV’s “Breaking Bad,” respectively).
With its tonally tricky blend of docudrama intensity and playful Hollywood satire, Chris Terrio’s adapted screenplay could earn the favor of the writers branch. Below-the-line contributions ripe for recognition include William Goldenberg’s tense editing and the grungy period look achieved by d.p. Rodrigo Prieto and production designer Sharon Seymour.
– Justin Chang
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHE
Release date: June 27
By the time the Oscar nominations arrive, nearly a year will have passed since “Beasts of the Southern Wild” roared onto screens with its vibrancy and originality, winning the Sundance grand jury prize in January. The Benh Zeitlin-directed film didn’t rest on those laurels, snagging top honors at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard and essentially establishing itself as the most-feted film of the first half of 2012.
However, a beast of a task remains: to not only find exposure among those who missed it the first time around, but reignite the passion with fans who fell in love with it but have since been distracted by other fare. If so, it’s a very reasonable candidate for a picture nom, as well as one or more nods for Zeitlin, who also teamed with Lucy Alibar to write the adaptation of her one-act play.
The most awards intrigue for “Beasts” will center around 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, who has a realistic chance of becoming Oscar’s youngest lead actress nominee ever (besting then-13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes of “Whale Rider”). The diminutive Wallis does the film’s heavy lifting and is completely convincing as the youngster simultaneously trying to make her way in and make sense of her post-flood Bayou world.
– Jon Weisman
Release date: April 27
Just when you thought you had Jack Black figured out, he goes and makes a little movie like “Bernie,” in which he plays an affable mortician in Carthage, Texas, who sings in the church choir and consoles the town’s grieving widows, making him a figure so beloved by the locals that they refuse to hold a case of murder against him.
The Academy loves to see its clowns cry, and this eccentric character sketch, which co-writer/director Richard Linklater fashions as a fake documentary, certainly offers audiences a different side of Black than they’ve seen before.
It also marks the first post-“Lincoln Lawyer” performance by Matthew McConaughey in what has proven to be a streak of risky, perception-changing roles from the Texas native (culminating in this summer’s revealing “Magic Mike”). Neither actor has ever been nominated, but co-star Shirley MacLaine is an old hand (having won for “Terms of Endearment,” in addition to five other nods), deliciously unpleasant here as a woman even Bernie couldn’t abide.
The modest Millennium Entertainment release, which opened the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival and subsequently skirted below the radar, quietly earning $9.2 million in theaters, could benefit from being one of the first for-your-consideration screeners distributed to voters.
– Peter Debruge
THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL
Release date: May 4
A summer sleeper hit, Fox Searchlight’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” grossed about $137.4 million worldwide by mid-October, charming auds with its tale of Brit retirees who embrace life in a rundown Indian hotel.
The ensemble cast of “Marigold Hotel” reads like a BAFTA who’s who, ranging from Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson to Bill Nighy and Dev Patel. Helmer John Madden (Oscar-nommed for “Shakespeare in Love”) directs Ol Parker’s adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s “These Foolish Things.”
Set in gorgeous Rajasthani cities of Jaipur and Udaipur (relocated from the book’s industrial view of Bangalore), the film quickly moves past the book’s grim view of unwanted retirees in drab Blighty to sunny India, where their lives undergo a transformation. Even the bigoted character played by Smith, who didn’t want Indians touching her, befriends a lower-caste woman — an “Untouchable.” They in their turn, change the lives of the Indians they come in contact with. “Everything will be all right in the end … if it’s not all right then it’s not the end,” as Patel’s character says.
Smith, who’s been golden since “Downton Abbey,” could get the recognition that her “Harry Potter” role didn’t garner for her, while Dench, Nighy and Wilkinson are also standouts.
Original music by Thomas Newman and sound editing by Resul Pookutty (“Slumdog Millionaire”) add to the film’s overall delight and awards chances.
– Shalini Dore
Release date: Oct. 26
Just the fact that “Cloud Atlas” even got made might be worth some kind of nomination.
