12 Years A Slave. Already the 800 pound gorilla in the race, the new film from Steve McQueen has some people so excited after its Telluride and Toronto premieres that it's been declared the Best Picture winner. Grantland's Mark Harris, who hasn't even seen it yet, stepped it back a bit with a thoughtful analysis of why 12 Years A Slave is so well-positioned (Hollywood finally grappling with race, Oscars making up for rarely acknowledging race, etc.) but also why it's way too damn early to declare anything. I'll talk more about 12 Years next week-- you can read my review in the meantime-- but it is definitely one to keep an eye on. It's one of few recent awards-targeted movies that actually exceeds its hype.

Gravity. Reviews so far, ours included, have been ecstatic, both for the technical accomplishment from director Alfonso Cuaron and Sandra Bullock's physically demanding, captivating lead performance. Sci-fi films have a terrible track record at the Oscars, but the recent expanded slate of Best Picture nominees has made the path easier for potential commercial hits like this one. We'll see how Gravity does with wider audiences when it opens October 4 before making bold pronouncements about its overall awards potential.

Dallas Buyers Club. Most of the buzz out of the Toronto Film Festival has been about Matthew McConaughey's lead performance and Jared Leto's supporting work, though some have fallen for the movie as a whole. Though telling a touching true story about serious issues, Dallas Buyers is a modest film, and should wind up mostly heralded for its performances, which I think are the best reason to see it. Is this finally McConaughey's Oscar nomination after several years of strong work? I sure hope so.

August: Osage County. If the Toronto reviews for this had been ecstatic it could have knocked out 12 Years as an early Best Picture frontrunner; instead most reviews, Sean's included, have been modestly warm, with most of the attention going to Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts' performances. Can the film itself build its way up to contender status? There are many months to go before its December 25 opening, and the Weinstein Company is backing it, so anything is possible.

Captain Phillips. Paul Greengrass's newest film is the splashy opener of the New York Film Festival, and the early reviews are all over it, with everyone seemingly psyched to see Tom Hanks back in heroic form (who wouldn't be?) Greengrass's United 93 was another tense real-world thriller that earned him a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Director, so don't be surprised if this is another straightforward action film that goes the distance in awards season-- and never, ever estimate Tom Hanks when he's saving the day.

Rush. Daniel Bruhl is sneakily emerging as a major contender, not for The Fifth Estate (we'll get to that later) but for this Ron Howard racing drama. From the posters you might think the whole thing is about Chris Hemsworth and his blond mane, but Bruhl steals the show as the forceful Austrian driver Niki Lauda, who engaged in a fierce rivalry with Hemsworth's James Hunt in the 1970s Formula One championships. Some pals of mine think Bruhl could walk away with Best Supporting Actor-- and the movie itself, especially if it does well with audiences after opening next week, could be a strong populist pick across the board.

Prisoners. A lot of critics seemed to surprise themselves by falling hard for this movie at Toronto, and with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal leading its cast, it could do well at the box office when it opens this week. Director Denis Villeneuve has a strong Oscar track record as well, earning a Best Foreign Language Film nomination for Incendies… but the main Oscar race is a different beast entirely, and dark, criminal movies aren't always Best Picture catnip. Just ask Gyllenhaal, who did great work in David Fincher's Zodiac, a lengthy crime thriller that was one of the best films of 2007 and precisely zero Oscar nods to show for it.

Inside Llewyn Davis. The latest film from the Coen Brothers premiered to strong reviews way back at Cannes, but its awards season mettle will be truly tested when it opens at the New York Film Festival next month. Coen movies can never be counted on to court awards-- the brothers seem to have no interest in it-- and despite reportedly strong performances from Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan, Llewyn Davis could easily be too modest, or too idiosyncratic, to earn significant awards heat.

Nebraska. After coming damn close to winning Best Picture two years ago with The Descendants, Alexander Payne is back with a much lower-key film, about a road trip between father (Bruce Dern) and son (Will Forte). Unsurprisingly it's the performances, especially Dern's, getting the most attention after the film screened at Cannes and Toronto, and it's dutifully making its way to the New York Film Festival to keep that buzz going. Dern is a longstanding Hollywood veteran who's never been nominated, which can only boost sentimental support for his win, but it's a crowded Best Actor field, and Nebraska may not be big and bold enough to compete in many other categories.

All Is Lost. Robert Redford, who hasn't starred in a film since 2007's Lions for Lambs, is very much front and center here as a nameless man lost at sea and struggling to survive. After screening at Cannes the film earned rave reviews, and sentimental attachment to Redford-- who has never won an Oscar for acting-- could propel it very, very far, even if people are still too scarred from Life of Pi to look forward to another "lost at sea" drama.

Kill Your Darlings. Many months after its Sundance premiere the Beat-era drama is finally making its way through other festivals and toward theaters, with strong notices for the performances by Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan. But it's not nearly as big a heavyweight as some of the season's other offerings, as good as the movie is, and it hasn't been trumpeted enough at the fall festivals to keep its Sundance buzz going. That might not be a bad thing-- it's a compact story that might be wrecked by inflated awards attention. But some further critical support could at least get it through some critics awards and maybe the Indie Spirits.

Labor Day. After pounding endlessly through awards season with both Juno and Up in the Air Jason Reitman backed away with the divisive Young Adult, which puts less pressure on the intimate drama Labor Day. Sean was a fan at Toronto, and you can never count a Kate Winslet performance out of any awards race, but it remains to be seen how the small-scale Labor Day can fare against the louder competition. With its release not coming until December 25, it has plenty of time to build up enough buzz to compensate.

Philomena. Much like Kate Winslet, you cannot count Judi Dench out of any awards race, and Philomena-- which Sean said"will entertain my mom and her friends" from Toronto-- puts Dench in the Best Actress competition. Remember: Sean's mom and her friends are a lot more similar to the Oscar voters than many of us.

The Fifth Estate. A true story drama about Julian Assange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl, The Fifth Estate seemed to have everything going for it, until it opened the Toronto Film Festival to brutal reviews. Everyone still says that Cumberbatch is solid, but if nobody likes the movie, that might not mean anything. Somehow the mega-popular Sherlock star has three big movies this fall (he has supporting turns in August: Osage County and 12 Years A Slave), but very dim awards prospects.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom "Idris Elba IS Nelson Mandela." It's the kind of tagline that can invite people to practically fling statues at you, but this Nelson Mandela biopic met tepid reviews in Toronto, with critics calling it "fundamentally uncinematic" and "straightforward storytelling of a type that’s somewhat out of fashion," even while praising Elba's performance. Morgan Freeman got a Best Actor nomination for playing Mandela in Clint Eastwood's very boring Invictus, so nothing is impossible, but without a name-brand director backing it Mandela might have a hard time getting a similar level of attention.

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