20 Films to See Before Oscars Night (and 5 more)

It’s that time of year; we’re days away from gorging ourselves on turkey and listening to Christmas songs on the radio. Even the most basic movie-goer knows that this is also the time where we get the Oscar contenders; the truly great films that have been vetted through the festival circuit and are now ready to compete for the gold statues.

Those of you who have read my Oscars coverage before know that my movie geekdom extends through eight Oscar categories and I like to see the films nominated for all eight before Oscars night in February (Picture, Director, the four actors and the two screenplays). Some of these films I’ve been following for years, some have only recently come to my attention, but all are currently in contention for a major award of some kind (beyond The Old Man’s leg lamp, and I hope you know that reference).

One quick note before I get started is that The Great Gatsby does not appear anywhere on this list. That’s because the studio decided to shift this film from Christmas Day until mid-May 2013. Usually when a studio shifts a film from Oscars season into the following year, that indicates they have seen the movie and have decided it is crap. However, the move to summer is very interesting. To me, this says the studio sees a ton of money-making potential in the film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey McGuire and Carey Mulligan, otherwise they wouldn’t have put it in the cut-throat summer movie season. In addition, while it’s likely that the studio is trading Oscars Gold for American Green, it’s not unheard of for a summer film to take home major nominations (Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean, Best Actor, 2003) and even win (Gladiator, Best Picture, 2000).

What follows is a list of 25 films broken down into five categories (and is very long):
Top Contenders: Films most likely to get nominated for Best Picture and multiple Oscars.
Multiple Nomination Potential: Possible Best Picture contenders, likely Oscars nominations in other categories (plural).
Standouts: Likely to score an Oscars nomination or two.
Dark Horses: Not likely to get much Oscars recognition, but could and should.
Will Get Ignored (But Shouldn’t): Films I think are great, but apparently no one else is talking about for Oscars.

TOP CONTENDERS
Argo
Ben Affleck keeps getting better and better as a director and storyteller. The story is taut and paced to within an inch of its life. The performances and casting were pitch perfect. The only downfall is Affleck the actor, who doesn’t have nearly the talent of Affleck the director. It’s not that he’s bad (he could get a Best Actor nomination, actually), but a transcendent performance along the lines of Jamie Foxx (Ray) or Forest Whitacker (Last King of Scotland) could have put this one over the goal line.
Categories: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Affleck), Supporting Actor (Goodman/Arkin), Screenplay

Lincoln
Anything Spielberg is bound to be a good, well-told story. What Spielberg has needed of late is an editor; his movies have been getting longer and over-indulgent. Most recently, War Horse was a good 30 minutes longer than it needed to be (given the staged version is significantly shorter, even with its relatively complex scene transitions). The most recent Indiana Jones had a lot of problems, but key among them was pacing. This movie will pivot on two things: (1) The ability to tell a focused story given the ton of source material on the 16th president and (2) Spielberg’s ability to pace the film.
Categories: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Day-Lewis), Supporting Actor (Jones), Supporting Actress (Field/Reuben), Screenplay

Les Miserables
I love the concept behind this movie. Musicals are generally stilted and lacking in spontaneity, since the actors come in to sing their songs months before they are even on-set, then lip-sync in their performance. Director Tom Hooper (2010’s Best Pic winner The King’s Speech) may deliver a game-changer by allowing his actors to sing live on the set. Doesn’t sound like a difference to you? Star Hugh Jackman thinks it makes all the difference in the world, allowing him to make acting choices AS he sings, allowing multiple takes and versions of the same music. It will provide more emotion and more spontaneity than any musical that has come before it.
Categories: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Jackman), Supporting Actor (Crowe), Supporting Actress (Hathaway/Barks/Seyfried), Screenplay

Silver Linings Playbook
Have to give Bradley Cooper credit; he could take his pretty-boy image and cash in with a handful of rom-coms and Hangover clones (though he is doing the latter to some extent) and coast for the next 10 years. Instead he takes on a very dark comedy as a bipolar patient with David O. Russell, a director with significant indie cred and a bit of a history of film insanity himself. Paired with the emerging Jennifer Lawrence (in a type-breaking role herself), the chemistry between the two will either make this movie fly or leave it on the runway.
Categories: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Cooper), Actress (Lawrence), Supporting Actor (De Niro) Screenplay