The sprawling, independently financed epic skips back and forth in a non-linear manner between the past and the future, between genres and tone, but with the same small group of actors portraying several different roles across the vignettes.
As directors, Lana and Larry Wachowski and Tom Tykwer handled different segments, and all three tackled the screen adaptation of David Mitchell’s “unfilmable” novel. Critics are sharply divided about the hard-to-quantify film: Is it a brilliant success or an incoherent mess? Sci-fi or crowd-pleaser? Thriller or tragedy? But its craftsmanship and heavyweight themes may elevate the film beyond a shallow reading of its sci-fi elements. It boasts a starry cast, including Oscar winners Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent.
While the Wachowskis have a knack for creating pop cultural icons — they directed and wrote the “Matrix” series and wrote “V for Vendetta” — major awards tend to elude them. German filmmaker Tykwer is best-known for “Run Lola Run,” a cult hit in the U.S., and another difficult novel-to-film adaptation, “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” which was nominated for a European Film Award.
– Carole Horst
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Release date: July 16
In 2008, Heath Ldger posthumously won the supporting actor Oscar for the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” but because the film didn’t get a best picture nomination, public outcry was fierce, and opened up debates about what makes a best picture Oscar nominee and aren’t genre films just as serious as other “Oscar films” and didn’t Ledger’s perf prove that point to the out-of-touch Academy members?
The year after Ledger’s win, the Academy opened up the field for best picture nominations to 10.
“The Dark Knight Rises,” Christopher Nolan’s finale of his Batman trilogy, was always going to be accompanied by the cries and whispers of fanboys hoping that this was the one, the comicbook film to grab Oscar gold. Critics certainly agreed that “TDKR” was a stunning end to the series, tying up plots and delivering an emotional punch as well. Although Anne Hathaway shone as Catwoman, there was no knock-out perf like Ledger’s to push the awards talk into overdrive.
The film is littered with previous Oscar nominees and winners, including Nolan, a three-time Oscar nominee, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Hathaway and Marion Cotillard.
The awards talk may shift as the season moves closer to nominations deadlines and critics revisit the film and unpack its themes of good and evil, and burning revenge that drives both moral and immoral actions. And like the “Harry Potter” series, Nolan’s achievement in delivering consistent plots and characters
— that climax in a massive Gotham City battle — is something to consider.
– Carole Horst
Release date: Dec. 25
Though it remains unseen, “Django Unchained” has a host of past Oscar nominees who could make an impact this time around if the film is as playful as the trailers indicate.
With its tweak of history that looks to offer the same comedic bending of the facts that director Quentin Tarantino successfully executed in “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django” could rise to best picture status.
Tarantino has previously been nominated as both a writer and director for two films — “Pulp Fiction,” for which he won as a scribe, and “Basterds” — and he could be on the Academy’s shortlist in both those categories again.
The cast has two Oscar winners in lead actor Jamie Foxx (“Ray”) and supporting thesp Christoph Waltz (“Basterds”), who might now become a permanent member of the Tarantino troupe. Another Tarantino go-to thesp, Samuel L. Jackson, is a previous nominee, as is Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a three-time nominee but has missed the cut for the past five years.
Though lower on the call sheet, there’s film vet Bruce Dern as well — nominated for his 1978 pic “Coming Home.”
D.p. Robert Richardson will look to add to his impressive Oscar resume that consists of three wins among seven noms. Other previous Oscar noms from the below-the-line crew include production designer J. Michael Riva, costume designer Sharen Davis and art director Leslie Pope.
– Stuart Levine
Release date: Nov. 2
After receiving five nominations over a 15-year period, some could argue Denzel Washington is in the midst of an Oscar slump.
The box office star has focused on plenty of actioners, which are often ignored by voters, since his 2002 win for “Training Day. But now Washington may be flying a kudos high again, literally, if his performance as an alcoholic jetliner captain in “Flight” can generate Academy support.
