By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com February 26, 2013 at 2:34PM
"Saving Mr. Banks"
Movies about movies have been consistently successful with the Oscars (both "The Artist" and "Argo" arguably pulled off their victories at least partially by focusing on Hollywood), so that alone would make "Saving Mr. Banks" a contender, seeing as it revolves around Walt Disney's battle to make "Mary Poppins," and his difficult relationship with author P.L. Travers. But with two-time winner Tom Hanks playing Disney, Emma Thompson as Travers, and "The Blind Side" director John Lee Hancock in the director's chair, this has the potential to be a monster. Kelly Marcel's script has rightly won acclaim, but the way that the film focuses so closely on the history of the studio that makes it has serious risks of backlash from voters ("Argo" and "The Artist" celebrated Hollywood, this celebrates Disney). But "Mary Poppins" may be beloved enough that it could turn out to not be a problem.
After two Best Picture and Best Director nominations for "Juno" and "Up In The Air," Jason Reitman sat out the season in 2011 with "Young Adult," which proved to be a little too unsentimental and sharp for Academy voters (despite it being arguably his best film). But we'd be surprised if the same happened with "Labor Day," his adaptation of Joyce Maynard's acclaimed novel. The coming-of-age tale follows Henry (newcomer Gattlin Griffith, with Tobey Maguire subbing in as his older self), whose ordinary life with agoraphobic mother Adele (Kate Winslet) is interrupted when an escaped murderer (Josh Brolin) enters their life as a sort of surrogate father. It's more dramatic-leaning than Reitman's previous films, which can only help its chances, and with awards-favorite Winslet front-and-center, it'll certainly be a prospect. But with other high-profile competition (not least from distributor Paramount's "Wolf Of Wall Street"), Reitman will have to knock it out of the park to make it in.
With two of the Best Picture nominees this year -- "Lincoln" and "Django Unchained" -- dealing with the thorny issue of slavery, the gates have been opened for Steve McQueen's "Twelve Years A Slave" to follow in their footsteps. Knowing the "Hunger" and "Shame" director, we're expecting this to be a rawer, tougher look, especially given its true story, which follows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, with the titular dozen years passing before he could escape. McQueen's earlier films weren't accessible enough to crack the Oscars, and there's no reason to think that this'll be an easier watch, but the star power (Brad Pitt produces and cameos, while Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Dano are among the supporting players, along with "Beasts of the Southern Wild" veterans Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry) should be enough to encourage the Academy to embrace it. A rumored Cannes bow could help too, given the boost the festival's given to "Tree Of Life," "Amour" and "The Artist" in recent years (not to menion McQueen himself won the Golden Camera for "Hunger" there in 2008).
Though he won a Best Director nomination for "United 93," Paul Greengrass hasn't really cracked the awards world, bar some technical prizes for "The Bourne Ultimatum" -- there were hopes for "Green Zone," but the film was plagued by production woes, and opened in the spring, ensuring it would be forgotten. But if you want a chance at an Oscar, teaming up with Tom Hanks for a based-on-a-true-story drama is as good a way of doing it as any. Following the hijacking of the ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates who hold the crew, captained by the titular character, it's based on his memoir, with a script by Billy Ray, and "The Social Network" gang of Dana Brunetti, Scott Rudin, and Mike DeLuca, among others, producing. Greengrass is said to believe that it's the best film he's made to date, which bodes very well, and the chances of its thunder being stolen among voters by the excellent Danish film "A Hijacking" are fairly slim. The bigger threat may be Hanks' other starring-role in "Saving Mr. Banks," and that it's Sony's fourth serious contender of the season. Still, that they delayed "Captain Phillips" from March to October suggests that they have awards in mind.
While eight years separated them, Alexander Payne's last two efforts, "Sideways" and "The Descendants," both turned out to be Best Picture nominees, with the writer-director taking Best Screenplay Oscars for both. His latest, "Nebraska" doesn't have the star power of the latter -- it's led by "MacGruber" actor Will Forte and veteran Bruce Dern as an estranged father and son on a road trip -- but Payne's firmly within the club, and this black-and-white tale should be part of the equation. But then again, will it be too minor and personal an effort from the filmmaker? The black and white might be alienating, and Dern's hardly a big name anymore, let alone Forte.
Once relative outsiders, the Coens have over the years become Oscar favorites, with three of their last four movies (except "Burn After Reading," but including the decidedly difficult "A Serious Man") earning Best Picture nominations. They've had an extended break since "True Grit," but "Inside Llewyn Davis," their film set in the 1960s folk scene starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake (plus Oscar good luck charm John Goodman), lands later this year. Word from a screening that took place earlier in the month is that the film is golden, but we're hesitating if only because it was CBS Films that ended up taking the distribution rights. The company have no form to speak of when it comes to the Oscars (they've never received a nomination), so we wonder if they have what it takes to push what's likely to not be the easiest sell all the way. That said, some ruthless campaigning saw them get "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" multiple Golden Globes nominations, and with the right consultants on board, it could certainly happen.