Fall Movie Preview: 16 Oscar Contenders to Watch For

That time of year when studios bring out their most award-worthy films

If you're a filmmaker looking to attract smart, adult audiences and award-show buzz this fall, it seems your best bet may be to set your movie in one of the following settings: out at sea, out in space, or in any year before 1980. Who knows which actors and directors will walk away winners at the Oscars next March, but here are 16 highly anticipated releases that hold plenty of promise.

Universal Pictures

September 13

Ron Howard takes on the true story of two Formula One rivals—Britain’s free-spirited, charismatic James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austria’s hyperfocused Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl)—whose constant one-upmanship in the 1970s pushed international auto racing to both glorious new highs and tragic new lows.

With titles like Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, and Frost/Nixon on his résumé, director Howard has become one of the most dependable names in American cinema for sturdily enjoyable and affecting films—and Rush explores some of Howard’s favorite themes, like the intimacy of male competition and the power of steadfast, unconditional married partnerships. Come for the adrenaline-fueled racetrack scenes and Hemsworth’s likable, long-haired James Hunt lookalike, but stay for Catalonia-born Brühl—who you might recognize from 2009’s Inglorious Basterds—as the almost sociopathically dedicated Lauda.
Watch a trailer here.

Warner Bros.

October 4

Gravity’s concept alone captivates and unnerves: Disaster strikes astronauts on a routine spacewalk, leaving them stranded in deep space. Then there are the Hollywood bona fides: George Clooney and Sandra Bullock play the astronauts, and the director is Alfonso Cuarón, whose Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men many movie buffs consider to be among the new millennium’s finest films. Then there are the terrifying, gripping trailers.

Critics say it all adds up to a thrill that's like little else. "I still haven't recovered," wrote The Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek after seeing the film. Jon Frosch, reporting for France 24 and The Atlantic, called it a “master class in fluid camerawork, bold, unfussy imagery, and special effects that put most recent Hollywood blockbusters to shame.”
Watch the trailer here.

Sundance Selects

Blue is the Warmest Color
October 9

An erotic lesbian romance movie based off a graphic novel? That may sound like a salacious longshot for a possible Oscar contender, and, indeed, the French film has been likened to pornography for its lengthy and explicit sex scenes. But critics are praising Blue Is the Warmest Color not because it’s filled with flesh, but because breakthrough performances from Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Sedoux nail the emotional roller coaster of a young love tested by socioeconomic class and family loyalties.

Though the author of the original graphic novel has criticized director Abdellatif Kechiche’s approach to the sex scenes, reviews have called Blue the female answer to Brokeback Mountain, and the film took home the Cannes film festival's prestigious Palme d'Or prize.
Watch the trailer here.

Columbia Pictures

Captain Phillips
October 11

Two-time Bourne director Paul Greengrass already tackled a film about hijacking with the acclaimed 9/11 thriller United 93, so he was a natural choice to bring the most famous Somali pirate standoff to the big screen. Starring Tom Hanks as its titular character, Captain Phillips tells the story of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship that was taken over by a handful of armed Somali teens back in 2009—the first time a U.S. ship had been captured since the 1800s.

The film’s attempts at humanizing and contextualizing the pirates (all played by Somali immigrants who have never acted before) have been met with mixed reviews, but nearly every critic who’s seen the movie has praised the masterful, escalating tension of the movie’s final act—impressive, considering it takes place in a tiny lifeboat.
Watch the trailer here.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

12 Years a Slave
October 18

It’s only September, but there’s already serious Oscar chatter—of the Best Picture variety—surrounding 12 Years a Slave. Set in 1841, Steve McQueen’s film follows the tribulations of a free Northern black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who gets captured while visiting Washington, D.C. and is then sold into slavery. Alfre Woodard and Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o co-star as a plantation owner’s common-law wife and a fellow plantation slave, respectively; Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Sarah Paulson also appear.

But its big-name list of promising performances isn’t the only reason critics have been murmuring. According to Adam B. Vary at BuzzFeed, 12 Years a Slave is “one of the only American films to deal head-on with slavery.” When it screened last week at the Toronto International Film Festival, viewers were stunned; as Entertainment Weekly’s Anthony Breznican reported, the audience “communicated at first mostly in deep exhales and short exclamations” after the film ended, but then “managed to shake off its collective shellshock for a standing ovation.”
Watch a trailer here.


All Is Lost
October 25

The survival genre still—pardon the pun and the cliche—has life left in it, with recent Oscar contenders like Life of Pi and 127 Hours finding new ways to tell the tale of man vs. wild. All Is Lost, though, doesn’t put a twist on the conceit so much as it strips it to its essentials. There's almost no dialogue, and the sole credited actor is Robert Redford, playing a shipwrecked sailor facing storms and sharks.

