Wash those unpleasant Sunday-night memories of grubby jokes and shiny dental veneers our of your head: Thankfully, the 2013 Oscars are over, and Seth MacFarlane says he won’t be host again (like it’s his idea).
Let’s start with a clean ballot for Oscar 2014! What have we learned? That the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences likes to nominate biographical films, movies about race that promote understanding, and movies that celebrate patriotism. Also, keep an eye out for Argo-like films about movie-making, because they really, really like those. Films that cross over these categories, or that boast a Streep or a DiCaprio, stand an extra good chance. Armed with this information, here’s a look at the front-runners.
This is the story of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), who broke baseball’s colour bar, with Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey.
Why it’s a contender: Stories about race relations were big at this year’s Oscars, and the trend should continue. Also, this provides a good opportunity for Harrison Ford to get some best-supporting Oscar attention in a character role. Director Brian Helgeland has won an Oscar before, though that was as a writer for L.A. Confidential.
Paul Greengrass directs and Tom Hanks stars as real-life American ship captain Richard Phillips, who gave himself hostage to Somali pirates to keep his crew safe.
Why it’s a contender: Biographical, patriotic stories always do well at Oscar time, and so does Tom Hanks, with five nominations and two best-actor wins.
Canadian director Atom Egoyan offers a dramatic take on the 1993 Arkansas child-murder case that left three teens wrongfully jailed. Starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth.
Why it’s a contender: This film returns to the theme of small-town trauma found in Egoyan’s double-Oscar nominated The Sweet Hereafter (1997). It also features two Oscar-winning actors in Witherspoon and Firth, and a true-life story that has considerable familiarity through four previous documentaries.
Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley’s personal documentary about family and revelations is the strongest example of the form since Capturing the Friedmans.
Why it’s a contender: Polley’s a returnee, after the double Oscar nomination for Away from Her, and the film earned strong reviews at the Venice, Toronto and Sundance film festivals. Her American distributor, Roadside Attractions, reportedly has held back its U.S. release for 2013 Oscar contention as best documentary.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese directs this crime drama, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a stock trader who refuses to co-operate with a fraud investigation involving the mob, based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort.
Why it’s a contender: As well as DiCaprio’s track record of being in best-picture nominees (six), Scorsese’s own peerless reputation in the industry, the screenplay by Terence Winter, creator of Boardwalk Empire and a regular writer on The Sopranos. In other words, it wouldn’t be wise to sell this one short.
Based on the true story of a black father who was wrongfully killed by police on the last day of 2008.
Why it’s a contender: This was a Grand Prize-winner at Sundance (like Oscar nominee Beasts of the Southern Wild). By first-time director Ryan Coogler, it earned strong reviews and deals with the racial divide in the United States. Perhaps most importantly, the Weinstein Company, ever hungry for Oscar, has picked it for distribution.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) directs and Idris Elba stars as Mandela, with Naomie Harris (Skyfall) as Winnie.
Why it’s a contender: It has all the ingredients – a positive story related to race, and a noble biography. To top it off, it’s another Weinstein project.
Twelve Years a Slave
English director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) has adapted this slave narrative, the 19th-century memoir of a New Yorker, Solomon Northup, kidnapped and sold into slavery, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti and Quvenzhané Wallis.
Why it’s a contender: Artist-turned-filmmaker McQueen’s first two films earned huge critical praise for his stark, formalist approach to harrowing subjects. This one, coming a year after Django Unchained, should get strong support for its more earnest, credible picture of American slavery.
The Great Gatsby
Baz Luhrmann directs and Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the glamorous, corrupt protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Roaring Twenties novel, with Carey Mulligan as Daisy, his dream girl with a voice full of money.
Why it’s a contender: The ever-stylish Luhrmann had one previous Oscar nomination, for Moulin Rouge! (2002), and this quintessentially American story should endear him to the academy. As well, DiCaprio has been in six best-picture nominated films, with three Oscar nominations of his own.
Alexander Payne directs Bruce Dern and Will Forte as father and son travelling across the state to pick up a Publishers Clearing House prize.
Why it’s a contender: Apart from the fact that the synopsis sounds like a parody of an Alexander Payne movie, it’s pure Americana, and a perfect vehicle for a Bruce Dern second career.
August: Osage County
Tracy Letts’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play stars Meryl Streep in the lead, as a sharp-tongued, drug-addled, ailing matriarch, with a cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin.
Why it’s a contender: Director John Wells has worked mostly in television, but Letts’s script is strong. It’s a part tailor-made for Streep, and there’s a chance the three-time Oscar-winner and 17-time nominee will extend her record.
Michael Fassbender stars as a lawyer who gets in trouble with drug traffickers in Ridley Scott’s thriller, which co-stars Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem.
Why it’s a contender: First, the strong cast, and second, this is the first screenplay from novelist Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road). As well, the twice-nominated Scott is an admired and innovative director who has never entirely got his due.
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers return with this fictional account of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early sixties, with Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan again, and Justin Timberlake.
Why it’s a contender: The Coens have moved from outsiders to Hollywood royalty with Oscar-lauded hits like No Country for Old Men and True Grit. This baby-boomer tale should appeal to academy voters, whose average age is 62.
Jason Reitman directs, with Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin and Tobey Maguire in an adaptation of the novel by Joyce Maynard, about an agoraphobic mother and her son, who take home an escaped criminal.
Why it’s a contender: Reitman’s already racked up four Oscar nominations, Kate Winslet has six including a win, and the story by Maynard (who also wrote To Die For) was enthusiastically reviewed.
The Monuments Men
George Clooney directs this history-based thriller, starring himself, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon, as an elite team of curators and museum workers trying to save Nazi-confiscated art from being destroyed by Hitler.
Why it’s a contender: It’s Argo meets Inglourious Basterds, but classier. How can it lose?
Saving Mr. Banks
Emma Thompson stars as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, and her relationship with Walt Disney, who is played by Tom Hanks.
Why it’s a contender: Two-time Oscar-winners and a story that, like Argo, reflects well on the movie business. Director John Lee Hancock previously had a best-picture nomination for The Blind Side.