Oscar Race Begins at New York Film Festival

Evan Agostini/Invision/APEvan Agostini/Invision/AP

Though it boasts no coveted top prize and takes place 2400 miles from Hollywood, the New York Film Festival is still, 51 years later, a premiere preview of the prestige season's top films - and this year is no exception.

Yes, fancy foreign fare, including this year's Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner, "Blue is the Warmest Color," is present. But more notably, the festival's main slate features performances from a slew of top Hollywood talent, from Robert Redford to Tom Hanks and Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson.

Hanks may be looking at a third Oscar for his turn in "Captain Phillips," a taut thriller from "United 93? and "The Bourne Ultimatum" director Paul Greengrass. Hanks breathes raw emotion into the true life story of Richard Phillips, who was kidnapped by Somali pirates in 2010.

The claustrophobic, white-knuckle actioner balances raw performances from a trio of non-actors as the desperate pirates who take Phillips hostage on a lifeboat after a botched hijacking aboard Phillips' cargo ship. Hanks again delivers a brutal, and in the case of the last 10 minutes, emotionally naked performance that may be his best since 2000's "Cast Away."

Tom Hanks, Captain of the "Filmmaking Racket". Watch video here.

For intellectual and sometimes pseudo-intellectual indie fare, the NYFF never disappoints, and this year features some of the bigger smaller names. A crop of Oscar darlings and hotly-anticipated smaller films are making their U.S. debuts in New York.

Video artist turned big screen director Steve McQueen is back at the fest with his third feature, "12 Years a Slave," which generated near-deafening Oscar buzz at this year's Toronto Film Festival, and in New York alike. Alexander Payne ("The Descendants," "Sideways") returns too, with a fresh take on Midwestern malaise with "Nebraska."

Oscar-heavyweights the Coen Brothers' offered their year-end delight, the 1960s New York-set "Inside Llewyn Davis." The film takes a melancholy, woeful look at the folk scene in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and is already generating buzz as an Oscar favorite. Ben Stiller has also returned to the director's chair with "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," an uneven but visually dazzling interpretation of the 1939 short story by James Thurber. And Mr. Redford himself turned up in "All Is Lost," as a resourceful sailor lost at sea.

Though it is not slated to be released until early 2014, the latest from near-legendary indie director Jim Jarmusch proves to be an unexpected highlight of this year's crop of films at the fest. "Only Lovers Left Alive," a vampire love story debuting in New York 29 years after his first feature "Stranger Than Paradise" played the festival, takes an unexpectedly tender stab at the vampire genre.

Set alternately in Detroit and Tangiers, Jarmusch follows centuries-old and cheekily-named vamps Eve (Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton) and Adam ("The Avengers' Tom Hiddleston) as they reconnect and attempt to remain civilized as creatures of the night in the 21 st century. Swinton never has trouble anchoring a film, but it's the light touches of humor and specific details of living for hundreds of years that sells Jarmusch's take on the genre. Would you end up a snob, if you lived that long? Probably, the film decides.

Oscar-Winning Actress Tilda Swinton Sleeps at a Museum. More here.

Closing out the festival is the fourth feature from "Being John Malkovich" and "Where the Wild Things Are" director Spike Jonze, who returns with a very modern romance, "Her." Jonze's film made its debut at the NYFF on Saturday.

Set in the near future, "Her" is light on humor, but hilarious when it delivers, and heavy on heartache as it follows Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), a soon-to-be divorced writer who falls head over heels in love with his new, sentient operating system - wonderfully voiced by Johansson.

Sound weird? It is, but the concept is played straight as an arrow and ultimately works as a thoroughly modern take on the romantic comedy. With set design that amounts to a hip graphic designer's wet dream, "Her" will be an art house hit this winter, and you can expect to see Phoenix, along with a bevy of other of this year's NYFF actors, dressed to the nines come Oscar night.

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