This is the time of the year when Hollywood's silly season winds down, when the science fiction and superheroes fly away. Now is when the serious pictures move in.
From now till the Oscar ceremony on Feb 26, and for about a month afterwards, film fans can watch the movies that the studios, distributors and critics have deemed awards-worthy.
Some, such as the hero pilot portrait Sully and the stop-motion masterpiece Kubo And The Two Strings, have come and gone. The action-drama The Accountant opens tomorrow.
Others, including the musical romance La La Land, will open soon. The biopic, The Birth Of A Nation, will also get a cinema debut, surprisingly, because minority- history dramas are considered too heavy for the Singapore market.
The civil-rights biopic Loving, the family drama Manchester By The Sea and Jackie, a portrait of the former American First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, do not have a distributor. But they might snag a release date here if these festival favourites are nominated for an Oscar on Jan 24.
Legendary director Martin Scorsese's much talked-about Silence, a piece about persecuted Christians in 17th-century Japan, could be released here next year if it finds favour with critics and audiences in the United States in December.
These are The Straits Times' picks of films in the running for Oscars, based on the praise they garnered at film festivals in Sundance, Cannes, Venice, Telluride and Toronto.
Possible Oscar contenders
Released: Sept 8
Stars: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart
Likely nominations: Best Picture, Best Director for Clint Eastwood, Best Visual Effects, Best Actor for Hanks
Momentum is building behind this feel-good story about the pilot who steered a bird-stricken passenger jet onto the Hudson River in 2009, saving all 155 lives on board. There is a lot of goodwill for director Clint Eastwood, whose last major Oscar wins came with Million Dollar Baby (2004) for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. Voters might think he is due for another one.
The harrowingly realistic airplane descent should also nab a prize for visual effects.
Stars: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick
Likely nominations: Best Actor for Affleck, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing
This crime thriller boasts that element found in Oscar-bait acting performances: a disability. Affleck plays the socially awkward number cruncher of the title, but one gifted with skills in killing that would make Jason Bourne jealous.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Opens: Nov 10
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker
Likely nominations: Best Picture, Best Director for Lee Ang
You read that right - Stewart, Diesel and Martin are appearing in the same movie. This film has yet to premiere anywhere, but hopes are high for two-time Oscar-winning director Lee Ang (Life Of Pi, 2012; Brokeback Mountain, 2005) and his latest feature, his first since Life Of Pi. A nomination in the Best Director category is almost guaranteed and, unless critics hate his adaptation of Ben Fountain's novel about a hero soldier's promotional trip across the United States, so is a nod in the Best Picture category.
Opens: Nov 24
Stars: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman
Likely nomination: Best Adapted Screenplay
Could this be this Oscar season's Slumdog Millionaire (2008)? Slumdog's Patel stars in this adaptation of a novel by Larry Buttrose, about a little boy lost in Calcutta. He is adopted by an Australian couple and later embarks on an epic journey to find his real parents.
Based on A Long Way Home, Saroo Brierly's 2012 account of his own adoption, the movie won second prize at the People's Choice Award in Toronto - good news for Australian director, the first-time feature helmer Garth Davis.
Opens: Dec 1
Stars: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher and Laura Linney
Likely nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design
Fashion designer Tom Ford made a splash in 2009 with his directorial debut, A Single Man, a drama that won nods at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. This is his highly anticipated follow-up, a psychological thriller that he wrote (based on the 1993 novel Tony And Susan by Austin Wright) and helmed. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and boasts a cast of heavy hitters, though critics have called it handsome, but lifeless.
La La Land
Opens: Dec 8
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
Likely nominations: Best Picture, Best Director for Damien Chazelle, Best Original Screenplay, Best Score, Best Original Song, Best Actress for Stone
This romance-musical starring two of Hollywood's favourite young stars has everything that critics and Academy voters love: sweetness and a sincere affection for Tinseltown's golden age.
It does not hurt that it is written and directed by Chazelle, who was nominated for a writing Oscar for last year's music-based favourite, Whiplash (2014).
Opens: Dec 12
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Likely nominations: Best Picture, Best Director for Denis Villeneuve, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress for Adams
This thoughtful picture about the coming of extraterrestrials received a nod in the most prestigious category at the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Lion, but did not win (Filipino film The Woman Who Left did).
Five-time Oscar nominee Adams plays the linguist roped in to help communicate with the aliens in this brainy science-fiction piece that has echoes of Ex Machina (2015) and Her (2013). Arthouse darling Villeneuve (Sicario, 2015; Prisoners, 2013) helms this work, which could net him his first Oscar nod.
