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28 Films You'll Be Talking About This Awards Season

UPDATED: With the major film festivals in Toronto, Venice, and Telluride behind us, the season for awards-caliber movies is officially underway — and it's shaping up to be one of the most exciting ones in recent memory. From contemporary family dramas to period biopics to sci-fi romances, here are the most likely contenders for the 2013 season.

Design by Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed

It is only mid-September, and there are a lot of movies yet to open this year, but 2013 is shaping up to be one of the most exciting years for movies in recent memory.

Of course, it often feels that way this time of year. As autumn approaches, the loud and expensive summer fare has been (mostly) stored away in favor of the kind of mature, human-scaled stories that end up getting nominated for and winning critics awards, guild awards, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Indie Spirits, and — eventually, inevitably — Oscars.

When the season formally kicks off with a triumvirate of international film festivals (Telluride, Venice, and Toronto), there is an abiding hope that the crop of movies for that year's awards season will not only be good, but great, the sort of richly realized cinematic storytelling that will still hold us in its grip decades from now.

Alas, that rarely happens. Usually, we partake of movies that are merely really good — well crafted, thoughtfully executed, and destined to fade from memory in just a few years. It's a lucky thing if you see one film in a year that feels For the Ages, but at this year's Toronto Film Festival, I saw two movies that were unlike anything I'd had seen before, movies that I know I will be thinking about and talking about for years to come.

This year's awards season will contain contemporary family dramas and hard-boiled crime thrillers, period biopics and rousing war dramedies, black-and-white character studies and sci-fi romances. Obviously some of these films will fall short of expectations, but here are 31 live-action feature films that could be contenders within this year's awards season, and the major categories that could be in play (for Oscars or otherwise) for each of them.

1. Fruitvale Station

The Weinstein Company
The Weinstein Company

Release date: July 12

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Michael B. Jordan), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Original Screenplay (Ryan Coogler), Best Director (Ryan Coogler)

Have we seen it? Yes

And? The year's earliest major awards contender — based on the life of Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit cop in the wee hours of Jan. 1, 2009 — could get overshadowed by the dozens of films that will follow it. Which would be a big shame: Between Michael B. Jordan's deeply affecting lead performance as Grant, Octavia Spencer's heartbreaking turn as Grant's mother, and the auspicious feature debut of writer-director Ryan Coogler, this is a film that demands your attention.

2. Blue Jasmine

Jessica Miglio / Sony Pictures Classics

Release date: July 26

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Cate Blanchett), Best Original Screenplay (Woody Allen), Best Director (Woody Allen)

Have we seen it? Yes

And? It is one of Woody Allen's very best, most satisfying, and most topical movies in ages. Cate Blanchett is mesmerizing as a high-society wife whose philandering husband (Alec Baldwin) is arraigned for major financial shenanigans. This early on, at least, she is the putative front-runner for Best Actress.

3. Lee Daniels' The Butler

Anne Marie Fox / The Weinstein Company

Release date: Aug. 16

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Forest Whitaker), Best Supporting Actress (Oprah Winfrey), Best Adapted Screenplay (Danny Strong), Best Director (Lee Daniels)

Have we seen it? Yes

And? At once an intimate character study and a sweeping historical drama, The Butler benefits from being the Annual August Drama That Does Surprisingly Well At The Box Office — it's grossed over $100 million in the U.S. Plus, Oprah acts, and she's great!

4. Enough Said

Colleen Hayes / Fox Searchlight

Release date: Sept. 18

Possible nominations: Best Actress (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Best Actor or Supporting Actor (James Gandolfini), Best Original Screenplay (Nicole Holofcener)

Have we seen it? Yes

And? This utterly delightful romantic comedy about two divorced empty nesters (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini) may normally be considered too lightweight to be an "awards movie," were it not for the fact that it is one of the late Gandolfini's last on-screen performances. More importantly, it is winning some of the best rave reviews so far this year. Even if the Oscars overlook it, expect this film to do very well in the musical/comedy categories at the Golden Globes.

5. Prisoners

Wilson Webb / Warner Bros.

Release date: Sept. 20

Possible nominations: Best Actor (Hugh Jackman), Best Supporting Actor (Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal), Best Original Screenplay (Aaron Guzikowski)

Have we seen it? Yes

And? I spoke with several journalists at Toronto who don't think Prisoners is an "awards film" since its tale of a father (Hugh Jackman) driven to extremes when his daughter is kidnapped is far more of a straight thriller than most films that are nominated for awards (at least, of late). But Aaron Guzikowski's twisting screenplay is also an emotionally complex family drama, and Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano all give career-topping performances. It's a packed year, but don't count this film out.

