'Rush' and 'Prisoners' make their case to academy members

"What's the deal with all these movies," one academy member asked me over the weekend. "All of a sudden, there are just so many of them, and they're all supposed to be really, really good."

You could almost forgive his astonishment, awakening as he was from a summer when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened the likes of "The Smurfs 2" and "Lovelace" for members at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

There was a decided uptick in quality this weekend at the Goldwyn with a one-two punch of "Rush" and "Prisoners," fine films that seemed to impress academy members as much as they did festival crowds when they played in Toronto last week. Both movies arrive in theaters on Friday and, if they can catch a commercial foothold with audiences, they could well become factors in several categories this awards season.

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"Rush," the story of the rivalry between Formula One racers Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), continues to demonstrate director Ron Howard's versatility behind the camera, earning the director his best reviews since 2008's "Frost/Nixon." The affable Howard was a low-key sensation at the Toronto International Film Festival, on hand for the premieres of "Rush" and "Made in America," his documentary, airing next month on Showtime, on hip-hop artist Jay-Z.

Howard is in London, prepping another cinematic left-turn: "In the Heart of the Sea," a look at the 1820 sinking of the American whale ship Essex after it was rammed by a sperm whale in the Pacific, an incident that inspired Herman Melville to write "Moby-Dick." That left the academy screening in the capable hands of Bruhl and Hemsworth, along with producer Brian Grazer, screenwriter Peter Morgan (who also wrote "Frost/Nixon) and composer Hans Zimmer. And, given that academy members applauded the opening credits, suffice to say the conversation was lively and well-received.

What that means for the film's awards prospects is open to question. Again, "Rush" will need a decent commercial performance, if only to remain in the conversation. If it's a modest hit, all the better for landing one of the final best picture spots in a competitive year. Morgan, a two-time writing nominee,  should have a shot for original screenplay. The movie's editing (longtime Howard collaborator Daniel P. Hanley, who won for "Apollo 13") and makeup are exemplary, as is Zimmer's propulsive score. (The composer is almost a lock to be nominated elsewhere, for his tense work on "12 Years a Slave.")

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And though it's essentially a two-hander, Hemsworth has a slightly bigger part and will be campaigned in lead. That makes Bruhl, also seen in Toronto to lesser effect in "The Fifth Estate," a better bet in the supporting category, though I did rather enjoy Hemsworth's James Hunt as a James Bond (Roger Moore, of course, it's the '70s) vibe. Effortless charm deserves its rewards too.

There aren't any light or playful moments in "Prisoners," a disturbing revenge thriller starring Hugh Jackman as a survivalist taking the law in his own hands after his daughter disappears. If that premise sounds familiar, it's played with ambiguity and ambition here without losing any of its primitive punch. Director Denis Villeneuve ("Incendies") and cast members Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis and Paul Dano (yes, it's an amazing ensemble, rivaling any other group this year), were on hand to answer questions once the audience collected its breath after the credits.

Jackman is receiving some of the best reviews of his career (Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman calls his turn "staggering"), but the movie's best chance for a nomination might lie with Aaron Guzikowski's twisty, complex script, which, like "Rush," would land in the original screenplay category. Members of the writers branch have demonstrated a willingness to reward various genres ("Flight" made it in last year), and with these two movies, they have a couple of strong options. And, to think, it's only September.


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