Blockbusters duke it out in the 2014 Oscars

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With summer blockbuster season having breathed its last sputtering, over-produced breath, the film industry can at last turn its sights to its true passion: the season of the critical darlings. As Oscar season is now in full swing, attention has turned to the scrabbling for acclaim, and with that comes the autumn and winter halcyon days of the crème de la crème of filmmaking. Here are some of Hollywood's most promising Oscar contenders thus far.

Inside Llewyn Davis:

As the latest excursion from Academy darlings Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis stars a bedraggled Oscar Isaac in the titular role as a world-weary singer-songwriter in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s. Davis juggles no shortage of suffering- this melancholy meditation on grief and accomplishment sees him struggling to overcome the suicide of his musical partner, to stay afloat while migrating from gig to underpaid gig, and to acknowledge his own artistic mediocrity. The film also boasts cameos from familiar faces like Justin Timberlake, incarnated here in an atypical role as an old-timey folk singer, and Carey Mulligan, his sour, embittered wife and musical partner pregnant with a baby that may or may not be Davis'. Saturated in a steely palette of somber gunmetal and sepia, as well as in the mellowed chords of bluesy sixties folk, Inside Llewyn Davis is already being billed as the Coens' most heartfelt, nuanced feature yet, and with them behind the wheel, Oscar gold seems a foregone conclusion.

12 Years a Slave:

Helmed by visual-artist-turned-film-visionary Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a black man born free and yet unjustly dragged into slavery in pre-Civil War New Orleans. 12 Years picks up where last year's Django Unchained left off in its unflinching slave's-eye-view of America's most shameful onetime institution. Regardless of Ejiofor's tormenting performance under McQueen's always-stylish direction, 12 Years might also benefit in the awards season race from the debt owed by the Academy for McQueen's prodigiously underappreciated 2011 feature Shame. Shame depicts a harrowing journey down the rabbit hole of sex addiction starring 12 Years supporting player Michael Fassbender in a tremendous performance as the film's monstrous protagonist. Let it never be said that the Academy is disinterested in consolation prizes, and although such nominations often go to the undeserving, soothing the sting of Shame with acclaim for 12 Years seems like poetic justice.

Blue Jasmine:

As the latest entry in Woody Allen's recent creative renaissance, Blue Jasmine stars Cate Blanchett as Jasmine, a pill-popping divorcee and socialite teetering on the precipice of a nervous breakdown after the dissolution of her marriage due to her husband's infidelities and imprisonment. When Jasmine shacks up with her estranged yet kindhearted working-class sister in San Francisco, the film raises compelling discussions of class, self-destruction, and the limitations of familial loyalty. If not a Best Picture nomination, Blue Jasmine should undoubtedly net a Best Actress nomination for Blanchett, who delivers a formidable, spellbinding performance as a neurotic society wife whose seams are unraveling stitch by stitch throughout her fall from societal grace. Already lauded by many as Allen's most wry and wrenching film in decades, Blue Jasmine seems a shoe-in for Oscar gold.

Gravity:

Starring George Clooney and American sweetheart Sandra Bullock, the duo play astronauts stranded in space after the destruction of their shuttle and a spacewalk gone wrong. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is a dreadful palm-sweater of a film, visceral and heart-stopping as it is in its sick sense of terror. However, Gravity is as much an exercise in restraint as it is in masterful direction- its performances are tense and tightly wound, and although its cosmic vistas are technically stunning, they are also chillingly austere. Critics' response thus far to Gravity has been overwhelmingly ecstatic, and with that sort of buzz for a veteran director working with two of Hollywood's best-loved thespians, too many planets are aligned for Gravity to falter in the Oscar race.