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2015 Oscars: Looking ahead with 15 films to watch for the 2015 Oscars

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Once one awards season ends, another one begins! The winners from last night's 86th Academy Awards can bask in the glow of immortality for a while. Meanwhile, business in Hollywood will quickly shift and move on to the 87th Academy Awards that will happen in February or March of 2015. After all, we are already over two months into the 2014 calendar year for movies. Before the year of 2014 is out, we will soon learn and adopt another crop of competitive films to equally revere and nit-pick, just as we did with "Gravity," "American Hustle," "12 Years a Slave," and the other top films from 2013.

Last year, I wrote this very same column the day after the 85th Oscars and keenly predicted many of the films that were in play during last night's awards. I'm going to try to do a little deep gazing into the crystal ball for 2014. Here are 15 films to watch for the 2015 Oscars. I'm not including the big-name blockbusters that will surely sweep into some technical and artistic awards. I'm zeroing out the ones that have Best Picture-level possibility and pedigree. I will list them in order of anticipated release date. As always, and we just witnessed this with "The Monuments Men" last year and "The Great Gatsby" before that, release dates shift all the time.

1. "Whiplash"-- Every year, at least one dark horse Oscar contender makes a splash at Sundance Film Festival held in January. Last year, the best reviewed films from the festival were "Fruitvale Station," which fell short of Oscar credit, and "Before Midnight" which was up for Best Adapted Screenplay last night. This year's festival winner for U.S. Grand Jury Prize-Dramatic was "Whiplash" starring up-and-coming actor Miles Teller of "The Spectacular Now." The film follows a struggling jazz drummer played by Teller. It's adornment of the festival's top honor puts it on this list. (Sundance interview) (no release date yet)

2. "A Most Wanted Man"-- One more film that premiered at Sundance that will make its way into the awards race is one of the last works of Philip Seymour Hoffman. The late actor plays the lead in a John le Carre spy novel thriller adaptation directed by Anton Corbjin ("The American") alongside a cast including Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, and Willem Dafore. Expect the intrigue into Hoffman to push this one forward. (clip) (no release date yet)

3. "Magic in the Moonlight"-- Lately, everything Woody Allen touches turns himself and a few actors and actresses into Oscar contenders. Just look at "Midnight in Paris" and Cate Blanchett from "Blue Jasmine" last night. His latest film doesn't have a release date, but Oscar winner Colin Firth and starlet Emma Stone are the leads in a film set in the 1920's French Riviera. Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver are in the cast as well. That sounds like an easy Oscar recipe to me. The presence of Firth alone elevates the usual Woody Allen street cred, which, as we've heard is a little damaged right now. (image montage) (no release date yet)

4. "The Grand Budapest Hotel"-- Eclectic director Wes Anderson scored the biggest hit and critical darling of the year his last time out with "Moonrise Kingdom," a film that made my year-end "10 Best" for 2012. This very weekend, he's back with Ralph Fiennes leading an all-star cast of quirk-sters in a hotel murder mystery comedy. Put Anderson down now as a shoe-in for Best Original Screenplay. (trailer) (March 7)

5. "Serena"-- Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are set to co-star for a third time in three years with "Serena" from director Susanne Bier ("Brothers"). As different as "Silver Linings Playbook" was to "American Hustle," the duo changes it up again with a Depression-era period piece about a rocky marriage and business for a North Carolina lumber magnate. Until their mutual hot streak ends, their films are going to make this list of Oscar possibilities. (image montage) (April)

6. "Gone Girl"-- The 2012 domestic murder mystery best-seller from author Gillian Flynn gets adapted by Flynn herself into a major motion picture directed by David Fincher and starring Ben Affleck. Fincher's resume ("Se7en," "Fight Club," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Social Network," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") speaks for itself and Ben Affleck is white hot in this kind of award-worthy efforts. I'm ready to guarantee this film's place in the final group of Best Picture nominees right now. (behind-the-scenes montage) (October 3)

7. "Get on Up"-- The music biography films have always seemed to steal a few Oscar nominations, whether it's "Ray" or "Walk the Line" in recent years. "42" star Chadwick Boseman stars as James Brown in this film from Tate Taylor, the director of "The Help." Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer re-team with Taylor here as well. Give this film a shot if it's done right. (movie news) (October 17)

8. "Insterstellar"-- Christopher Nolan, for me, is like David Fincher. He is one of those directors who can do no wrong in my eyes. His films are always challenging and extremely well done. Slowly, but surely, he's been getting the awards respect he deserves. Comic book films like "The Dark Knight" series weren't enough, but "Inception" made him a contender. Teaming with newly-minted Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain for a tight-lipped space epic might just make "Insterstellar" the "Gravity" of 2014, but hopefully even better. (teaser trailer) (November 7)