With J.C. Chandor, the young filmmaker behind 2011’s riveting financial-crisis drama Margin Call, directing, Cannes critics hailed the movie’s “daringly minimalist” ethos and Redford’s "tour de force performance."
Watch a trailer here.

20th Century Fox

The Counselor
October 25

The last couple of times Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy’s work made it to the big screen—with the Academy Award-winning 2006 adaptation of his novel No Country for Old Men and 2009 adaptation of his chilling The Road—REM cycles all over America were subsequently interrupted by quietly spooky, minimalist, dystopian nightmares. So now that he’s trying his hand at an original screenplay, a thriller about a lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who gets in a jam when he teams up with a drug dealer (Javier Bardem, in his second role as a McCarthy villain) and attempts to sell $20 million worth of cocaine, the results could be disturbing in the very best of ways.

As Slate’s Sharan Shetty put it, The Counselor is a “cinematic dream team” kind of project. Directed by Ridley Scott, it co-stars Bardem, Brad Pitt, and Penelope Cruz—the four of whom have a total of nine Oscar nominations between them—plus Cameron Diaz and Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris.
Watch a trailer here.

Summit Entertainment

Ender’s Game
November 1

Fans of Orson Scott Card’s canonical work of young-adult science fiction have, lately, had reason to fear for its film adaptation’s success. Card’s views on homosexuality have drawn loud protests and boycott calls, which that doesn’t reflect on the movie’s quality but does lend the proceedings an unhappy air. More importantly, the involvement of Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci, script doctors behind high-concept Hollywood spectacles like Star Trek Into Darkness and Cowboys & Aliens, seems like a decidedly mixed omen for anyone interested in character development or plausibility.

But! Card’s morally rich coming-of-age tale, about kid cadets playing video games as battle prep for an alien attack, remains as compelling as it was when it was published in 1977. And the cast is impressive: Distinguished names like Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, and Viola Davis are among the adults, and child stars Asa Butterfield (Hugo) and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) have grabbed big acclaim in their short careers. So there might just be enough talent here for a smart, emotionally true adaptation of some spectacular source material.
Watch a trailer here.

20th Century Film

The Book Thief
November 15

Markus Zusak’s 2006 young-adult novel The Book Thief, set in Germany during World War II, was once derided in The New York Times as “Harry Potter and the Holocaust.” It’s the story of a disadvantaged teenage girl who develops a book-theft habit after her foster father teaches her to read and then shares her books with her neighbors and the Jewish man hiding in her basement—so it’s fair to say The Book Thief does have its blaringly uplifting YA tendencies.

But it went on to be named that year’s School Library Journal Best Book of the Year and Publishers Weekly Best Children Book of the Year, and The Guardian’s Philip Ardagh called its tale “Unsettling, thought-provoking, life-affirming, triumphant and tragic,” writing that should be experienced by all ages (indeed, it was advertised in some countries as adult fiction and in others as children’s fiction). Twelve-year-old Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse, the star of 2011’s acclaimed French-language film Monsieur Lazhar, plays Liesel in this fall’s film adaptation. Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush play her foster parents.
Watch a trailer here.

Paramount Pictures

The Wolf of Wall Street
November 15

Leonardo DiCaprio has turned in some of his most famous performances playing characters whose identities are tied to money, class, and the American Dream—Jack in Titanic, Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, and Howard Hughes in The Aviator, to name a few examples. Next up is Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker and entrepreneur who amassed incredible wealth in the ‘90s and then was prosecuted for fraud.

Martin Scorsese directs DiCaprio in a dark comedy that’s penned by Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire writer/producer Terence Winter and focuses on the outrageous, rock-star-style opulence of Wall Street in boom times. The star researched the role by hanging out with Belfort himself, and the results, to hear DiCaprio tell it, were colorful: “I would bring pages of notes from my meetings with Jordan—things like this insane orgy on a 747 going to Vegas, chimpanzees in diapers that would skate through the Stratton offices, very intimate stuff about his relationships with women—and Marty was game to try everything.”
Watch a trailer here.

Paramount Pictures

November 22

Director Alexander Payne is the king of films about family, aging, and journeys, as he’s demonstrated with 2002’s About Schmidt, 2004’s Sideways, and 2011's The Descendants. With Nebraska, Payne hits his familiar themes, this time in black and white, while returning to his home state.

