"American Sniper" (December 25)
Clint Eastwood may have taken some time off to regroup after "J. Edgar" flopped in 2011, but the legendary gunslinger-turned-Oscar favorite is back in 2014 with two new films. "Jersey Boys" was met with mixed reviews this summer (possibly the best it could have hoped for) and "American Sniper" is flying a bit under the radar for its targeted Christmas Day release. Starring Bradley Cooper, the film is based on the life of Chris Kyle, a U.S. Navy SEAL who's credited with the most kills of any sniper in history. Kyle's memoir served as the basis for a screenplay by Jason Dean Hall, whose only other recognizable credit was the 2013 flop "Paranoia" starring Harrison Ford and Liam Hemsworth. Eastwood might be able to save him here, considering he's at his best when the bullets are flying and the questions come back to, "Why?"
"Big Eyes" (December 25)
Tim Burton has gotten a lot of flack as of late thanks to big budget, critically-panned films like "Alice in Wonderland" and "Dark Shadows." But he's making a return to fantasy-free, low-budget fare here -- really for the first time since 1994's "Ed Wood" (which won the two Oscars it was nominated for: Best Supporting Actor and Best Makeup). With a script from "Wood" screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, "Big Eyes" takes on the true story of husband and wife artists Walter and Margaret Keane (Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams), the former of whom rose to fame in the 1950s for his paintings of big-eyed kids. It sure sounds great on paper. Here's hoping it makes us completely forget about "Dark Shadows" and anticipate a whole new era of work from Burton.
"Birdman" (October 17)
To date, every single feature film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu has been nominated for at least one Academy Award. From "Amores Perros" (Best Foreign Language Film) to "Biutiful" (Javier Bardem stole a Best Actor nod), Inarritu's films are contenders in one category or another every time. That being said, they don't often win. "Babel" took home a trophy for Original Score, but that's the only nomination-turned-winner in this particular canon of films. "Birdman" may be an even trickier sell. The Academy doesn't tend to go for comedies, even dark ones, and it's also not a particularly big fan of strange stories, which this meta-superhero stage tale certainly is. Look for "Birdman" to have its best shot in the writing category and for its distributor (Fox Searchlight) to make a push for Michael Keaton to nab his first Oscar nod.
"Foxcatcher" (November 14)
Originally slated to open last fall, Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" seems poised to be a frontrunner in this year's race after a stellar run at this year's Cannes Film Festival where Miller won Best Director and the film earned rave reviews for its revelatory performances by Channing Tatum and a nearly unrecognizable Steve Carell. The comedian, sporting a prosthetic nose, plays John du Point, a rich man who takes an intense liking to brothers Mark (Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) Schultz, both Olympic gold champion wrestlers. Carell is the surest bet the film has this season. What will be interesting to see is who Sony Pictures Classics sells as the lead in their campaign. Carell has the showier performance, but the film belongs to Tatum who appears in nearly every scene and delivers career-best work.
"Fury" (October 17)
David Ayer has been mystifying awards prognosticators since day one. While he's always stuck to gritty action scripts, the writer earned some extra attention for penning "Training Day" after premiering with "U-571" (a well-made drama) and "The Fast and the Furious" (which launched a major franchise). Then his cop drama "Dark Blue" debuted to much praise before the Hollywood version, "S.W.A.T.," tanked. His directorial efforts are just as bipolar, with "Harsh Times" proving a disappointment before "End of Watch" surprised many with its authenticity and well-edited use of shaky cam. But can "Fury," by far Ayer's most ambitious project to date, live up to expectations and set its sights on Oscar the same year as Ayer's last effort, "Sabotage," effectively ended Arnold Schwarzenegger's career as a leading man action star? It would be both fitting and surprising, but I wouldn't bet against Brad Pitt. Look for "Fury" to snag some technical attention (sound) and possibly acting honors for Pitt and young co-star Logan Lerman.
"Gone Girl" (October 3)
David Fincher has nabbed the coveted opening night slot for the New York Film Festival once before (for his 2010 Oscar smash "The Social Network") and he's back kicking off the event with his his latest thriller, "Gone Girl," late next month. Based on Gillian Flynn's blockbuster novel of the same title, "Gone Girl" doesn't scream Oscar given its broad appeal and pulpy narrative. But with Fincher at the helm and Oscar golden boy Ben Affleck heading the cast, expect "Gone Girl" to follow in the footsteps of "The Social Network" and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," both of which were awards mainstays during their respective seasons. Rosamund Pike, as the missing wife of the title, is said to have beat out some of Hollywood's top actresses for the coveted lead role. If she hits it out of the park (which we're guessing she does), then expect her name to enter the race.
