Oscars: What Stops Mattered Most on the Road to Best Picture

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From left: Tobey Maguire, Baz Luhrmann, Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio

Since every festival and red carpet is another opportunity for a movie to stake a claim as top dog, THR examines who got the upper hand -- even for a moment.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Sundance Film Festival

What better way to start the year than with the introduction of a hot new talent like director Ryan Coogler, whose first feature, Fruitvale Station, won an audience award and the grand jury prize. The fest also saw Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke reteam for Before Midnight.

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Cannes Film Festival

The Artist, which launched in 2011 at Cannes, copped the best picture Oscar. And this year, the Croisette was crowded with best picture hopefuls. The Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis got the biggest boost with a Grand Prix win. The Great Gatsby had the honor of serving as the opening night curtain-raiser. Nebraska earned Bruce Dern acting honors, and All Is Lost, playing out of competition, received an ovation.

Venice, Telluride, Toronto Festival Trifecta

Suddenly, the pace accelerates: Bejeweled festivalgoers in Venice donned 3D glasses for the world premiere of Gravity, which since has gone on to gross $631 million worldwide, the biggest hit in the Oscar race. Philomena, starring Judi Dench, had them reaching for their hankies. Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave was a sensation at Telluride, which also unveiled the procedural Prisoners, with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. And Toronto was jam-packed: Julia Roberts was on hand for the star-studded premiere of August: Osage County; Dallas Buyers Club drew praise for the commitment of its stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto; Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom earned applause; Enough Said provoked laughter; and Rush gunned its engines.

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New York Film Festival

The highbrow New York Film Festival lent its imprimatur to a trio of films: Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips had pulses pounding as the opening night film. The centerpiece gala slot went to Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which offered a fresh take on the classic short story by James Thurber. And Spike Jonze's Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his computer, served as the closing night attraction.

AFI Fest

Fittingly, since the movie depicts the 1964 premiere of Mary Poppins at Grauman's Chinese, Saving Mr. Banks was the opening night feature at that very same theater. The Hollywood-based film festival also showcased Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace, the tale of two brothers, Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, defying fate, and Peter Berg's Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg.

Late Surprises

Skipping all the hoopla -- and generating a lot of suspense -- a couple of films snuck in just under the wire. David O. Russell's American Hustle, an ode to '70s-era con men, hit the screening circuit just before Thanksgiving. And Martin Scorsese's nearly three-hour The Wolf of Wall Street, which will hit theaters Dec. 25, waited until the holiday weekend before it started to unspool for various awards groups.

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The Critics Weigh In ...

With so many quality films to choose from, the various critics groups could find little to agree on as they rushed to judgment. On Dec. 3, the New York Film Critics Circle gave its top award to American Hustle. The next day, the National Board of Review gave a big thumbs-up to Her. On Dec. 8, while the Boston Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Online voted to reward 12 Years a Slave, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association ended up locked in a tie. And so it awarded best picture to Gravity, with its high-tech effects, and Her, which takes a slightly more cerebral approach to technology.