Oscar Dark Horses 2013

Awards season gets underway this week. We're sorry. We know it's August. But it's a fact—the premiere of "Gravity" on Wednesday at Venice is only the first in a veritable tsunami of Oscar contenders that will be unveiled on the Lido, with more unspooling at TellurideTIFF and NYFF over the next six weeks or so. By the beginning of October, we'll have a much better sense of how the season will be looking (although some of these films have started screening already—we've seen a couple, though are embargoed for the moment).

You could probably name a lot of the films that'll be in the running sight unseen off the top of your head right now: "American Hustle," "Wolf Of Wall Street," "Saving Mr. Banks," "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty," "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Foxcatcher," "Nebraska," "August Osage County," "Twelve Years A Slave," "Labor Day," "Monuments Men," "Captain Philips," "Her," "The Counselor," "Grace Of Monaco," "Diana," "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom," "Rush," etc, etc.

But what about the surprises? Films like "Slumdog Millionaire," "The King's Speech," "The Artist" and even "Silver Linings Playbook" weren't necessarily on the radars of awards-watchers until they bowed on the festival circuit, going on to be early front-runners. So while the competition's already stiff, assuming the movies above live up to expectations, there's always room for a few more. Below are ten movies that might not be on prognosticator's watch-lists just yet, but just might be ones to keep an eye on in the weeks and months to come. Take a look below, let us know your thoughts in the comments section, and stay tuned as we pack our bags to Venice, Telluride, Toronto and beyond.


Why It Could Be A Contender: Amma Asante's first film, 2004's "A Way Of Life," was little seen outside the U.K., but her belated follow-up, shouldn't suffer the same fate, having been picked up in North America by Fox Searchlight, and now heading for TIFF. The bigger question at this point is whether it might be a late-breaking entry into the awards race this year. The film tells the true story of a mixed-race woman raised in an aristocratic family in 18th century England, and has a solid and eclectic cast, led by potential breakout Gugu Mbatha-Raw with the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, Emily Watson and Matthew Goode in support, and there's some solid buzz already circling it. If the reviews out of TIFF are strong, there's certainly a gap for this kind of costume drama in the race. And it seems that Fox Searchlight are certainly considering the possibility. The Hollywood Reporter said last month that, as they have in the past with "Crazy Heart" and "Hitchcock," the studio might try the so-called "sneak attack" with one of their slate, and "Belle" seems like a much more natural fit for that than the studio's other potential: Jude Law crime comedy "Dom Hemingway" (also at TIFF, but not obviously Oscar material unless it's transcendently good) and Wes Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel" (which we're assuming will be held for Cannes, or at least a "Moonrise Kingdom"-style summer release).
Why It Might Not: Searchlight's awards slate is thin, but that's because they're going to be focusing most of their energies on Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" (and potentially, "Enough Said"—see below). Indeed, the studio have already set the movie for a May 2014 release for "Belle," in part to try and replicate the impressive success of "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," and in part because there are internal worries that between McQueen's film and TWC's "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom" and "Fruitvale Station," there are too many films with black leads for "Belle" to get traction (We'd argue there's room for them all, but you can see the logic, given the Academy's tastes). That said, if the reviews are strong enough—or if "Twelve Years A Slave" fails to live up to expectations—there's a fair chance "Belle" might step up.

The Book Thief

"The Book Thief"
Why It Could Be A Contender: A film that many weren't aware existed until a few weeks ago, "The Book Thief" remains under the radar at this point, despite its trailer debuting last week. But 20th Century Fox seem to think they might have something, as they moved the film from an inauspicious January release date to the height of Oscar season, on a similar date to the one that proved so successful with "Life Of Pi" last year. Based on Markus Zusak's worldwide bestseller, it's a World War II tale with Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, and helmed by Brian Percival, who's no stranger to awards glory, being an Emmy winner for his work on "Downton Abbey." Millions of readers know that the story's the kind of potent tearjerker that often leads to awards fare, and the trailer seems to suggest that it's handsomely done. And there's actually a bit of a gap this year for this sort of thing: none of the pre-anointed contenders are literary-derived war weepies, a genre that traditionally does well with the Academy.
Why It Might Not: That said, something like this has been less popular in recent years ("The Pianist" was the last one to make a real impact). And with the film skipping the festival circuit entirely, the signs don't appear to indicate it'll be a particular critical favorite. And while something like "Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close" can pick up nominations off the back of the previous form of its cast and filmmakers (not to mention sheer force of will), this isn't prestige-y in the same way. Plus for every film like that one that makes the cut, there's a "Boy In The Striped Pajamas" that never gets the traction, and at first glance, this does seem more like that film than anything else. Still, it's the kind of effort we can see the older Academy crowd responding to if Fox can get it in front of them.

Devil's Knot
"Devil's Knot"

"Devil's Knot"
Why It Could Be A Contender: The story of the West Memphis Three is one of the best-known miscarriages of justice in living memory, and no one would argue that it's been under-documented on screen: there have been three films by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (the last of which, "Paradise Lost III: Purgatory," was an Oscar nominee two years back) as well as Amy Berg's "West Memphis Three." But "Devil's Knot" marks the first time the story's been turned into a narrative feature, arriving thanks to the well-matched hands of Canadian helmer Atom Egoyan. The filmmaker's not been in Oscar's favor recently, but let's not forget that he's a Best Director nominee (for "The Sweet Hereafter"), and he's got a hell of a cast here, with recent winners Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon heading up an ensemble that also includes Dane DeHaan, Mireille Enos, Amy Ryan and Alessandro Nivola. While it's well-trodden ground, it's still incredibly resonant material and Egoyan could take it in some interesting directions.
Why It Might Not: Audiences and critics may decide that the territory has been well traveled already, and Egoyan will really have to bring the drama to make it resonate. And some of that responsibility also falls to screenwriter  Scott Derrickson, whose credits—"The Day The Earth Stood Still," "Sinister"—doesn't instill a lot of confidence. And oh yeah, this will need a distributor willing to hit the ground running with the movie, and there are only a few that can take make that turnaround from unknown quantity to contender in such a short time.