6. Gravity

Warner Bros.

Release date: Oct. 4

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Sandra Bullock), Best Supporting Actor (George Clooney), Best Original Screenplay (Jonas Cuarón and Alfonso Cuarón), Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón)

Have we seen it? Yes

And? This is one of those aforementioned For the Ages movies: It is an astonishment, the kind of big-screen experience that makes the oft-used "it will leave you breathless!" hyperbole seem like empty words. But it won't be for everyone. Sandra Bullock is alone for long stretches of the film as a novice astronaut stranded in space after a catastrophic accident, and often, she is hidden behind a thick space suit, surrounded by the inky blackness of space. Also, it's in 3D. But this is a surprisingly emotional film, and so far, it's played like absolute gangbusters.

7. Captain Phillips

Jasin Boland / Columbia Pictures

Release date: Oct. 11

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Tom Hanks), Best Supporting Actor (Barkhad Abdi), Best Adapted Screenplay (Billy Ray), Best Director (Paul Greengrass)

Have we seen it? No

But… Early reviews have been positive, focusing especially on the performances by Tom Hanks as the real-life cargo ship captain taken hostage by Somali pirates, and first-time Somali actor Barkhad Abdi as the man who leads the pirates. Those same reviews, however, have noted how little the film apparently spends exploring the inner lives and motives of the Somalis, a storytelling choice that could be politically problematic.

8. The Fifth Estate

Frank Connor / DreamWorks Pictures

Release date: Oct. 18

Possible nominations: Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Best Adapted Screenplay (Josh Singer)

Have we seen it? Yes

And? The long-awaited WikiLeaks movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to a somewhat tepid reception, with the biggest acclaim directed at Cumberbatch's astute performance as WikiLeaks' enigmatic founder Julian Assange.

9. 12 Years a Slave

Fox Searchlight

Release date: Oct. 18

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender), Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson), Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley), Best Director (Steve McQueen)

Have we seen it? Yes

And? This is the other For the Ages film that premiered at Toronto, and I have already gone on the record with my belief that if you see no other movie this awards season, you should see 12 Years a Slave. Yes, its depiction of free black man Solomon Northup (an astounding Chiwetel Ejiofor) — who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana — takes an unflinching look at what slavery was really like for both the enslaved and the slave owners. Yes, there are scenes of unspeakable cruelty. Yes, it is hard to watch. But I will put it this way: At the end of the film, I was beyond grateful for the experience.

10. All Is Lost

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Release date: Oct. 18

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Robert Redford), Best Original Screenplay (J.C. Chandor), Best Director (J.C. Chandor)

Have we seen it? Yes

And? Robert Redford deservedly earned his best reviews in decades at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for his nearly wordless performance as a man sailing alone in the Indian Ocean who slowly contends with a series of disasters that strand him helplessly at sea. But writer-director J.C. Chandor and his filmmaking team deserve massive credit for sustaining such a harrowing, complicated story without any exposition or dialogue.

11. Blue Is the Warmest Color

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Release date: Oct. 25

Possible nominations: Best Actress (Adèle Exarchopoulos), Best Supporting Actress (Léa Seydoux), Best Adapted Screenplay (Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix), Best Director (Abdellatif Kechiche)

Have we seen it? Yes

And? Three hours long, with several lengthy and explicit sex scenes between lead Adèle Exarchopoulos (as Adèle, a teenage French girl exploring her sexuality) and Léa Seydoux (as Emma, her twentysomething aspiring artist girlfriend), this winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or is almost certainly a nonstarter with Academy voters for most major categories. (It isn't even eligible for the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 2014 Oscars, though it will be for 2015.) A recent interview with Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, in which both stated they would never work with director Abdellatif Kechiche again, may also cause some to pass this movie over. But beyond the sex and controversy, the film itself is an engrossing, rewarding, and humanistic portrait of one woman struggling to discover herself, and it will likely win at least some plaudits from critics groups and the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

12. The Counselor

Kerry Brown / 20th Century Fox

Release date: Oct. 25

Possible nominations: Best Actor (Michael Fassbender), Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), Best Supporting Actress (Cameron Diaz), Best Original Screenplay (Cormac McCarthy), Best Director (Ridley Scott)

Have we seen it? No

But… The pedigree of this crime drama — about a lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who dips his toe into the drug trade only to fall into the deep end — is impeccable, especially considering the film marks acclaimed novelist Cormac McCarthy's feature screenwriting debut.

13. Dallas Buyers Club

Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

Release date: Nov. 1

Possible nominations: Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey), Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto), Best Original Screenplay (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack)

Have we seen it? Yes

And? Matthew McConaughey gives arguably the best performance of his career as Ron Woodroof, a straight, vaguely racist, definitely homophobic, drug-addled Texas rodeo layabout who contracts HIV in the 1980s and ends up running an underground AIDS drugs co-op from a motel. And as Rayon, the glamorous, drug-addled, transgender AIDS patient who teams up with Woodroof, Jared Leto gives inarguably the performance no one ever thought him capable of. (I just wish the movie's second half gave them more to do.)

14. The Book Thief

Jules Heath / 20th Century Fox

Release date: Nov. 15

Possible nominations: Best Actress (Sophie Nélisse), Best Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Best Supporting Actress (Emily Watson)

Have we seen it? No

But… A historical World War II drama set in Nazi Germany and based on a best-selling novel about a young girl and the foster parents who risk their lives to protect a young Jewish man? It might as well be called Awards Movie.

15. The Wolf of Wall Street

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Release date: Nov. 15

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill), Best Adapted Screenplay (Terence Winter), Best Director (Martin Scorsese)

Have we seen it? No

But… Scorsese and DiCaprio re-teaming on a gonzo and highly topical tale of money market malfeasance? If it's great, 2013 could truly go down as one of the best years for movies in a long, long time.

16. Nebraska

Paramount Pictures

Release date: Nov. 22

Possible nominations: Best Actor (Bruce Dern), Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb), Best Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson)

Have we seen it? No

But… Reaction at the Cannes Film Festival to Alexander Payne's black-and-white follow-up to The Descendants — about an alcoholic Montanan (Bruce Dern), his quarrelsome wife (June Squibb), and their sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk) — was decidedly mixed, even though Dern picked up the Best Actor prize at the festival. But the film played much better at Telluride, with attention paid especially to Dern and Squibb.

17. Philomena

Alex Bailey / The Weinstein Company

Release date: Nov. 22

Possible nominations: Best Actress (Judi Dench), Best Adapted Screenplay (Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope)

Have we seen it? No

But… Based on a true story, the film tracks Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irish-Catholic woman who gave up a child for adoption in the U.S., and the BBC reporter (Steve Coogan) who convinces her to find her son years later. Weinstein is selling the film as a comedy, and given how relatively shallow the Best Actress field is this year, Dench could be a breath a fresh air amid so many heavier and darker films and performances.

18. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Keith Bernstein / The Weinstein Company

Release date: Nov. 29

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Idris Elba), Best Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris), Best Adapted Screenplay (William Nicholson), Best Director (Justin Chadwick)

Have we seen it? No

But… This long-in-the-works adaptation of Nelson Mandela's autobiography had a fair amount of the awards season wind taken from its sails after its Toronto Film Festival premiere, with several complaints that the film gets too bogged down in completionist tropes of traditional period biopics. But one should never count out The Weinstein Company's awards season savviness when it comes to fostering enthusiasm for its films, and, for that matter, some people really do enjoy an old school completionist historical biopic. At the very least, Idris Elba's performance as Mandela has won universal praise.

19. Inside Llewyn Davis

Alison Rosa / CBS Films

Release date: Dec. 6

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Oscar Isaac), Best Supporting Actor (John Goodman), Best Original Screenplay (Joel and Ethan Coen), Best Director (Joel and Ethan Coen)

Have we seen it? No

But… The Coen brothers won great notices and the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival (essentially second place) for their film that follows the tribulations of an aspiring folk music singer (Oscar Isaac, Drive) in the 1960s.

20. Out of the Furnace

Kerry Hayes / Relativity

Release date: Dec. 6

Possible nominations: Best Actor (Christian Bale), Best Supporting Actor (Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker), Best Supporting Actress (Zoe Saldana), Best Original Screenplay (Scott Cooper and Brad Ingelsby), Best Director (Scott Cooper)

Have we seen it? No

But… Like Prisoners, this film — about a blue-collar man (Christian Bale) who takes on an Appalachian crime boss (Woody Harrelson) when his younger brother (Casey Affleck) goes missing — could be dismissed as too much of a straight-up crime thriller in a year packed with more awards-y movies. Or it could stand out from the crowd even more.

21. American Hustle

François Duhamel / Columbia Pictures

Release date: Dec. 13

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Actress (Amy Adams), Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner), Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Original Screenplay (Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell), Best Director (David O. Russell)

Have we seen it? No

But… David O. Russell combines the casts of his last two awards-laden movies — The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook — to form an unstoppable super-cast for his film about the Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I mean, that cast! That incredible cast!

22. Saving Mr. Banks

François Duhamel / Walt Disney Pictures

Release date: Dec. 13

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Emma Thompson), Best Actor or Supporting Actor (Tom Hanks), Best Original Screenplay (Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith), Best Director (John Lee Hancock)

Have we seen it? No

But… Walt Disney Pictures reaches back into its own history to tell the story of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) cajoled author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him make a feature film version of Travers' most beloved creation: magical nanny Mary Poppins. So many movies this awards season skew for adults that it could be a relief to have a family-friendly drama that also flatters one of Hollywood's best known pioneers.

23. Her

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Release date: Dec. 18

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Supporting Actress (Scarlett Johansson), Best Original Screenplay (Spike Jonze), Best Director (Spike Jonze)

Have we seen it? No

But… And now for something completely different: a romantic comedy, set in the near future, about an introverted man (Joaquin Phoenix) and the intelligent operating software he falls in love with (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Yet another topical movie! Wonders!

24. The Past

Carole Bethuel / Sony Pictures Classics

Release date: Dec. 25

Possible nominations: Best Actress (Bérénice Bejo), Best Original Screenplay (Asghar Farhadi and Massoumeh Lahidji)

Have we seen it? No

But… A major hit at Cannes, The Artist's Bérénice Bejo plays a French woman embroiled in a complicated divorce from her Iranian husband, winning her the Best Actress prize at the festival.

25. August: Osage County

Claire Folger / The Weinstein Company

Release date: Dec. 25

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep), Best Supporting Actress (Julianne Nicholson), Best Supporting Actor (Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch), Best Adapted Screenplay (Tracy Letts)

Have we seen it? Yes

And? The Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play by Tracy Letts is an electric piece of theater, but some at the Toronto Film Festival were turned off by the staginess of this big-screen adaptation. But my goodness, there is some meaty acting in this movie, no more so than from Meryl Streep as a pill-popping family matriarch and Julia Roberts as her equally formidable eldest daughter.

26. Labor Day

Dale Robinette / Paramount Pictures

Release date: Dec. 25

Possible nominations: Best Actress (Kate Winslet), Best Supporting Actor (Josh Brolin)

Have we seen it? Yes

And? After writer-director Jason Reitman's adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel played in Telluride and Toronto, I heard a lot of scoffing that this film is nothing more than a really well-made Nicholas Sparks film — and all of that scoffing was by men. The women I spoke with seemed to connect with this romantic fantasy of a depressed single mother (Kate Winslet) kidnapped with her barely pubescent son (Gattlin Griffith) by an escaped convict (Josh Brolin), only to discover he's the love of her life. Sure, there's nothing here that is particularly challenging, but not all satisfying movies need to push boundaries, and I suspect Winslet especially may still be part of the Best Actress conversation by the end of the year.

27. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Wilson Webb / 20th Century Fox

Release date: Dec. 25

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Ben Stiller), Best Supporting Actress (Kristen Wiig), Best Adapted Screenplay (Steve Conrad), Best Director (Ben Stiller)

Have we seen it? No

But… This is a swing-for-the-fences passion project for Ben Stiller, who produced and directed the adaptation of James Thurber's 1939 short story, and also stars as the titular office drone whose rich interior fantasy life is exploded when he goes off on a real adventure. Making drama, comedy, romance, and big-canvas fantasy set pieces all work together is one of the hardest targets to hit in filmmaking, but if Stiller nails it, sweet jeebus, this will be a For the Ages year for movies.

28. Lone Survivor

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Release date: Dec. 27

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Mark Wahlberg), Best Supporting Actor (Ben Foster), Best Adapted Screenplay (Peter Berg), Best Director (Peter Berg)

Have we seen it? No

But… Licking his considerable wounds from Battleship, writer-director Peter Berg regrouped for this entirely fact-based Afghanistan war story about a squad of Navy SEALs pinned down and overwhelmed by a much larger mass of Taliban warriors. The last scheduled release of the year, it could either come to the party far too late, or blow into the room at just the right moment to recapture everyone's attention.

UPDATE: The Weinstein Company moved Grace of Monaco to March 14, 2014, Sony Pictures Classics moved Foxcatcher to 2014 (specific date T.B.A.), and Sony Pictures moved Monuments Men to 2014 (specific date T.B.A.).

Photo credits for opening illustration: Sony Pictures Classics / Everett Collection; Claire Folger / Weinstein Company; Anne Marie Fox / Weinstein Company / Everett Collection; Twentieth Century Fox; Jasin Boland / Columbia Pictures; Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features; Mary Cybulski / Paramount Pictures; Warner Bros. Pictures; François Duhamel / Annapurna Productions

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