Oscars: Scott Feinberg Sizes Up the Best Picture Race (Analysis)

The films in the awards-season hunt include Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine," Matthew McConaughey's "Dallas Buyers Club," Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" and Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave." Does anyone have an edge?
Columbia Pictures
"American Hustle"

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's November stand-alone.

Following is an in-depth look at the 20 films that I currently regard as the most serious best picture Oscar contenders. For each of them I list their distributor, release date, box-office gross, plot summary, history and the strongest arguments for and against their nomination.



Release date: OCT. 18

Box-office gross: $4.2 million

The lowdown: In J.C. Chandor's gripping follow-up to his Oscar-nominated debut Margin Call (2011), the boat of an older man (Robert Redford) who is sailing alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean freakishly strikes an object, which knocks out his communications capabilities and sends him racing against time to try to stay afloat long enough to be rescued. The film premiered out of competition in Cannes and received a 10-minute standing ovation.

Pro: The best thing that this harrowing thriller has going for it is that it's unlike any other film in contention and that Redford, who has received only one acting nomination (40 years ago for The Sting), never has been better. It's a one-man show in which he barely says a word.

Con: Not everyone is interested in watching a virtually silent movie about a senior citizen in peril -- plus the ambiguous ending leaves some people feeling frustrated.

PHOTOS: Robert Redford at Sea: The Making of 'All Is Lost'


Studio: SONY

Release date: DEC. 13

Box-office gross: N/A

The lowdown: David O. Russell's dramedy, inspired by the FBI ABSCAM sting of the late '70s and early '80s, is a crime drama that revolves around various hustlers: a married con man (Christian Bale) and his equally wily mistress (Amy Adams); the attention-hungry FBI agent who enlists them for undercover work (Bradley Cooper) to take down a corrupt mayor (Jeremy Renner); and the wife of the first man (Jennifer Lawrence), who threatens the whole operation.

Pro: Russell is on fire -- he scored best-picture and best-director Oscar noms in two of the past three awards seasons with The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and has managed to team up the principal casts of both of those films for this one, which looks and sounds like a lighter, or at least more fun, alternative to the heavy-handed frontrunners.

Con: The comb-overs, push-up bras and accents are amusing in the film's trailer, but can they be sustained for an entire film without seeming over the top? Hard to say, because the film hasn't screened yet.

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Release date: DEC. 25

Box-office gross: N/A

The lowdown: John Wells directed Tracy Letts' adaptation of his own prize-winning play, which focuses on the drama that arises when three women (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson) and their significant others (Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, Benedict Cumberbatch), plus other relatives (Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin), reunite at the Oklahoma home of their mother (Meryl Streep) following the death of their father (Sam Shepard).

Pro: Many Academy members have seen and loved the play. Moreover, you can't beat the quality of this film's cast. And with experienced producers like George Clooney and Harvey Weinstein behind it, you know it will get the strongest push possible.

Con: Those who loved the 3½-hour play might feel let down by the bowdlerized two-hour film. And, as recently seen with Carnage and other films, many run in the other direction from films that feature constant bickering, even if it is sporadically very funny.

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Release date: JULY 26

Box-office gross: $32.5 million

The lowdown: This year's Woody Allen release is more serious than most that came before it. It's a drama about a rich woman (Cate Blanchett) who loses her husband (Alec Baldwin), a Bernie Madoff-like character, and her money and therefore is forced to move in with her working-class sister (Sally Hawkins) and spend time in the company of her sister's various boyfriends (Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C.K. and Bobby Cannavale) while trying to get her own life back in order.

Pro: An Allen film always is a big deal, and a good one is even more so. This one was strongly embraced by critics thanks primarily to a strong script, a leading lady at the top of her game and great character work from every member of its large ensemble cast.

Con: People don't expect Allen films to be as dark and depressing as this one is, particularly at the end. Plus, the fact that it is basically a reworking of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) could cost it points for originality.




Release date: NOV. 8

Box-office gross: $135,000

The lowdown: In Brian Percival's second feature, which was adapted from Markus Zusak's best-selling 2006 novel, a young, illiterate girl (the terrific 13-year-old Sophie Nelisse) is given up by her mother and adopted by a childless German couple (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) on the eve of World War II. She learns to read and understand the complexities of the world as war breaks out around her.

Pro: There are few things that the Academy likes more than films about the Holocaust -- especially those adapted from acclaimed books -- and films that star Rush, a pro's pro. If you add into the mix a standout performance by an impressive youngster, a film of this sort might prove irresistible to voters.

