10 Films We Haven’t Yet Seen That May Be Serious Oscar Contenders

Earlier this week our own Oli Lyttelton argued persuasively for the value of the awards season, despite the fashion for rolling one’s eyes and sighing about it. And however much resigned tutting we might want to do, the fact is that over the next few months we will be discussing a parade of quality films, many from our favorite directors, which makes a nice change from discussing the bottom-line box-office takes of the most recent flat-pack blockbuster to feature shots of people walking away from exploding things. Of course, half the time that discussion is marked by negativity—as in, why isn’t X brilliant film (oh, let’s say “Two Days, One Night”) figuring in the race when it’s so clearly superior to Y obvious awards bait?—but even if it’s to point out injustices, we’re getting to jaw about some great films. So no complaints.

Funny thing about this year, though, is that looking at the Oscar 2015 hopefuls, the schedule seems peculiarly back-loaded. A whole load of those auteur-y potential big players have not yet screened and have sidestepped the major international festivals (Cannes, Venice, Telluride, TIFF) in favor of duking it out in a pretty crowded last three months of the year.

It’s not unprecedented, but it does seem to mark a developing trend. By this stage in the last three years, at least half and usually more of the final Best Picture Oscar nominees had already screened. If we translate that to this year, we could surmise that four or five from “The Theory of Everything,” “The Imitation Game,” “Foxcatcher,” “Boyhood” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Birdman” might end up in the lineup.

But given the richness of the rest of the year in terms of prestige releases, it feels like it would be a fool’s errand to call any one of those titles to take the gong right now. And that is an interesting aberration: for the last six years, the Best Picture winner has had a festival slot that would have seen it already screened by this stage in September ( “12 Years a Slave” – Telluride, “Argo” – Telluride, “The Artist” – Cannes, “The King’s Speech” – Telluride, “The Hurt Locker” – Venice 2008, “Slumdog Millionaire” – Telluride). Not only that, but if one was to factor in the way that “12 Years A Slave,” for example, was the anointed Best Picture winner almost the second the credits rolled after its first showing in Telluride, it would be clear that no similar consensus for “the one to beat” has emerged in 2014. Yet.

Happily, the upside to all this is we’ve a pretty mouthwatering few months to look forward to, a veritable blockbuster season for the slightly higher-brow film buff. So we’re going to talk about ten of those as-yet-unseen frontrunner films in terms of their Oscar potential, while smuggling in our hopes and fears for those films outside the confines of the race for the 87th Academy Awards.

Inherent Vice
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Eric Roberts, Maya Rudolph, Jena Malone and others.
In Los Angeles in 1970, drug-fueled detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.
Release Date: October 4th (NYFF), December 12th (limited), January 9th (wide)
What Are Its Oscar Chances? On paper, “Inherent Vice” is a terrific prospect for Oscar glory—PTA has been nominated four times (once for directing, thrice for writing) and “There Will Be Blood” earned him his first Best Picture nod in 2008. Star Joaquin Phoenix already picked up a Best Actor nomination for his last collaboration with Anderson on “The Master,” while the cast is so stacked (and contains a comeback-trail Reese Witherspoon) that it could well also figure in supporting categories. However, the major caveats are its evidently loopy tone and a certain looseness of approach which might add up to something that’s just too free-form for the more conservative Academy members (i.e. those who make up the major voting block).
But How Excited Are We Really? The things that may discourage Academy voters are exactly the elements that are whetting our appetites even more: PTA has long been one of our very favorite working directors, and this film seems to be exist in a whole new register for him, and from a beloved book to boot. This film cruised into the no. 1 spot of our 100 Most Anticipated Films of the Year all the way back in January and it’s never been far from our thoughts since, with progressive festival attendees first wildly hopeful and then deeply disappointed when it didn’t show. But now it’s got its New York Film Festival berth (which did all right by recent nominees “Captain Phillips,” “Her,”Life of Pi,” “Lincoln” and “Hugo,” incidentally) so not long to wait. But you may officially set our anticipation levels here to “rabid.”

Gone Girl
Director David Fincher, starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Scoot McNairy, Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit, and based on the novel by Gillian Flynn.
Synopsis: With his wife’s disappearance becoming the focus of an intense media circus, a man sees the spotlight turned on him when it’s suspected that he may not be innocent.
Release Date: September 26th (NYFF)/October 3rd (wide)
What Are Its Oscar Chances? Despite the gloss layered onto it by some clever casting and Fincher’s unmistakably cerebral, stylish direction, “Gone Girl” will have to work hard to overcome its pulpy, genre associations that may simply not have the requisite “seriousness” for the Academy. Indeed, they’ve only really rewarded an atypically non-genre Fincher film to date, “The Social Network.” That said, that film netted Fincher his last Best Directing nomination (his other was for ‘Benjamin Button,’ curiously), as well as winning three Oscars and picking up 8 nods in total, including one for Best Picture, so we certainly can’t count him out. This one is more definitely a lock in the more technical categories, but Fincher didn’t quite manage to transcend the genre material in his last adaptation of a bestselling thriller, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” However, while “Gone Girl” is fairly dark, it doesn’t have the punky edge of ‘Tattoo’ that seemed so offputting to voters and audiences alike. And the latter may be key here, if “Gone Girl” is as big a hit as is hoped, it may get into the awards race based on success alone.
But How Excited Are We Really? Any new Fincher film is going to sit high on our radar, and the trailer looks great. That said, we’re not united on the source material, and those of us who feel like Fincher is a genius stylist who often struggles to find scripts smart enough to justify the smartness of his execution (at least since the high watermarks of “Se7en,” “Fight Club” and “Zodiac”) are probably unlikely to be won over by “Gone Girl.” Still, they’ve apparently changed the ending, which was one of the more problematic aspects of the book, and in the right hands lackluster books can arguably make better films than great books by contrast alone, so at the very least we’re expecting a good, dark, fun time.

Directed by Angelina Jolie, from a script by Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravanese and William Nicholson, and starring Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Garret Hedlund and Jai Courtney.
: A chronicle of the life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II.
Release Date: December 25th
What Are Its Oscar Chances? Um, did you read that synopsis? The Oscar potential for this one is pretty much off the charts—in fact, were we to concoct in a test tube the ideal Oscar bait movie, it would probably turn out looking something like this. A stirring, life-affirming true story of resilience in the face of insurmountable odds, based on an already bestselling prestige biography, adapted by Oscar-winning writer/directors, directed by one of the most powerful people in Hollywood making that admired transition (after her small-scale drama debut “In the Land of Blood and Honey”) from actor to director, and starring a white-hot new face who will undoubtedly be given a separate push for Best Actor? Come on. In fact the only thing really counting against “Unbroken” at this stage is that it feels so much like an Academy pick that the more contrarian element may kick against it just for that reason. Still, something would have to go really, really, really wrong for this not to be a major player.
But How Excited Are We Really? It’s the sort of thing that we might ordinarily be a little dismissive of—oh no, not another painfully sincere period biopic—but we thought Jolie’s directorial debut was promising, if flawed, and the advance materials we’ve seen here look impressively epic and visual. The Coens’ involvement on the script is also heartening, as well as La Gravanese’s considering his screenplay for “Behind the Candelabra” is in roughly the same genre and aside from an Emmy nod, didn’t get the props it deserved. And perhaps most importantly, we’re already dyed-in-the-wool fans of Jack O’Connell, who got our year off to such a terrific start with “Starred Up” in Goteborg, followed by “‘71” in Berlin that we’re willing to believe he can bring this film to a terrific close too.

American Sniper
Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.
: A Navy SEAL recounts his military career, which includes more than 150 confirmed kills. 

Release Date: December 25th

What Are Its Oscar Chances? Something of a dark horse in the Oscar race, it’s only recently that “American Sniper” has picked up any traction in the awards conversation. And that should scare the bejaysus out of all the competition, because the last time a Clint Eastwood picture came from nowhere to make a late surge, it was “Million Dollar Baby,” which wiped the floor with everything else that year. Eastwood is beloved by the Academy as a director anyway, of course, already having two Best Director statues (for ‘Baby’ and “Unforgiven” both of which won Best Picture) and two further Director/Picture nominations for “Mystic River” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.” He also has something to prove, given the turgid misfire of this year’s “Jersey Boys,” and that the extremely hot Cooper is on board as star and producer cannot possibly hurt the film’s chances. And the based-on-a-true-story gritty credentials are present, with the potential for something insightful, topical and “Hurt Locker”-style important. And given that Eastwood historically has often missed when he goes too obviously Oscar baity (“Invictus,” “Changeling“), hopefully this has enough grit grafted into the premise to avoid that particular pitfall.

