All the cards of Oscar season aren't quite laid out, as we wait just one more week for American Hustle to start screening for guilds, and probably not much longer for Martin Scorsese to finally finish Wolf of Wall Street. But a lot of the question marks have been revealed, as virtually every movie with a shot in the Oscar race-- plus some major longshots-- have been unveiled in the last few months. Let's go over some of the newest entrants, as well as some updates on the long-running contenders, before we get to the charts.

Saving Mr. Banks. Its well-regarded London Film Festival premiere was followed with a berth at Los Angeles' AFI Fest, and a large number of critics and audiences alike seem unable to resist its charms. I saw it with a guild crowd here and was relatively unimpressed-- it's a messy combination of a fascinating True Hollywood Story with an overly familiar origin story about P.L. Travers and her tough relationship with her dad. No fault to Colin Farrell, who's wonderful as Travers' father, but the flashbacks feel like constant dead weight, especially when you've got Emma Thompson doing lively work as the adult Travers and, of course, Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. The cast is stacked with memorable performers doing strong work-- Jason Schwartzman and Paul Giamatti both do a lot with a whole little-- but the narrative is consistently stalling out, until it sweeps along to a big emotional conclusion that doesn't feel earned (in real life, Travers hated the movie). But no one ever went broke trying to sell glossy Hollywood stories to Oscar voters, so I can admit it's still a contender, a shiny happy alternative to 12 Years A Slave or even Hanks's own Captain Phillips.

Out of the Furnace. Another AFI premiere, with another all-star cast, but much more modest (and less obvious) awards ambitions. Reviews have compared it to The Deer Hunter (a Best Picture winner, of course) and at least one person is calling it Christian Bale's greatest performance, but it's unclear how much ground a low-budget, gritty drama can find in a season that's already jam-packed with Big Serious Films. Director Scott Cooper's last film Crazy Heart wound up with three Oscar nominations and two wins, but it had a long road through festivals to earn attention-- people are going to need to really start loving this film, and talking about it a lot, for it to rise above the fray.

Lone Survivor. Another gritty offering with lots of stars, another AFI premiere, and another fuzzy Oscar picture. The film's positive reviews mean it's clearly a redemption for director Peter Berg after Battleship, but the release strategy-- a December 27 limited opening with a wide push on January 10-- suggests they're counting on commercial appeal as much as or even more so than awards. Variety at least is swearing it's a major contender, and we are only a year removed from Zero Dark Thirty's solid Oscar run, and not much past The Hurt Locker's big win either. A large, macho war movie that's fun to watch could be interesting Oscar counter-programming, but Lone Survivor is reportedly as dark and tough to watch as 12 Years A Slave in some moments. I see it Monday; I'll report back.

Labor Day. Receiving mixed reviews in its festival run in September (ours included), Jason Reitman's newest film had long since stopped looking like a major awards contender. Though it will still have a qualifying release late in the year, the film's wider opening has been pushed to late January, which effectively ends the likelihood that Paramount will launch a large awards campaign on its behalf. As everybody knows by now, December is really crowded-- and regardless of how good Labor Day is, it's a small film that was going to struggle to make its case no matter what.

Nebraska. Opening this weekend after playing in festivals since May, the new film from Alexander Payne has ridden a slow and steady wave of buzz that's only gotten stronger-- the ideal fate for a small film in this crazy season. Bruce Dern seems a guaranteed Best Actor nominee and will likely square off against Robert Redford (All Is Lost), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave) and Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) in an absurdly competitive category. The fate for the film itself will be determined by further critical and audience response, but given that Payne came very, very close to snagging Best Picture for The Descendants a few years back, Nebraska shouldn't be counted out for anything.

Inside Llewyn Davis. A few weeks ahead of its official opening the Coen Brothers film is getting some seriously starry attention, and a renewed call for people to recognize that Oscar Isaac is Best Actor worthy in the title role (not that it'll help him in that aforementioned crazy category). I've wondered if the Coens can make a mark with a film so modest and so committed to its own darkness, but more and more people seem to be falling for it-- and, after all, A Serious Man was nominated for Best Picture, and it ended with an entire school full of children dying. The Coens can slip darkness past the Academy like nobody else.

12 Years A Slave. Everyone is still talking about it, and as it expands into more theaters everyone will continue talking about it. The backlash may still come, but a month after its opening, it remains the undisputed Best Picture frontrunner, which is no small feat.

Gravity. Everyone is also still talking about, and nearly everyone on earth seems to have seen it by now. The Academy's usual sci-fi bias is nothing in the face of an accomplishment this huge.

OK, on to the charts, where a few weeks have passed and there's room to call a few more sure-things-- while also plenty of room to wonder when the hell some sure-things will emerge.
oscar winner prediction

If an entire month goes by and no significant backlash emerges, I think it's fair to call yourself a mortal lock-- so congratulations, 12 Years A Slave, for getting the status I probably should have given you back in September. I've also bumped up Nebraska, August: Osage County and Inside Llewyn Davis, recognizing their own staying power, and paid at least a little more attention to Lone Survivor-- if one person think it's a contender, I may as well believe him. I remain curious to see how American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street may manage to tighten the bottleneck toward the Mortal Lock spot.


12 Years A Slave

August: Osage County
Captain Phillips
Inside Llewyn Davis
Saving Mr. Banks

American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club
Lee Daniels' The Butler
Lone Survivor
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
The Wolf of Wall Street

All Is Lost
Before Midnight
The Book Thief
Fruitvale Station
Out of the Furnace
The Place Beyond the Pines
Prisoners Rush

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