Opens: Dec 22
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt
Likely nominations: Best Director for Morten Tyldum, Best Visual Effects, Best Actress for Lawrence
Director Tyldum helms this science-fiction thriller featuring two of Hollywood's biggest names, which could be a companion piece to the other awards-season sci-fi film, Arrival. It has not premiered anywhere, but reaction to the trailer has been positive and Tyldum is a solid name, having received a Best Director Oscar nod for wartime biopic The Imitation Game (2014).
The comedy-drama has elements in the vein of The Martian (2015), making it feel too fluffy for the Academy to give it a Best Picture nod, however.
Opens: Early next year (to be confirmed)
Stars: Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, Andrew Garfield, Tadanobu Asano
Likely nominations: Best Picture, Best Director for Martin Scorsese, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design
Like Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, this picture has not premiered anywhere and comes from a prestige director using a screenplay based on a work of literature that deals with heavy themes.
The book here is Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel about the persecution of Japanese Christians in the 17th century, seen through the eyes of European priests sent to intercede. This has been Oscar-winning Scorsese's passion project for years, one plagued by legal and other issues.
Opens: Jan 5
Stars: Will Smith, Kate Winslet
Likely nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor for Smith
Talk about star power. This drama about an executive in an emotional crisis has double Oscar nominee Smith in the lead, backed by British Oscar winners Winslet and Helen Mirren, and triple nominee Edward Norton.
While this does not have much festival buzz, it is a project that screams "prestige", followed by "someone give Will Smith an Oscar already". Director David Frankel has one Oscar, won in 1997 for a short film, but has otherwise had a commercially successful career with films such as Marley & Me (2008) and The Devil Wears Prada (2006).
Live By Night
Opens: Jan 12
Stars: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Zoe Saldana
Likely nominations: Best Picture, Best Director for Affleck, Best Costume Design This could also be titled The Ben Affleck Project. He stars, co-writes, produces and directs this gangland thriller set in 1920s America, much as he did for the Oscar-nominated crime drama The Town (2010) and the Best Picture-winning biopic Argo (2012).
There has been no festival premieres and hence no buzz for this work. But its December release date in the United States indicates that its backers want the film to go all the way at the Academy Awards.
Opens: Feb 2
Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer
Likely nomination: Best Actress for Henson or Spencer
This drama hits the button that the Oscar academy loves - it unearths the forgotten social and scientific contributions of a minority group and rolls out an entertaining and inspirational package.
Oscar nominee Henson and Oscar winner Spencer play the mathematics whizzes who helped Nasa win the space race against the Russians. Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst co-star, while the relatively unknown Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent, 2014) directs.
The Birth Of A Nation
Opens: Feb 16
Stars: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Gabrielle Union
Likely nominations: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay
Film distributor Fox Searchlight paid a record US$17.5 million (S$24 million) for the movie at the Sundance, the highest for the film festival. Since the signing, the acclaim for the historical drama about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner has been overshadowed by the controversy over actor-writer-director Parker's 1999 rape charges, of which he was acquitted.
A United Kingdom
Opens: Feb 23
Stars: Rosamund Pike, David Oyewolo
Likely nomination: Best Original Screenplay
This historical drama about the president of Botswana and his marriage to a white British woman, which caused an international scandal, has been warmly received in Toronto and London and has the writing power of Guy Hibbert (the espionage thriller Eye In The Sky, 2015) behind it.
Although it is an uplifting slice of history, it has little critical momentum. British director Amma Asante bagged festival awards for historical drama Belle (2013), but is new to the Oscar race.
The other Oscar battles
Best Actor and Actress
Unless some of the un-premiered films change the race, critics have remarked on the lack of strong male performances this year, in contrast to the more tightly fought Best Actress race.
In the Best Actress category, apart from Amy Adams (Arrival), Emma Stone (La La Land) and Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures), Meryl Streep is in the running for her title role in Florence Foster Jenkins, as is Natalie Portman's portrayal of the former American First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie.
For the men, besides Will Smith (Collateral Beauty), Tom Hanks (Sully) and Ben Affleck (The Accountant), Michael Keaton is also a contender for the biopic of fast-food pioneer Ray Kroc, The Founder (opens Feb 9), about the man who made McDonald's a global name. Michael Fassbender's portrayal of a lighthouse keeper in the drama The Light Between Oceans (opens Jan 5) has also gained critical attention.
Disney's kid-friendly Moana (opens Nov 24) is the leader here, followed by Laika's stop-motion work Kubo And The Two Strings, which opened last month.
Best Visual Effects
The children's fable A Monster Calls (opens next Thursday), about a boy dealing with his mother's illness, is a strong contender here, thanks to the talking tree monster.
The Star Wars franchise spin-off Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (opens Dec 15) is a natural fit in this category and it should also figure in the Best Original Score, Film Editing and other technical categories.
Disney's The Jungle Book, which opened in April, set a new benchmark in live-action and animation hybrid work and should easily gain entry into this segment.
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