Holiday Movie Preview – Oscar Contenders

With the announcement of the nominations for the 83rd Academy Awards just a few months away, movie studios are pulling out the big guns – hoping to keep their Oscar bait dangling in front of the Academy so these films will be at the top of the list come ballot time. Think of it as Hollywood’s holiday gift for you – A-list stars, compelling plots and award-worthy performances. Here are 10 films which could fill some of the slots for cinema’s top honors come January 25, when the big announcement is made…

Fair Game (11/5)
Don’t worry, this isn’t a remake of the 1995 turkey starring William Baldwin and Cindy Crawford. This thriller is based on Valerie Plame Wilson’s memoir and tells the story of how her identity (and career as) a covert CIA agent was exposed. The revelation came on the heels of an op-ed piece in The New York Times, written by Plame’s husband, former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson, that called out the Bush administration for manipulating intelligence about the presence of weapons of mass destruction to justify the ongoing war in Iraq. The premise may sound a bit heavy and dry, but with Mr. & Mrs. Smith director Doug Liman at the helm you can be assured of some action along with the drama. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn play Plame and Wilson and the cast list includes Ty Burrell, currently best known to small screen audiences as the bumbling Phil Dunphy on Modern Family.

Check out more – including trailers – after the jump!

127 Hours (11/5)
Another film based on a true story, Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle’s latest drama stars James Franco as Aron Ralston, a free-spirited mountain climber who finds himself trapped in an isolated Utah canyon after a boulder crushes his arm. (Talk about being between a rock and a hard place…wakka wakka!) Ralston faces his fears – and the elements – for five days before amputating his own arm and emerges from his rocky prison to find rescue. Boyle, no stranger to skeeving audiences out (anyone who has seen his Trainspotting can attest to this), promises a very realistic amputation scene. You have been warned. Franco has already gotten kudos for his role, but will Academy voters be able to get past his recent “performance art” on General Hospital to add him to the list of best actor nominees?

The Next Three Days (11/19)
Before the list of Best Picture nominees numbered 10, this action flick probably would have had little chance of making the ranks, but with Academy Award winning writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash), Best Actor winner Russell Crowe and Best Actor nominee Liam Neeson, this “edge of your seat” thriller could be a dark horse contender. A remake of the 2007 French film Pour Elle (Anything for Her), the film centers around a college professor (Crowe) who teams up with an ex-con (Neeson) to break his wife (Elizabeth Banks) out of prison after she is convicted of murder. Brian Dennehey and Olivia Wilde co-star.

The King’s Speech (11/26)
Watch out, Social Network, you might have some stiff competition from this drama about a man with a stiff upper lip. This already buzzed-about historical drama stars the marvelous Colin Firth (who should already have his Oscar after his outstanding work in A Single Man) as King George VI (the father of Queen Elizabeth). When George becomes King of England after his roguish brother Edward VII (played by Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne to marry twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. George, who suffers a debilitating speech impediment – a terrible stammer – enlists the help of noted speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Through their session, George not only finds his voice, but a true friend in the unconventional Logue and is able to be the leader England needs him to be as the country enters World War II. Helena Bonham Carter plays the Queen Mum. British history, overcoming disability, Colin Firth – this movie’s got Oscar written all over it!

Black Swan (12/3 limited)
Director Darren Aronofksy wowed us with The Wrestler, and now he’s moved on to another character whose life revolves around choreography – a ballet dancer, played by Natalie Portman. In this dark tale (would you expect less from the man who brought you Requiem for a Dream, the most depressing film ever made?) Natalie plays a Big Apple ballerina who is vying for the lead role in the classic ballet Swan Lake and must compete against a new rival in her ballet company, played by Mila Kunis. An exploration of the innocence and sensuality embodied by the White and Black Swans of the ballet, this psychological thriller is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat – and it’s got to be better than the cinematic season’s other ballet-related offering – Nutcracker 3D (I am not making this up. Allegedly it stars John Turturro as Barry Manilow or something…)

Company Men (12/10)
What better way to celebrate the holidays than to watch a film about a bunch of men who lose their jobs? Ho, ho, ho! Ben Affleck stars as a sales executive who’s living the good life, golf, 2 kids, white picket fence, the whole nine yards. He finds himself downsized and, needed to keep food on the table, is forced to install drywall with his blue collar brother-in-law, played by Kevin Costner. Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones are also left jobless and must rediscover themselves – while finding another way to make a living. The fabulous Rosemarie De Witt (from The United States of Tara) co-stars as Ben’s wife and the flick marks the feature film directorial debut of Emmy award winning hyphenate (writer-director-producer) John Wells (best known for his work on ER and The West Wing).

The Fighter (12/10 limited, 12/17 wide)
Not to be confused with The Wrestler (fun fact: Darren Aronofsky was originally attached to this film before David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) took the reigns), this biographical pic tells the tale of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward and his surprising ascent to the top of the boxing world, winning the world light welterweight title. Mark Wahlberg – who trained for two years to achieve a boxer’s physique – plays Micky and Christian Bale plays his brother Dicky, a boxer-turned-trainer, who saw his promising future in the sport derailed by drugs and crime. Amy Adams plays Micky’s love interest. If you’re looking for an inspiring, Rocky-esque film this holiday season, look no further.

The Tempest (12/10 limited, 12/17 wide)
Visionary director Julie Taymor, who brought us the Beatle-themed Across the Universe, takes on Shakespeare in this fantastical film. Putting her own, unique spin on the Bard’s work, Taymor changes the lead character, Prospero into a female one, and wisely casts the legendary Helen Mirren in the role. Prospera is accused of killing her husband, the Duke of Milan by using witchcraft and is sent away, along with her daughter, to a remote island. There she encounters – and is pitted in a power struggle with – Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), the son of a witch. Comic relief is provided by Russell Brand and Alfred Molina, playing a pair of drunkards. Mystics, monsters and witchcraft paired with the awesome cinematogaphy and visuals Taymor is known for guarantees a magical movie-going experience.

True Grit (12/25)
If there’s anyone who can fill John Wayne’s boots, it’s Jeff Bridges. The Dude himself stars in this remake of the 1969 western, working once again with the Coen Brothers. Promising a darker version of the story this time around, the Coens went to the 1968 book by Charles Portis for their take on the tale. The film revolves around a 14-year-old girl, played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who recruits the booze-loving, scruffy US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to help track down the man who killed her father. Matt Damon co-stars as a Texas Ranger who is also on the trail of the evil Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). As of late, everything the Coens touches turns to Oscar, so you can expect to see this film in quite a few categories – could Bridges be adding another golden statue to his mantle this year?

Biutiful (12/29 limited)
Javier Bardem. Need I say more? This is the one film on the list that I can confidently say is definitely going to be an Oscar nominee – only because it has already been selected as Mexico’s entry in the Best Foreign Film category. Alejandro González Iñárritu directs his first Spanish language feature since his debut (the also nominated) Amores Perros (stateside, he directed 21 Grams and Babel). In Biutiful, Bardem plays a man who works in the shady criminal underworld while trying to raise his kids and deal with a bi-polar ex-wife – all while being diagnosed with terminal cancer (another cheery holiday film!) Bardem won the Best Actor prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his performance and seems to be a shoo-in come Oscar nomination time.