Zero Dark Thirty
It’s funny in a movie which surrounds itself around the operation of Navy Seals (mostly if not all men; do they allow female Seals?) that all the talk surrounds two women. Katherine Bigelow cracked the gender barrier for Oscar winning directors with The Hurt Locker and Jessica Chastain’s star continues to rise. Give massive credit to Bigelow for pulling this back together after the actual death of Bin Laden nearly killed her film as well (in development for over a year before the events of May 1, 2011, the investigators were never supposed to find Bin Laden in ZDT. Any thought you might have had about this being an American propaganda film? Forget about them; not so).
Categories: Best Picture, Director, Actress (Chastain), Supporting Actor (no idea; no talk about any yet, but bet you one of the Seals emerges in the discussion), Screenplay

MULTIPLE NOMINATION POTENTIAL
Django Unchained
You never quite know with Quentin Tarantino. You’re sure that you’re going to get something violent, darkly funny and full of long, tension-building conversations laced with pop culture (as much as he can given his story). You know he’s going to tow the line between believability and insanity, but what you don’t know is will he made it to the end of the wire, will he fall into the net below or will there even be a net? Django has had is controversy (cast dropouts, the slavery undertones), but its top-level cast is pretty amazing. It will ultimately be Tarantino’s ability to restrain himself which will determine the awards this movie can rake in (or not).
Categories: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Foxx), Supporting Actor (DiCaprio/Waltz), Screenplay

The Impossible
A family separated by the tragic events of the Tsunami in the Pacific in 2004. It’ll be fraught with tension, solid effects (you know, the water) and raw emotion. Oddly enough, the exposition will be the key to this film: can the storytellers (director/screenwriter) and the actors (Naomi Watts & Ewan McGregor) make us care enough about this family before they get hit by the wave?
Categories: Best Picture, Actress (Watts), Supporting Actor (McGregor), Screenplay

Life of Pi
If the movie is as good as the preview, we’re in for a visual treat. However it’s going to be tough to sustain it over two hours. The book is great, but it’s mostly the author talking to himself and/or the reporter interviewing him after the events. Like Castaway, it’s difficult to sustain a one-person film and much will depend on the actor playing Pi, a newcomer to films in Suraj Sharma. Sharma isn’t getting any talk at all for a statue; that’s something of a confusing sign, given the pub the movie itself is receiving.
Categories: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay

The Master
This movie annoys the shit out of me. It’s deadly boring; I actually considered returning to the snack bar for an additional 44 oz soda to load up with enough caffeine to get to the end of the movie. There’s just no story or seemingly any point. However it seems that this is destined to be the “I-hated-it-but-it’s-arty-and-the-critics-love-it-so-I’m-going-to-pretend-I-like-it-so-I-seem-sophisticated-film” of the year, so we’re going to have to put up with its crap for the next three months. It does have a great performance from the actor-turned-rapper-but-not-really-haha Joaquin Phoenix and a very good one from Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I can’t in good conscience list it as a Best Picture candidate though. The movie sucks.
Categories: Actor (Phoenix), Supporting Actor (Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Adams)

The Sessions
There’s always a film that hits the indie theaters just after the Toronto Film Festival that has some amazing performance from either a has-been actor or someone you’ve never heard of. Hello, The Sessions, which apparently has both. It’s getting some talk for Best Picture and I’ll let you know after I see it, but I have a hard time believing that a film this small that came out this early will stay on people’s minds enough when the nomination forms are due early next year.
Categories: Actor (Hawkes), Supporting Actress (Hunt), Screenplay

STANDOUTS
Anna Karenina
Keira Knightly is a top-rate actress, but she REALLY has to stop doing these period pieces. She also needs to spend more time in movies that she doesn’t have to carry on her own and might appeal to a different audience. It’ll help her both grow as an actress and extend her career; she has the talent of a Kate Winslet, but that doesn’t help if no one knows about it. That said, AK is her best shot for an Oscar in years. The quality of this movie will rise and fall solely on her performance and that’s how the Oscar voters will see it. Either she gets nominated for Best Actress, or the movie gets ignored. If she does, MAYBE the movie squeaks a Best Picture nomination…it wouldn’t be the first time a single performance got a movie a Best Picture nomination (See: The Blind Side & Sandra Bullock). One final note: apparently the vast majority of the film is filmed on a stage. Not sure what that’s about.
Categories: Best Picture, Actress (Knightly), Screenplay

Beasts of the Southern Wild
I really don’t know much about this one, other than it’s getting a lot of pub as a potentially great film. It seems to be an environmental disaster from the point of view of a six year old girl, and stars a bunch of people I’ve never heard of (which is really saying something). I’ll be catching it on DVD next month.
Categories: Best Picture, Director, Actress (Wallis), Supporting Actor (Henry), Screenplay

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
I’ve seen this one twice; once in the theater and the second on a 14 hour flight. If you haven’t had the chance, it’s delightful and a lot of fun. The cast of virtually every major English actor over 60 has sparkling chemistry and though there’s almost a dozen of them, each of their characters are fully defined with multiple layers. The one who is getting the most talk is Dame Maggie Smith, but could also see Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and/or Bill Nighy sliding into their respective supporting categories as well, as there is no true lead.
Categories: Best Supporting Actor & Actress (any of them), Screenplay

Hitchcock
Not so much a bio-pic of the acclaimed director as a slice of his life. Alfred Hitchcock, already famous, is writing and directing his masterpiece Psycho, and the film covers what he and his wife went through during its making. I don’t know much more than this, except that Anthony Hopkins looks just like him in the previews and it also stars Helen Mirren and Scarlet Johansson.
Categories: Best Actor (Hopkins), Actress (Mirren), Supporting Actress (Johansson)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
This movie perplexes me a bit. Certainly it’s great to have Peter Jackson back behind the camera, but how it became three movies from one book is what gets me. Virtually any legitimate Lord of the Rings movie fan will tell you that the Directors Cut versions were better than the theatrical releases, and they averaged just shy of four hours each. If Jackson could have found a way to put each of those movies out as two movies every six months instead of one movie a year, it might have worked out. I get the feeling that’s what he’s doing with The Hobbit. It’s one book, but Jackson turned it into a quasi-sequel, with Frodo reading Bilbo’s memoirs on the trip “west” after the events of LOTR. He also went back into the deep mythology text books written by Tolkien and created a much deeper universe than existed in the book, so much so that two movies became three. I wonder if he decided on 3 two-hour movies rather than 2 three-hour movies. Would be a good call, assuming the narrative lends itself to that. Oh, and apparently he shot it at a 48 frame rate, which gives a picture so clear it looks fake. Can’t stand 48 fps myself, but that’s where the world is heading. I’m quite tempted to see it in both just to compare. Given the film geek I am, I probably will. But if you, like me, think that live TV and soap operas look terrible, stick with the 24 fps. Happy to answer questions about this (see comments section below).
Categories: Best Picture, Director, All technical categories

DARK HORSES
End of Watch
The “found footage” story-telling technique (seen in movies like Chronicle and Cloverfield) comes to the gritty police drama, staring Jake Gyllenhaal. Supposedly an uncompromising look at cops and the crime around them.
Category: Best Actor (Gyllenhaal)

Flight
This movie isn’t what you think it’s about from the preview. Essentially, it’s one man’s battle with alcohol and drug addiction (that’s half of it, I won’t tell you the other half). It’s director Robert Zemeckis’ best film since Forrest Gump; well paced and a great job of consistently building the suspense and upping the stakes with each passing scene. Washington is nothing short of brilliant; his best non-Tony Scott role (he should have been nominated for Man on Fire) since his Best Acting win for 2001’s Training Day.
Category: Best Actor (Washington)

Hello I Must Be Going
Another film I know very little about, other than a few sparse details. Basically, a woman gets divorced, moves back in with her parents and has a steamy affair with a younger man. It stars one of my absolute favorite character actresses in Melanie Lynskey, who you probably best know as Rose from Two and a Half Men.
Categories: Actress (Lynskey), Supporting Actress (Danner)

Moonrise Kingdom
A terrific coming of age story directed by the incomparable Wes Anderson. The supporting cast is virtually stunning for a small kids film like this, including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman, among a few others. Anderson takes what could be a boring story and turns it into a darkly comic, very sweet movie, while bringing out the best in the two relative newcomer children. One of the most enjoyable films of the year, without question.
Categories: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Like Moonrise, Perks is another terrific coming of age story, this time surrounding a group of high school children. Logan Lerman does an amazing job of balancing his high-wire act between being accepted and keeping his own personal demons in check. Emma Watson busts out of her Harry Potter typecasting with a wonderfully understated role as his first love (three years older to boot), and Ezra Miller turns in a potential star-making turn. Stephen Chbosky who wrote the novel and also write and made his directorial debut in the film, has a bright future ahead of him.
Categories: Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Miller), Supporting Actress (Watson)

WILL GET IGNORED (BUT SHOULDN’T)
The Avengers
What Marvel has done with their Avengers franchise can not be overstated. Currently, the Avengers universe contains the following franchises: Iron Man, Hulk (they WILL make a Hulk franchise with Ruffalo), Thor, Captain America, Ant Man and, of course, the flagship. It’s awesome to see Joss Whedon, the writer/director of the film with the largest opening weekend in history, get the recognition he deserves (maybe we’ll get some new Firefly movies as a result). But what he did, basically on his own, is pull together each of these strands into a single, cohesive, compelling narrative while allowing each character to maintain their own identity and even develop and grow as characters, all under 2 hours. That’s worth an Oscar, even if they have to make up a category.

Cloud Atlas
Yeah, most of you aren’t going to get this one. My friend Sarah made me read the book, and put her foot up my ass every time I wanted to drop it. I’m glad she made me see it through. It’s confusing, boring, non-sensical…until about the 80% point. Then you get it, and realize what a stunning vision of the universe its author portrays. Then you hear about the movie, and think there’s no POSSIBLE WAY this movie could possibly be filmed. But you see the movie, and the movie actually does a better job telling the story than the book does. By far. The principal actors are amazing chameleons (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae & the incomparable Hugo Weaving), each playing at least a half-dozen roles throughout the film. And the trio of directors (The Wachowski Brothers, one of whom is now a sister, and the director of the cult classic Run Lola Run) do a simply stunning job of pulling all the threads together and developing the themes. It’s very dense, very complicated and shows a world view that I think would make most people uncomfortable. But I LOVED it.

The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight, the second film in Nolan’s Batman trilogy (2008), forever changed the scope of the Best Picture category. There’s no question that it should have received a Best Pic slot over the far inferior The Reader that year, but the lobbying of mega-producer Harvey Weinstein pushed the latter into the race over the former. Therefore, the Academy took it upon itself to expand the Best Picture category, eventually landing on the current formula of 5-10 movies, depending on how many got 5% 1st place votes in the nomination process (we can also blame TDK for the nomination of the worst Best Picture in history, The Blind Side, the following yeaR). So, TDKR, the 2012 conclusion of the trilogy, should have had a leg up for a slot. Unfortunately, Nolan turned in a 2 hour, 48 minute epic that lost a lot of the “uncommitted” audience (people who aren’t necessarily fans, but like good movies), killing any chance that he’d get a Best Pic nom this year. I fully agree that TDKR is Nolan’s third best film, with Inception being my favorite and TDK in the second slot. But if you’ve seen each of the first two films and enjoyed them, the conclusion is nothing short of stunning. Nolan’s films (not just TDK trilogy) show us a world that has matured, fraying at the edges and is in decline through gridlock, greed and gluttony. Hard not to relate.

Looper
God, I loved every minute of this movie. If you’ve only seen the preview, you really have no idea what it’s about. It looks like a quasi post-apocalypitc time travel action movie with Bruce Willis in the lead. Not really. First, Willis is in maybe 25% of the scenes. It’s really a morality tale staring Joseph Gordon-Levitt who is looking for himself and trying to find his way in an uncertain world. Each passing scene ups the ante and builds the tension; writer/director Rian Johnson is a voice who needs to be heard. Trust me: see this film.

People Like Us
I’d be really surprised if you’ve heard of this film, let alone seen it. It’s a bit of a passion project from two of my Hollywood heroes in Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci, who come from the JJ Abrams tree of talent. They wrote for Lost and currently write and produce a bunch of movies and TV shows, including Fringe, Hawaii Five-0, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness (Star Trek 2, next summer), The Amazing Spider-Man, The Proposal and the Transformers films, among others. But this was a small film, staring Chris Pine (the new Captain Kirk from Star Trek), Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde and Michelle Pfeiffer. Here’s the basic plot: Pine’s father dies, so he returns with his girlfriend (Wilde) for the funeral to his mother’s house (Pfeiffer). There he learns he has a half-sister, who his father sired out of wedlock, and his father left her a lot of money but him nothing, even though he needs it. So he checks her out, and things progress from there. It’s a beautifully written, developed and directed portrait of family, secrets and the balance between need and conscience. Kurtzman even took the director’s chair to get this one done. It won’t be the last time.

HONORABLE MENTION
Skyfall
I haven’t seen this yet, but it’s supposedly that good. I’m going to see it tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it is.