Welcome to the December onslaught of Movies For Which Studios Desperately Want Oscar Consideration. Let's walk through chronologically, starting with last weekend's releases, and looking with all due pomp and circumstance toward 2014.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom opened in select theaters (probably won't open in Cleveland until mid-December). It's a Nelson Mandela biopic -- surprise! -- and stars Idris Elba (HBO's The Wire, Pacific Rim) as the South African president as a young man and through his 27-year imprisonment. The only real Oscar conversation here is Elba for best actor, and it's a long shot, given the packed field with Chiwetel Ojiofor (12 Years a Slave) and Robert Redford (All is Lost) leading the Way. Philomena expanded to Cleveland's Cedar Lee theater as well. That British flick stars Judi Dench as a mother who's tracking down a son taken from her decades ago. She's getting much-deserved best-actress buzz for her performance. Her stiffest competition ought to be the populist darling Sandra Bullock from Gravity.
Every film Joel and Ethan Coen put out, at this point, is hotly anticipated, and Inside Llewyn Davis -- not Llewellyn Davis -- is no different. This elegiac piece stars relative unknown Oscar Isaac as a singer-songwriter making his way through the Greenwich Village music scene one week in 1961. The early Oscar buzz has faded somewhat, but a best picture nod (with the 10-film field) is certainly a possibility. The Coens may be edged out of best director consideration by wildcard newcomers (Paul Coogler for Fruitvale Station?J.C. Chandor for All is Lost?), vets (Scorcese for The Wolf of Wall Street) and the front runners with their visual storytelling (Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave) and technical wizardry (Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity). Also this week, Out of the Furnace arrives in limited release. The film stars Christian Bale as a man hellbent on serving justice to those responsible for his missing little brother (Casey Affleck). Scott Cooper directs. In his debut Crazy Heart (2009) Jeff Bridges won the Academy Award for best actor. It's unlikely his sophomore effort will net him more hardware, but the trailers look terrific.
Huge box-office week here as The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug hits theaters nationwide after a yearlong interlude. Recall that's it's the second of three films adapted from the single Hobbit novel, so it ought to have some extremely boring stretches. That said, it does star actor du jour Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of Smaug and should skyrocket into 2013's top five moneymakers without too much trouble. Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas will add to the rabid pre-Christmas explosion. Additionally, Saving Mr. Banks, a film about the making of Mary Poppins, opens in limited release. Tom Hanks stars as Walt Disney himself and though his performance in Captain Phillips seems more Oscar-worthy, his performance here should sit well with industry devotees and the older set. Emma Thompson will also likely earn a best actress nod for her turn as author P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins.
First thing's first on everyone's movie docket this weekend: Anchorman: The Legend Continues. Ron Burgundy & Co. are back after 10 years and they're headed to New York City. The raunchy comedy has had some early controversy about a potential R rating, but it should do well either way. Two big releases with Oscar implications this weekend as well: David O. Russell's American Hustle, a 70s era con man film which should be on the table for best picture, best director and best actress for Amy Adams; and Spike Jonze's latest offbeat offering Her starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man who develops a relationship with his computer's operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johannsen. She actually may be a dark horse candidate for supporting actress (presumably a better performance than whatever the hell was going on in Don Jon). Phoenix and Jonze would be lucky to get nods in tough races, but this one looks like one of the more original films of the year. Amy Adams actually stars as well, but Her probably won't hit the Cleveland theaters until mid-January. David O. Russell, after The Fighter in 2011 and Silver Linings Playbook last year, is on a bona fide hot streak.
Last chance, studios! Arriving on Christmas day, in addition to the presents you may or may not have earned, are three movies with serious Oscar aspirations. The Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo DiCaprio as an ambitious young 1980s Wall Street financial executive shows the insane excess of that particular time and place like only Scorcese could. Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey co-star. Ben Stiller returns to the director's chair -- which he hasn't occupied since 2008's Tropic Thunder -- with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a film based on the classic short story by James Thurber about a man who daydreams his mediocre life away and concocts for himself fantasies of heroism and romance and adventure. Stiller's a question mark for Best Actor, but is at least a part of the honorable mention conversation. August: Osage County, the film adaptation of the Pulitzer and Tony-Award Winning Play, is jam-packed with actors oriented toward Oscar recognition. Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Margo Martindale (of TV's Justified, The Millers, Dexter and an incredible performance in the final segment of Paris Je T'aime) all are potential nominees in the best supporting actress category. A Best Picture nod is likely as well. In the category of films that shouldn't even be talked about in the same sentence as Oscar contenders: 47 Ronin, some bullshitty action movie starring Keanu Reeves, and Grudge Match, another shit stain on the resume of American film starring Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNIro -- whyyy -- as two former boxers who are compelled to face off in the ring one last time, 30 years after their last bout. This is preposterous. As if anybody wants to see DeNiro's old-ass body in a boxing match.