You marveled at Bradley Cooper's perm in American Hustle. You heard all 506 f-bombs in The Wolf of Wall Street. But before the Oscar nominations are announced on January 16, be sure to catch these five sure-fire honorees (all in theaters now!).
Her (4 stars out of 4)
With all due respect to Kanye West, Spike Jonze is a true genius. The writer-director (Being John Malkovich) has crafted a sublimely original film about human connections that feels personal — yet makes a haunting statement about all of society. In the very near future, lonely L.A. divorce Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) bonds with his Siri-esque operating system named Samantha. With the ability to read entire books in a blink, she's all brains. But Scarlett Johansson voices Samantha with such passion and humanity, it makes perfect sense when Theodore starts to casually refer to her as his girlfriend. This is not science fiction: As Jonze points out, our emotional attachment to technology is painfully real.
Possible nominations: Picture, Actor, Director, Original Screenplay, Costume Design, Production Design
Saving Mr. Banks (3 1/2 stars out of 4)
Forget super. This bighearted and intelligent drama, which depicts the making of 1964's Mary Poppins, is supercalifragili. . . .you get the idea. It turns out that the book's author, P.L. Travers (Golden Globe nominee Emma Thompson), tangled with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his team over ever production detail, down to the use of the color red. But no villains here: The true-life figures are acutely developed, allows audiences to empathize with everyone. And when Travers finally sees the finished product, her reaction is nearly as memorable as the classic film itself.
Possible nominations: Picture, Actress, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay
Lone Survivor (3 stars out of 4)
The title itself is a major spoiler. No matter: This moving true story about a Navy SEALs mission gone horribly awry still delivers breathless tension. Mark Wahlberg plays one of four men who head into the Afghanistan mountains in 2005 to smoke out a Taliban commander. After they make a morally difficult — albeit ill-fated — decision, the hunters become the targets. There's a gruesome, you-are-there authenticity to the action as the heroes spill their blood and guts on the battlefield. (Prepare to hear bones crunch and see wounds gush). More important, audiences will come away in awe of their sheer bravery.
Possible nominations: Picture, Cinematography, Sound Editing/Mixing
Inside Llewyn Davis (3 stars out of 4)
Go for the folk music. Stay for the stirring insight into its artistry. In the latest offbeat wonder from the gifted Coen Brothers, singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, wow) struggles for success in the 1961 Greenwich Village scene in New York City. The unreliable, brooding Llewyn is a prickly sort, making it a challenge for his industry — and movie audiences — to fully embrace him. And yet, the talent is undeniable. Most noteworthy moment in a film full of them: Davis reluctantly sits in with two peers (Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver) to take on a ditty about space travel!
Possible nominations: Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Original Song(s)
August: Osage County (2 1/2 stars out of 4)
Some people like their family melodramas with a ray of sunshine. Be forewarned that this one is as gloomy and abrasive as they come. It's a funeral that leads the Weston clan to gather at the Oklahoma homestead of wily, venom-spewing matriarch Violet (Golden Globe nominee Meryl Streep). All three of her daughters, especially the oldest, Barbara (a very strong Julia Roberts, also a GG nominee), hold deep-seeded secrets but bond over their hatred of dear old mom. With so many scenes that end in harsh emotional purging, there's little opportunity for the cast to put the fun in dysfunctional. (The lone piece de resistance: a Streep-Roberts fistfight at the dining room table.) At least they all make the effort.
Possible nominations: Actress, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay