“Saving Mr. Banks” –

“Saving Mr. Banks” –

“Saving Mr. Banks”

“Saving Mr. Banks”

Saving Mr. Banks

JSaving Mr. Banks

“Banks” buzz: Most films hoping to get into this year's wildly competitive best picture Oscar race have been playing film festivals for many months.

"Nebraska," “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “All is Lost” premiered last May at the Cannes Film Festival. "Gravity" and “Philomena” premiered at the Venice Film Festival, which began in late August. “12 Years a Slave” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, which also got underway in late August. “August: Osage County” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in early September. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," “Her” and "Captain Phillips" premiered at the New York Film Festival, which started in late September.

But no matter how Oscar worthy a film is, it's tough to keep up the momentum for so many months. Now with the awards season heating up, there's new competition on the horizon from Walt Disney Pictures' PG-13 biographical comedy drama "Saving Mr. Banks," which premiered in October at the BFI (British Film Institute) Festival in London and then played at the American Film Institute's AFI Fest in Hollywood in November. It opens in limited release Dec. 13 and goes wide Dec. 20.

Being one of the last films that awards voters see before making their nominations can be a big advantage, but it's also great to have months of early awards season buzz going for you. In the case of "Banks," both of those strategies appear to apply.

"Banks," which I thoroughly enjoyed at an early screening, is such a high profile title that insiders have been talking about its Oscar potential sight unseen for months. Awards pundits gave it the benefit of the doubt based on the elements.

Directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,”) a best picture Oscar nominee in 2010 and for which Sandra Bullock won best actress), "Banks" stars Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, both of whom are deservedly on Oscar's radar -- for best actress and best supporting actor.

Thompson won the best actress Oscar in 1993 for “Howard's End” and won the best adapted screenplay in 1996 for “Sense and Sensibility.” Hanks won the best actor Oscar in 1994 for “Philadelphia” and in 1995 for “Forrest Gump." Now that Hollywood handicappers have seen them in "Banks,” it's turning up on lists of likely best picture nominees. Earlier this month Thompson won the National Board of Review's best actress award.

The Story: When they were very young, Walt Disney's daughters begged him to make a movie of their favorite book, P.L. Travers' “Mary Poppins.” Walt (Hanks) promised to get the rights, never thinking it would take him 20 years. But he came up against a curmudgeonly, uncompromising writer dead set against letting her beloved magical nanny get mangled by Hollywood. However, when Travers (Thompson) realized she was going broke, she agreed to meet Walt in L.A. where for two weeks in 1961 he pulled out all the stops, reaching back into his own childhood to persuade Travers to say yes.

"Banks'" inside-the-movie-business storyline could enhance its appeal to Academy voters, a membership dominated by men in their 60s and 70s or older who don't necessarily prefer the kind of edgy indie dramas that the critics groups typically celebrate and of which there are more than a few this year. They do, however, like films whose stories involve moviemaking. In fact, for the past two years they've voted best picture Oscars to two such films – “Argo” (2013) and “The Artist” (2012).

With Tom Hanks, one of Hollywood's best liked stars, playing the legendary Walt Disney and with the film's feel-good adult appeal storyline, "Banks" could resonate well with Academy voters.

"Banks," however, isn't the only late arrival to the Oscar race. It faces stiff competition for Academy votes from two other high profile contenders that also are just entering the marketplace -- Paramount and Red Granite Pictures' "The Wolf of Wall Street," from Martin Scorsese, Oscar-winning director of “The Departed,” and Columbia, Annapurna Pictures and Atlas Entertainment's crime drama "American Hustle," from three time Oscar nominee David O. Russell, director of “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter.”

"Wolf," an R rated biographical crime drama based on the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), didn't finish post-production in time to play at the fall film festivals. The nearly three hour film, which opens wide Dec. 25, follows Belfort's rise as a wealthy stockbroker living the high life and his fall from crime, corruption and the federal government. It's being buzzed about for major Oscar consideration, including best picture, director, adapted screenplay (Terence Winter was the National Board of Review winner), actor and supporting actor (Jonah Hill).

"Hustle," which is also rated R, opens opposite "Banks" in limited release Dec. 13 and also goes wide Dec. 20. It, too, is sparking a strong Oscar buzz, including best picture, director, original screenplay (Russell) and supporting actress (Jennifer Lawrence). Earlier in December the New York Film Critics Circle voted "Hustle" awards for best picture, screenplay and supporting actress.

In "Hustle" Christian Bale plays a brilliant con man forced with his seductive partner (Amy Adams) to work for an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) in the highly dangerous world of powerbrokers and mafia. Jeremy Renner plays a volatile political operator caught between the con-artists and the Feds. And the con man's unpredictable wife (Jennifer Lawrence, who won the best actress Oscar in 2013 for “Silver Linings Playbook”), could bring their entire world crashing down.

Both "Banks" and "Hustle" already have some upcoming film festival honors that will keep them in the media spotlight while Academy members are making up their minds. "Hustle" will receive the Ensemble Performance Award at the 25th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival, which runs from Jan. 3-13. "Banks" star Emma Thompson will be given the Modern Master Award at the 29th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival Feb. 8.

Academy nominations voting begins Dec. 27 and ends Jan. 8 at 5:00 p.m., PST. Final Oscar voting begins Feb. 14 and ends Feb. 25 at 5:00 p.m., PST. The 86th Academy Awards will take place Mar. 2 rather than as usual on the last Sunday in February because this year that would have conflicted with the Winter Olympics' closing ceremonies.

Bottom line: Although "Banks," "Hustle" and "Wolf" didn't score Sunday with the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, where "Gravity" and "Her" tied for best picture, a good showing this week in the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes noms would boost their Oscar prospects.