"12 Years a Slave"
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano
Distributor: None yet
Release Date: None yet, but it will likely surface at Cannes
Why It Might Be a Must-See: British director Steve McQueen first gained serious critical acclaim in 2007 for his tense prison drama "Hunger," which he followed up with the 2011 drama "Shame," an unnerving portrait of sex addiction. Here, he adapts Solomon Northup's remarkable account of being kidnapped and sold into slavery for a dozen years in the middle of the 19th century. The material is inherently suspenseful and harrowing, since Northup provides a detailed account of slavery's brutal nature in the Deep South. But it's Fassbender's penchant for creating disquieting atmosphere that's well positioned to make this spectacular survival tale come to life and possibly provide one of the more accurate recreations of slavery life in America. (Take that, "Django Unchained.") It also could provide a bigger showcase for Ejiofor, a great underrated character actor. [Eric Kohn]
Directors: Martha Shane & Lana Wilson
Distributor: None yet
Release Date: Debuts at this month's Sundance Film Festival
Why It Might Be a Must-See: One of the most divisive issues in contemporary American life -- abortion -- has gotten the documentary treatment before. Recently, there was Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Sundance doc "12th & Delaware," which was tense enough. Here, Shane and Wilson are dealing with a topic even more intense than an abortion clinic across the street from a Christian clinic that tries to convince women to have their babies; "After Tiller" investigates the four American doctors still performing third-trimester abortions in the aftermath of George Tiller's 2009 murder. With unprecedented access, Shane and Wilson may have made one of the most provocative documentaries of the year. [Bryce J. Renninger]
"August: Osage County"
Director: John Wells
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Release Date: TBA, but surely in a prime awards season slot late in the year
Why Might It Be a Must See: The Weinstein Company is surely aiming for Oscar with this adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 play (Letts also adapted his plays "Bug" and "Killer Joe" for the big screen). With a remarkable cast that includes Streep and Roberts (as mother and daughter!), the film -- written by Letts and directed by "The Company Men" helmer Wells -- is a darkly comic family saga set in Oklahoma. Cinematic adaptations of award-winning plays don't always work (see "Carnage," "Proof," "The History Boys"), but with this high-caliber cast it's difficult not to be optimistic. [Peter Knegt]