Best Picture: Rocky

rockyThe third entry (it has been a while) into my Best Picture Oscar series is finally here with 1976’s ‘Rocky’. The first film in what has become a seven film series over the course of forty years, ‘Rocky’ has become known as one of the greatest boxing and sports films of all time and perhaps even one of the best “American dream” films that we have ever seen as well.

Written by and starring a young  Sylvester Stallone as the Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa, the film brought Stallone to worldwide prominence in a role that has gone on to shape his career and also become a cultural phenomenon.

Earning a total of ten nominations at the 49th Academy Awards, ‘Rocky’ collected three Oscar’s, not only for Best Picture, but also Best Director for John G. Avildsen and also for Best Film Editing. It also won the Award for Outstanding Directing from the Directors Guild of America as well. To say that ‘Rocky’ is iconic would be an understatement.

Telling the story of a debt collector for a loan shark who moonlights as a middling boxer who has never seriously trained for the fights, ‘Rocky’ is a film that could never get made in this day and age. From a slower pace, to the love story between Stallone’s Balboa and Talia Shire’s Adrian Pennino, audiences today would never flock to a film like this. And I feel this is a shame, because not all films have to work at a breakneck speed of feature explosions every twenty seconds.

‘Rocky’ shifts back and forth between three clear storylines, the love story between Rocky and Adrian, the arc of Rocky embracing of his boxing ability, and the story that brings all of this together, the desire of earning a big paycheque from Rocky’s opponent in the ring, Carl Weather’s Apollo Creed.

The story between Rocky and Adrian is what really sets this film apart, and both Stallone and Shire received well earned Best Actor and Best Actress nominations. While neither won, the fact that the film had such great performances, and from a film that was shot in only a 28 day time period, really just highlights how good they were.

Weathers’ performance as the film’s counterpoint to Stallone’s Rocky is actually a very understated performance. Playing an analogy to Muhammad Ali, Weathers steps up as a brash, loud self promoter who fails to take his self appointed challenger seriously, resulting in the climactic fifteen round fight that closes out the film.

While it took me into my 37th year to see the entirety of ‘Rocky’, especially considering that growing up it would be on television a couple of times a year, I am glad that I waited to be a bit older to give a full first viewing to fully understand the scope and wonder of this film.

While not all previous Best Picture winners have aged well, and while you can clearly tell that this film was shot during the 1970’s, ‘Rocky’ does truly stand the test of time to tell a great story of an underdog reaching up and grabbing a hold of the chance that we all dream of when it is presented and making the best of it.

As always, for all this and more, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @kymayer, and watch for some other Best Picture reviews soon.

Best Picture: The French Connection

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The next film in my tracing back of past Academy Award Best Picture winners is ‘The French Connection’.  Featuring Gene Hackman in his Best Actor award winning role, ‘The French Connection’ is commonly known for having one of the best car chase scenes of all time, and one that has been parodied many times over in the forty plus years since.

Based loosely on true events, ‘The French Connection’ centers on a heroin drug smuggling operation from France, one that allows director William Friedkin, who won the Best Director Oscar for this film, to show how singularly focused police officers can become in pursuing leads of the nature shown in the film.

I will admit that the opening to ‘The French Connection’ is a tad dry, but as you get introduced to main protagonists and antagonists, the film does start to pick up, and never is this better seen than when Hackman’s character, “Popeye” Jones trailing his mark, the affectionately known “Frog One” and gets made at a subway.

As for the aforementioned car chase scene, the use of multiple angles, chasing of an elevated train, and the cramped confines that entailed all make it one of the greatest car chases ever put to film.

In the end, ‘The French Connection’ is a product of its era, limited in what it could do when compared to films today, but a major success as a result. Telling a point a to point B story that didn’t worry about trying to throw the audience for a loop, it only deviated at the end to leave those watching guessing as to the end.

All in all, I was quite entertained by ‘The French Connection’, but I feel I won’t be venturing into the sequel, for I have heard it is nowhere near the original.

As always, for all this and more, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @kymayer. Cheers.

86th Academy Awards

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So, the 86th Academy Awards have come and gone, and looking back on the winners, there really was only one real surprise from the categories that I had looked at in my preview. The Oscars seem to have become a little predictable. Hell, a Canadian baseball player went 18-for-18 in his predictions. A baseball player!!!!!

That being said, let’s take a quick look back on the winners from last evening in Hollywood. The big winners were ’12 Years a Slave’ and ‘Gravity’, and neither of those would be considered shocking. ’12 Years a Slave’ picked up three Oscars, while ‘Gravity’ picked up seven trophies, and in the process became the first film since ‘Star Wars’ in 1977 to win six or more trophies and not win Best Picture.

Both ‘Gravity’ and ‘American Hustle’ had ten nominations going into the ceremony, but unlike ‘Gravity’, ‘Hustle’ came away with zero awards. Only two films in history, ‘The Turning Point’ in 1977 and ‘The Color Purple’ in 1985, have had more nominations without any wins, both at eleven nominations.

The winners are as follow:

Best Visual Effects: ‘Gravity’ – Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould

Best Film Editing: ‘Gravity’ – Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger

Best Costume Design: ‘The Great Gatsby’ – Catherine Martin

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ – Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews

Best Cinematography: ‘Gravity’ – Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Production Design: ‘The Great Gatsby’ – Catherine Martin and Beverley Dunn

Best Sound Mixing: ‘Gravity’ – Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead and Chris Munro

Best Sound Editing: ‘Gravity’ – Glenn Freemantle

Best Original Song: “Let It Go” from ‘Frozen’ – Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez

Best Original Score: ‘Gravity’ – Steven Price

Best Animated Short Film: ‘Mr Hublot’ – Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares

Best Live Action Short Film: ‘Helium’ – Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson

Best Documentary – Short Subject: ‘The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life’ – Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed

Best Documentary – Feature: ’20 Feet from Stardom’ – Morgan Neville, Gil Friesen and Caitrin Rogers

Best Foreign Language FIlm: ‘The Great Beauty’ – Paolo Sorrentino

Best Animated Feature Film: ‘Frozen’ – Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Peter Del Vecho

Best Writing – Adapted Screenplay: ’12 Years a Slave’ – John Ridley

Best Writing – Original Screenplay: ‘Her’ – Spike Jonze

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o for ’12 Years a Slave’

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto for ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett for ‘Blue Jasmine’

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey for ‘Dallas Buyers Club

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron for ‘Gravity’

Best Picture: ’12 Years a Slave’ – Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen and Anthony Katagas

At the end of the night, most of the awards fell the way most were expecting. ‘Gravity’ won in most of their technical categories and for Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron. Jared Leto won Best Supporting Actor and Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor for ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, a film in which both actors underwent significant personal transformations, something that the Academy absolutely loves.

Cate Blanchett won Best Actress, which was the worst kept secret of the entire evening, while Lupita Nyong’o overcame the unwarranted publicity of Jennifer Lawrence to bring home Best Supporting Actress for her role in ’12 Years a Slave’.

Of course, the big award for the evening was Best Picture, which had a total of nine nominees, but in my honest opinion, only one truly viable winner in ’12 Years a Slave’, and I am quite happy that the voters of the Academy agreed. ’12 Years a Slave’ is one of the most wonderful, gut-wrenching, heart-breakingly beautiful films I have ever seen, and rightly deserved to win the big one.

One last thing to add quickly here at the end, and that is that I really wish Best Actor could have been a tie last night, because as much as McConaughey deserved to win, so to did Chiwetel Ejiofor for ’12 Years a Slave’, and I truly believe that this is a role that will go down in history as hauntingly beautiful.

As always, for all this and more, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @kymayer. Cheers.

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave

12yearsI was originally planning on seeing ’12 Years a Slave’ all the way back in October or November, but things just didn’t work out. Much to my delight, I was able to see this film this past Wednesday at my local multiplex and I will tell you this: It was worth the wait.

’12 Years a Slave’ is at times a very hard watch, but one that is well worth it. Right from the opening, director Steve McQueen, in just his third feature film project, sets the tone for a two hour plus film that will test your resolve as a human being.

From McQueen’s directing, to the understated score from legend Hans Zimmer, ’12 Years a Slave’ is an emotional ride through the hardships suffered not by just one man, but generations of humans who were enslaved due to the colour of their skin.

The big thing with ’12 Years a Slave’ is that, unlike other films in 2013, this film earned the praise, the recognition and the award nominations that have come its way. Chiwetel Ejiofor carries this film with the kind of depth, emotion and gravitas that the big name veteran actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Tom Hanks can only dream of.

It really feels that Ejiofor threw everything he had into ’12 Years a Slave’, from the whipping he first takes upon being kidnapped, to pain of the lashing he is forced himself to give out near the end of the film. Ejiofor does such a wonderful job of bringing freeman-turned-slave Solomon Northup to the screen that in one scene, a shot of just Ejiofor looking into the camera, you cannot but help feel that you are indeed looking into the soul of Northup on a cotton plantation.

