This year's Oscar race may start - and stop - on Friday.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" hits theaters this weekend, bringing with it an all-star cast, feverishly positive festival reviews and the kind of award season luster that may linger for months.
The film is just one of many features vying "for your consideration" over the year's final three-plus months.
"The Master" (Sept. 14 limited, Sept. 21 wide) - The director of "Boogie Nights" and "There Will Be Blood" takes aim at Scientology without calling it out by name. That's shrewd from a legal standpoint, but the blessed casting of both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix makes it the (early) film to beat for Best Picture. Hoffman plays a religious guru who takes Phoenix's characters under his mental wing.
"Argo" (Oct. 12) Ben Affleck went from Hollywood "It" actor to laughing stock to Hollywood "It" director. Impressive, no doubt. And plenty is expected of Affleck here on the heels of his borderline outstanding "The Town." He stars and directs the true tale of an Iranian hostage crisis that didn't grab headlines - at first. John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston co-star in a tale mixing Hollywood make believe with a life-or-death rescue mission.
"Killing Them Softly" (Oct. 19) Give Brad Pitt credit. He's one of those actors who rarely makes a movie that doesn't instantly inspire awards chatter. His latest project casts him as a killer assigned to track a pair of thugs who ripped off a mob-related poker game. The film's reported anti-capitalist themes will only endear it to critics, but audiences may feel far differently about it.
"The Sessions" (Oct. 26) This Sundance fave casts John Hawkes of "Winter's Bone" fame as a man confined to an iron lung who longs to lose his virginity. Oscar winner Helen Hunt plays the sexual surrogate assigned to relieve him of his chastity. The film better earn some critical kudos. It's hard to imagine movie goers lining up to spend a Saturday night with this pair.
"Anna Karenina" (Nov. 16) Keira Knightley re-teams with her "Pride and Prejudice" director Joe Wright for this adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy classic. Knightley plays a married woman canoodling with a cavalry officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of "Kick-Ass" fame). Jude Law, who once starred in every third movie, plays the poor hubbie caught in the middle.
"Lincoln" (Nov. 9) - If third-rate Spielberg fare like "War Horse" can score a Best Picture nomination, then this long-awaited project starring Daniel Day Lewis as the country's 16th president will have Oscar buzz in surround sound. The film tracks Lincoln in the final months of his life as the Civil War rages across the splintered country.
"Les Miserables" (Dec. 14) Musicals remain a dying genre, but their Oscar track record remains impressive (unless the film's stars wear '80s era mullets). "The King's Speech" director Tom Hooper brings the beloved musical, starring Hugh Jackman and a closely cropped Anne Hathaway, to the big screen. The erstwhile Wolverine plays Jean Valjean while fellow Aussie Russell Crowe co-stars as the cop out to get the world's most famous bread thief.
"Django Unchained" (Christmas Day) Director Quentin Tarantino directs his first western, so expect genre nods betwixt the knotty storytelling and uber-funky soundtrack. Jamie Foxx stars as a slave out to rescue his wife from a nasty plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). "Inglourious Basterds" Oscar winner Christoph Waltz co-stars with Kerry Washington ("Ray"), Samuel J. Jackson and Kurt Russell.
And now, your Dark Horse Candidates:
"Won't Back Down" - Any time Viola Davis appears on screen the Oscar alerts start to sound.
"Zero Dark Thirty" - Director Kathryn Bigelow's vision of how Navy SEALs took down the world's most wanted man. Bigelow remains an underrated filmmaker, and the story of Osama bin Laden's comeuppance will have Oscar voters in a very good frame of mind.
"Hyde Park on Hudson" - Bill Murray as FDR? It's the kind of casting move that screams Oscar consideration, and the actor's eclectic career is ripe for award love.