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This time of year you're probably overwhelmed figuring out your holiday plans and making a list of everyone you need to give presents, but there's another list you probably have in mind as a movie buff: the Oscar nominations. No, the nominees won't be announced until January 10, but now is the time to start catching up on the names that will probably be read that day-- and if you're lucky enough to be in a major city, you can catch many of the likely nominees right now.

But how do you choose which ones to see? Most of them have good reviews, and there's bound to be somebody out there who will passionately tell you why anything needs to be your #1 pick for Oscar buzz. But hey, you come here for our advice the rest of the year-- why not trust us on Oscar movies? Below we've picked five Oscar hopefuls that we think are worth your time, and have made our best case for why you should make time for them. Even if none of these movies are part of the final Oscar lineup, they're worth a look-- now you can be the ones recommending some smaller stuff to your friends who want to be in the know this awards season.


Lincoln
Lincoln is both an indictment of the honest, altruistic hero president we’re taught about as little kids and a glowing celebration of the leader who kept the union together and ended slavery. It’s not the biopic or the sprawling civil war epic many assumed we’d get. Instead, it’s a detailed analysis of the muck and the shady gray areas Lincoln was willing to wade through in order to accomplish what he knew was the greater good of ending human bondage. It’s the most relatable and most fundamentally human we’ve ever seen Number 16, and it’s not only a good history lesson, it’s funny and highly entertaining.

Played by Daniel Day-Lewis in a performance so good it’s emerged as the frontrunner ahead of John Hawkes’ polio patient, Denzel’s addicted pilot and Hopkins’ Hitchcock, Lincoln is assured at least a nomination in the Best Actor category. Further recognition for the film itself (picture), Steven Spielberg (director), Tommy Lee Jones (supporting actor) and Sally Field (supporting actress) seem likely at this point, as well. See it to be informed while you’re watching the Academy Awards. See it to gain a new appreciation for one of our greatest leaders, and see it to have a damn good time at the movies.

Anna Karenina
In his third collaboration with Keira Knightley, daring director Joe Wright offers an edgy new interpretation on Leo Tolstoy's classic tale of love and conflict in 19th century Russia with a provocative and poignant screenplay by Tom Stoppard. Rejecting the staid and stern tone typically favored by period piece adaptations, Wright steps outside the box by staging Anna Karenina primarily within an opulent theater, where its crowded wings serve as back alleys, and the heartbreak of the nobles at the film's center literally takes center stage. This device is visually dazzling and allows for Wright to take his love of elaborate long takes to sensational new heights.

The film is sumptuous with its luxurious production design, breathtaking cinematography and challenging conceptual execution. Its whimsical theatricality creates a captivating portrait of the rapture of romance, completed by impeccable performances by its remarkable cast who handles the whirling set pieces and moral complexity of their characters with an awe-inspiring effortlessness. If there's a better movie out there this year, I haven't seen it.

Flight
Flight is so much more than “a two-hour Denzel Washington performance.” Granted, the two-time Oscar winner is fantastic. That’s a given. What I didn’t expect from Flight was a complete return to form for director Robert Zemeckis, who ditches the cold, clammy environments of holiday-themed motion capture for his first live-action drama since Cast Away. Ironically, he’s still exploring a man who stands alone on an island. Yet, Washington’s fascinating Flight character -- alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker -- isn’t really interested in finding a way back home. Repercussions await this man at the end of his journey. Atonement. Demons … the ones that linger at the bottom of an empty bottle.

Even out of the cockpit, Flight offers a bumpy ride. It isn’t perfect. But there are enough gripping moments built into John Gatins’ redemptive script to more than justify its value. And yes, Washington also is at the top of his formidable game playing a flawed hero who defies death by landing a fatally damaged commercial airline (in one of the most eye-popping sequences you’ll see on screen all year) … only to realize the worst is yet to come.

The Sessions
The Sessions sounds like every treacly bit of Oscar bait you've ever avoided, with a story about a man stricken with polio who not only overcomes his disability to become a renowned poet, but who dreams of having sex for the first time. And while director Ben Lewin makes the movie plenty sweet and relatable (even your grandmothers will like it, nudity and all), The Sessions is sharp and well-acted enough to avoid all of its own pitfalls, providing the kind of feel-good true story that doesn't make you feel a little guilty at the end.

You ought to see it for John Hawkes's performance alone, as the Winter's Bone star transforms himself into the polio-riddled Mark O'Brien, but gives the character such wry humor and insight that he never slips into the cliched, inspirational cripple. And believe it or not, Helen Hunt gives one of her best performances as well as the sex surrogate who helps Mark O'Brien lose his virginity. The Sessions might seem like the easy-listening of Oscar season, but it's a moving and surprisingly funny little film that-- as a bonus-- everyone who can get into an R-rated movie ought to enjoy.

Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook isn’t quite a drama and isn’t quite a comedy, but what’s particularly masterful about the movie is the way it navigates the road between the two. Based on the novel by Matthew Quick, the film tells the story of a former teacher named Pat (Bradley Cooper) who is released from a mental institution after an 8 month stay and tries to earn back the affection of his ex-wife – but things get complicated when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a beautiful young woman with a brain almost as damaged as his. But it’s more than a fucked up love story – it’s a wonderful examination of character and just how screwed up we all are.

Much like Russell’s The Fighter, which took home two Oscars for supporting it’s supporting actors, the real Academy draw of Silver Linings Playbook are the performances by the amazing ensemble the director was able to create. Lawrence proves that her turn in Winter’s Bone was no fluke, as she steals every scene of this movie, but there is a legitimate chance for all of the main characters to get nominations, including Robert De Niro, who it seems was just working to lower our expectations over the last decade so that we would be bowled over by his work here. Silver Linings Playbook is a must see, and if you don’t you’ll regret it come Oscar time.

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