Although Washington carries the drama by appearing nearly in every scene, John Goodman also makes his presence felt with a couple of cameos — especially in the late stages of the film — that feel very “Big Lebowski” and will leave moviegoers chuckling.
Like Goodman, actress Kelly Reilly’s turn as an addict also complements Washington’s well, but it may be hard for the two of them to make an impact.
Veteran director Robert Zemeckis was nominated in the 1980s as a writer for “Back to the Future” and won as a helmer in 1995 for “Forest Gump.” His handling of the captain’s downward spiral, as well plane’s turbulence sequences — especially as the jet becomes inverted — are exceptionally well-crafted.
Zemeckis’ longtime cinematographer and one-time Oscar nominee Don Burgess (“Gump”) helps raise the tension of the anxiety-filled crash landing sequence.
– Stuart Levine
Open Road Films
Release date: Jan. 27
Sometimes, when a filmmaker subverts a genre, Oscar voters get excited and noms happen. In the past 20 years, that filmmaker has usually been named Quentin Tarantino and the subversion has been a key element of the film’s appeal, marketing and critical hosannas. The crime thriller deconstruction called “Pulp Fiction” was a landmark example and delivered beaucoup noms and a screenwriting Oscar to Tarantino and his then-writing partner Roger Avary. The WWII actioner send-up “Inglourious Basterds” also yielded multiple noms and gold for actor Christoph Waltz.
Director-screenwriter Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” is a more complicated affair for voters. It was a solid B.O. performer at $55 million, though not a breakout hit like “Pulp” and “Basterds.” More importantly, Carnahan’s tinkering with the formula of men vs. nature wasn’t really part of the marketing, but rather a pleasant surprise to viewers and voters who discovered the film after its theatrical run, where star Liam Neeson’s presence in an action vehicle was the driver of its success. The film’s dirty little secret is that it has more in common with Kurosawa than Bay.
If voters can be convinced it’s worth a look, Carnahan’s sure-handed direction and surprisingly touching screenplay (co-written with the writer of the short-story source material, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers) are both worthy of serious consideration, as is Neeson’s commanding turn as the alpha male hunter turned prey.
There’s probably no bigger acting challenge in this year’s crop of films than Neeson’s scene where his gruff loner character must guide a plane crash victim through his last moments on earth, all in front of a team of shocked survivors who appear entranced by his therapeutic spiritual counseling session. He turns from beast to beauty on a dime, and it’s a scene worthy of any actor’s career highlights reel.
– Steven Gaydos
Release date: Nov. 23
Suddenly, it is Alfred Hitchcock season in America. HBO has begun airing “The Girl,” which looks at the helmer’s love-hate relationship with his “Marnie” and “The Birds” star Tippi Hedren. And on the heels of that telepic, Fox Searchlight is releasing “Hitchcock,” with Anthony Hopkins playing the master of suspense under the direction of Sacha Gervasi, making his feature film debut.
“The Girl” presents Hitchcock as an impotent sadist, with his wife, Alma Reville, the enabler. “Hitchcock,” scripted by John McLaughlin, is the much more sympathetic portrait, with Helen Mirren’s Mrs. Hitchcock seen as the hidden force behind the making of “Psycho,” the subject of this pic. It’s even being called a love story. And that is good for Oscar consideration.
Despite Faye Dunaway’s dead-on portrayal of Joan Crawford, the Acad ignored “Mommie Dearest” and its warts-and-all take on the Hollywood star. If nothing else, the org’s members tend to protect their movie legends. They nommed Robert Downey Jr.’s Charlie Chaplin perf (“Chaplin”), as well as Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh’s respective turns as Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier (“My Week With Marilyn”), and even gave Cate Blanchett the prize for her very sympathetic Katharine Hepburn (“The Aviator”).
Martin Landau also won an Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood.” All those portrayals burnished rather than tarnished the legend.
