An early look at Oscar best picture contenders

Chiwetel Ejiofor as "Solomon Northup" in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave." (MCT)
Chiwetel Ejiofor as "Solomon Northup" in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave." (MCT)
By Glenn Whipp
Los Angeles Times via McClatchy-Tribune

LOS ANGELES — We can all agree that it’s been a pretty great year for movies.

But when it comes to this year’s best picture Oscar race, that’s probably where our accord ends.

At the moment, the critically lauded historical drama “12 Years a Slave” and the equally acclaimed box-office juggernaut “Gravity” head the list.

Their Oscar nominations are secure.

Likewise, the high-seas hostage drama “Captain Phillips” looks like it’s in, thanks to its estimable craft and strong commercial reception.

That leaves a crowded group of contenders vying for…what…four, five or six (if there are nine best picture nominees, as was the case last year) spots. Two films ­— Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” and David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” — haven’t screened for the media (at least, at the time of this writing) but loom large as likely nominees if they approach the heights of the directors’ best work.

What other movies might join them? Let’s look at the arguments on both sides for some.

“Saving Mr. Banks”

Nominated: The behind-the-scenes story of “Mary Poppins” appeals to the thing Hollywood loves most: itself! An engaging cast — Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks (playing Walt Disney) — ensures a place at the top of the screener stack.

Neglected: Hanks as Disney is the spoonful of sugar, but the earnest story might be a bit dull for those who like stronger medicine.


Nominated: Director Alexander Payne’s last two movies, “The Descendants” and “Sideways,” earned best picture nominations. This movie’s intergenerational story of yearning and regret could hit the sweet spot with voters of all ages.

Neglected: Black-and-white movie set in a fly-over state? Close-minded sorts may pass.

“Inside Llewyn Davis”

Nominated: Three of the Coen brothers’ last four movies have been nominated, with “No Country for Old Men” winning. You’re not dealing with morons.

Neglected: Title character, a ‘60s Greenwich Village folk singer, has few redeeming qualities. Then again, many in the academy will likely relate on some level to this struggling artist staying true to his self-imposed artistic nobility while surrounded by rubes who just don’t get how great he is.

“Dallas Buyers Club”

Nominated: Actors branch likely to be all in with stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. True-life AIDS crusader story will also win points for relevancy.

Neglected: Reviews have fallen just shy of ecstatic. Will it have the passion vote to put it in among the nominees?


Nominated: Filmmaker Spike Jonze has a strong, devoted following, and his movies have earned nominations for the likes of Meryl Streep, Nicolas Cage, Chris Cooper (who won for “Adaptation”) and, of course, John Malkovich. “Her,” a probing, highly imaginative look at love and loneliness, could connect on a deep enough level to make this Jonze’s first nominated film.

Neglected: The movie’s surreal aspects could be off-putting to those with more conventional tastes. If you don’t laugh at Joaquin Phoenix commanding his device, “Play melancholy song.” Pause. “Play different melancholy song,” then this film probably isn’t on your list.


Nominated: The crowd-pleasing drama played great at Venice and Toronto, with audiences digging the salt-and-pepper pairing of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. Could easily become the older set’s contender of choice.

Neglected: Won’t arrive with much must-see buzz for hipster crowd. Commercial success as a Thanksgiving weekend counter-programmer would help its cause.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

Nominated: It planted its flag early, racking up $115 million domestically after its mid-August opening. Headliners Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey guarantee attention from the actors’ branch.

Neglected: Reviews were all over the map, with many asserting that its intentions surpassed its artistic merit.

“All Is Lost”

Nominated: Boasts a career-best turn from Hollywood golden boy Robert Redford. And the movie’s pretty darn great too!

Neglected: Despite the critical hosannas for Redford’s near-wordless, one-man show, commercial prospects for J.C. Chandor’s thrilling survival tale appear murky. Will enough voters see it?

“Blue Jasmine”

Nominated: Cate Blanchett’s devastating turn in the title role is a heavy favorite to win the lead actress Oscar. Woody Allen’s latest could ride in on her Chanel coattails.

Neglected: Audiences could be unanimous on Blanchett but more mixed on the movie itself. Not nearly as loved as Woody’s last best picture nominee, “Midnight in Paris.”

“Labor Day”

Nominated: Writer-director Jason Reitman scored picture nominations for “Juno” and “Up in the Air” …

Neglected: … but his last movie, “Young Adult,” didn’t land, and festival reviews for “Labor Day” have been underwhelming.

“August: Osage County”

Nominated: Pedigree in spades: Adapted from a play that won the Pulitzer and Tony, headlined by perennial nominee Streep and past winner Julia Roberts.

Neglected: Some critics, reviewing from the Toronto International Film Festival, found the movie’s melodrama exhausting. A reflexive nomination for Streep might not extend to the film.

“Fruitvale Station”

Nominated: A timely and, in the eyes of many, important look at a life cut short.

Neglected: With a running time of less than 90 minutes, it may feel a bit slight for the category. Ryan Coogler’s indie directorial debut could be a better fit for the Spirit Awards.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

Nominated: Warmhearted and sentimental, it could fill academy’s warm-fuzzies, “Little Miss Sunshine” slot.

Neglected: “Saving Mr. Banks” may have dibs on that slot. And the movie’s mix of whimsy and visual effects could strike some voters as too lightweight to be rewarded.

“The Book Thief”

Nominated: Fox is throwing a promotional push behind the young-adult WWII story that touches on the Holocaust. The tone of the pitch is on the one-sheet: “From the studio that brought you ‘Life of Pi’ …”

Neglected: Well-meaning, but the adaptation has its share of structural issues and the presentation is, at times, heavy-handed. Reviews are likely to be mixed.


Nominated: The familiar premise is delivered with ambiguity and ambition without losing any of its primitive punch. Hugh Jackman has never been better.

Neglected: Many academy members will dismiss, sight unseen, a revenge tale revolving around missing children. Tough to watch and without the historical trappings of “12 Years” or the timeliness of “Fruitvale Station.”