For a four-year stretch at the turn of the 21st century, December was the most wonderful time of year to be a best picture Oscar contender.
From 2002 to 2005, the film academy gave its best picture prize to movies debuting in December. Starting with "A Beautiful Mind" and continuing through "Chicago," "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" and "Million Dollar Baby," Oscar voters rewarded movies that broke late and were, presumably, fresh in their minds. In fact, Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby," shot in the summer of 2004, didn't even land on Warner Bros.' release calendar until the fall.
"We caught everybody by surprise with that one," Eastwood told me recently. "I wish they could all be that way."
Since then, though, only one December movie -- "The King's Speech" -- has won best picture. Increasingly, studios have used fall film festivals like Telluride and Toronto to build buzz and then released their contenders theatrically in October and November. December brings a second wave of publicity with kudos from film critics groups, the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes, leading to January's announcement of Oscar nominations.
This year, studios waited until Christmas Day to unveil four would-be best picture contenders. Is it too late to build the kind of momentum needed to win the Oscar? A look at the quartet's chances:
In its favor: Angelina Jolie's dutiful portrait of Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner and World War II bombardier who spent two years in Japanese prison camps, began the fall as the presumptive, sight-unseen best picture favorite. It had the pedigree, both in terms of source material and below-the-line talent, and felt like the kind of Important Story that academy voters find irresistible.
"Unbroken" is already a commercial hit, taking in an estimated $47 million in its first four days. And audiences apparently love it, giving it an A- grade, according to market research firm CinemaScore. Several academy members report hearing applause and cheering after their screenings. "It's a beautiful movie," one Oscar-nominated producer tells me, "though I could have done with one or two less beatings."
Which brings us to ...
Against it: Critics have not been kind to the movie, with the New Yorker's David Denby pretty much summing up the main complaint: "An interminable, redundant, unnecessary epic devoted to suffering, suffering, suffering." It's not so much the depiction of punishment that has left some people cold. It's that the movie tells us little else about Zamperini other than he could take a licking and keep on ticking.
Verdict: Look for "Unbroken" to squeeze into the back end of the best picture field and find favor in a handful of categories -- adapted screenplay, cinematography, score and sound among them. Denby won't be happy, but this movie could easily win seven nominations.
'INTO THE WOODS'
In its favor: The Disney adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical enjoyed a robust commercial opening too, with an estimated $48 million over the long Christmas weekend. Diehard fans of the musical haven't been exactly pleased with the result, leading to a CinemaScore B grade that would seem to indicate a fair number of reservations among the movie's biggest fans.
But academy members have been seeing it. Even with the DVD going out early, the screenings have been well-attended and mostly enthusiatic. OK. Somewhat enthusiastic. "The second half of that movie lasts, what, a day?" gripes an Oscar-voting actor. "I would have walked out but I brought my mom."
Still ... you have Meryl Streep playing The Witch! That counts for something, right?
Against it: Again, Sondheim fans are a demanding bunch, and then there are hundreds of academy members who'd just as soon eat last year's fruitcake than sit through a musical about fairy tale characters.
The verdict: Nominations for Streep (don't ballots arrive already filled out with her name?), costumes, production design and sound mixing. Not exactly "agony."
In its favor: Since its mid-November premiere at AFI Fest, the civil rights drama "Selma" has racked up great reviews, plenty of critics prizes and four Golden Globe nominations. Currently playing in 19 theaters, the movie has been able to translate that goodwill into a strong commercial opening, along with selected social media shout-outs from some recent, high-profile Oscar winners. The current relevance of Ava DuVernay's period film should also keep it fixed in the award season conversation.
Against it: "Selma" remains the safest bet of the Christmas movies to win a best picture nomination, which should bode well for its commercial hopes. The film will need to be perceived as a box-office success, though, in order for it to become a serious challenger in the best picture race. With its serious subject matter, that is not a given.
The verdict: Four nominations -- picture, director DuVernay, lead actor David Oyelowo and the song "Glory," by John Legend and Common.
In its favor: Eastwood is looking to pull off another December Oscar surprise with his harrowing portrait of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. The movie, Eastwood's best in years, grossed $240,000 in just four theaters on Christmas Day. It could easily scratch an itch for the older male academy members, i.e. the majority of Oscar voters, who enjoy well-made, thought-provoking action movies like this and "Captain Phillips."
Against it: Some academy members still haven't forgiven Eastwood for his "empty chair" speech at the Republican National Convention two years ago. After I profiled Eastwood recently, one academy member emailed me, saying he'd never forgive the 84-year-old Eastwood or "vote for another one of his movies, even if it was 'Citizen Freakin' Kane.'"
The larger issue will be simply to prod enough academy members to see the late-breaking "Sniper." Was this a screener the whole family could agree to watch together over the holidays? Perhaps not.
The verdict: "Sniper" should lock down nominations in both the sound categories. And Bradley Cooper, never better as Kyle, is among a group of actors -- Oyelowo, "Foxcatcher's" Steve Carell, "Nightcrawler's" Jake Gyllenhaal" -- vying for spots in the lead actor race behind Michael Keaton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne.
"I'd never count Eastwood out," one academy member screenwriter told me. "If he could survive 'Jersey Boys,' he could get an Oscar nomination for this."