9. "Fury"-- The combination of first-time Oscar winner (as a producer last night for "12 Years a Slave") Brad Pitt and World War II brought awards attention to Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" a few years ago. Maybe his luck strikes twice with "Fury," from the director of "End of Watch," David Ayer. This film follows a tank crew during the last days of the war comprised of Pitt, Shia LeBouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Scott Eastwood, and Xavier Samuels. (behind-the-scenes montage) (November 14)

10. "Exodus"-- Between the two big 2014 Bible-inspired hits, this March's "Noah" and the upcoming "Exodus" from director Ridley Scott, I give "Exodus" a great chance of success, but not by much. Both films have directors of pedigree ("Black Swan"'s Darren Aronofsky for "Noah" and Ridley Scott here) and stud Oscar-winning lead actors (Russell Crowe in "Noah" and Christian Bale for "Exodus"), but something just doesn't smell right with "Noah" and it's bad press so far. I give Scott and Bale the better odds to do something award-worthy in the tale of Moses. (first look) (December 12)

11. "Inherent Vice"-- In continuing the trend of Oscar voters' favorite directors, Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," and "There Will Be Blood") makes that list. He and Joaquin Phoenix struck out with "The Master" (and rightfully so), but they are back together for a gumshoe dark comedy about a private investigator looking into the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. P.T. Anderson always gets a game cast and does so again with Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reece Witherspoon, Jean Malone, Benecio del Toro, Maya Rudolph, Katherine Waterston, and Martin Short behind Phoenix. Expect a few acting nods to possibly come from here with the potential for Best Picture as well. (set video) (December 12)

12. "The Hobbit: There and Back Again"-- I know I said I would leave off the obvious epics, but the last time Peter Jackson finished an epic trilogy with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," the film swept all 11 Oscars it was nominated for and tied the record for most Oscar wins for one film with "Ben-Hur" and "Titanic." Oscar waited for the final chapter last time, and there's no reason Jackson can't attempt that again with a show-stopping finale for this prequel trilogy. This "Hobbit" trilogy hasn't been as highly regarded as the first series, but a big finish could change that. (cast interviews) (December 19)

13. "Into the Woods"-- "Chicago" director Rob Marshall gets the call from Disney to deliver a film version of the hit Broadway fantasy musical. The Mouse House is sparing no expense with Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, and Anna Kendrick. It definitely says a little something if the great Meryl is willing to take on a Disney flick, elevating it from just another live-action farce like "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and etc. If it's a big hit, it could cross over from the technical categories to an audience favorite for bigger Oscars. (behind-the-scenes footage) (December 25)

14. "Unbroken"-- Of all the films on this list, here's my pick as the advance Best Picture favorite and frontrunner. Angelina Jolie works as the director to this harrowing true tale of survival from World War II veteran Louis Zamperini, who went from Olympic athlete to marooned at sea, as documented in Laura Hillenbrand's novel of the same name. Starring newcomer Jack O'Connell, Garret Hedlund, Jai Courtney, and Domhnall Gleason, this is a tailor-made "Greatest Generation" story that Oscar loves. Jolie herself was just honored at the 86th Academy Awards with the Humanitarian Oscar for her off-screen work. Her respect level within the industry is very high. Mark my words. This might just be your eventual Best Picture winner. I'm feeling that kind of confidence and vibe. (Jolie and Zamperini interview with Tom Brokaw) (December 25)

15. Untitled Cameron Crowe project (aka "Deep Tiki")-- Finally, I've got a film here with no title, but a ton of promise. Cameron Crowe hasn't had an award-worthy film since 2000's "Almost Famous" and 1996's "Jerry Maguire," but maybe collaborating with golden boy Bradley Cooper and It Girl Emma Stone might break the jinx. Those two lead Rachel McAdams, Alec Baldwin, Danny McBride, John Krasinski, Jay Baruchel, and Bill Murray in a romantic comedy set in Hawaii about a defense contractor (Cooper) who falls for an Air Force pilot (Stone). I'll give Crowe and this cast a chance to make some noise and be counter-programming to the many dramas on this list. (movie news) (December 25)

Just missing the list include a lot of big names. The Wachowskis' latest "Jupiter Ascending" could be a competitor if it's better than "Cloud Atlas." Will Smith is leading a flashy new version of "Annie" starring former "Beasts of the Southern Wild" Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis in the title role. Normally, like Woody Allen, everything Clint Eastwood touches turns to Oscar lately, but I don't have the faith that he can deliver a musical adaptation in the form of "Jersey Boys." Yes, you heard right. The man of spit and gravel is directing the Frankie Valli movie. We'll see how right or wrong I am about a year from now when the winners are name for the 87th Academy Awards. Until then, enjoy your trips to the movies in 2014!

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