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Holiday movie guide: top 10 award contenders (and 5 just for fun)

This year could end right now and still inspire a respectable Top 10 list of movies. But there's one final Hollywood formality: the annual holiday rush of new releases, many produced with Academy Awards and Golden Globes in mind.

After all, what's a movie awards season without Meryl Streep, Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers in contention? They all have movies primed for posterity, debuting during a busy stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve when Hollywood trots out some of its finest work.

Friday's wide release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (review, Page 5W) is only the beginning of the stampede.

This year's homestretch rush is a bit more frantic than usual, with voting for Oscar nominations beginning Dec. 27. This year's balloting time line has been altered to dodge conflicts for attention with the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympic Games.

These final 10 contenders are getting in under the wire, opening in New York and Los Angeles for qualifying runs before 2013 ends. A few latecomers, like Spike Jonze's Her and the true-war story Lone Survivor, won't open nationally until January, as studios attempt to build momentum toward the Oscars broadcast on March 2.

Just for fun, we'll toss in five upcoming movies without major Oscar buzz — sorry, Ron Burgundy — but with crowd-pleasing potential.

As always, opening dates are subject to change, if a studio believes there's an extra dollar or prize to be grabbed by such moves. Watch your wallets while voters mark their ballots, and happy holidays.

Dec. 18

American Hustle

Director David O. Russell rounded up stars from his previous Academy Award winners Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter for a caper loosely based on the Abscam political scandal that was wackier than Watergate. It's all about the '70s hair: Christian Bale plays a comb-over con man helping tight-permed FBI agent Bradley Cooper trap corrupt politicians to a disco beat. Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams play it piled high and tressed down, respectively, as the game's dames, smarter than they appear.

Dec. 20

Inside Llewyn Davis

Don't worry if bumming around with a Greenwich Village folk singer in 1961 seems like an odd idea for a movie. Few filmmakers make odd wonderful as often as Joel and Ethan Coen, especially when music's involved and T Bone Burnett handles it. Oscar Isaac plays the title role, inspired by the life and music of Dave Van Ronk, whose talent and career were eclipsed by a contemporary named Bob Dylan. Carey Mulligan is Llewyn's angry ex-singing partner, who's living with Justin Timberlake, flipping his script to folkie.

Saving Mr. Banks

Movies about making movies are catnip to Academy Award voters, as proved by the past two best pictures winners, The Artist and Argo. This one is especially intoxicating: Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as Walt Disney, charming away the stuffy reluctance of author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to turn her Mary Poppins character into a movie. "Mr. Banks" is the magical nanny's employer, based on the author's father (Colin Farrell), whose salvation she demands to be included in the screenplay. So, it's not another Private Ryan mission for Hanks.

Dec. 25

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Movies about Nelson Mandela typically focus on portions of his monumental life. This one attempts to cram most of his 95 years into just over two hours. The role and all its gravitas go to Idris Elba, a towering presence even in his silly turns like the Thor flicks. Naomie Harris (Skyfall) plays Winnie Mandela, the woman beside the man throughout his protest against South African apartheid, his imprisonment and presidency. It's unlikely the film will woo holiday moviegoers but awards voters will take notice.

August: Osage County

Distant-by-choice relatives converge on an Oklahoma home for a funeral turned dysfunctional family reunion. Meryl Streep can already chalk up her 18th Oscar nomination just for being here, riding emotional roughshod over daughters Julia Roberts and Juliette Lewis. The setup suggests a Terms of Endearment vibe but Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Tracy Letts isn't the tinkly piano type. Or didn't Meryl and Julia notice what women were subjected to in Killer Joe and Bug?

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Despite ravishing trailers, this long-gestating remake of James Thurber's short story has nearly as many obstacles as its hero to overcome. First of all, the name "Walter Mitty" doesn't mean anything to young moviegoers driving the box office (and don't even bring up Danny Kaye). Second, the job of directing this sentimental journey, and portraying this ultimate daydreamer, fell to Ben Stiller, who's out of his subversive element. On the plus side: Kristen Wiig is along for the CGI ride.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Paramount delayed this release for six weeks, not for awards season positioning but for Martin Scorsese to trim 15 minutes from a director's cut considered too long and leaning toward an NC-17 rating. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jordan Belfort, a real-life stocks swindler whose illegal excesses bring out the GoodFellas in Scorsese, judging by the propulsive trailers. Jonah Hill is the cautious angel on one of Jordan's shoulders and Matthew McConaughey is the devil on the other.

