Holiday movie preview: Taking a chance on Oscar
Holiday movie preview • 14 movies between now and January take their shot at awards.

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: November 25, 2013 11:55AM
Updated: November 25, 2013 08:19AM
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Jennifer Hudson (left) plays a single mother dealing with her troubled son (Jacob Latimore) in "Black Nativity," an adaptation of Langston Hughes' musical drama. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

As the holidays approach, Hollywood is wrapping some special presents for moviegoers, working on the theory that if the studio gives, it will also receive.

What the studios hope to receive are shiny trophies, especially the gold-plated statuette called Oscar.

Some of the holiday season’s most-anticipated movies are prestige pictures, those movies that won’t collect tons of box-office glory but will garner awards for their makers. Most of them are heavy dramas, dealing with dysfunctional families, criminal behavior, the Holocaust and the struggle against apartheid. The occasional comedy will pop up in the mix, but even those are on the serious side.

Here is a rundown of the major Oscar contenders arriving this holiday season, including a few that will arrive in a platform release in Utah in January (after a December Oscar-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles). Mark your calendars in pencil, as some dates are tentative.

“American Hustle”

Opens • Dec. 18.

Synopsis • Christian Bale and Amy Adams star as flashy con artists who get involved with a madman FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) eager to lure New Jersey power brokers and gangsters into a trap. This ’80s-set drama is directed by David O. Russell, who guided Jennifer Lawrence (who plays Bale’s wife) to her Oscar in “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Oscar chances • A major favorite for a Best Picture nomination, as well as likely nods for Adams and Russell and long-shot nominations for Cooper and Lawrence.

“August: Osage County”

Opens • To be determined.

Synopsis • An adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, centering on the tough women of one family — with the matriarch, Violet (Meryl Streep), the toughest of all. The big cast includes Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Oscar chances • Did I mention it’s got Meryl Streep in it? She’s favored for another Best Actress nomination. Roberts and Martindale may be slugging it out for a supporting nomination.

“Black Nativity”

Opens • Nov. 27.

Synopsis • A struggling single mom (Jennifer Hudson) sends her streetwise teen son (Jacob Latimore) to live with her estranged parents (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett) in director Kasi Lemmons’ adaptation of Langston Hughes’ musical play.

Oscar chances • Slim hopes for Hudson and Whitaker, both previous winners; an Adapted Screenplay nod is a possibility.

“The Book Thief”

Opens • Nov. 27.

Synopsis • In this adaptation of Markus Zusak’s novel, an orphaned girl (Sophie Nelisse) is adopted by an older couple (Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson) in a German town just before World War II — and the family risk their safety by sheltering a young Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer ) in the basement.

Oscar chances • Every Oscar season seems to have one Holocaust-themed movie, but this one may not get much love from the Academy — even with a strong campaign for Geoffrey Rush’s supporting work.

“Her”

Opens • Jan. 10.

Synopsis • Director Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) brings this offbeat romance about a lonely writer (Joaquin Phoenix) who starts falling for his computer’s operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

Oscar chances • An outside shot at a Best Picture nomination, but the intriguing question is whether the Academy would give a Supporting Actress nomination to Johansson for a performance that’s all voice-over. Probably not, but it’s fun to think about.

“Inside Llewyn Davis”

Opens • Dec. 20.

Synopsis • The Coen brothers dive into the folk-music scene in New York’s Greenwich Village of 1962, just before the arrival of Bob Dylan, through the life of a struggling musician (Oscar Isaac).

Oscar chances • The Coens are always in the hunt for Best Picture and screenplay nods. Isaac, as good as he is here, may have trouble breaking through the logjam of Best Actor contenders. John Goodman and Carey Mulligan have outside chances for their supporting roles.

“Labor Day”

Opens • Jan. 31.

Synopsis • A depressed single mom (Kate Winslet) lets an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) into her family’s life in this adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel directed by Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up in the Air”).

Oscar chances • Always hard to count out Winslet, but this movie didn’t get a lot of love when it premiered at Toronto.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”

Opens • To be announced.

Synopsis • A biographical drama on the life of South African icon Nelson Mandela, played by Idris Elba (“Pacific Rim”).

Oscar chances • In any other year, the movie and Elba’s performance would be strong contenders for Oscars. But the competition, namely “12 Years a Slave” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” may exhaust the Academy’s capacity for white liberal guilt.

“Nebraska”

Opens • Nov. 27.

Synopsis • Director Alexander Payne’s black-and-white family drama follows an irascible old man (Bruce Dern) traveling cross-country with his estranged son (Will Forte) to pursue a million-dollar sweepstakes prize.

Oscar chances • A Best Actor nomination for Dern is likely, as is a supporting nod for June Squibb as his no-nonsense wife. And Payne could nail his third straight nomination as director (after “The Descendants” and “Sideways,” for which he won screenwriting Oscars).

“Out of the Furnace”

Opens • Dec. 6.

Synopsis • Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) directs this drama, starring Christian Bale as an ex-convict seeking justice when his brother (Casey Affleck) disappears after dealing with a ruthless crime ring.

Oscar chances • Bale is trying for a Best Actor nomination, but would be a long shot in a crowded field.

“Philomena”

Opens • Nov. 27.

Synopsis • Judi Dench stars as a woman who seeks the son she gave up for adoption years earlier and enlists a jaded journalist (Steve Coogan) to help.

Oscar chances • Harvey Weinstein is pulling out the stops to get Dench a Best Actress nomination, and it’s likely to pay off.

“Saving Mr. Banks”

Opens • Dec. 20.

Synopsis • A fond look at the making of “Mary Poppins,” especially the difficult relationship between its prickly author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), and the sunny Walt Disney (Tom Hanks).

Oscar chances • Hollywood can’t resist movies about itself, so a Best Picture nomination is likely. Thompson is a favorite for a Best Actress nod, and Hanks could score a rare double — a supporting nomination here and a lead nomination for “Captain Phillips.”

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

Opens • Dec. 25.

Synopsis • Ben Stiller directed and stars as James Thurber’s milquetoast hero, whose imagination is much more exciting than his real life.

Oscar chances • Because it’s largely a comedy, it’s not considered a major contender, but it has the possibility of surprising everyone.

“The Wolf of Wall Street”

Opens • Dec. 25.

Synopsis • Martin Scorsese again directs Leonard DiCaprio, this time in the true story of fast-rising stockbroker Jordan Belfort — and his spectacular fall into crime and corruption.

Oscar chances • Paramount delayed the movie’s opening six weeks (and shuffled its “Jack Ryan” reboot to January) to give Scorsese the time to finish it. Expect a Best Picture nomination, and maybe one for Scorsese. Long shots for DiCaprio and a supporting turn by Jonah Hill.

movies@sltrib.com

What’s opening, and when

Here is a tentative schedule for movies opening now through January.

Nov. 27

“Black Nativity” • See main story.

“The Book Thief” • See main story.

“Frozen” • Disney animates the tale of two sisters separated when one discovers a dangerous power to make snow and ice form.

“Homefront” • Jason Statham plays an ex-DEA agent protecting his daughter from a nasty drug dealer (James Franco).

“Nebraska” • See main story.

“Philomena” • See main story.

Dec. 6

“The Armstrong Lie” • Documentarian Alex Gibney finishes his profile of cyclist Lance Armstrong, begun before he admitted to doping during his Tour de France victories.

“Out of the Furnace” • See main story.

Dec. 13

“Bettie Page Reveals All” • The pinup legend tells her own story in this documentary.

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” • The second of three movies in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” prequel.

“Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” • Director Michel Gondry interviewed linguist and thinker Noam Chomsky, and animated the results.

“Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas” • America’s baddest grandma returns for the holidays.

Dec. 18

“American Hustle” • See main story.

Dec. 20

“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” • Will Ferrell and the gang are back, this time taking Ron Burgundy to cable.

“Camille Claudel 1915” • Juliette Binoche stars as the temperamental sculptor and muse.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” • See main story.

“Saving Mr. Banks” • See main story.

“Walking With Dinosaurs” • A 3-D animated look at prehistoric creatures.

Dec. 25

“47 Ronin” • Samurai, including Keanu Reeves, are out for revenge in this action drama.

“Grudge Match” • Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro play aged boxers returning to the ring.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” • See main story.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” • See main story.

Dec. 27

“Dear Mr. Watterson” • A documentary about the influence of Bill Watterson and his comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes.”

Jan. 3

“Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” • The fifth installment in the horror franchise.

Jan. 10

“Her” • See main story.

“Hercules: The Legend Begins” • Kellan Lutz (from the “Twilight” saga) plays the muscular demigod.

“Lone Survivor” • Mark Wahlberg stars in this true story of a Navy SEAL mission to capture a Taliban leader.

“One Chance” • A biopic of Paul Potts, a shop assistant turned opera star on “Britain’s Got Talent.”

Jan. 17

“Devil’s Due” • A newlywed (Allison Miller) may be giving birth to the Antichrist in this horror film.

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” • Chris Pine takes over as Tom Clancy’s ace spy.

“The Nut Job” • Animated tale of a squirrel trying to rob a nut store.

“Ride Along” • A security guard (Kevin Hart) must prove himself to a cop (Ice Cube) before marrying the cop’s sister.

“Seventh Son” • A young man learns to fight evil spirits in this 18th-century action-adventure.

Jan. 24

“Gimme Shelter” • A drama about a homeless teen (Vanessa Hudgens) seeking her Wall Street father (Brendan Fraser).

“I, Frankenstein” • Aaron Eckhart plays the creature, caught in an ancient clan war, in this action drama.

“The Invisible Woman” • Ralph Fiennes directs and stars as Charles Dickens in a drama focusing on the author’s secret lover (Felicity Jones).

Jan. 31

“Labor Day” • See main story.

“That Awkward Moment” • Three single guys (Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller) each deal with commitment issues in this comedy.

TBD

“August: Osage County” • See main story.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” • See main story.