"Inherent Vice" (December 12)
Five-time Oscar nominee Paul Thomas Anderson is back this fall with "Inherent Vice," a film early buzz has pegged as his oddest effort yet, which is saying a lot. World premiering as the centerpiece film for this year's New York Film Festival, the film stars Oscar nominees Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin and Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Benecio Del Toro. Based on Thomas Pynchon's novel about a drug-fueled detective (Phoenix) who investigates the disappearance of his former girlfriend, "Inherent Vice" sounds too oddball to be considered a front-runner this season, but as with most of the filmmaker's output, expect his actors to get some recognition. (His last film, "The Master," was nominated in three acting categories.)
"Interstellar" (November 17)
Christopher Nolan is going for broke. After landing his first Best Picture nomination in 2010 for "Inception," Nolan has since completed his "Batman" trilogy (a film we knew would never make the Academy's cut for Best Picture, even before it failed to live up to its predecessor's lofty status) and is still seeking his first Best Director nomination. Despite receiving three DGA nods, he's never been honored by the Academy for his work behind the camera (two nominations for writing, one for producing). "Interstellar" may change that. He's assembled perhaps his best cast ever -- which matters when it comes to courting votes in the actor-heavy Academy member pool -- and early trailers promise an ambitious blockbuster with big ideas. If it's as good as people want it to be, it could capitalize off "Gravity"'s success last year and be a major player across the board. If it disappoints, Mr. Nolan will have to keep waiting.
"Into the Woods" (December 25)
Never, ever count out a Meryl Streep film from Oscar consideration. That's what we've learned after seeing the three-time champ elevate otherwise mediocre drivel like "Julie & Julia" and "The Devil Wears Prada" to film's most prized venue (not to mention "The Iron Lady," for which she won her third Oscar). "Into the Woods" has other Academy-friendly actors behind it as well, with Johnny Depp and Anna Kendrick locked into lead roles. Director Rob Marshall has been on the downswing since his Oscar nomination for "Chicago" in 2002 (last film: "Pirates of the Caribbean 4"), but he's at least got some prestige tucked in his back pocket. Streep, Kendrick and Emily Blunt offer the best chances for acting honors, while the production design and other technical work could score big in this Christmas Day Disney release. Mickey Mouse will put his full weight behind this one, seeing as its the studio's best chance for gold in 2014.
"Men, Women & Children" (October 1)
Since busting onto the scene with "Thank You for Smoking" in 2005, Jason Reitman's awards cache has only increased -- until it didn't. "Juno" and "Up in the Air" were huge hits, commercially and at the Oscars. Both nabbed Best Picture nominations, and the George Clooney-starring film about America's jobs crisis was even considered a frontrunner for a chunk of the 2009 campaign season. The dark ending to the film hinted at what was to come for Reitman, who followed up his back-to-back Oscar nods with "Young Adult," a pitch black comedy with an invested turn from Charlize Theron. It failed to net much attention, as did his next film, "Labor Day," which quietly came and went in late 2013. Now he's back with what looks like an even grimmer tale. "Men, Women & Children" packs plenty of star power (Adam Sandler, Emma Thompson, and "The Fault in Our Stars" breakout Ansel Elgort), and they'll need a winning script to woo Academy voters who favor a good time over harsh modern truths. It could be Reitman's resurgence, even as he pushes deeper into the darkness.
"Mr. Turner" (December 19)
Seven-time Oscar nominee Mike Leigh is back in theaters this fall with his latest period effort, "Mr. Turner," a film that chronicles the last quarter-century in the life of the famed 19th century painted J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall). The drama was a hit at this year's Cannes Film Festival where it was pegged as an early awards favorite following its world premiere. That buzz only intensified when Spall beat out some heavy competition (including "Foxcatcher" stars Steve Carell and Channing Tatum) to net the Best Actor award at the festival. If Sony Pictures Classics plays its cards right, expect to see a whole of Spall on the awards circuit this season.
"Selma" (December 25)
Two years after winning Best Director honors at the Sundance Film Festival for her sophomore feature "Middle of Nowhere," Ava DuVernay makes a leap to studio filmmaking with her MLK biopic "Selma." And judging by its Academy qualifying run in December before rolling out nationwide by MLK weekend in January, Paramount is confident they have a contender on their hands. What the film surely does boast is a breakthrough lead performance from DuVernay's "Middle of Nowhere" star David Oyelowo as the civil rights leader. (Oprah Winfrey also co-stars, but her part is rumored to be small.) The actor was the best thing about "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and is long due a vehicle like "Selma."
