The Reel Breakdown

Contenders for Best Picture

The Reel Breakdown

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Photo: Focus Features/Warner Bros/Sony


Right now is the juicy moment when we can look at 25 contenders for Best Picture. From "The Dark Knight Rises" to "The Beasts of the Southern Wild," from "Argo" to "Amour," the movies range from epic to intimate, from comedy to tragedy. Between today, when there's so much promise and potential, and Sunday, February 24th, when we hear the phrase "and the Oscar goes to…" at the 85th Academy Awards, the group will narrow to a tightly competitive race. This is just the beginning of Yahoo! Movies' coverage of The Contenders, and we hope you enter into the spirit of the race, defending your favorites, and pulling down all false idols that get in their way. We hope you'll have as much fun as we do discussing the movies that we love, and those we love to hate. Like Bilbo Baggins of "The Hobbit," a potential contender, we're off on an Incredible (if not quite unexpected) Journey. Where will it lead?

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Photo: Universal Pictures

Les Miserables: "The King's Speech" director Tom Hooper has a song in his heart as he adapts the epic romantic musical, "Les Miserables." Hugh Jackman croons as Victor Hugo's ex-con Jean Valjean. Anne Hathaway sings the doomed Fantine. A Golden Globe winner for sure, but does it have the right Oscar stuff?

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Photo: The Weinstein Company

Silver Linings Playbook: Director David O. Russell ("The Fighter") delivers his most unabashedly crowd-pleasing, though still quirky, dramedy. Bradley Cooper stars as a bipolar teacher struggling toward normal following his wife's infidelity and his long stint in a mental institution. Then he meets a grieving widow (Jennifer Lawrence), and his life gradually turns around. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and even though I'm convinced that Lawrence deserves a best actress nomination for "The Hunger Games," she's bound to get one for her modern-day ditzy dame with "Dancing With the Stars" in her eyes.

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Photo: Warner Bros

Argo: Ben Affleck's third picture as a director is a humor-laced, fact-based drama about the daring rescue of six American foreign-service workers stranded in the house of the Canadian ambassador during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-80. Affleck plays a CIA extraction expert who pretends to be scouting locations for a cheesy Hollywood sci-fi film called "Argo" as a cover to remove the Americans posing as a film crew. For those who loved Affleck's "The Town" and "Gone, Baby, Gone," this third outing proves he has the right stuff.  And "Argo" has one more added plus: This is a movie where Hollywood schlock filmmakers save actual human lives. 'Nuff said.

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Photo: Touchstone Pictures

Lincoln: Call it the high-priced spread: Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg directs Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis in a script by Oscar-nominated Tony Kushner about our most beloved president. (P.S.: He fights to free the slaves.)

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Photo: 20th Century Fox

Life of Pi: Oscar-winner Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain") directs a daring 3D adaptation of Yann Martel's magical bestseller. It's the story of an Indian boy named Pi Patel (newcomer Suraj Sharma) shipwrecked on the Pacific Ocean en route to Canada with a tiger, an orangutan, a hyena, and a zebra. Irrfan Khan ("Slumdog Millionaire") plays the mature Pi.

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Photo: Sony Pictures

Zero Dark Thirty: The Oscar-winning team from "The Hurt Locker" — producer-director Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal — return for a behind-the-headlines action-drama about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the elite Navy Seal Team 6 that eliminated the Al-Qaeda leader in 2011. Last year's it girl Jessica Chastain ("The Help") stars, along with Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton.

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Photo: The Weinstein Company

The Master: Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood") returns with a top-shelf drama about a magnetic cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his steely wife (Amy Adams), and the whack-job WWII veteran who becomes his protégé (Joaquin Phoenix). The ambitious period movie made a big splash at the early autumn film festivals, winning three awards at the Venice Film Festival including a shared best actor for Phoenix and Hoffman. But, despite those shiveringly good performances, there's a nagging confusion about what it's really about deep down. Although there was controversy that "The Master" bared the roots of Scientology, it fails to connect the dots in any meaningful way. Still, it's visually stunning and insanely ambitious.