Con: The biggest problem facing this one is its clunky and totally unnecessary opening and closing narration by "death." Even Academy members can only take so much schmaltz.

PHOTOS: On Board With 'Captain Phillips': Exclusive Portraits of Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi


Studio: SONY

Release date: OCT. 11

Box-office gross: $90.9 million

The lowdown: Paul Greengrass has taken Billy Ray's script about the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship by Somali pirates, the subsequent kidnapping of its captain (Tom Hanks)and the ensuing U.S. rescue mission and turned it into a heart-pounding thriller. It could have been just a straight action film, but it also elects to humanize, rather than dehumanize, the "bad guys," particularly the leader (Barkhad Abdi).

Pro: The Academy has demonstrated a fondness for ripped-from-the-headlines films about Americans outsmarting villainous foreigners, even when we know how they're going to end (see 2012's Argo and Zero Dark Thirty). And we know it also loves Hanks, even if he hasn't been nominated in 13 years.

Con: The film's supporters have been on the defensive ever since the New York Post's Oct. 13 story in which unnamed people who served under the real Phillips criticized the film's portrayal of him, insisting he has reframed facts to make himself seem heroic. Greengrass and others have publicly faced questions about the allegations.

PHOTOS: Anatomy of an Awards Contender: Behind the Scenes of 'Dallas Buyers Club'



Release date: NOV. 1

Box-office gross: $1 million

The lowdown: Jean-Marc Vallee directed this powerful film about Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a bigoted cowboy who was diagnosed with AIDS during the early years of the epidemic, when such a diagnosis essentially was a death sentence because of the lack of FDA-approved treatments. Woodroof, ever the spitfire, began illegally importing and selling more effective medication than was commercially available -- and joined forces with a transgender person (Jared Leto) who against all odds became one of his only remaining friends.

Pro: The Academy always has responded strongly to films based on real people, important subjects like AIDS and actors who lose massive amounts of weight for their parts (McConaughey and Leto each shed 40).

Con: The film is vulnerable to criticism for changing some pretty significant things about Woodroof's story -- i.e., consolidating a number of people into the character played by Leto -- but still advertising itself as an authentic portrait of his life.

STORY: Oscar Whisper Campaigns: The Slurs Against '12 Years,' 'Captain Phillips,' 'Gravity' and 'The Butler'



Release date: OCT. 4

Box-office gross: $231.2 million

The lowdown: Director Alfonso Cuaron's latest project, which he co-wrote with his son Jonas Cuaron and developed over a five-year period, is a masterfully rendered blend of acting, animation and visual effects that convincingly creates the appearance of two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) navigating -- and then struggling to survive disaster after disaster in --outer space.

Pro: Most moviegoers would agree that there hasn't been a better reason to see a movie in a theater this year than Gravity, which received gushing reviews and made a fortune at the box office, proving the exception to the rule that the critics and public can't agree on anything. It should have nearly across-the-board support from the Academy …

Con: … except from the writing branch because many have argued that the film is all style and no substance thanks to a cliche-riddled script -- the scientific accuracy of which also has been challenged in some academic circles.




Release date: DEC. 18

Box-office gross: N/A

The lowdown: Spike Jonze's latest film is typically out-there -- a futuristic, sci-fi look at a sweet, sensitive man (Joaquin Phoenix) who rebounds from a longtime relationship with a woman (Rooney Mara) by entering into a new relationship with his intuitive computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

Pro: The fact that this film is moving, as opposed to laughable, largely is owed to a strong script, beautiful production design and particularly strong performances -- of very different sorts -- by Phoenix and Johansson. It's different enough from its competition to really stand out.

Con: The Academy is composed largely of older and socially conservative folks, some of whom might not "get" the technological references on which the film rests (see The Social Network) and/or might be too weirded out by the possibility of a world of this sort to get behind the film. Plus Warner Bros.' main focus will be Gravity.

STORY: Spike Jonze's 'Her' Creates Major Buzz at Rome Film Fest



Release date: DEC. 6

Box-office gross: N/A

The lowdown:The latest quirky indie written and directed by the brothers Ethan and Joel Coen focuses on New York's folk music scene in the '60s, generally, and specifically on a young singer (Oscar Isaac) with a beautiful voice but a tortured soul who can't quite get his life in order after the suicide of his singing partner. He winds up turning for help to -- and generally turning off -- almost everyone he encounters (including Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, John Goodman and Adam Driver).

Pro: The Academy is composed of artists, most of whom have experienced hardships on the path to success -- some during the very time period in which the film is set -- and might therefore sympathize with the protagonist's plight. Plus the music, arranged by T Bone Burnett, is fabulous, and the film is being pushed by super-producer Scott Rudin.