But How Excited Are We Really? The revolving door of directors who came and went on the project might give us pause, were it not for the caliber of those names: it was first mooted as a reteam for David O. Russell and Cooper in late 2012, before Russell left and no less a name than Steven Spielberg took up the reins. Reportedly due to scheduling clashes, he removed himself in August 2013, and was promptly replaced by Eastwood, with Cooper, who is the original rights holder, remaining the star from the beginning. Cooper clearly has hopes for this material, and Eastwood’s rep for directing actors to acting nominations is good, so we can see why he went with the erstwhile Dirty Harry in the end, although the purported biopic-by-numbers focus on the toll his profession takes on his home life and marriage does throw up a few red lights. While it could do a “Million Dollar Baby” awards-wise, we weren’t massive fans of that film, so we’re staying a little more muted in our expectations.

The Gambler
A remake of James Toback’s 1974 James Caan-starring film directed by Rupert Wyatt, starring Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Michael K Williams and Jessica Lange, with a script from “The Departed”  William Monahan

Synopsis: A literature professor with a gambling problem runs afoul of gangsters.

Release Date: December 19th

What Are Its Oscar Chances? Only recently getting its awards season release date, “The Gambler” at this stage is either suffering or benefiting from a lot less buzz than some of its rivals, depending on how you look at it. Wyatt has no track record with the Academy, but did such a great job of relaunching the “Planet of the Apes” franchise that he has earned a lot of goodwill, and this is a more interesting follow-up project than he could have chosen, given the number of tentpole titles that were presumably open to him. Wahlberg is a very popular figure around Hollywood, and if nothing else, presumably the hopes here are for acting nods for a role that could potentially showcase his serious actor chops, and also maybe for his strong supporting cast including the very hot Larson, and the eternally popular Lange who’s been killing the Emmys recently but hasn’t had so many big screen roles.The only thing really counting against the one-time Scorsese project aside from the relatively unknown quantity of the director is that it’s a Paramount title, which with the best will in the world at this stage has to seem a somewhat distant third in terms of their Oscar hopes after “Selma” and “Interstellar.” Still, a hefty push in categories other than The Big One should definitely be expected.

But How Excited Are We Really? We’re definitely curious about this project, as the James Caan vehicle is a pretty decent, nasty little ’70s story of a slow inexorable slide into compulsion that featured a memorably ambivalent ending. Wahlberg has made hit-and-miss a way of life, but when he’s good, he can be really really good, and is rarely given the real opportunity to stretch that this story seems to afford him. And we’re very curious to see Wyatt working in such a different register from ‘Apes,’ one that sees him go back to his “The Escapist” days perhaps, but with a much broader palette. In fact, we’re more convinced that this might be our kind of thing than the Academy’s.

A Most Violent Year
Directed by J.C. Chandor and starring Oscar IsaacJessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola and Albert Brooks.

Synopsis: Set during the winter of 1981—statistically one of the most crime-ridden of New York City’s history—”A Most Violent Year” is a drama following the lives of an immigrant and his family as they attempt to capitalize on the American Dream, while the rampant violence, decay, and corruption of the day drag them in and threaten to destroy all they have built.

Release Date: December 31st limited release, Jan 15th expansion

What Are Its Oscar Chances? Purely based on the quality of the principals, this project would seem like one of the better bets for Oscar nomination glory, as in one fell swoop it would give the Academy the chance to nominate a whole slew of people who’ve been unjustly overlooked/nearly-but-not-quite-winners in recent years. Whether it can contend for Best Picture is a slightly different question, but certainly the fairly epic-sounding “American Dream/Nightmare”-style story and the period setting are Academy-friendly. Furthermore, Oscar Isaac really should have got at least a nomination for “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Chastain has been nominated twice but hasn’t won (and as much as we love Jennifer Lawrence, we have to say we thought Chastain deserved the statue for “Zero Dark Thirty”), while Chandor picked up a screenplay nod for his debut, “Margin Call,” but nothing at all for last year’s brilliant “All Is Lost.” Which if nothing else was a small miracle of direction. One of the chief barriers to a big haul of nominations is that A24 is handling the film’s U.S. distribution, and they are relatively untested in the world of Oscar campaigns and will not have the massive spend at their disposal that the majors will be able to lavish on their show ponies.

But How Excited Are We Really? Awards discussion aside, we couldn’t be looking forward to “A Most Violent Year” more. We’re immense fans of any director who can switch up genre and style from one film to the next, and going from the restrained, sombre, talky financial collapse drama of “Margin Call” to the visceral, near-dialogue-free, whiteknuckle ride that was “All is Lost” is one of the most dramatic two-film leaps we’ve ever seen. But Chandor nailed both those movies, so we can’t wait to see what he does with a period crime story, especially one that stars two of our favorite (relative) newcomers in Chastain and Isaac. Just a shame we apparently have to wait until New Year’s Eve to check it out.

Directed by David Ayer, and starring Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Jason Isaacs and Michael Pena.

Synopsis: April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy commands a Sherman tank and her five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Out-numbered, out-gunned, and with a rookie soldier thrust into their platoon, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.

Release Date: October 17th

What Are Its Oscar Chances? Based on previous form of the major players, we’d have to say this one isn’t quite the top-tier proposition that some of the others discussed here are, with David Ayer’s Oscar track record being more or less confined to netting that surprise win for Denzel Washington for “Training Day.” Pitt is perhaps a better bet for a push for Actor, (and just think how adorbz it would be if he and his missus are both nominated the same year!) being placed front and center of all the film’s marketing and seemingly tearing into the kind of no-shit, unglamorized hero role that does well with the Academy, especially in a war context. However, the trailers have been impressive (Lerman looks especially good), and tank battles are an unusual enough onscreen sight to make it seem like it’s doing something a little different. It could very well turn out to be stirring, emotive and spectacular enough to turn Academy heads, though how well its grittiness will fare in the bigger categories against the more obviously uplifting WWII-backdropped “Unbroken” remains to be seen.

But How Excited Are We Really? Our enthusiasm for this one has only grown in recent months, and was especially piqued by a New York Times article recently which described it as a “relentlessly authentic portrayal of the extremes endured, and inflicted, by Allied troops who entered Germany in the spring of 1945.” That article also says it “promises to be one of the most daring studio movies in an awards season,” and daring is a pretty loaded word in this context, suggesting simultaneously that it might be a harder sell for awards and that we might dig it even more.

Directed by Ava DuVernay, and starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Common, Carmen Ejogo, Lorraine Toussaint, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, Alessandro Nivola, Wendell Pierce, Dylan Baker and many others.

Synopsis: The story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic struggle to secure voting rights for all people—a dangerous and terrifying campaign that culminated with the epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and led to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Release Date: December 25th

What Are Its Oscar Chances? For the importance of its subject alone, “Selma” would always have been a contender, but with the recent events in Ferguson reigniting the issue of race in America, the film will have an added dimension of topicality that also cannot hurt its chances. And it’s not just awards bait either: the film has assembled an extremely fine, massive cast, attached an exciting director in Ava DuVernay, and may even have a shout at a Cinematography nod if rising star Bradford Young (who also shot potential contender “A Most Violent Year”) is on form. Oyelowo was probably the best thing about the similarly themed “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and here plays MLK, so he could also be a player in the Best Actor race (the Academy loves a historical figure, after all).

But How Excited Are We Really? As we’ve said before, prestige biopics may be among our least favorite genres of film, but our interest in this one more or less doubled when Lee Daniels left the project to make “The Butler” instead (sorry, but we had not been fans of either of his previous films “The Paperboy” or “Precious” and frankly “The Butler” went on to be the exact definition of the kind of prestige biopic that makes us dislike the genre), and then pretty much quadrupled when it was announced as Ava DuVernay’s next directorial project. DuVernay’s small-scale, beautifully shot (again by Young) “Middle Of Nowhere” was a film we liked a great deal and her independent sensibility is exactly what a project like “Selma” could do with to stop it tipping over into grandiosity or starchy history lesson. So we have our fingers crossed on this one.

Big Eyes
Directed by Tim Burton and starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz.

Synopsis: A drama centered on the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.

Release Date: December 25th

What Are Its Oscar Chances? Of the many actresses not to have yet won an Academy Award, this year sees two extraordinarily deserving women enter the fray —Julianne Moore and Amy Adams. For Adams, a five-time nominee with “American Hustle” last year netting her first Best Actress nod, this film is her shot at the statue for 2015, so expect a big push there. Waltz is also beloved by the Academy, though has yet to be recognized for any non-Tarantino work, and the Best Actor category may be already pretty crowded. Whether the film can compete for Best Picture is the real question, though, with Burton so off the boil in recent years in that regard as to be ice cold —indeed, he’s never received so much as a nomination for a live-action film. Still he has made a lot of money for a lot of people over the years and Hollywood loves a comeback/revitalization story, so this film, which looks like it might have just enough quirk to be Burtonesque but tempered with more traditional story/biopic elements, is probably his best shot, well, ever.

But How Excited Are We Really? Ever since the day Amy Adams ceded her place in a toilet queue to us, we’ve been among her biggest fans (well, that and the stream of brilliant performances, obviously) so we’d be showing up to “Big Eyes” with bells on just to see her. But we like the look of what we’ve seen so far, and are intrigued by this oddball, off-kilter story, so we’re looking forward to it outside of just being a performance showcase. And frankly anything that breaks up the latter-day Tim Burton/Johnny Depp onscreen love-in is to be encouraged; those two are a bad influence on each other.

Directed by Christopher Nolan, and starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Topher Grace, John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, David Oyelowo (his 3rd appearance on this list!)

Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage. 

Release Date: November 7th

What Are Its Oscar Chances? This is an interesting one to call, as apart maybe from “Inherent Vice,” there’s probably no title for the rest of the year more feverishly anticipated by cinephiles, and yet Nolan has a surprisingly spotty relationship with the Academy. A lot of that has to do with the fact  that they like to reward “original” work over blockbusters, so his sole Best Picture nom came for “Inception,” which also netted him a writing nod—prior to that, “Memento” picked up his only other nomination, for writing, in 2002. But “Interstellar” is an “original” film, it has a jawdropping cast that could weigh down a spaceship with the collective Oscars they’ve won, and the trailers we’ve seen so far are remarkable, hinting at something both grand and personal from the visionary director. So yeah, we think if “Gravity” can overcome the Academy’s historical aversion to space pictures and not just get a Best Picture nod but seriously contend for the statue, “Interstellar,” with its unashamedly meditative tone, environmentalist bent and what looks to be a very emotive, family-is-everything core, will be up there too. There’s also the sense, a little like with Cuaron last year, that Nolan might be “due.”

But How Excited Are We Really? You don’t really need to ask, do you? Nolan is a supremely gifted visual storyteller, and while we’ve enjoyed the hell out of his “Dark Knight” movies, we’re dying to see what he’s cooked up now that he’s free of those DC shackles. In fact, “Inception” is quite a divisive film around these parts, but even those of us on the less enraptured side marveled at its technical exceptionalism and its ambition. This film seems like it might have all of that, but will have the real heart and soul that “Inception” somewhat lacked, so, yes, we’re all aboard the good ship “Interstellar,” and our expectations are, well, stratospheric.

There are a few other titles the more Oscar-savvy of you may be surprised not to see crop up here, but there is method (and a fair dash of prejudice) to our exclusions. The most pointed of them may be “Into the Woods” which many prognosticators are giving decent odds at a Best Picture slot, but sight unseen, it just feels like there are so many more enticing prospects than a Rob Marshall adaptation of a Broadway musical. And our gut says (or perhaps just hopes) that even with Meryl Streep and a slew of popular faces in the cast, a Best Picture nod would feel like a pretty uninspired choice. Though then again, “Les Miserables” was nominated for 8 Oscars, and won 3, so who knows.

Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods And Kings” seemed at one point like it might contend, but everything we’ve seen from it since suggests that aside from the Oscar for Best Spray Tan (which it may well wrestle from the oily grasp of “300: Battle of Artemisia”), it has very little hope of anything but the odd technical nod. Michael Mann’s “Blackhat” looks a sight too genre to really vie for Oscar, even if it does get a qualifying run that has not as yet been announced. Probably more likely for some of the lesser awards if it gets its 2014 airing, though that doesn’t dampen our own enthusiasm for the Chris Hemsworth and Viola Davis cyber thriller. And coming up soon (Oct 10th) is “Kill the Messenger,” but despite a huge cast, headed by two-time nominee Jeremy Renner and featuring Michael Sheen, Michael K. Williams, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Ray Liotta, Barry Pepper, Paz Vega, Tim Blake Nelson and Robert Patrick, we just don’t see the Contra-scandal thriller actually breaking through.

On these and all our other picks, of course time may well prove us wrong —let us know what you think in the comments, or if, at this early stage in the awards prediction game, you have a good feeling about any as-yet-unseen movie, that might be worth a flutter while the odds are long.

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