By Stephen Stuart

The fall film festival circuit begins with the 39th annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this September 4, 2014 – September 14, 2014, offering a first indication of the upcoming awards season’s major contenders. From period dramas to biopics, sci-fi flicks and dark comedies, if buzz is any indication, these films should top your early awards season watch list as you gear up for the 72nd Annual Golden Globe® Awards on January 11, 2015, and the 87th Academy Awards on February 22, 2015, televised by NBC and ABC respectively.

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Film: The Imitation Game
Director: Morten Tyldum
Movie Company: The Weinstein Company
Release Date: November 21, 2014
Cast:
Benedict Cumberbatch
Kiera Knightley
Matthew Goode
Mark Strong

Why it’s a Contender:
Benedict Cumberbatch (“War Horse,” “12 Years a Slave”) delves into the life of troubled genius Alan Turing, the British mathematician who helped hasten the end of World War II by cracking Germany’s codes, but who was later prosecuted for homosexuality, then illegal in the U.K. Cumberbatch stars alongside Keira Knightley (“Atonement,” “Pride & Prejudice”), playing Joan Clarke – one of Turning’s co-workers after WWII who eventually becomes his fiancée. The film won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF – often a predictor of Academy Award success.


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Film: Foxcatcher
Director: Bennett Miller
Release Date: November 14, 2014
Movie Company: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Steve Carell
Channing Tatum
Mark Ruffalo

Why it’s a Contender:
This star-studded true-life character study has been cemented as an Oscar contender at its Cannes coronation, where it was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or and earned Bennett Miller the Best Director prize. Starring an against-type Steve Carell (“The Way Way Back,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Crazy Stupid Love”) as a schizophrenic millionaire, John du Pont, who takes a toxic interest in the life of troubled Olympic wrestler, Mark Schultz, portrayed by box-office champ Channing Tatum (“21 Jump Street,” “The Vow”).


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Film: St. Vincent

Director: Theodore Melfi
Release Date: October 24, 2014
Movie Company:
The Weinstein Company
Cast:
Bill Murray
Melissa McCarthy
Chris O’Dowd
Scott Adsit
Naomi Watts

Why it’s a Contender:
Beloved comic actor Bill Murray looks to be at his best in this hilarious film which had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Murray plays a grizzled alcoholic retiree who is forced to endure the company of a 12-year-old boy who moves in next door and we follow their evolving unlikely friendship. He clashes with the single mom, played by Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”), and tolerates the company of few, apart from a pregnant Russian stripper, played by Naomi Watts (“The Impossible,” “King Kong”).


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Film: The Theory of Everything
Director: James Marsh
Release Date: 7 November, 2014
Movie Company: Focus Features;
Universal Pictures
Cast:
Eddie Redmayne
Felicity Jones
Charlie Cox
Emily Watson
Simon McBurneys
David Thewlis

Why it’s a Contender:
Eddie Redmayne, who sang his heart out in Les Misérables, plays a young Dr. Stephen Hawking, fighting his fatal diagnosis of an illness he is diagnosed with during his years as a cosmology student at Cambridge in the 1960s. This biographical drama directed by James Marsh is likely to pack a powerful emotional punch as it portrays Hawking’s loyal love for fellow student, Jane Wilde, played by Felicity Jones
(“Like Crazy”).


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Film: Still Alice
Directors: Wash Westmoreland
Release Date: 2015
Movie Company:
Sony Pictures Classics
Cast:
Julianne Moore
Alec Baldwin
Kristen Stewart
Kate Bosworth

Why it’s a Contender:
Still Alice centers on Julianne Moore (“The Hunger Games,” “The English Teacher”) as Alice Howland, an accomplished professor who early in the film experiences troubling neurological symptoms. Soon her doctor has diagnosed her with early-onset Alzheimer’s and the film follows her struggling to preserve as much of her life as she can. Most striking about the film is Moore’s performance, which, after premiering at TIFF, has been touted as being in a Best Actress Oscar race up against Reece Witherspoon in “Wild”.


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Film: Wild
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Release Date:
December 5, 2014
Movie Company:
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Cast:
Reese Witherspoon
Laura Dern
Thomas Sadoski

Why it’s a Contender:
Based on the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, the film follows Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line,” “Mud”) hiking from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995, trying to put her life together in the wake of a series of tragedies. Having already premiered to great reviews in Telluride, particularly in regards to Witherspoon’s compelling performance, the film also got a rousing response at the Toronto Film Festival.


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Film: Unbroken
Director: Angelina Jolie
Release Date: December 25, 2014
Movie Company: Legendary Pictures
Cast:
Jack O’Connell
Garrett Hedlund
Domhnall Gleeson
Jai Courtney
Miyavi

Why it’s a Contender:
Based on the 2010 non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, the film revolves around the life of former Olympic track star, Louis “Louie” Zamperini (1917 – 2014), who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II after spending 47 days drifting on a raft in the Pacific Ocean. Academy Award winning actress, turned director, Angelina Jolie also produced this epic drama.


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Film: Gone Girl
Director: David Fincher
Release Date: October 3, 2014
Movie Company: 20th Century Fox
Cast:
Ben Affleck
Rosmund Pike
Neil Patrick Harris

Why it’s a Contender:
Adapted from Gillian Flynn’s best-selling thriller novel and directed by David Fincher (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), Gone Girl sees Ben Affleck (“Argo,” “Pearl Harbor”) portray former journalist Nick Dunne and Rosamund Pike (“Jack Reacher,” “Pride & Prejudice”) play his resentful wife Amy. The film follows the couple’s marriage breakdown that leads to the disappearance of Amy, with Nick implicated in her apparent murder.


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Film: Birdman
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez
Release Date: October 17, 2014
Movie Company:
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Cast:
Michael Keaton
Zach Galifianakis
Edward Norton
Emma Stone
Naomi Watts
Andrea Riseborough
Amy Ryan

Why it’s a Contender:
Michael Keaton (“Batman,” “Batman Returns”) plays a washed-up actor famous for playing an iconic superhero who must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory. Both Edward Norton (“Moonrise Kingdom”, “Fight Club”) and Emma Stone (“Magic in the Moonlight,” “The Amazing Spiderman”) have also played iconic comic book characters and struggle alongside Keaton with self-realization and love. The film was selected as the opening film at the 71st Venice International Film Festival.


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Film: Boyhood
Director: Richard Linklater
Release Date: July 11, 2014
Movie Company: IFC Films
Cast:
Ellar Coltraine
Patricia Arquette
Ethan Hawke
Lorelei Linklater

Why it’s a Contender:
Filmed over 12 years, with the same primary cast, Boyhood follows the life of a boy, Mason, in Texas, from childhood through adolescence. Mason naturally ages on screen – he makes and loses friends, endures his parents’ divorce, and falls in love. Linklater uses cultural references such as iconic songs and Television programs from the past decade, which audience members can recognize and relate to, which help denote the passing of time. It takes a visionary artist to conceptualize and execute a project of this scale – and he is sure to be recognized for it this awards season.

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