Con: The protagonist is so unsympathetic that, to some, he becomes just plain unlikable. Plus the film's unusual structure and unclear message leave some confused.

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Release date: AUG. 16

Box-office gross: $115.3 million

The lowdown: Lee Daniels' moving drama -- which was inspired by real events that Emmy-winning writer Danny Strong then turned into a fictional narrative -- centers on a black man from the South (Forest Whitaker) who becomes a White House butler for seven different presidents (all portrayed by first-rate actors) and has a unique vantage point on the evolution of the civil rights struggle that families like his own (played by Oprah Winfrey and rising star David Oyelowo) were waging outside the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Pro: The star-studded film, which was a huge hit over the summer, starts on a Southern plantation and spans all the way to the first presidential election of Barack Obama, offering Americans a digestible history lesson that also happens to be immensely entertaining and upbeat about the future.

Con: The film has been criticized for being tailor-made for the Oscars and giving some audience members the impression that it is entirely based on real events.

STORY: Why 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' Has 41 Producers



Release date: DEC. 27

Box-office gross: N/A

The lowdown: Peter Berg was at the helm for this war pic, which he also adapted from the autobiography by Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL who served in Afghanistan and whose unit came under attack there in 2005 while trying to carry out a mission to kill a Taliban leader. The film recounts the efforts of Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and his fellow SEALs (Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch) to survive in spite of being vastly outnumbered on foreign terrain.

Pro: Modern-day warfare rarely has been presented as realistically as it is in this film, which also harks back to the great war films of yesteryear by focusing less on an individual saving the day than on all of the members of a unit doing their part to look after one another.

Con: The film's relentless violence will prove to be too much for some Academy members to handle. Additionally, the most recent film on which Berg and Kitsch collaborated was the disastrous Battleship, and it remains to be seen whether people are quite ready to forgive and forget that.




Release date: NOV. 29

Box-office gross: N/A

The lowdown: In this long-gestating adaptation of South African leader Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Justin Chadwick directs Idris Elba, as "Madiba," from his early adulthood through his marriage to Winnie (Skyfall's Bond girl Naomie Harris), his 27 years in prison and his historic election as his country's first black president in 1994 at age 75.

Pro: Academy members have long loved films about socially significant people, and few in our time have been more revered than Mandela. The fact that his family has embraced the film -- and Mandela himself reportedly was impressed with Elba's resemblance to him -- gives voters the stamp of authenticity they like to have before affording major recognition.

Con: Many have walked away from the 2½-hour film remarking that it was a bit too long and slow. Perhaps there is no easy and entertaining way to show how horrific 27 years in prison must be -- or perhaps biopics of the sort that the Academy used to love simply have gone out of fashion.

STORY: AFI Fest: Bruce Dern Charms Crowd With Tales of Hollywood Legends at 'Nebraska' Screening



Release date: NOV. 15

Box-office gross: N/A

The lowdown: Two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne's latest film is, like most of his others, a "road movie." This one looks at the struggle of a grown man (former Saturday Night Live star Will Forte) to get to know and understand his aging father (veteran Bruce Dern) when the old man insists, against the protests of his feisty wife (the wonderful character actress June Squibb), on taking an interstate trip to try to collect $1 million in prize money that has been promised to him in a letter.

Pro: The film, a black-and-white homage to 1970s films like Paper Moon (1973), has played at nearly every festival out there, Payne is an Academy favorite and Dern landing -- and making the most of -- his first starring role during the third act of his career makes for a feel-good story.

Con: Even though the Academy largely is composed of older people, films about older people rarely get nominated for best picture. And films about America's "flyover states" also are regularly ignored.

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Release date: DEC. 6

Box-office gross: N/A

The lowdown: Scott Cooper's follow-up to Crazy Heart (2009), which scored two acting Oscar noms (one of which, for star Jeff Bridges, resulted in a win), offers a bunch of other great actors the chance to show off their chops. It revolves around two brothers (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck) from an old industrial steel mill town that once represented the heart of America but has been driven into decline by globalization and the recession. They are both good men who try to go about their lives nobly but encounter a litany of setbacks -- and one unforgettable villain (Woody Harrelson) -- that force them to compromise their principles and jeopardize their futures.

Pro: The film couldn't be better acted or more beautifully put together, which is why it has received rave reviews and might be bound for awards from critics groups.

Con: Slow-burning, dark and ominous films about fictional events rarely click with the Academy -- though there certainly have been exceptions like The Deer Hunter (1978), to which some have compared this film.

