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 mentally ill multi-millionaire 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.
“The Imitation Game”
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.
“Love & Mercy”
With the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” now a distant memory despite having only come out this summer, there’s now more room than ever for “Love & Mercy,” a film about Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson, to make a big impression this fall. Still seeking distribution, “Love & Mercy” stars Paul Dano as the young Wilson and John Cusack as his older self. Dano has yet to give a disappointing performance and this could be the role to catapult him into the A-list should he hit it out of the park (which we’re sure he will) and if the film is any good. The film marks director Bill Pohlad’s second feature (he directed the little seen 1990 drama “Old Explorers”), but his career as a producer gives us a lot of hope (credits include “12 Years a Slave” and “The Tree of Life”).
“Men, Women & Children”
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, both 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.
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.
Ed Zwick (“Glory,” “Blood Diamond”) is no stranger to the awards race, and his latest, “Pawn Sacrifice,” looks sure to join it this year or next should it be as good as it sounds, and should it find a strong distributor at the festival. Penned by “Locke” writer/director Steven Knight, “Pawn Sacrifice” centers on the matchup between American chess player Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and his Russian rival Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). After playing second fiddle in “The Great Gatsby,” Maguire is in need of a star vehicle to remind us all how great of an actor he is. “Pawn Sacrifice” could be the film to do just that, and possibly nab him his first ever Oscar nomination.
“Seymour: An Introduction”
A sensation last week at the Telluride Film Festival where it drew glowing reviews and got acquired by Sundance Selects, Ethan Hawke’s documentary “Seymour: An Introduction” enters Toronto as the hot doc to see. Should Sundance Selects choose to release it this fall, they might have an awards contender on their hands. The film centers on Seymour Bernstein, a classical pianist, composer, author, teacher and sage who Hawke has a deep admiration for, but isn’t well known to the masses. Hopefully this film will change that.
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 worthy of the advance buzz. 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.
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. Academy Award-winning director James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) helms the tale of Stephen Hawking, focusing a keen eye on his relationship with his wife Jane. In his first leading role, Eddie Redmayne, who stole the show in “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 crazy in love.
Richard Gere is Hollywood royalty and a Golden Globe winner, but he has yet to net an Oscar nomination. He came very close with “Chicago,” but “Time Out of Mind” might be the one to finally do the trick. Written and directed by Oren Moverman, who directed Woody Harrelson to an Oscar nomination in “The Messenger,” “Time Out of Mind” stars Gere as a desperate homeless man who enters a shelter, where he sets out to reunite with his estranged daughter (played by Jena Malone). The film marks an interesting change of pace for Gere, who’s proven in “Arbitrage” and “Pretty Woman” that he’s great at playing smarmy rich men. The film is still seeking distribution, but we expect that will change once the film premieres this week.
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.