Bruce Dern plays an old alcoholic whose declining mental faculties lead him to believe he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes. Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte delivers his first dramatic role (for which he beat out Bryan Cranston and Paul Rudd) as the son who joins him on the trip to collect the non-existent prize money, uncovering his father’s demons along the way. Early response to the film has been overwhelmingly positive—after it debuted at Cannes, the film festival’s jury gave Dern the award for Best Actor.
Watch the trailer here.

Inside Llewyn Davis
December 6

Few contemporary filmmakers can match the Coen brothers’ catalog of modern classics: Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple, and O Brother, Where Art Thou, to name just a few. So it’s quite exciting that the buzz on Inside Llewyn Davis says it ranks among the Coens’ very best.

The film follows a folk singer (played by Guatemalan musician Oscar Isaac) in 1961 New York City, trying to get by on his tunes, care for a stray cat, and deal with romantic entanglements. The supporting cast—John Goodman, Carey Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake—is impressive, but some of the reviews out of Cannes this past spring sounded more than impressed. Writes Indiewire’s Eric Cohn, “An ode to art for art's sake, Inside Llewyn Davis is the most innocent movie of the Coens' career, which in their case is a downright radical achievement."
Watch a trailer here.

Columbia Pictures

American Hustle
December 13

David O. Russell is fresh off a pair of successes with 2010’s The Fighter and last year’s The Silver Linings Playbook, and this time he ventures to the scuzzy urban underworld of the 1970s for the true story of Abscam, the FBI’s 1980 undercover operation aimed at curbing corruption in Congress.

American Hustle’s cast list boasts a few of David O. Russell’s collaborators from his last two films. Christian Bale and Amy Adams, co-stars in The Fighter, reunite as Irving Rosenfeld, a brilliant con man forced into assisting the FBI, and Irving’s partner in crime and mistress, Sydney Prosser. Jennifer Lawrence, meanwhile, plays Irving’s volatile wife, and her Silver Linings co-star Bradley Cooper plays the FBI agent who recruits Irving for Abscam. Jeremy Renner, Robert DeNiro (another Silver Linings alum), and Louis C.K. also appear in supporting roles. Bottom line: Everybody here is either a long-standing sure thing or a relative newcomer on a hot streak—so there’s potential for American Hustle to complete an Oscar-nomination hat trick for Russell.
Watch a trailer here.

Columbia Pictures

The Monuments Men
December 18

During World War II, the American government cobbles together the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program, a coalition of international art experts whose mission is to recover and restore famous works of European art that Hitler and the Nazis have seized and threatened to destroy. The plot of George Clooney’s latest directorial effort may sound like a crazy, art-infused mash-up of Ocean’s Eleven (heists!), Indiana Jones (Nazis!), and Argo (Americans getting into scrapes abroad!)—and sure enough, it borrows elements from all three of those entities, as it stars Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, and John Goodman, while Argo producers Clooney and Grant Heslov have re-teamed to produce The Monuments Men. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban appear, too.

And like Argo, it’s based on a true story. “I said [to Heslov], ‘You know, we tend to do a lot of cynical projects, and it would really be nice to do one where there wasn’t any cynicism in it,’” Clooney told Adam Markovitz of Entertainment Weekly. Luckily for Clooney, Heslov had just picked up a copy of Robert M. Edsel’s 2009 book, Monuments Men, in an airport.
Watch a trailer here.

Warner Bros.

December 18

Anthropomorphizing technology is a common act in our increasingly digital lives: We talk back to the voices navigating our cars’ GPS systems, and we give our beloved smartphones and other prized gadgets human nicknames. Director Spike Jonze takes this concept to a not-so-distant extreme in Her, a film about a sensitive divorcé (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with the sound of his life-like, personalized operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

But Lars and the Real Girl this is not: As the voice of “Samantha,” Johansson turns the cold concept of artificial intelligence into something warm, familiar, and lively, making the questions posed by the film’s futuristic premise all the more worth pondering.
Watch the trailer here.

Walt Disney Pictures

Saving Mr. Banks
December 20

When Mary Poppins premiered in 1964, it won critics’ hearts and several Academy Awards for its groundbreaking mix of live action and animation that amused audiences both young and old. The behind-the-scenes production, though, was not so magical: Walt Disney spent decades trying to acquire the film rights from the Mary Poppins books’ author, P.L. Travers, who detested the adaptation’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious songs and whimsical makeover that departed from her darker, original work.

Based on Valerie Lawson’s Travers biography, Saving Mr. Banks recounts those persuasive meetings between Travers (Emma Thompson) and Disney (portrayed on screen for the first time, by Tom Hanks) while delving into Travers’s childhood in Australia, where her difficult relationship with her father inspired the new movie’s title character.
Watch the trailer here.