"St. Vincent" (October 24)
It's hard to believe, but Bill Murray has only been nominated for an Oscar once (for "Lost in Translation") and didn't win. That could change this fall when The Weinstein Company opens their feel good drama "St. Vincent," which stars Murray in a role that's sure to draw a lot of awards buzz should the film be any good. In Theodore Melfi's feature directorial debut, Murray stars as the titular Vincent, a drunken, gambling retiree who gets asked by his single-mom neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) to guard her 12-year-old son (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher). Over the course of their time together, the odd couple teach each other life lessons. Performances seem strong across the board, with Naomi Watts stealing scenes in rare comedic form as a pregnant stripper.
"The Boxtrolls" (September 26)
Laika, the American stop-motion animation studio, has been nominated twice for the Best Animated Feature Oscar (for "Coraline" and "ParaNorman") but have yet to win the golden statue. That could change with their latest effort, "The Boxtrolls." Without a Pixar movie to contend with this year, the studio is up against DreamWorks (who have "How to Dragon Your Dragon 2") and Paramount (who have "The Lego Movie"). Given the company's stellar track record and the extremely promising trailers released by Laika and the film's distributor Focus Features, "Boxtrolls" might prove that third time's a charm for the studio. The 3D stop-motion film follows Eggs, a orphaned boy who lives within a community of mischievous creatures called Boxtrolls beneath the streets of Cheesebridge. "Boxtrolls" features the voices of Ben Kingsley, Toni Collette, Elle Fanning, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Jared Harris, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan.
"The Imitation Game" (November 21)
Benedict Cumberbatch tried to break onto Oscar's stage last year with the immediately skewered Julian Assange biopic "The Fifth Estate." He earned back some kudos for "August: Osage County," but the part wasn't big enough to warrant a nomination. Still, the British star is hotter than ever with roles in another season of "Sherlock" and one more "Hobbit" film still on the way -- plus, he's taking on another true story in the awards contender "The Imitation Game." Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, an English mathematician who helps crack code in World War II. The Academy sure does love its war films and the period setting might help the film draw attention in some of the below the line categories. They also love actors portraying actual people, so look for the Cumberbitches to come out in full support of this one.
"The Theory of Everything" (November 7)
Period pieces tend to play best in the costume, makeup and production design categories, but "The Theory of Everything" has a bit more going for it than just fancy clothes. Director James Marsh ("Man on Wire") helms the tale of Stephen Hawking, focusing a keen eye on his relationship with his wife Jane. Eddie Redmayne ("Les Miserables") plays the brilliant physicist and Felicity Jones ("Like, Crazy") co-stars as Mrs. Hawking. The fine young actors have a chance to establish themselves even further here, with oddsmakers giving an edge to Redmayne considering the challenges involved with portraying a highly-intelligent man who's also mad with love.
"Unbroken" (December 25)
Angelina Jolie is having one hell of a year. Her summer release "Maleficent" became her highest earning project ever, while her sophomore directorial effort "Unbroken" is already earning Oscar buzz well ahead of its Christmas Day release date. If the promising trailer is anything to go by, it looks like Jolie might have a front-runner on her hands. Based on a true story, the drama (co-scripted by the Coen Brothers) centers on Olympian runner Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II. Co-starring Domhnall Gleeson and Garrett Hedlund, "Unbroken" marks a huge leap for Jolie, who made her debut with the well received but smaller scaled war drama "In the Land of Blood and Honey."
"Whiplash" (October 10)
The breakout smash of Sundance this year was about, of all things, a jazz drummer. Not even an established jazz drummer. "Whiplash" tells the tale of a young, aspiring musician who clashes with an instructor at one of the world's top schools for the medium. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons both won raves for their performances, and the film itself took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance while receiving recognition at Cannes a few months later. The Academy and Sundance don't always see eye to eye -- last year's big winner, "Fruitvale Station" was ignored by Oscar, but "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was a surprise multiple nominee the year before. "Precious" was another success story while there are even more Grand Jury winners who were snubbed for post-fest awards. Time will tell what's to come for "Whiplash," but it's off to a hot start.
"Wild" (December 5)
Reese Witherspoon hasn't taken on many awards-caliber roles since winning an Oscar for "Walk the Line" in 2005, but now she's sunk her teeth into a meaty part with plenty of potential. "Wild," based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir about hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, is set to premiere at TIFF in September and has a plum, Oscar-friendly December theatrical release scheduled after that. While most of America is blanketed in snow (or at least coping with chilly temperatures), "Wild" will showcase beautiful coastal vistas, rolling hills, and green, open space -- which should help Jean-Marc Vallee's odds at a Best Director nod. The "Dallas Buyers Club" helmer is ready for another awards circuit only a year later and again he'll be pushing a powerful performance in addition to his film. Could "Wild" break into the bigger races like "Dallas" did? We shall soon see.