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Photo: Fox Searchlight

Beasts of the Southern Wild: The break-out Sundance hit from newcomer Benh Zeitlin is a tale of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) struggling to survive on the bayou during a storm of mythic proportions. The indie Oscar-bait movie has its staunch supporters and cynical detractors, but no one doubts Wallis's performance.

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

Flight: Director Robert Zemeckis returns to live-action filmmaking for the first time since "Cast Away" (2000) with this supercharged thriller. Denzel Washington stars as a pilot who makes a daring emergency landing — and then comes under intense scrutiny when it's revealed he was flying high (on alcohol). The drama made its world premiere as the closing-night film at the prestigious New York Film Festival.

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Photo: Focus Features

Anna Karenina: "Atonement" director Joe Wright and Keira Knightly reunite, adding playwright Tom Stoppard into the mix, in a vivid, fresh look at the story of a good Russian wife and mother (Knightly) who falls head over heels for Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and suffers the social consequences of cuckolding her austere aristocratic husband (Jude Law). It's period, tragic, star-encrusted, and based on a major work of literature: total Oscar-bait.  Knightly is also overdue for an award — I thought she deserved one for "A Dangerous Method," and here she couldn't be more different as a loving mother and lonely wife who tries but can't resist her bottled-up carnal passion.

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Photo: Warner Bros

Cloud Atlas: The Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer pulled together this ambitious — and critically divisive — adaptation of David Mitchell's 2004 bestseller. Multiple narratives set on the sea, in a post-apocalyptic island, and at a contemporary publishing house intertwine as individuals connect, and re-connect over time exploring the themes of slavery and the ways in which the victors rewrite the past. The movie pairs Halle Berry and Tom Hanks over centuries, multiple hairpieces, and across the barriers of gender and race — and an unrecognizable Hugh Grant even appears as a cannibal.

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The Weinstein Company

Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino returns following his hyperbolic historical WWII action movie, "Inglourious Basterds," to mess about with Civil War America. Freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz) confront white supremacists of various sadistic stripes (including Leonardo DiCaprio) to rescue Django's enslaved wife Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington). There will be blood — and blistering dialog.

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Photo: Focus Features

Moonrise Kingdom: Wes "Rushmore" Anderson returns triumphant with a slight story: Twelve-year-old outcasts Sam and Suzy run away from home and camp, respectively, on one of those adventures straight out of the children's novels Suzy pointedly schleps along. Their disappearance has a Rube Goldberg effect, as the eccentric inhabitants of their small New England island freak out searching for the adolescents in what promises to be "Lord of the Flies" fashion and becomes an episode of vintage tween Nick. The whole enterprise is elevated by the playful production design, art direction, and a cavalcade of stars, including Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, and Frances McDormand. "Moonrise Kingdom" suffers from suffocating nostalgia for a time of innocence that never was, but it is Anderson's most popular film to date and a box office hit.

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Photo: Warner Bros

The Dark Knight Rises: Christopher Nolan delivers another sharply realized Batman saga with Christian Bale wearing the black inside and out as he protects Gotham from beefy bad guy Bane (Tom Hardy). This is the kind of big-budget, high-grossing movie that tends to get dissed by the Academy, despite the opportunity to give props to 10 movies, including those that were the most popular and represent excellence in studio filmmaking.

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Photo: New Line Cinema

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Lord of Middle Earth movies Peter Jackson returns with the first of three films from the imagination of "The Lord of the Rings" author J. R. R. Tolkien. In this outing, a curiously curious hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), leaves his comfy home and joins a gaggle of dwarves to reclaim the treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug. A heap of LOTR stars, from Elijah Wood to Andy Serkis to Christopher Lee return to fanciful makeup, regular paychecks, and unadulterated fan adulation.