As much as this is a breakthrough role for an actor that you have quite possibly seen but not recognized in other films, the true coming out party from ’12 Years a Slave’ is reserved for Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o.

Nyong’o, who somehow just lost out on the Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe award to Jennifer Lawrence, makes a stunning debut as a sometimes favoured slave of the character brought to the screen by McQueen favourite, Michael Fassbender. Nyong’o brings a very stark realization to this film, as we see just what it meant to be a “favourite” of a plantation owner.

’12 Years a Slave’ also benefits hugely from the main supporting roles of three actors: Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt and Academy Award nominee Fassbender.  All three actors play different roles in this film, and each highlight a vast difference in society during the 1840’s and 1850’s.

Fassbender is almost spellbinding as an alcoholic plantation owner, essentially the personification of evil in ’12 Years a Slave’.  Fassbender, who has featured in all three of director McQueen’s feature films, plums the depths of the evils that white plantation owners inflicted on their black slaves, and the ironic love that they seemed to have for their favourites.

To contrast Fassbender, we have Cumberbatch who is our first plantation owner we come across as his character is the first to purchase Northup following his abduction. Cumberbatch shows the lesser side of the evil, showing favour for his “debt” and standing almost as a polar opposite to Fassbender’s character later in the film.

Finally, we have Brad Pitt in the smallest of the three roles but one that is the most critical to the resolution of the film.  Pitt shows his years as a Canadian abolitionist carpenter who provides Northup with the recourse to his salvation.  Of the three, Fassbender definitely does carry his Best Supporting Actor nomination well.

The end of the film killed me and, even though you know how it is going to end, you can’t help but fully feel the entire well of emotion that has been dredged up throughout ’12 Years a Slave’.

As for the Academy Awards next month, ’12 Years a Slave’ is my choice for Best Picture, as is Lupita Nyong’o for Best Supporting Actress.  Both Steve McQueen for Best Director and Chiwetel Ejiofor for Best Actor are most warranted but will have tough competition for their wins.  As for Michael Fassbender and the Best Supporting Actor award, it is unfortunate that he is up against a not as deserved momentum train called Jared Leto this year, as I feel it should Fassbender all the way.

In the end, while a tough film to watch at times, ’12 Years a Slave’ is the best film from 2013 that I have seen and one that will stay with me for years to come.

As always, for all this and more, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @kymayer.  Cheers.

Saving Private Ryan

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I took a lot of flack earlier this week after writing about ‘Lone Survivor’ and letting it be known that as of that time I had yet to ever watch ‘Saving Private Ryan’. This was done as a personal decision as I felt to give the latter film the atmosphere it warranted was to wait until I had a full sound system in our home.

Well, that day is here and while home sick with a touch of the flu yesterday, I sat down and finally watched the World War II masterpiece from director Steven Spielberg. Spielberg has directed some of the best films of the past thirty years. and ‘Saving Private Ryan’, while not his best film, definitely deserves to be amongst that list.

‘Saving Private Ryan’ is basically made on the opening half hour or so of the film.  Showing a near 100% accurate recollection of landing on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the film serves to highlight the high price paid in the liberation of Europe in World War II.

Featuring many actors you will recognize, even in smaller roles, the acting is top notch in this film. Starring a still-in-his-prime Tom Hanks as the Captain of the team sent to find the titular character in France, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is just another example of how Tom Hanks may be one of the three best actors of the past thirty years.

The visuals in this film are extremely gut-wrenching, as we see what full-scale war can do to normally beautiful lands and scenery.  From the beaches of Normandy to the destroyed villages on the interior of France, Spielberg managed to turn parts of England and Ireland into mesmerizing locales to highlight the loss of architecture that war takes from us all.

The end of the film, which features the desperation of war not only in the attempted defending of a key bridge but also the hand-to-hand brutality that exists in war, was a jarring bookend to the opening of the film and a great way to segue back to the present day where the titular Ryan is seen at one of the cemeteries in Europe to pay his respects to the man that led the mission to bring him home.

At the end of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ the only thought that popped into my head is just how The Academy voters could have passed this over in 1998 for Best Picture and gave that Oscar to ‘Shakespeare in Love’? This has to be one of the gravest travesties in the history of The Academy.

While not 100% sold that this is the best war film of all-time, what it does do is force me to find a copy of ‘We Were Soldiers’ to re-watch to compare the two and see which one comes out at the top of my list.

As always, for all this and more, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @kymayer. Cheers.

Gravity

gravityThe big breakout film from 2012 , that no one knew what to expect from, was Ang Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’.  What was considered unfilmable ended up with Lee winning his second Best Director award at the 85th Academy Awards earlier this year.  I mention ‘Life of Pi’ as it seems to be a good correlation to this year’s surprise hit, ‘Gravity’, from Alfonso Cuaron.

If you are looking for what is more than likely the best visuals you can find in a film this year, than ‘Gravity’ is definitely the film for you.  Simply put, there have been very few films that have been must see in the 3D format since James Cameron revolutionized the format with ‘Avatar’, but Cuaron has added a definite must see film to that list.

The downside to all of this talk about the visuals and the 3D is that the acting is actually a tad sub-par in this film, and that is mainly due to writing that manages to take away from the film, instead of adding to it.

‘Gravity’ will more than likely go down as another ‘Avatar’ in the end.  A stunning film visually that covers up for writing and acting holes that are small enough to miss at times.  For the imaginative and risk-taking notion of setting the film almost entirely in the weightlessness of space, and pulling it off in a manner that sets the film apart as a must-see in theatres, Cuaron will most definitely be a nominee for the Best Director Oscar at the 86th Academy Awards next year, and should be one of the two favourites at the end of the day.

As for the rest of the film, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney feature as the only two actors present in ‘Gravity’.  This is another risky element of the film but one that works in tandem with the setting.  By limiting the number of people seen on screen, Cuaron really is able to set the scene and setup the thriller aspect of the film.

Many are lauding the acting job of Sandra Bullock and proclaiming her as a possible nominee for Best Actress, and depending on what other films produce for possible nominees, I can definitely see Bullock earning a nomination, based solely on the fact that she is the only person on screen for almost the entirety of the film.

George Clooney, very much in the same position as Bullock, could be a possible nominee for Best Supporting Actor as he really sets the stage in the film as the retiring, experienced astronaut and a major plot device as well.  This is a definite possible award winning role for the former ER star.

That being said, I do believe that the best lock for ‘Gravity’ at the Academy Awards will be in the Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Visual Effects categories.  Not bad for a film that was post-converted to 3D.

In the end, ‘Gravity’ should become the poster film for post-converting in 3D, as it is truly the first film to nail down that approach to 3D and is on par with ‘Avatar’ for taking your breath away.

Once again, ‘Gravity’ is the type of film that cinema is made for and to do this film justice is to see it on the biggest screen you can find and in the best 3D you can find as well.

For all this and more, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @kymayer.  Cheers.

Fall 2013 Season – Part Two

I don’t know if it is due from just getting older and as a result being more open to films beyond raunchy comedies and big-budget popcorn flicks, or if my tastes are changing, or if I am actively seeking out more types of films and being open to them, but with each passing year I manage to find additional levels of enjoyment from award caliber fare later in the calendar year.

As a result of this, the following article is full of eleven different award season fodder that under normal circumstances, will be on my viewing list before the end of January, and this list contains only one film that I know for sure would have made my list just two to three years ago.

This is also a sign for movie audiences everywhere on two different fronts.  First off, more big name directors and big name actors and actresses are willing to do smaller, character driven films that have enough entertainment value for the general masses.  Secondly, bigger metroplexes in more markets, and even smaller cities, are willing to bring these films in knowing that it will draw audiences to increase profits.  These two things lead off into numerous films on this list.

The ten films that follow are the larger films that are already garnering award buzz, be it for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor or Best Actress awards, and these are the eleven films that most people will have the opportunity to see before the Golden Globes are held in January.

Rush – September 27

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The only film on this list that I will 100% see, ‘Rush’ tells the story of the famed 1976 Formula One season and the race for the title between Englishman James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda and the horrific crash that Lauda suffered during the German Grand Prix of that season.

Directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, ‘Rush’ seems poised to push Hemsworth beyond his role as Thor and into the light as an actor to deal with moving forward.

Gravity – October 4

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Initially put forth as a true 3D event film, in the same vein as last year’s ‘Life of Pi’, ‘Gravity’ may be one of Hollywood’s last gasps to sell a film as must see in the format that has been shunned for the most part in North America this year.  From director Alfonso Cuaron, ‘Gravity’ appears to tell the story of astronauts being stranded in space.

In order to get the best feel for the film, many people are avoiding watching trailers and TV spots featuring stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floating away in space, and as a result of not furthering plot points in these scenes, the average theatre goer may wind up passing on this film, but much like ‘Life of Pi’, it could be a mistake waiting to happen to pass on it.