– Robert Hofler
“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003) took home 11 awards, tying an Oscar record. Made with a team that is eerily similar to the one that created “Rings,” “The Hobbit” has a pedigree to reckon with this award season. Given Jackson’s history with the Oscars — having received eight noms and won three awards in his career — it wouldn’t be surprising if th
e helmer, who co-wrote the screenplay with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, walked away with a couple of nominations.
Costume design, score and visual effects are also categories in which this team historically has been exceptional. While taking home the award for most of the above-the-line categories seems unlikely with such a crowded year for picture and director, “The Hobbit” should contend for its share of honors in below-the-line categories.
– Sammi Wong
Release date: Dec. 21
The title of “The Impossible” refers to the odds that a family of five, torn apart and separated from one another by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, could manage to reunite and rebuild the lives they had before disaster struck. As it turns out, “impossible” could just as easily describe the prospect that audiences will ever forget the visceral experience of this harrowing true story, captured by director Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Orphanage”) in all of its elemental intensity.
While Ewan McGregor plays a distressed father watching over his two youngest kids, Naomi Watts appeals directly to auds’ protective instincts, projecting a wounded mama bear more concerned with her terrified cub’s well-being than her own rapidly worsening condition. If voters are sufficiently moved by the experience, they could also show actor love for remarkable teenage thesp Tom Holland, one of the actors who played Billy Elliot on the London stage.
In a year heavy with adaptations, writer Sergio G. Sanchez’s original script provides both the emotional bassline upon which Bayona orchestrates this spectacular human drama and elegant grace notes along the way. Though he hails from Spain, the helmer’s grasp of Hollywood showmanship suggests he could be the biz’s next Spielberg. “Impossible,” you say? Think again.
– Peter Debruge
Release date: Dec. 25
One more day ’til revolution, then two more weeks ’til “Les Miserables” finds out its Oscar fate.
Tom Hooper’s directorial adaptation of the beloved legit production of “Les Miserables” is set to open Christmas Day, barely a fortnight before noms are announced Jan. 10. The early ayem announcements could bring plenty of manna to a bread-stealing man, along with his cast.
While the film hasn’t screened to outsiders, anticipation is high that the end-of-year entry could be major kudos player for several categories, including best picture.
Hugh Jackman, who has long proved his vocal abilities on Broadway as well as hosting the Tony Awards, will be the latest to give cinematic life to Jean Valjean. If his acting and singing chops inspire the Acad, the perf — much in the same way four thesps from “Chicago” were nommed — could give Jackman a spot on the lead actor short list.
On the supporting side, there are a plethora of juicy and scene-stealing roles, led by Russell Crowe’s Javert and Anne Hathaway’s Fantine.
Behind the camera, Hooper is coming off an Oscar for “The King’s Speech.” He is once again working with Oscar-nominated d.p. Danny Cohen and Oscar-winning production designer Eve Stewart. Chris Dickens, who won for “Slumdog Millionaire,” is editing.
– Stuart Levine
LIFE OF PI
Release date: Nov. 21
Splendor is a gas in Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” sure to be remembered among the most visually stimulating films of 2012. Upending what you might expect from a story that spends much of its time marooned on the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Lee delivers a treat for the eyes in support of David Magee’s thoughtful adaptation of the 2001 Yann Martel novel.
Lee, the Oscar-winning director of 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” makes his case for repeat honors by wrangling the international setting, a cast largely populated by the animal kingdom and extreme weather into a cohesive pic, while voters could also reward Magee (Oscar-nominated for “Finding Neverland”) for his work. No small thanks for the film’s cinematic success are owed to d.p. Claudio Miranda (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”).
Like fellow water-infused film “The Impossible,” the acting kudo possibilities for “Pi” offer an almost completely unknown lead performer: Suraj Sharma. For scene after scene, the teenager in his debut role is the only human onscreen, but attention never flags. Talented character actor Irrfan Khan provides critical emotional moments in a supporting role.