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Photo: Fox Searchlight

Hitchcock: The making of "Psycho" got a little tense in 1959 when Alfred Hitchcock (Sir Anthony Hopkins), wife Alma Reville (Dame Helen Mirren), and muse Janet Leigh (starlet Scarlett Johansson) collaborated on the classic psychological horror film. But, never fear, as this movie tells it, Alfred and Alma loved each other truly, madly, deeply. Or, as Alma says, "It's only a bloody movie." Very bloody!

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Photo: Focus Features

Hyde Park on Hudson: As told through the eyes of spinster Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), a fifth cousin turned secret lover to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (an astonishingly contained Bill Murray), this is a small but juicy chunk of presidential history. It's partially the story of the unconventional sleeping arrangements at the president's upstate New York mansion, upstaged by the state visit of that couple you know from "The King's Speech," King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). The royals arrive crown-in-hand to request American involvement in WWII, and end up surprised and charmed by their American cousins.

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Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Sessions: Oscar-nominee John Hawkes ("Winter's Bone") plays real-life polio victim and man in an iron lung Mark O'Brien at a critical time in the journalist/poet's history. O'Brien wants to experience sex before it's too late and turns to a surrogate (Helen Hunt) to get 'er done. Funny, touching, and fascinating, Hawkes nails the performance and turns this into one of those laughing and crying uplifting dramas that the Academy adores.

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Photo: Focus Features

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: It would be almost enough to put Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, and Penelope Wilton on a bare soundstage at Pinewood Studios and let them improv their way out. Even better to ship the lot to India, where they play unhappily retired and searching for love and closure and the whole damn thing at a ratty hotel. The surprise hit is a bundle of great performers knocking each other with generosity and spirit. Seniors rule!

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Photos: Open Road Pictures

End of Watch: Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena play cocky South Central Los Angeles policemen who run afoul of the Baja Cartel with disastrous results in "Training Day" writer David Ayer's bullet bromance. In a lighter moment, Gyllenhaal joked to Yahoo! Movies at the Toronto International Film Festival: "You mix a little 'Serpico' and a little 'Police Academy,' and you get 'End of Watch.'"

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Photo: Summit Pictures

The Impossible: The antithesis of what you want on a family vacation: Couple Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) head to Thailand for the Christmas holidays with the kids — in 2004. Relaxing at poolside morphs into confronting the giant tsunami and coping with a family splintered by natural disaster. Would it have been possible for them to go to Disneyworld like the rest of us?

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Photo: Universal Pictures

This Is 40: Writer-director Judd Apatow's sequel to "Knocked Up" catches up with Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann) a few years later. Mouthy children, angry spouses, and flab: Marriage is not funny. Or is it? Best addition: Albert Brooks as Pete's father.

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Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Rust and Bone: Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard stars as a restless whale wrangler at French Marineland. I'm not making this up. One day, the act goes awry, the Orca chomps her legs, and she faces a sobering future. When she meets a handsome boxer who doesn't flinch at her disability, her life gradually improves. It's not France's entry for best picture, but it plays well with audiences, and Cotillard, familiar with American audiences after "The Dark Knight Rises," nails the role.

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Photo: IFC Films

On the Road: Excuse me if I don't share a Jack Kerouac fixation, but here's Walter ("The Motorcycle Diaries") Salles's adaptation of Jack's classic beat novel with Sam Riley as writer Sal Paradise and Gerrett Hedlund as free-spirited Dead Moriarty. As Moriarty's wife Marylou, Kirsten Stewart is along for the ride and absolutely nothing supernatural happens to her. It premiered at Cannes last spring where Salles was nominated for the Palme d'Or but got beat — by Michael Haneke for "Amour."

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Photo: Sony Picture Classics

Amour: The toughest non-disaster film you'll ever see. Michael Haneke's French-language relentless portrait of a long-married Parisian couple coping with the wife's stroke and its debilitating aftermath features major performances by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean Louis Trintignant. The film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

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