Captain Phillips – October 11

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Tom Hanks was one of the most bankable actors of the mid to late 1990’s, and with back-to-back Best Actor Oscar wins for ‘Philadelphia’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ and two further nominations for ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Cast Away’, Hanks practically owned Hollywood at the turn of the millennium.  While his time since than has been more miss than hit, it appears that ‘Captain Phillips’ may be a turning back the clock so to speak.

Based on a true story, a running theme in this years films that are chasing the award’s season, ‘Captain Phillips’ will feature a defiant Hanks in a bit of an isolationist role, something right in his wheelhouse, and we may end up seeing a sixth career Best Actor nod from this film.

The Fifth Estate – October 18

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Featuring one of the hottest names in films today, Benedict Cumberbatch, ‘The Fifth Estate’ tells the story of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his exploits in becoming one of the most infamous men in the world.  Featuring Daniel Bruhl in his second appearance on this list as Assange’s right-hand man and author of the book that the film itself is being partly based on.

That being said, due to the nature of the film and the fact that is based around a whistle-blower, it may wind up not being able to live up to its own hype, and a quick look at the current Rotten Tomatoes score for the film seems to back up that line of thinking.

12 Years a Slave – October 18

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If there is a film that could be considered a heavy runaway contender for most awards this season, ’12 Years a Slave’ would be sure to be that film.  Based on the real-life re-tellings of Solomon Northup, ’12 Years a Slave’ tells the story of a freeman kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South before the Civil War.

Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, and a slew of name actors in other roles, such as Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt, ’12 Years a Slave’ sure seems to be the go-to film for critics ahead of its limited release in mid-October.  Whether that steam continues for average theatre goers or not, this film is sure setup to win hearts and trophies.

The Wolf of Wall Street – November 15

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Another year, another highly anticipated film that might finally give Leonardo DiCaprio his sought after Oscar.  That is what ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ carries with it this year.  While the film also features actors like Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey, expect DiCaprio to be the centre of attention of the marketing for this film, especially considering it is directed by Martin Scorsese, and the history between the two.

Whether or not this film can finally get DiCaprio the long elusive Oscar for Best Actor will be one of the key drivers and selling points moving forward, especially if it is having a healthy run in the theatres when nominations begin to be announced.

The Monuments Men – December 18

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I am a sucker for war movies, and ‘The Monuments Men’ seems to be right up that alley, yet with a nice twist to separate it from the pack.  Set during World War II, this film features a group of allies trying to preserve works of art and other culturally relevant items from the hands of Hitler and the Nazis.

Based on true events, ‘The Monuments Men’ will be another testament to the wide range of great actors in Hollywood today, with the likes of George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and John Goodman putting on the fatigues to fight an important cause during the war years.

Inside Llewyn Davis – December 20

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The latest film from the Coen Brothers, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, features another star-studded cast in a film built around the 1960’s folk music scene.  Featuring the talents of Oscar Davis, John Goodman, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is bound to be one of the harder to predict how it will do.

The reason for that is that it could be a quieter film due to the plot and the store, but the film also managed to win the Grand Prix award at Cannes this year, and that could cancel out the other aspects of the film.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – December 25

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It appears that ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ is Ben Stiller’s attempt to enter the serious part of his career.  As director and lead actor of the film, Stiller is definitely trying to show off that he has some real acting ability, and judging by the trailer that was released for the film, it will be hard to argue that he isn’t pulling it off.

While a story of a daydreamer has been done before, specifically a film of the same name all the way back 1947, a serious tone to the film could be quite the interesting take in the Christmas time period that Hollywood loves for serious award contenders.

American Hustle – December 25

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Last year’s ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ from director David O. Russell was one of my favourite films of 2012, and Russell is back with ‘American Hustle’ this year.  Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams and two of Russel’s favourites in Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, who  both received Oscar nomination for ‘Playbook’ last year, ‘American Hustle’ takes a look at greed and corruption in 1970’s America.

‘Playbook’ was the first film since 1981 to garner nominations in all four acting categories at the Oscar’s, and with the cast present in ‘American Hustle’, there is no reason to think it can’t duplicate the feat, and a repeat of ‘Playbook’s big five nominations is quite possible as well.

There are definitely more films that will be considered as award season contenders, but this is just a quick list of the ones that most people will end up having come to their theatres this fall and holiday season.  Leading up to the Golden Globes and the Oscar’s, anyone of these ten films could become a front runner.

For all this and more, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @kymayer.  Cheers.