NEW YEAR OPENINGS ELIGIBLE THIS YEAR

Jan. 10

Her

Director Spike Jonze took viewers inside John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are. Now he gets serious about Siri, or at least the notion of personalized artificial intelligence at our fingertips. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a socially inept man developing romantic feelings for his operating system assistant Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johanss on). It sounds like the best Charlie Kaufman idea that Kaufman didn't have, and another chance for Phoenix to reclaim audience respect he nearly pranked away.

Lone Survivor

The title is a spoiler, and Mark Wahlberg's casting ensures he's the last man standing after a failed Navy SEAL team operation to kill a Taliban leader. It's a true story in the gung-ho holiday movie tradition of Black Hawk Down and Zero Dark Thirty, harrowing military dramas that became awards season players. Director Peter Berg hopes to recoup some of the action movie street cred he lost on Battleship.

Jan. 31

Labor Day

Audiences at the Telluride Film Festival were generally underwhelmed by director Jason Reitman's latest, based on Joyce Maynard's novel about a willing hostage. Kate Winslet plays a depressed single mother assisting and falling in love with an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) who invaded her home. But he's great with her son! Reitman seems to be treading Madison County waters here, but after sharply drawn behavioral studies like Juno and Up in the Air, we'll cut him some slack.

FIVE JUST FOR FUN

Not all holiday movies have awards foremost in mind. These five releases will likely sell more tickets, anyway.

Dec. 13

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Now that we're resigned to the fact that Peter Jackson's second J.R.R. Tolkien saga won't equal his first, maybe the pretty pictures will seem more impressive. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) lead those tedious dwarves against the dragon, Smaug, attempting to recapture their homeland. Notice there's no hype about Jackson using a revolutionary 48-frames-per-second film speed this time around. Too many motion sickness complaints.

Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas

The title says it all: one huge ego wrapped in drag and wrecking holiday tradition. Perry plops his most profitable creation into rural America, where Madea's sassy wisecracks find new targets like Larry the Cable Guy and the white dude living with her friend's daughter. Where schoolkids haven't learned about the virgin Mary J. Blige. Honest, that's a joke in the trailer, so it must be one of the funniest gags in the movie.

Dec. 20

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

The holidays feature movies about Nelson Mandela, Walt Disney and now the greatest human being ever: San Diego newsman, 1970s fashion plate and jazz flutist supreme Ron Burgundy. Will Ferrell packs up the Channel 4 loonies (including Steve Carell and Paul Rudd) and moves to New York, where a 24-hour news channel is being born, or as Ron might say, entering the canal of birth. The original Anchorman gets funnier with each viewing. We urge this one to stay classy.

Walking With Dinosaurs

Only one movie this holiday season has dinosaurs, although it's fun imagining The T. rex of Wall Street, or Saving Mr. Banks with Brachiosauruses. This BBC co-production boasts incredibly lifelike CGI rendering of Cretaceous-era creatures and a plot stomping the thin line between NatGeo edu-tainment and childish pastimes like The Land Before Time. But it has dinosaurs, so just try keeping the kids away.

Dec. 25

Grudge Match

This isn't officially the boxing match between Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta that fight movie aficionados fantasize about but it'll do. Italian stallion Sylvester Stallone and raging bull Robert De Niro lace up the gloves one more time with easy paychecks on the line. Yes, it's a comedy, with the aging fighters rekindling their rivalry first in a video game then for real. Alan Arkin co-stars, just to make Stallone and De Niro appear younger.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.

Holiday movie guide: top 10 award contenders (and 5 just for fun) 11/20/13 [Last modified: Thursday, November 21, 2013 12:40pm]

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