Hugh Jackman, Prisoners

Looking Good, But Quite Not There Yet
Telluride saw the first screenings of Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners" and Ron Howard's "Rush," and both were, in general, warmly received, and look life definite prospects. From long range, we'd considered the former to be a principally commercial prospect, but reviews thus far have been fairly stellar. Having been nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar a few years back with "Incendies," Denis Villeneuve looks to be continuing an awards run, and Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are both prospects for nomination, even if our gut says they'll be outside the final five come January (Maria Bello and/or Viola Davis are also potentials, but we believe their roles are too small to ultimately get through, though as Jacki Weaver will tell you from last year, that's not always a roadblock to a nod). There's a lingering feeling from some that the film may just be too dark and, yes, pulp-y to go the distance—the similar "Mystic River" wasn't quite as brutal, and of course had the more obviously prestige-y Clint Eastwood factor. But healthy box office when it opens in a few weeks will help.

Rush, Daniel Bruhl

We actually saw "Rush" six weeks or so back, and while this writer liked it a fair bit less than the official review, the crowd we were with ate it up, and it felt fairly clear that it could attract some attention. Still, we were surprised by how warm most of the reactions from Telluride and TIFF have been, so it's very much in the conversation, as is co-lead Daniel Bruhl (who'll be campaigning in supporting, and aided by the relatively little traction that he's getting for "The Fifth Estate"). We still wonder about the appeal of the film in the U.S, given the general apathy towards Formula 1, and it never really transcends the sports movie genre, so there's potential weakness that could see it drop out of the top slots if those still to come deliver. But if "Frost/Nixon" could make it in in a five-film year, one shouldn't doubt the potential of Ron Howard's film too much here.

Not actually on the festival circuit yet is "Captain Philips" (it's opening the New York, London and Tokyo Film Festivals in the next month or so), but the trades breaking embargo on the film led to early word getting out sooner-than-expected, and it's pretty strong. Few are losing their shit over it completely, but Paul Greengrass seems to have delivered a docudrama that stands alongside his earlier "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93," and one centered on a performance—by most accounts, his best in years—from award-friendly megastar Tom Hanks (who'll also be in contention for Supporting Actor for "Saving Mr. Banks"). There are already rumblings in terms of the film's treatment of the pirates from some quarters, and we wonder if its impact will be dulled for those who saw this year's superb "A Hijacking" (likely very few of the Academy membership, admittedly), but Scott Rudin and Sony are following the template that worked beautifully for them for "The Social Network" a few years ago, and there's no reason to think it won't pay off again.

Also shoring up a strong position is Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," which if anything, got better notices out of Telluride than it did at Cannes. The film doesn't have the star wattage of Alexander Payne's previous film "The Descendants," but the film, and star Bruce Dern, are very much in the top tier of potential contenders right now, though, again, we wonder if its relative intimacy makes it vulnerable to bigger hitters like "American Hustle" and "Monuments Men" down the line.

August: Osage County

The Less Well Received Contenders That'll Probably Get In Anyway
With many films delivering and then some on their promise at the festivals, it was inevitable that something wouldn't quite take off in the way many expected, and it seems that the biggest film to do so was "August: Osage County." Our review was one of the more negative ones, but reaction in general has been fairly cool, with quite a few detractors, and the film's fans generally acknowledge that it's a flawed piece of work. But we suspect that, if any awards-targeting film is essentially review-proof, it's this one due to source material already swimming in Tonys and Pulitzers, a much-lauded cast along with  George Clooney and Harvey Weinstein in the producers' chairs. Maybe most importantly, unless "Grace Of Monaco" proves to be a real surprise, it's the most obvious contender from The Weinstein Company, certainly over "The Butler" and "Fruitvale Station." The films' huge ensemble is likely to make it a favorite among the actors' branch (it already feels like a good bet for the SAG ensemble prize), so reviews be damned, we'd be very surprised if it didn't make the Best Picture cut, with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts looking likely for their own nods.

Dallas Buyers Club
"Dallas Buyers Club"

Looking Set For Acting Nods, Could Make Best Picture Too
Most had figured that "Dallas Buyers Club" was looking good for Matthew McConaughey, given his dramatic weight loss, and the film's status as the culmination of an extraordinary couple of years for the star. And indeed, the performance, by almost all accounts, really delivers—not just a physical transformation, but an honest-to-good great piece of acting, and at this stage, he's a lock for Best Actor, and looks likely to be pitted against Chiwetel Ejiofor in the months to come. But what was more surprising is that the film itself was as warmly received as it was, and that co-star Jared Leto, who hadn't acted in nearly four years, would become a serious possibility for his supporting turn as McConaughey's characters' trans business partner. Bar a brace of surprises still to come in the category, Leto looks like he'll be a nominee, and the film certainly has a shot as well being Focus' sole real priority this year (though we vainly hope that they might launch a Best Actor push for Simon Pegg in "The World's End"—seriously, he's totally deserving...). Assuming the good reviews continue on release, it's very much in the race.

Equally surprising was the quality of "Philomena," which we were somewhat dreading in Venice, and turned out to be far, far better than it had any right to be. We're unlikely to personally include it among our favorites of the year, to be sure, but it's sharper and funnier than you might expect, and should go down a storm with the Academy membership. Even given the weighty competition, Judi Dench is a very strong Best Actress contender, and Steve Coogan could well see a Screenplay nod (he won, with co-writer Jeff Pope in Venice) and possibly even a Supporting Actor nomination, though the latter is less likely. As for Best Picture? The film is enough of an issues-driven crowd-pleaser that it's sure to be in the conversation, though again, it may be pushed out by films seen, fairly or unfairly, as being less dominated by a single turn. That being said, if it walks away with Audience Award in Toronto—where the movie played very well—expect the Weinsteins to hustle this one in a hurry.

All Is Lost, Robert Redford

Robert Redford continues to be considered an obvious choice for a Best Actor slot thanks to "All Is Lost," and if the momentum behind the J.C Chandor directed film can keep up, it's certainly a possibility for Picture, Director and more. Redford's legendary status gives it an advantage, but as a less obvious technical showcase than fellow survival tale "Gravity," it's going to have to breakthrough to reach other major categories.

Finally, we floated before the festival season kicked off the idea that "Enough Said" might be worth keeping an eye on, at least for James Gandolfini's performance, his penultimate one (and likely a much more significant one than his final film, next year's "Animal Rescue"). Reviews have been kind to a point—it's ultimately a Nicole Holofcener film, so fairly intimate and small scale, so it doesn't seem to have Best Picture legs, though in a year thin with comedy, a Golden Globe nomination might well be a good bet. But the notices are united on Gandolfini's turn, so a nomination in Supporting is certainly viable if Fox Searchlight push for it.