There's yet more to watch from The Weinsteins this year, including another recent purchase: Justin Chadwick's "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom." Long in development (Shekhar Kapur and Tom Hooper were both attached at one point), it's a biopic of ANC freedom fighter turned South African leader Nelson Mandela, focusing in particular on his 27 years in Robben Island prison. "The Wire" and "Luther" star Idris Elba plays Mandela, with Naomie Harris as his wife Winnie. The script comes from "Gladiator" and "Les Miserables" scribe William Nicholson, who has Oscar form, but Chadwick's earlier films ("The Other Boleyn Girl," "The First Grader") instill less confidence. As such, we're not convinced that this is more than a performance showcase yet, but it could be a potential curveball. Expect it to surface around TIFF, if not before.
And The Weinsteins have one other film that has plenty of award-winners among its cast, but has one major negative with the potential to weigh it down. On paper, "The Butler" has all the right stuff: the true-life tale of Eugene Allen, the White House butler who served eight presidents, an all-star cast led by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey as his wife, and an Oscar-nominated director. But much of the all-star cast seems to be made up of stunt casting (John Cusack as Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower), and that Oscar-nominated director is Lee Daniels, who was eviscerated by critics for his work on "The Paperboy" this past year. He is working from a script by Danny Strong ("Recount," "Game Change"), so there's hope that it might be a little more restrained, but even so, Daniels will probably need to have reined in his excesses for this to earn serious heat.
The success of "The Social Network" has been a boon for films dealing with that kind of subject matter, and while we doubt that "Jobs" has anything close to a chance, given its reviews from Sundance, Wikileaks picture "The Fifth Estate" could be one to keep an eye on. Before his "Twilight" diversion, Bill Condon was a familiar Academy face thanks to "Gods & Monsters" and "Chicago," plus producing the show once. And with a script that looks to mirror David Fincher's film in its dissolution of the central relationship of a famous website, and some buzzworthy actors in the shape of Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl (who's also getting attention for his "Rush" performance), this could put him back in the Dolby Theater. The subject matter is timely, but the film's already gathering controversy, and Condon's a patchy filmmaker who's had Oscar misfires in the past ("Dreamgirls" which had eight nominations but missed Best Picture, "Kinsey"), so it's not a home run yet.
Given the generally beloved nature of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence after their success with "Silver Linings Playbook," one would think that a film which reteams them would have a lot of potential for awards attention. And that goes double when it's "Serena," a dark period piece based on the novel by Ron Rash, about a married couple attempting to set up a timber empire in Appalachia in the 1920s. It's certainly a change of pace, but Lawrence's part is a doozy (once marked for Angelina Jolie, when Darren Aronofsky was going to direct), and it has the potential to feel like a Great American Novel of a movie. But it's very much under the radar at this point (it still has no distributor, though it wrapped last summer), and we wonder about director Susanne Bier, whose output of late has been disappointing (although she did win an Oscar two years ago for "In A Better World"). Our gut right now says that this'll be overshadowed by the David O. Russell's film that also reteams Lawrence and Cooper, but if the reviews land, it might could be a force to reckoned with.
One of the benefits of opening up the Oscar field wider has been allowing smaller and foreign films to break through. While it's still something of a rarity (excluding "The Artist") "Amour" was the first foreign-made, foreign-language film to be nominated since "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." As such, we think a dark horse could be "The Past." A team-up of a number of recent foreign-language breakouts ("A Separation" director Asghar Farhadi, who won the Foreign Film Oscar in 2012), "The Artist" star Berenice Bejo, and "A Prophet" actor Tahar Rahim), the plot's mostly under wraps, but seems to involve a romance between an Iranian girl and a married North African man (Rahim) in contemporary Paris. "A Separation" picked up a Best Screenplay nomination as well as its Oscar, and if someone like Sony Pictures Classics pick it up (it's likely to premiere at Cannes), they could give it a similar push to "Amour."
One of the more prestige-happy, high-profile grown-up movies set to hit this year, hopes are clearly high for "The Counselor," the first screenplay written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy. A brutal crime tale about drugs on the Mexico border, it's directed by A-lister Ridley Scott, and has a top-flight cast including Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz. So why aren't we more excited? Well, for one the script is incredibly violent, making "No Country For Old Men" look like a picnic, and is likely to be quite divisive. For another, Scott's been off his A-game for a while, and isn't the most natural fit for this kind of material. And finally, the big-name cast are, Fassbender aside, not necessarily all that well-matched to their roles (particularly true of Diaz). We live in hope, as do Fox (they've set it for a November release, prime Oscar season), but don't be surprise if this just isn't the Academy's kind of thing.