5 Oscar Contenders Everyone Is Talking About—And One Nobody Is (Yet)

The annual crush of award-worthy movies is upon us. Here are the films you need to see this holiday season

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Laurie Sparham / Universal Studios

For many Americans, the passing of Thanksgiving means it’s time to buckle down on Holiday shopping—but for cinemaphiles it’s time to go to the movies. As studios seek to capitalize on the availability of audiences during the holidays and to get their films released, at least in limited distribution, in time to be eligible for the Academy Awards (nominations for which are due Jan. 3, according to the Los Angeles Times), movie theaters tend to fill up with some of the most Oscar-friendly fare of the whole year.

Here’s your super-condensed guide to which holiday-season movies are shaping up to be contenders, including a lesser-known film that’s already a proven winner.

Movie: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

In Theaters: Dec. 14

Directed By: Peter Jackson

Starring: Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Hugo Weaving, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis

Oscar Potential: Warner Bros. has announced that the movie based on the Tolkien classic is vying for nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Freeman), Best Supporting Actor (McKellan, Armitage, Serkis), Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett), Cinematography and pretty much every technical award possible. If The Hobbit lives up to the precedent set by the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which finished off with a 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, for Return of the King), that long list of goals doesn’t seem so outlandish. The movie promises an epic quest plot and the visual beauty we expect from LOTR movies—plus even more of Andy Serkis’ impressive but not-yet-Oscar-winning motion-capture acting work as Gollum.

Movie: Zero Dark ThirtyIn Theaters: Dec. 19 (limited)

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: Chris Pratt, Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton

Oscar Potential: Sony Pictures is also putting forward Zero Dark Thirty—the movie about the hunt for and eventual capture of Osama bin Laden, the release date for which was pushed back after some said it would boost President Obama’s chances in the election—for almost every award for which it’s eligible, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor (with seven different actors to be considered for that last category). The story of how the movie was made involves confidential secrets and top-level access, but the story it tells is even more extreme: Chastain plays a CIA operative who is convinced that she’ll be the one to bring down bin Laden, and the screenplay packs years of complicated diplomacy and tracking into a tight and suspenseful package. Bigelow surprised many in 2010 when her The Hurt Locker beat out Avatar and took home the Best Picture and Best Director awards, but it wouldn’t too much of a shock if she did it again.

(MORE: Richard Corliss’ Review of Zero Dark Thirty)

Movie: The ImpossibleIn Theaters: Dec. 21

Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona

Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor

Oscar Potential: This movie tells the true story of a family torn apart when the 2004 tsunami struck during their family vacation to Thailand and how they found each other again. It’s a tearjerker with an impressive backstory, and director Bayona could pull out a nomination, but the more likely recipients of Oscar nods would be the two stars—particularly Watts, playing the mother whose quest made The Impossible possible and on whose survival the story hinges. The special effects that bring the tsunami to life, creating a wall of water and debris that batters the characters, may also be found worthy of recognition.

(MOREWatch the Trailer for The Impossible)

Movie: Les Misérables

In Theaters: Dec. 25

Directed by: Tom Hopper

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, Russell Crowe, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Oscar Potential: Universal Pictures wants Academy members to consider the film version of the classic stage musical (and even more classic Victor Hugo novel) about 19th-century French student revolutionaries and a convict-turned-mayor for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Jackman), Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, technical awards and Best Original Song (for “Suddenly,” the token new song that most stage-to-film musicals tack on). The movie has been getting lots of attention for the groundbreaking tactic of actually letting the actors sing live rather than having them lip sync to a recording of their own voices—visually and vocally, it’s a winning combination that leaves the movie with strong chances in the major all-around categories.

Movie: Django Unchained

In Theaters: Dec. 25

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Christoph Waltz

Oscar Potential: Tarantino takes on history in his latest movie, featuring Jamie Foxx as a slave named Django whose freedom is bought in exchange for his services as a bounty hunter. DiCaprio plays the plantation owner who still has Django’s wife in his possession. The movie won a screenwriting award at the Hollywood Film Festival and could do so again. The actors are all Oscar-level performers—best picture’s not out of the question either.

(MOREWatch the Django Unchained Trailer)

Movie: Amour

In Theaters: Dec. 19

Directed by: Michael Haneke

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva

Oscar Potential: So Amour isn’t getting the mega advertising push that the other holiday movies will. And it’s been out, at festivals, since May. While it does hit some theaters Dec. 19 in a limited release, it may take a while for it to get to your town. Still, don’t underestimate this one. The movie—about an elderly couple whose love is strained by illness—premiered at Cannes, where Haneke won the Palme d’Or and the movie won major acclaim from critics. Even though the film is in French, expect it to break free from the foreign-language category. (And even if you don’t get a chance to see Amour before the year ends, check out the parody Michael Haneke account on Twitter for some Cannes-inflected laughs…and only a modicum of spoilers.)

MOREThe Palme d’Amour: Director Michael Haneke Takes Cannes’ Top Prize—Again