Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix
Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix

"Inherent Vice"
We're of two minds about the Oscar prospects of Paul Thomas Anderson's latest. On one side, PTA broke through to the Academy establishment with "There Will Be Blood," and though "The Master" missed out on a Best Picture nod in a competitive year (it was likely in the tenth or eleventh slot), it did pick up three acting nominations. His latest, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel, should, in theory, have more mainstream appeal given that it's a sort of period comic noir picture, and it's also the director's first true-blue studio picture, with backing from Warner Bros. (who led the pack this year with "Gravity" and "Her"), and has already landed an awards-friendly December release date. Plus the cast is stacked with Oscar nominees and winners, with Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon and Benicio Del Toro all figuring in. All that said, "The Master" saw him moving in a more experimental direction that could well continue, given that he's adapting Pynchon, and the stoner-noir feel, on paper at least, seems more like a blend of Altman's "The Long Goodbye" and "The Big Lebowski" more than something traditionally Academy-friendly ("There Will Be Blood" at least had echoes of John Ford and Stanley Kubrick in there). Still, with the Academy proving more auteur-friendly in recent years (with nods for "difficult" movies from Darren Aronofsky, Terrence Malick, Michael Haneke, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Spike Jonze, among others), we're tentatively optimistic about its chances.

Gone Girl Ben Affleck

"Gone Girl"
With "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" and "The Social Network" picking up braces of nominations without winning the big prizes, David Fincher certainly looks like he's due at this point, and his latest film, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl," could be the film to get him there. The book, a thriller about a missing woman and the husband who falls under suspicion after her disappearance, was a pop-culture phenomenon and promises to deliver the right combination of mainstream thrills and artistry to put it into consideration. Conquering hero Ben Affleck takes the lead role (Rosamund Pike co-stars), and the picture has the October release date that proved so successful for "Argo," "Gravity" and "12 Years A Slave" in recent years. That said, many of those things were true of Fincher's last picture, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," and that ultimately failed to get a Best Picture nod, and there are problematic elements here. Anyone who's read the book will know that the central characters are difficult to love, and that's the sort of thing that has the serious potential of putting off Academy voters. Short of absolutely stellar reviews, this might have a bit of a fight on its hands getting into the final line-up, though Fincher’s track record ensures it’ll be at least in the conversation.

The Imitation Game

"The Imitation Game"
A year in advance, "The Fifth Estate" looked like it could be a serious Oscar contender, featuring topical subject matter, an award-winning director, and a star fast on the rise. The film barely registered, and was one of the biggest financial disasters of 2013, but there are more than a few reasons to think that this year's Benedict Cumberbatch vehicle, "The Imitation Game," might have better luck. Based on a Black List-winning script once linked to Leonardo DiCaprio, it tells the potent story of Alan Turing, who helped to crack the Enigma code and invent the modern computer before being hounded by the British government for his homosexuality—it's the stuff that Oscar glory is often made of. Cumberbatch has the lead role, with Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and Mark Strong among those in support, while "Headhunters" director Morten Tyldum, who should do a good job with the material, has the helm. And perhaps crucially, The Weinstein Company picked the project up a few months back for a hefty $7 million, suggesting that they'll be putting it at the center of their awards efforts. But will it be their "The King's Speech" or their "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom" in 2014?

Daldry 1

Few filmmakers have had as strong a track-record with the Academy as Stephen Daldry. The British theater legend has only made four films, but got Best Director nods for the first three, "Billy Elliot," "The Hours" and "The Reader," and Best Picture nods for the last three (with 2011's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"). So while his new film, penned by Oscar nominee Richard Curtis from a novel by Andy Mulligan, is under the radar right now, it certainly shouldn't be ignored. Not least because it has certain echoes of "Slumdog Millionaire" in its stories of three children in Rio De Janeiro who discover a mysterious object in the rubbish mounds of the city. There's a sprinkling of star power in the shape of co-stars Rooney Mara and Martin Sheen, while Working Title Films, who've had success with "Les Misérables" and "Atonement," among others, are backing the project, with Universal set to release. It may turn out that the film will be more like "Millions" than 'Slumdog,' and with Daldry's last couple of movies proving controversial in their nomination (due to them being extremely terrible) there's the potential for a backlash from prognosticators and voters. Plus it's biggest downside might be that Universal is already so hot and heavy about "Unbroken" that this one may not get due attention from the studio. But given Daldry's track record, you'd be unwise to bet against him.

Wild Reese Witherspoon

Jean-Marc Vallée
might be one of the more under-appreciated directors in awards season. The French-Canadian helmer got three craft nominations for "The Young Victoria," despite little buzz around the project, and took "Dallas Buyers Club" to a Best Picture nomination and three Oscars, including two for his actors, though he wasn't really in the Best Director conversation. As such, we're certainly keeping an eye on his latest, "Wild." Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed (and adapted by "An Education" writer Nick Hornby), it stars comeback-courting Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon as a woman who, after the death of her mother and break-up of her marriage, decides to trek her way along 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. It promises the kind of mix of stunning landscapes and a powerful central performance that can be very awards-friendly, and after the success of 'Dallas,' there's every reason to keep an eye on Vallée's newest picture. "12 Years A Slave" distributor Fox Searchlight has the rights too, and it's probably their most promising prospect at this stage. And if it can step into the realm of films like "127 Hours" and "Into The Wild," it could pick up serious steam.

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