STORY: 'Philomena' Wins Appeal to Overturn R Rating for Two F-Bombs



Release date: NOV. 22

Box-office gross: N/A

The lowdown: Oscar nominee Stephen Frears helmed this adaptation of British journalist Martin Sixsmith's heartrending book -- penned by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, who also plays Sixsmith in the film -- about an elderly Irishwoman (Judi Dench) haunted by her past. As a young woman, she became pregnant out of wedlock, gave birth to a boy, then was forced to give him up for adoption. Now, decades later, she wants to reunite with the boy but doesn't know how to find him and therefore enlists the help of Sixsmith, who reluctantly agrees. What they subsequently learn about Philomena's son -- and each other -- changes both of their lives forever.

Pro: You couldn't ask for a more moving trip to the movies -- one that is sure to make you laugh and cry -- thanks in large part to Dench's sweet and sensitive performance and Coogan's willingness and ability to tone down his usual comedic shtick and play more of a straight man to Dench.

Con: The story might prove simply too heartbreaking for some to handle.




Release date: SEPT. 20

Box-office gross: $26.8 million

The lowdown: This film written by Peter Morgan and directed by Ron Howard, both Oscar winners, recounts the true story of two Formula One race car drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda (Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, respectively), who possess very different backgrounds, temperaments and public personas and become fierce rivals and competitors for championship titles -- a dynamic that is complicated when one suffers traumatic injuries in an accident on the track.

Pro: The Academy loves the film's writer and director, as well as tearjerkers that are derived from real events. This one, which was very well-reviewed, has been formally and enthusiastically endorsed by its one subject still living.

Con: The Academy generally has shied away from glossy big studio movies in recent years. And the involvement of Hemsworth, who is best known for his superhero role in Marvel's Avengers franchise, undermines its standing for some.


Studio: DISNEY

Release date: DEC. 13

Box-office gross: N/A

The lowdown: John Lee Hancock's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated The Blind Side is another heart-tugging film that ultimately is about family. Inspired by a true story, it focuses on the amusing interactions between P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the no-nonsense British author of the novel Mary Poppins, and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), the all-American mogul who fought for 20 years to persuade her to sell him the novel's film rights.

Pro: Hollywood apparently likes watching itself on the big screen -- movies about movies have won the best picture Oscar in each of the past two years (The Artist and Argo). It also stars two of the most beloved actors in the business and comes with more than a spoonful of nostalgia for many voters who remember when Mary Poppins itself came out.

Con: Sentimentality will get you only so far, especially in a year of films that are about massive social issues (i.e., 12 Years a Slave) and/or were massive cinematic undertakings (i.e., Gravity).

STORY: '12 Years a Slave,' 'Captain Phillips' and the Race to Fact-Check Oscar Hopefuls



Release date: OCT. 18

Box-office gross: $17.4 million

The lowdown: In Steve McQueen's bleak drama set in the pre-Civil War era, a free black man from the north (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South, where he witnesses cruelty (particularly by Michael Fassbender's master toward Lupita Nyong'o's slave) and kindness (Brad Pitt) while trying to figure out a way to get home to his wife and kids.

Pro: Inspired by Solomon Northup's 1853 autobiography, this quickly has become regarded as the definitive portrait of slavery in America, with some suggesting that it captures slavery as masterfully as Schindler's List captured the Holocaust. Academy members always have responded to movies about "important" subjects, and this one fits the bill.

Con: The film is so bleak and violent that it becomes hard to stomach -- and its reputation as such precedes it, leading some to shy away from seeing it. Smears questioning its "literal truth," McQueen's occasional prickliness and Fassbender's unwillingness to campaign won't help its prospects.

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Release date: DEC. 25

Box-office gross: N/A

The lowdown: Director Martin Scorsese reunites with Leonardo DiCaprio on this Terence Winter-scribed picture, which is based on a true story from the 1990s about a phenomenally successful young Wall Street stockbroker who got a little too cocky, began defrauding investors and eventually had to face the music for his illicit activities.

Pro: It's hard to bet against Scorsese and DiCaprio, whose four previous collaborations resulted in three best-picture Oscar nominations (one of which resulted in a win) -- especially on a picture about a subject as hot-button and zeitgeisty as Wall Street shenanigans. And the supporting cast (including Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill and Jean Dujardin) is pretty killer, too.

Con: Nobody actually has seen the film yet, but it was rushed through post-production in order to reduce its initial running time, qualify it for a PG-13 rating and get it out in 2013 -- meaning that compromises were undoubtedly made to Scorsese's vision.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg