The race for movie awards contention is officially a calendar year long. But the true excitement begins as we round the post and hit the final stretch in November and December.
That's when the holiday releases enter the awards field in what is already shaping up to be a highly competitive year. Among the contenders that already have staked a solid claim: 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Captain Phillips and Blue Jasmine.
"Things are going to get really interesting from here on in," says Tom O'Neil, founder of the awards website Goldderby.com. "There are strong pluses and minuses for all the horses in the race. But we need to see a lot of these run on the track first. And that's going to happen in the next two months."
It's part of studios' Oscar-bait strategy of releasing the film just before the year-end awards deadline, in the hopes that the film will be freshest in voters' awareness. "The theory is, the movie on top of the mind ends up at the top of the Oscar ballot," says O'Neil.
Scott Feinberg, lead awards analyst for The Hollywood Reporter, is calling it neck-and-neck as the new films enter the fray.
"It's already a very crowded race with no one pulling away," says Feinberg. "And most of the films in the conversation haven't even officially been released yet."
Nevertheless, analysts say that moviegoers are likely to be talking about these upcoming films come awards time:
• Dallas Buyers Club (Friday). Matthew McConaughey lost 50 pounds to play a homophobic Texas AIDS patient, propelling him into the best-actor race alongside supporting actor Jared Leto as a cross-dressing fellow sufferer.
• Nebraska (limited Nov. 15). Director Alexander Payne's examination of a father-son car trip to Nebraska won rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival in May, boasting awards promise (and a great story line) for veteran character actor Bruce Dern and his screen wife, June Squibb.
• Philomena (limited Nov. 22). The Stephen Frears comedy features academy favorite Judi Dench in the true story of a mother seeking her children who were adopted out long ago. She carries instant awards clout. "She can cough and get a nomination," says Feinberg.
• Inside Llewyn Davis (limited Dec. 6). Joel and Ethan Coen's look at the early 1960s New York folk scene triumphed at Cannes and other festivals, notably for its complicated protagonist played by Oscar Isaac.
• American Hustle (limited Dec. 13). Even louder than the 1970s clothing in this disco-era drama is the Oscar talk for the film, which still is being worked on by director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook). The lack of pre-release screenings for critics has not deterred the buzz centered around stars Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams.
• Saving Mr. Banks (select cities Dec. 13; nationwide Dec. 20). The story about the turbulent making of 1964's Mary Poppins premiered Oct. 20 at the London Film Festival. Momentum is just beginning to build on the Disney flick, but with beloved veterans such as Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks (as Walt Disney) starring, it needs to be taken seriously.
• August: Osage County (limited Dec. 25). The film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning play hit mixed reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. But with a killer ensemble cast including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard and Chris Cooper, the film is still a force to be reckoned with.
• The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Dec. 25). Director and star Ben Stiller's retooling of the 1947 classic has more than daydreams of awards contention after a premiering at October's New York Film Festival and a big push by Fox.
• The Wolf of Wall Street (Dec. 25). The tale of Wall Street excess has just been cleared for a Christmas Day showcase with director Martin Scorsese editing the film right up to release. It has maintained heavy awards buzz with the promise that comes with pedigreed names like Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill.