Unlike most recent years, I've been lucky so far this awards season to have actually been able to see a couple of the bigger Oscar-contending films. So far, they haven't disappointed -- I've awarded 4-star ratings to both Ben Affleck-directed "Argo" and Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."
Of course, there are still a number of potential prize winners out there that I haven't had a chance to view, mostly because they still are not in wide release. Here are just a few upcoming releases (and one title that just came to home video) that I'm already planning to buy a ticket to see.
"Django Unchained." Quentin Tarantino is an undeniably forceful and gifted filmmaker. His clear passion for movies of almost all stripes (but particularly those just beyond the pale) often leads him to produce eye-popping -- and occasionally eye-rolling -- epics. "Django Unchained," his (apparent) spin on the "spaghetti Western," stars Jamie Foxx as a former slave-turned-bounty hunter who, along with his mentor (played by Christoph Waltz), cuts a violent swath through the South trying to locate and rescue his wife (Kerry Washington), who is being kept by a sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). I'm always genuinely intrigued by what Tarantino has to offer, at least at the outset, and few modern writer-directors have such a rich storytelling sensibility.
"Zero Dark Thirty." From the Oscar-winning director and writer of "The Hurt Locker" (Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, respectively) comes the inside story of the ten-year-long hunt for -- and the eventual killing of -- Osama bin Laden. A movie that was steeped in controversy before a single frame had been shot, it's now receiving major applause, even though there are rumbles from many critics (even ones who are saluting the movie) that the film favors the U.S. intelligence community's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques." Bigelow has long been a favorite director of mine; she has a way of producing clear-eyed views of tough, touchy subject matter. I can't think of another filmmaker I'd trust more with this kind of movie.
"Silver Linings Playbook." The movie that beat "Argo" for Best Picture at the Toronto Film Festival a few months ago has continued its strong showing. Now its on a bunch of critics' year-end lists and pulling in prizes for actors Bradley Cooper (who is being hailed for breaking away from his "Hangover" hangover) and Robert DeNiro (who has his best role in many, many moons, according to those in the know). At his best, David O. Russell -- the screenwriter and director of the movie -- tells involving stories about off-beat characters, and this one looks like Russell at his peak.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild." There are usually a few very small-budget independent films that are among award season favorites, and this year, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" looks to be their bell-cow. Made with a mostly amateur cast, led by Quvenzhané Wallis (who was all of 6 years old when the movie was shot), the story of a young girl growing up in an impoverished Louisiana delta community has picked up prizes from Sundance to Cannes. The trailer indicates this is a movie of rich imagery (particularly for a film made on a shoestring), and the reviews I've seen indicate that the script and performances are equally strong. This is now available for at-home viewing, and I'm looking forward to checking it out.