If this year’s newly elastic best-picture race allows a summer blockbuster to slip in, Paramount’s alien-invasion thriller “Super 8” could well be the prime beneficiary. Greeted in June with largely admiring notices and a better-than-expected $127 million domestic gross, this unusual passion project found writer-director J.J. Abrams embarking on a unique professional and spiritual collaboration with producer Steven Spielberg, paying affectionate tribute to classics like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” (That both films were up for multiple Oscars has to be considered a good omen.)

A reliable Par hitmaker socking over his first non-franchise outing, Abrams imbues the film with a deeply personal touch that never gets lost amid the impressive visual effects, the often seat-rattling sound design and the enchantingly retro art direction, re-creating a classically Spielbergian small town circa 1979.

In a fairly slim year for kudo-worthy scripts not based on published material, Abrams’ inventive synthesis of innumerable sci-fi and coming-of-age touchstones could well bend the Academy’s definition of “original screenplay.” And while “Super 8” isn’t the sort of picture that draws attention for its acting, many critics singled out the remarkably poised and poignant supporting turn of Elle Fanning, ably demonstrating that for the part of a talented young actress, it helps to cast one.

Release date: June 10
Read the Variety review