Still reeling from the surprises of last year’s Academy season—Tom Hanks denied an Oscar nom for Captain Phillips? The PGA splitting its best pic win between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave?—awards prognosticators are not helped by the variety and volume of contenders this year. We already know that there are too many lead actor possibilities for the category’s paltry five slots. Several potential best pictures barely have offered a peek under the hood, while others took a chance by unveiling themselves early during the fall film festivals. There are no true frontrunners in any category, unlike last year, when Cate Blanchett had all but locked her best actress Oscar statuette for Blue Jasmine by the summer. All of which means we’re looking at a topsy-turvy, thrill ride of a season.
20th Century Fox
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell
Directed by Matt Reeves
The simians are now talking and running the show in this latest installment of the Apes franchise. The film has been lauded for its special effects—including the masterwork of motion capture genius Serkis, who brings alpha ape Caesar to life once again.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul
Directed by Ridley Scott
The effects-laden Exodus looks to be an upgrade from Scott’s other sandals and swords film, Gladiator, which nabbed five Oscars in 2001, including best picture. Holding their own against such larger than life scenes as the parting of the Red Sea, Bale (as Moses) and Edgerton (as Ramses) act big in this one.
Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry
Directed by David Fincher
Fincher adds his green-hued, eerie touch to this marriage noir tale that came from the twisted mind of best-selling author Gillian Flynn. Affleck, Pike and even Perry give standout performances in this well-paced, suspenseful drama.
The Fault in Our Stars
Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort
Directed by Josh Boone
This three-hanky young adult drama was a summer hit, with much of the praise going to standout performances by Woodley and Elgort, who portray cancer-stricken teens who fall in love. They elevate what otherwise would have been a downer of a movie to be this generation’s Love Story.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Starring Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler
Directed by Dean DeBlois
This follow-up to the beloved 2010 film managed to escape sequel-itis—not only at the box office, where it’s racked up more than $600 million worldwide—but among viewers, who love this world where Vikings and dragons coexist.
Kill the Messenger
Starring Jeremy Renner, Robert Patrick, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Directed by Michael Cuesta
This true-life story is about journalist Gary Webb’s uncovering of a CIA plot to help fund the Nicaraguan Contras by importing drugs into the U.S. Renner, who portrays Webb, also is a producer on the film.
Starring Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Jared Harris, Isaac Hempstead-Wright
Directed by Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi
Focus is back in the animation game—following its success with the Oscar-nominated Coraline and ParaNorman—with this stop-motion caper about a group of underground creatures (who dress in boxes) and the orphaned boy they helped raise.
The Theory of Everything
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones
Directed by James Marsh
This touching biopic about the early relationship of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and his indomitable wife Jane was rapturously received at the Toronto International Film Festival. Will the love continue when the film bows on November 7?
Starring Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone
Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu
There is no film like Birdman this year. The tale—about an ex-superhero actor trying to reinvent himself on Broadway—is told in one, long uninterrupted take. There’s even a little fantasy to go along with the film’s acting pyrotechnics, making for one crazy, enjoyable ride.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law
Directed by Wes Anderson
The whimsical, wacky world of Wes Anderson—those sets, those costumes, those characters—continues to delight in this caper about a hotel concierge and his new lobby boy in 1930s Europe.
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Wild chronicles the literal and figurative journey of a desperate woman—played by Witherspoon, in one of her best roles since Walk the Line—who hikes the Pacific Crest Trail in an effort to reclaim her life after years of being reckless.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater
Directed by Richard Linklater
A coming-of-age story to top all coming-of-age stories, Boyhood is the film with the biggest momentum mojo, riding a wave of positive praise that started at Sundance last January and has carried it through over a dozen film festivals and a summer domestic bow.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
Directed by Christopher Nolan
A group of explorers is tasked with traveling through space to find a habitable planet for humans after Earth becomes unsustainable. This sci-fi film has a lot of heart, thanks to the emotional performances of McConaughey, Hathaway and Chastain.
Men, Women & Children
Starring Jennifer Garner, Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort, Judy Greer
Directed by Jason Reitman
The ensemble cast of grown-ups and teenagers masterfully captures the raw and ruthless ways in which technology tests people’s abilities to communicate and connect—life interrupted by high-resolution screens and gadgets.
Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Even Aronofsky admitted this biblical epic was an odd choice for his follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Black Swan, but he pulled off the scale and scope of this film, aided by some stellar visual effects and by Crowe’s complex portrayal of Noah.
Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Oprah Winfrey
Directed by Ava DuVernay
This biopic focuses on just three months in the life of Martin Luther King Jr., when he marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama for voting rights in 1965. The film has stellar backing in Winfrey and recent Oscar-winning producer Brad Pitt.
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Jessica Lange
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
In this remake of the 1974 drama that starred James Caan, a whittled-down Wahlberg plays a literature professor with a gambling problem, who gets into trouble when he borrows money from the wrong people. Larson is the student who tries to save him.
Starring Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson
Directed by Chris Rock
Rock wrote, directed and stars in this all-too-familiar tale of a comedian trying to make it as a serious actor. The feedback from Toronto, where the film made news when it sold for $12 million, was that this is Rock’s best, and funniest, work.
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Nicola Peltz
Directed by Michael Bay
Say what you will about the storyline of this fourth in the autobots franchise, but it’s earned more than $1 billion—that’s with a b—in worldwide box office. It’s a lead contender in the sound and effects categories.
Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Logan Lerman
Directed by David Ayer
Pitt leads a five-man tank crew on a rescue mission behind enemy lines in this unvarnished look at the toll World War II had on the hardest of soldiers. This movie isn’t for the faint of heart.
Sony Pictures Classics
Starring Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
Directed by Bennett Miller
Miller yet again draws brilliant performances from his actors in this dark and disturbing true-life tale of a pair of Olympic medal-winning wrestling brothers who find themselves in a bizarre training arrangement with a troubled heir.
Starring Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson
Directed by Mike Leigh
Spall brings to life the eclectic British painter J.M.W. Turner in Leigh’s quiet study of an artist consumed by his craft. Alexander Pope’s cinematography adds a painterly touch to this biopic.
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
Directed by Damien Chazelle
This Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner is the story of a jazz drummer who endures the cruel tutelage of a conservatory instructor. Both Teller and Simmons have been praised for their knockout performances.
Get On Up
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Dan Aykroyd
Directed by Tate Taylor
Boseman fully inhabits James Brown in this foot-stomping biopic about the soul singer’s rise from poverty to stardom. Taylor has been praised for approximating on film the energy of what Brown did in his music.
Starring Jack O’Connell, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund
Directed by Angelina Jolie
Talk about the pedigree on this one. Not only did Jolie direct, but the Coen brothers adapted Laura Hillenbrand’s best-seller, about Olympic runner Louis Zamperini’s survival of a crash during World War II and two-and-a-half years at a Japanese prison camp.
Walt Disney Pictures
Big Hero 6
Starring Ryan Potter, T.J. Miller, Genesis Rodriguez, Jamie Chung
Directed by Don Hall, Chris Williams
Disney is following up its Oscar-winning Frozen with this comedic tale of the friendship between inflatable robot Baymax and a young prodigy. It’s the first Marvel comic to get the animated treatment at Disney.
Into the Woods
Starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden
Directed by Rob Marshall
Marshall has returned to his musical roots—he was Oscar nominated for his film adaptation of Chicago in 2003—with this modern retelling of Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Streep gives yet another stunning turn as the witch who wreaks havoc on several characters’ lives.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Directed by Clint Eastwood
On the heels of summer’s Jersey Boys, Eastwood managed to put finishing touches on this heart-stopping, true-life story of Chris Kyle, one of the deadliest snipers in U.S. military history. It’s a passion project for Cooper, who also serves as a producer on the film.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
This wacky, ’70s-era caper follows private detective Doc Sportello as he searches for his ex-girlfriend’s missing real estate mogul lover. The plot is as twisted as the performances by Phoenix and Brolin.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Freeman, Ian McKellan, Benedict Cumberbatch
Directed by Peter Jackson
This third and final installment of The Hobbit series finds Bilbo Baggins and company once again fighting to save Middle-Earth. The film’s climax is an epic, 45-minute battle between the titular armies of orcs, elves, dwarves, humans and eagles.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio
Directed by David Dobkin
Downey Jr. takes a dramatic turn as a hotshot lawyer who returns home to defend his estranged father against murder charges. This one’s full of fiery courtroom scenes and an unshakeable performance by Duvall.
The Lego Movie
Starring Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell
Directed by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Pratt voices the everyman hero in this unique film about the battle between good and evil forces in the LEGO universe. Intentionally made to look stop-motion, this CGI-animated film features a crazy cast of LEGO characters, including Batman, Abraham Lincoln and Shaquille O’Neal.
The Weinstein Company
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightly, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine
Directed by John Carney
This is a music lover’s delight of a movie about a disgraced recording exec who sees a glimmer of hope in a down-on-her-luck singer-songwriter. The pair collaborate on a catchy album that is a love letter to New York City in the summer.
Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz
Directed by Tim Burton
Adams and Waltz shine as the painter Margaret Keane—she of the saucer-eyed portraits—and her scheming husband Walter, who takes credit for her work. This is a tamped down, Ed Wood-type Burton biopic.
Keep On Keepin’ On
Directed by Alan Hicks
For four years Hicks captured the unlikely friendship between famed jazz trumpeter Clark Terry and blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin in this moving documentary. Their story is one about the healing and binding power of music.
Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Bill Murray is back to his Lost in Translation, Oscar-nominated form as an unlikely mentor to a young man whose parents recently divorced. Melfi has been praised for his feature-length, feel-good-movie debut.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Starring Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy
Directed by Ned Benson
Originally told in two parts—separate movies, actually—this love story recounts how a young, promising marriage unravels. Firsttime director Benson has been noted for his inventive storytelling approach of tying together both male and female perspectives.
The Imitation Game
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightly, Matthew Goode
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Cumberbatch leads a stellar ensemble cast in this true-life story of code breaker Alan Turing, who was vilified for being gay not long after he was instrumental in ending World War II by cracking Germany’s Enigma machine.
Illustration of Benedict Cumberbatch by Agata Marszalek