The fall festival season reigns as the peak time to roll out Oscar contenders. Last year’s grand prize winner "Argo" began its march to victory in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. While some, like Fandango’s Dave Karger, are already predicting a "12 Years a Slave" sweep following the raves at Telluride and Toronto, that's about to change. There are five movies premiering at the 51st New York Film Festival, which runs from Friday through October 13th, at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center that could be major game-changers as the race heats up.
"Captain Phillips:" Making its world debut at the NYFF, Paul Greengrass' ripped-from-the-headlines thriller casts Tom Hanks in a dramatic, edge-of-your-seat performance. The Oscar-winner plays the real-life captain who found a new level of bravery when Somali pirates boarded his vessel, the MV Maersk Alabama, in 2009. The first hijacking of an American cargo ship in two centuries led to days of terror followed by a triumphant guest appearance by the Navy SEALS. And, no spoiler here, Phillips survived to write the book "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea."
Oscar buzz: Hanks, naturally is headed for a nomination. And Greengrass who is a master of the based-on-a-true-story school of action ("United 93") as well as a vet of two Jason Bourne movies. If this actioner performs well in its opening slot at NYFF, it instantly becomes a Best Picture contender, along with adapted screenplay.
"Nebraska:" Alexander Payne follows Hawaiian-"The Descendants" with a black-and-white Midwestern road movie that furthers his running theme of fathers and children. The Omaha native pairs an estranged father (Bruce Dern) and son (Will Forte) on a mission to claim lottery money.
Oscar buzz: Dern could easily squeeze into the crowded best actor field since he already won that honor at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival. Meanwhile, co-star June Squibb is getting best supporting actress murmurs. And, since this is Payne, a best adapted screenplay, director and picture could also be on deck.
"Inside Llewyn Davis:" The Oscar-heavy Coen Brothers return to Lincoln Center with a black-and-white period piece about Greenwich Village in 1961 during the great folk scare. A roguish Bob Dylan style singer-songwriter ("W.E.’s" Oscar Isaac) blows into Greenwich Village, shakes things up with a wholesome husband and wife duo (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) and sets folk on its way to becoming electric.
Oscar buzz: Isaac may have trouble squeezing into that overstuffed best actor field but, after this movie, his name and face will be recognized and leading-man roles will flood his way. Meanwhile, look for supporting nods to Mulligan and Timberlake, director and screenwriting kudos, and a big wet kiss to the T. Bone Burnett score.
"Her:" Finally, Spike Jonze returns with his first feature as a writer-director since 2009's "Where the Wild Things Are." Along comes "Her," a virtual romantic comedy between a shy writer (Joaquin Phoenix) and the playfully sexy voice of his computer operating system (Scarlett Johansson). Love at first byte? Add in Amy Adams and Rooney Mara for a winning combination.
Oscar buzz: Word is that the print is still wet – although Warner Brothers premiered a few scenes of the unfinished film at Toronto earlier this month. So predictions with this love story are the iffiest: Best picture? Best director and original screenplay? Can Phoenix be back in the game for best actor after "The Master?" Nobody will really know until the NYFF press screening.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:" While many wanted Ben Stiller to keep his paws off the classic James Thurber short story, adapted into a Danny Kaye comedy in 1947, Stiller won out. He directs and stars as the daydreaming title character, a "Life" Magazine employee, who longs to be a hero but has trouble when fate throws real-life global adventure his way. Kristen Wiig co-stars.
Oscar buzz: Stiller will be holding out for the brass ring: Best Director and Actor. And he has high hopes for making the Best Picture cut. While the trailer charms, and it bodes well that the remake landed in the prestigious NYFF, its Oscar chances remain a mystery that won’t be revealed until the press screening on October 5th and beyond.
The NYFF will also showcase a number of films that debuted at Toronto and have already proven to be Oscar bait, including "12 Years a Slave," and "Only Lovers Left Alive," and the Cannes Palme d'Or winner "Blue is the Warmest Color."
The most highly anticipated films that have skipped the fall festival circuit so far are: "The Monuments Men," "Foxcatcher," "American Hustle," "Saving Mr. Banks" and "The Wolf of Wall Street."