Awards watchers mull potential of unseen films to be released later

Friday’s opening of “Cloud Atlas” and next week’s bow of “Flight” will introduce two more Oscar contenders to the masses, but they won’t change the film community’s waiting game.

Waiting for “Les Miserables.” Waiting for “Zero Dark Thirty.” Waiting to see if those or any other highly anticipated end-of-year releases will seize the reins at the next Academy Awards or whether the race will continue to comprise a cluster of films without a frontrunner for the grand prize.

Some years, an early season leader completes its journey to Oscar glory (say, “Forrest Gump”), while others fall just shy of the ultimate honor (“Saving Private Ryan”). Other years, eventual Oscar winners don’t emerge until other contenders stumble, as was the case with “Gladiator.”

Four months before the Feb. 24 ceremony, Oscar watchers are largely looking past Halloween and Thanksgiving into December, because those late-debuting films, unseen even by most insiders, still retain an air of mystery. In contrast, a quorum of industryites has had the chance to size up the imminent releases, each of which has found its own base of support though none has emerged as a consensus leader.

“Cloud Atlas,” for example, inspired as much passion as any other pic this year during its fest and preview screenings. The severely polarized nature of that passion, however, undermines the suggestion that it’s the crowning film of the year, though hopes for a nomination remain. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is in a similar situation. Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” (Nov. 16 release) fits the same profile, its unconventional stylization wowing group A while alienating group B.

There’s a different equation with “Lincoln,” set for a Nov. 9 public launch. The straightforward Steven Spielberg-directed film, starring Time magazine cover boy Daniel Day-Lewis, has earned a healthy supply of admiration, but as for passion, one doesn’t get the sense that platoons of voters are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause like so many Union soldiers.

“Skyfall” (also Nov. 9) has made a bold entry into the festivities and stands a legitimate chance — well-timed to the 50th anniversary of “Dr. No” — of becoming the first Bond film to earn a best picture nom. But that’s as high in the sky as civilians expect Bond to fly — as is the case with Nov. 2 crashlander “Flight.”

Featuring Denzel Washington, “Flight” is one of four prominent films centered around disasters that have a chance for a picture nom; the others are “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “The Impossible” (Dec. 21, but screened at Toronto) and “Life of Pi” (Nov. 21). No matter the honors it has received from the Sundance and Cannes festivals, “Beasts” exudes underdog, but months after its release, its originality has kept it in the conversation.

Those and other arcs of near triomphe that have screened (including “Amour,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Sessions”) leave two films — for the time being — in favorable but assailable position: “Argo” and “Silver Linings Playbook.”

“Silver Linings” (opening Nov. 21) was the audience award winner at Toronto, a lovely bellwether bestowing legitimacy (c.f. Toronto aud-pleasers “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire”). Range of opinion on “Silver Linings” has largely fallen between good and great, placing the film about dysfunctional relationships in the same eyeline as last year’s “The Descendants,” which grabbed five Oscar nominations, including picture and director.

Ever since its September festival launch, “Argo” has generated waves of affection (and estimable box office), with detractors few and far between. Yet ask those same people if “Argo” is their favorite film of the year and many demur. That’s another recipe for a January nominee that could become a February also-ran unless the December releases emerge with their own kind of fallibility.

And so we go back to pondering the future, back to pondering whether Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” can surpass the plaudits of recent Oscar-nominated “Inglourious Basterds,” whether Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” can ape the Oscar-winning success of “The Hurt Locker,” whether Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” may pick up where the Oscar-winning finale of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy left off and, perhaps most of all of the December releases, whether Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” will give the director of “The King’s Speech” two grand prizes in a three-year stretch.

The potential is there, but it’s much easier to offer hope of becoming an Oscar frontrunner than to deliver on that hope.

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