The summer blockbuster season has begun to fade, meaning superhero tent poles and high-priced sequels will give way to star-studded prestige pictures with Oscar aspirations. Move over, 'Pacific Rim.' Pull up a chair, 'Saving Mr. Banks.' We already have an 2014 Oscar host in Ellen DeGeneres. Now we need to fill a scorecard with nominees in all the major categories ... something we'll have fun with from now until the 2014 Oscar envelopes are opened on Sunday, March 2, 2014.
Knowing that the Academy reserved the right to nominate 10 films for Best Picture, here are the movies we feel would slot in at this moment. We'll come back each week and make adjustments to these choices, reflecting the changing tides that occur almost daily during the lengthy Oscar marathon. Our choices are listed alphabetically. A slew of sure-to-be contenders follows at the end. So tell us, what movies are we missing?
Fresh off the Oscar-winning 'Silver Linings Playbook,' Russell gets the gang back together for this based-on-true-events story of the ABSCAM sting operation that targeted crooked politicians in the late '70s and early '80s. The first trailer makes it look like Russell's version of 'Goodfellas' ... a very good thing for us. Thanks to 'The Fighter' and 'Playbook,' Russell is in the Academy's "zone" at the moment, and hiring heavyweights like Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to play criminals can only help his Best Picture chances.
On paper, this one has everything Oscar looks for in a Best Picture contender. Director John Wells adapts playwright Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, with Letts handling the screen adaptation himself. Not enough? Wells also stockpiles his ensemble with Oscar sluggers, notably Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts playing a coal-black mother-daughter combination. The 'August' material is tailor-made for awards. We'll find out in Toronto if Wells figured out how to translate the angry play to the big screen.
Matthew McConaughey has been knocking on the door. The superficial pretty boy who cruised through 'The Wedding Planner' and far too many Kate Hudson rom-coms has gotten serious for roles in 'Mud,' 'Bernie,' 'Killer Joe' and 'Magic Mike' ... and the Academy is paying attention. 'Dallas' could push him over the edge, as McConaughey drops pounds to play an AIDS patient forced to circumvent our country's broken drug policies to get proper medication. Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner co-star.
This one makes our chart, at the moment, simply because of who is involved and what story they are trying to tell. Both of Bennett Miller's previous films -- 'Capote' and 'Moneyball' -- received Best Picture nominations, and deservedly so. And 'Foxcatcher' sounds so strange, it's either going to enchant the Academy, or turn them off en masse. Also based on a true story, Miller's movie details how deranged stranger John du Pont (Steve Carell) torments Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) after du Pont murders Schultz's brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Again, this could end up being too dark and twisted for the Academy's conservative tastes, but for now, we'll give this mysterious movie the benefit of the doubt until we hear more about it. (Like, for instance, is it still going to arrive in theaters in 2013?)
Most of our choices have been speculation, guesses made on movies we've yet to see. Coogler emotional snapshot of the final day for a young, Black man (the magnetic Michael B. Jordan), on the other hand, is a proven commodity. It has been winning critical and audience support since Sundance. The modest arthouse success also has banked $13 million over the summer thanks to endorsements from the likes of Oprah Winfrey. With Harvey Weinstein in its corner, 'Fruitvale' should contend for multiple Oscars ... Best Picture certainly being one of them.
Alfonso Cuaron's first movie since the mesmerizing 'Children of Men' has the potential to be an Oscar-sweeping masterpiece ... so long as we can figure out what happens in the film's second half. Even if you avoided the steady stream of clips Warner Bros. released hoping to market 'Gravity,' you at least have an idea of the film's hook. Two astronauts (George Clooney, Sandra Bullock) working on a satellite encounter debris -- sending the female scientist out into space. But where does she go? What is the second half of this film going to be like? That separates the difference between 'Gravity' becoming a solid genre movie, or an awards contender. We shall see.
Joel and Ethan Coen charmed Cannes with their folk-musician biopic, starring Oscar Isaac as the prototypical Coen screw-up. Now they'll try to work their traditional magic on the Academy, which they've managed to do in the past with sporadic success. Mind you, the brothers are coming off of 'True Grit,' which collected 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture. I'm betting the downtrodden folk singer Llewyn Davis (Isaac) and the misfits in his life will connect with the Academy voters as the Oscar season plays its annual tune.
Another picture we know very little about, outside of the fact that it's the latest from Alexander Payne ('The Descendants,' 'Sideways'). Like the Coen Brothers, Payne brought his film to Cannes, though it left the French festival with far less buzz. Still, the Academy tends to favor Payne's calculated storytelling methods, and this story -- about a boozy father (Bruce Dern) taking a road trip with his estranged son (Will Forte) -- could earn several key nominations come Oscar time.
Tom Hanks? Playing beloved entertainment icon Walt Disney? Seriously, just give him the Oscar, already. OK, Hanks at least appears to be a shoo-in for a Best Actor nomination (so long as he doesn't steal his own thunder with Paul Greengrass's 'Captain Phillips'), as does Emma Thompson playing distrustful 'Mary Poppins' author P.L. Travers. Hollywood adores behind-the-scenes peeks into its own history, and this making-of 'Mary Poppins,' if handled right, could dominate the competition.
Ben Stiller's an underrated director. Sure, audiences know him as the star of the 'Night at the Museum' movies and the animated 'Madagascar' movies. But when he chooses to direct, the results is often special. The latest trailer for 'Walter Mitty' suggests more than just a whimsical snapshot of a daydreamer. In Stiller's hands, this internal quest to win the heart of a bland co-worker (Kristen Wiig) migth just capture the Academy's collective heart, as well.
Here are the rest of the films on our radar (and Oscar's radar), the movies that easily could climb up the charts once they are screened and we're able to better assess their chances. 'All Is Lost;' 'Before Midnight;' 'Captain Phillips;' 'The Counselor;' 'The Fifth Estate;' 'Her;' 'Labor Day;' 'Lee Daniels' The Butler;' 'The Monuments Men;' 'Mud;' 'Prisoners;' 'Rush;' '12 Years a Slave;' and 'The Wolf of Wall Street.'