– Jon Weisman
Release date: Nov. 9
When it was announced two years ago that Daniel Day-Lewis would inhabit the title role of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” somehow this already weighty project took on an added dimension of prestige, seriousness and, dare we say it, edge — not a quality normally associated with the filmmaker. The seriousness is certainly evident in this 2½-hour biopic that takes much of its material from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”
What Day-Lewis — as a mirror image of the 16th president — does is subvert our perception of the nation’s most chronicled public figure, and yet in many ways the most mysterious. Instead of the commonly held image of a gravely forelorn, even tortured, soul who appeared to age 10 years in one before being assassinated in 1865, what Lewis gives us is a reedy-voiced commander-in-chief with folksy charm, country humor and a meandering anecdote as a way of getting his points across.
The approach both humanizes Lincoln and tests the patience of his Cabinet and members of Congress, with whom he battles to push-through the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. That fight, and not the Civil War, is the razor-sharp focus of what is perhaps Spielberg’s most dialogue-driven film. Screenwriter Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright behind “Angels in America,” previously collaborated with the director on “Munich.”
As an ensemble piece, the film is a veritable who’s who of up-and-coming as well as established character actors, including John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones, a scene stealer who might have the best lines as the sharp-tongued abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.
The film’s Oscar-winning pedigree couldn’t be more pronounced, including Day-Lewis, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Spielberg and his longtime band of brothers: d.p. Janusz Kaminsky, editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams and production designer Rick Carter. Only costume designer Joanna Johnston, who has worked with Spielberg dating back to 1984, hasn’t been recognized by the Academy, but her work here certainly presses the case.
– Steve Chagollan
The Weinstein Co.
Release date: Sept. 1
Heading into awards season sight unseen, discussion of the Oscar chances for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” al
l centered around what was rumored to be its touchy central subject: Scientology. As it turned out, the film’s Dianetics themes were almost incidental, though its cerebral, circuitous plotting and occasional obscurity could pose just as large an issue for more traditionalist voters.
For that reason, the odds may be stacked against Anderson in the screenplay category, where he has picked up three prior noms. A best picture nod in the designated arthouse slot is certainly possible though, and the sheer auteurist audacity of Anderson’s craft — especially his lush, large-canvas use of 65 mm stock — makes a director nom more than plausible.
But it’s the acting categories that should bring the real heat. In spite of his allergies to the endless gladhanding of the kudo circuit, two-time nominee Joaquin Phoenix’s lead turn ranks among the most wrenchingly physical performances of the year. Subtler but no less powerful is that of “Capote” winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, and subtler still is Amy Adams, whose quietly terrifying Lady Macbeth turn ought to add a fourth supporting actress nom to her resume.
Composer Jonny Greenwood, snubbed on technicalities for “There Will Be Blood,” stands a chance to be acknowledged here for his jagged-edged score, as does d.p. Mihai Malaimare, whose lensing explored the craggy topography of Phoenix’s face as carefully and beautifully as the churning oceans and desert landscapes around him.
– Andrew Barker
Release date: May 25
If Wes Anderson’s style hasn’t been for everyone (and whose ever is), it has been something for a lot of people — and perhaps never more so than with “Moonrise Kingdom,” his warm tale of two preteen runaways and the New England island community they turn upside down.
Never nommed for top picture or director — though he has been tapped for animated feature with “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — Anderson has the potential to break through if voters are reminded of the merits of the well-received late-spring release. Anderson, who co-wrote with Roman Coppola, could also get his second original screenplay nod, more than a decade after 2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
“Moonrise” also offers a foursome and then some of supporting acting possibilities, with Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis each delivering three-dimensional studies of characters trying to make the best of their lives amid lament. (The small part played by Tilda Swinton only adds to the embarrassment of riches.) No thesps from the film, however, are more deserving than the two young leads, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, whose mix of optimism, anguish and love help ground Anderson’s fantasy world in sincerity.
– Jon Weisman
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
Release date: Sept. 21
It’s probably wise that Stephen Chbosky held on to the film rights for his bestselling novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” — at least, it’s hard to imagine anyone who could have adapted the young-adult favorite more effectively for the screen.
Chbosky, both helmer and scribe on “Perks,” takes a faithful approach to the text, offering a slimmed-down but effective script with solid directing.
“Perks” hasn’t drummed up much hype for writing kudos, but Chbosky’s heartfelt treatment could turn on some Academy voters, especially in light of the pic’s warm critical reception.
Also in the underdog category is the film’s talented trio of thesps. Logan Lerman, best known previously for his turn in “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” works well in the multifaceted lead role of Charlie, infusing the performance with a quiet charm. Meanwhile, Emma Watson proves that she can indeed break through the precocious trappings of Hermione Granger, juggling love interest Sam’s effervescent confidence with streaks of insecurity.
Perhaps most significant for awards consideration is Ezra Miller in the role of Patrick, Sam’s oft-witty but thoughtful stepbrother. Miller, coming off a lauded performance in dark drama “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” anchors “Perks” with a hilarious and sensitive turn that received plenty of kudos from critics and deserves to trigger questions of supporting actor honors.
– Eddie Kim
Release date: Dec. 28
“Promised Land” revolves around the white-hot political issue of fracking and boasts an enviable pedigree, with Oscar-winning writer Matt Damon sharing scribe duties with co-star John Krasinski and Gus Van Sant on board to direct. Oscar winner Frances McDormand also stars in the movie, about a hot-shot natural gas salesman sent to secure leases in a struggling Pennsylvania farm town.
Damon’s Steve and his co-worker Sue (McDormand) find many townspeople eager for the financial windfall, but run into resistance from an older science teacher (Hal Holbrook) who once worked for Boeing. Before they know it, an environmentalist (Krasinski) is throwing his weight against the project, while also competing with his rival for the affections of a local teacher. The pitched battle dredges up painful memories for the salesman, who grew up in a Midwest farming community.
Focus plans to promote the film, backed by Participant Media and Imagenation Abu Dhabi, across categories, with a major push for best picture. Damon has already won an Academy Award in the original screenplay category for co-writing “Good Will Hunting” with childhood friend and co-star Ben Affleck, who promises to be a key figure this awards season, thanks to “Argo.”
Damon may also gain traction for his on-camera work as a corporate climber who struggles with his mission, and Holbrook always merits consideration.
– Diane Garrett
Release date: Dec. 28
With an Oscar-pedigreed creative team that includes first-time director Dustin Hoffman, Brit acting legend Maggie Smith and much-honored playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood, “Quartet” starts out on paper as a serious Oscar contender. That fact that the finished film has been well-reviewed (Peter Debruge of Variety praised “Hoffman and Harwood’s nuanced exploration of love”) and that its awards season hopes are in the hands of Harvey Weinstein, the ultimate promoter of high-toned British fare, means that “Quartet” could be one of the year’s smaller specialty films to resonate with Oscar voters.
Joining Smith in this funny and touching ensemble piece set in a lovely countryside home for retired opera singers and musicians are top-notch Brit thesps Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly, all in top form, with Connolly stretching beyond his comic roots. Derived from Harwood’s play of the same title, the film’s tale revolves around a long-ago and tossed away romance between Courtenay and Smith.
No doubt of special appeal to Oscar’s ample older demo, “Quartet” is also infused with deft flashes of humor and celebrates the special rage against the dying of the light that happens when performing artists’ voices and hands can no longer match
the minds and spirits they once served to thunderous and now-missing applause. Best Oscar bet include Collins, who shines in her supporting role, lead actress Smith, a longtime Oscar fave, and Harwood, whose craftsmanship and compassion could compete in the adapted screenplay field.
– Steven Gaydos
RUST AND BONE
Sony Pictures Classics
Release date: Nov. 23
Oscar has often smiled on actors playing characters with disabilities, a truism that arguably launched Marion Cotillard’s double-amputee turn in “Rust and Bone” into awards contention the moment the film made its premiere in competition at Cannes. The buzz was well founded. As a whale trainer injured in a horrific accident, Cotillard delivers her meatiest, most physically and emotionally demanding work since her Oscar-winning performance in 2007’s Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en rose.”
Yet one of the many surprises of this gritty, soulful French-language melodrama from director Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”) is that it casts Cotillard in an almost secondary role, as the less tortured half of a highly improbable couple. Her partner is a hulking, brutishly handsome boxer bearing deep emotional wounds; he’s played with expressive reticence by Matthias Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor whose profile was elevated several notches by his equally physical performance in “Bullhead,” one of last year’s Oscar nominees for foreign-language film.
A nomination in that category isn’t in the cards for “Rust and Bone,” as France opted for “The Intouchables” to represent it in the foreign-language derby instead. Still, despite its Gallic pedigree, the film should prove more than conversant with Stateside viewers and voters; it was artfully adapted from a story by Canadian author Craig Davidson, and Audiard’s simultaneously raw and polished direction feels influenced by Hollywood genre standards through and through.
– Justin Chang
Release date: Oct. 19
This Sundance fest hit is a most unlikely one: A middle-age writer with polio and mostly confined to an iron lung, is determined to lose his virginity.
But writer-director Ben Lewin has taken the true story of poet Mark O’Brien, who arranges to lose his virginity with a sex therapist, and turned it into a feel-good story infused with humor.
Critical reception has been warm, and the buzz surrounding the film centers mostly on John Hawkes as O’Brien. Hawkes did a lot of press when the film was released, and he related how he dug into the character by not only watching Jessica Yu’s doc on O’Brien, “Breathing Lessons,” to nail down the speech patterns and cadence of O’Brien, but also by physically distorting his body to best mimic O’Brien’s own damaged frame.
Hawkes was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar two years ago for his chilling role as Teardrop in “Winter’s Bone,” and with “The Sessions” shows his range and comic timing.
Helen Hunt, who won an actress Oscar for 1997’s “As Good as It Gets,” makes a return to the screen as the sex surrogate/therapist, in a role many may see as brave for a woman over 40 but is actually refreshing — an adult in a role that requires maturity. Past Academy Award nominee William H. Macy (“Fargo”) earns laughs as O’Brien’s priest.
Lewin doesn’t have much of a track record in the U.S., but with “The Sessions,” he may gain fans in Hollywood.
– Carole Horst
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
Release date: Nov. 21
From madcap Oedipal turmoil (“Spanking the Monkey”) to sibling rivalry played out in the boxing ring (“The Fighter”), nobody does family dysfunction — or dysfunction of any sort — like David O. Russell. In “Silver Linings Playbook,” the irrepressible writer-director offers his most engrossing character study yet, centering on Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), recently released from a mental institution, yet fully convinced (and not without reason) that he’s the most sane person in his screwy social circle.
A 2010 director nominee, Russell can’t resist ragged, rough-around-the-edges types, elevating a story fit for a 1940s screwball swooner into something vital and fresh. The script, which Russell adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel, gives Cooper a golden chance to reveal a level of complexity few realized “The Hangover” guy had in him. Ditto Jennifer Lawrence, whom “The Hunger Games” launched to superstar status earlier in the year; as Pat’s equally messed-up love interest, the actress shows fans a side they’ve never seen before.
Festival crowds are already smitten with the film, awarding it the audience prize at both the Toronto and Hamptons sprocket operas — the former being a proven Oscar bellweather, having previously forecast best picture wins for both “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech.”
– Peter Debruge
Release date: Nov. 9
It seems there’s more that Bond likes to shake up than just his martini. After 50 years around the block, the franchise’s 23rd installment brings a gamechanging plot that pushes Judi Dench’s M into the foreground. And after MGM’s prolonged production suspension, it’s clear the world has been missing 007 — “Skyfall” bowed in the U.K. with the biggest B.O. number of any previous Bond pic.
Film has Daniel Craig’s Bond presumed dead after a mission gone bad and M in hot water when undercover MI6 agent identities are leaked online by villain Silva (Javier Bardem). A former agent out for revenge against M, he tests Bond’s loyalty to M as secrets of her past are revealed.
Though past Bond pics have only won Oscars for below-the-line sound editing and visual effects (the last win for “Thunderball” in 1965), “Skyfall” is gaining best pic buzz for its compelling storyline. And with Dench’s heightened role, a supporting actress nom doesn’t seem far out of reach. Adele’s song could also bring the pic its first original song win after losing the category three times before. If it can get Craig to cry, the Acad can’t be far behind.
– Anneta Konstantinides
THIS IS 40
Release date: Dec. 21
Judd Apatow-directed films have never earned an Oscar nomination, but “This Is 40” might stop the clock on that bit of trivia.
Taking the relatively stable betrothed characters from his 2007 feature “Knocked Up” and putting them at center stage, Apatow delivers a hemorrhoids-and-all look at the ongoing fighting and reconciling within a marriage and an extended family.
Though filled with heated interpersonal conflict, the film figures to be more agreeable to auds than 2009’s dark “Funny People,” and even if best picture nomination hopes aren’t fulfilled, an original screenplay nod for the dramedy is a possibility.
Thesps Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann expand their previously established hot-and-cold chemistry, and while Rudd’s fine work might
be lost in the shuffle of the many heavyweight lead actor candidates this year, Mann establishes herself as a lead actress with a multifacted performance. And Albert Brooks, whose supporting actor nomination for “Drive” a year ago seemed in the bag only to disappear, could belatedly find himself at the Dolby Theater after all, thanks to his wry turn as the muddled but sardonic grandfather.
– Jon Weisman
Release date: Nov. 2
The main character in “Wreck-It Ralph” has a bit of an external validation complex, and the makers of the animated project could be accused of having the same. The film doesn’t exactly have the profile of an Oscar contender. It’s not a pure Pixar film — though John Lasseter exec produced — and the most noteworthy credit of screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston is the latter’s “Cedar Rapids.”
But if you’re looking for a word-of-mouth sleeper in this Oscar race, you might consider looking inside this cinematic videogame parlor, where Lasseter, Lee, Johnston and director Rich Moore (“Futurama”) led a crew that didn’t rest on the exquisite logic of a two-dimensional villain seeking three-dimensional validation, but carried out the concept to a T, with Variety senior film critic Peter Debruge praising the film as a “brilliantly conceived, gorgeously executed toon, earning bonus points for backing nostalgia with genuine emotion.”
Not only is an animated feature nomination a strong possibility, but nods for original screenplay and even picture are worthy of discussion.
– Jon Weisman
ZERO DARK THIRTY
Release date: Dec. 19
Details about “Zero Dark Thirty” have been cloaked with nearly as much secrecy as the deadly raid on Osama bin Laden it chronicles. The late awards-season entrant from Oscar-winning “Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal was originally going to focus on the decade-long hunt for the al Qaeda leader; when he was killed last year, the duo scrapped those plans and Boal started writing a new script centering on the raid itself.
The movie isn’t expected to start screening until after Thanksgiving, but Columbia Pictures has already indicated it will campaign in the lead actress category for Jessica Chastain, who plays a CIA analyst advising the Navy SEAL team on the mission, as well as picture, director and original screenplay. It will also push for Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle in the supporting categories.
The movie, which also features James Gandolfini as Leon Panetta and British actor Ricky Sekhon as bin Laden, has already drawn fire for Boal’s research about the clandestine operation; conservatives also agitated about possible impact on President Obama’s re-election campaign.
The movie actually arrives in theaters more than a month after the re-election, but is likely to still draw close scrutiny from partisans. Given the duo’s success with “The Hurt Locker,” a similarly themed movie that won eight Oscars including best picture, voters will be sure to give this one a close look as well.
– Diane Garrett