A MAN APART: O'Connell (centre) plays Louis Zamperini in Jolie's new feature.
Given her appetite for incredible human-interest stories often inspired by real-life events, director Angelina Jolie has found her latest gem in the remarkable true story brought to life in her buzz-generating new feature, Unbroken.
Based on Laura Hillenbrand's international bestseller, Unbroken stars relative newcomer Jack O'Connell as Louis Zamperini, the Olympic athlete-turned-World War II hero who survived a plane crash and days on a raft out in the Pacific — and survived two years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Besides the "breathtaking" cinematography by Roger Deakins, the film boasts a "stellar" screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men) but finds its strongest asset perhaps in Jolie's extravagant capacity for captivating audiences with stories spun with grit and grace, compassion and courage under fire.
When it comes to this year's Best Actor race, the talk is British sensation Benedict Cumberbatch (move over, Eddie Redmayne) ranks among the strongest candidates, thanks to his spot-on portrayal of conflicted genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, another true story that's one of the year's best-reviewed films. Also set during the Second World War, The Imitation Game (co-starring Keira Knightley) explores the genesis of the world's first computer, devised to help crack the Nazi Code, with Turing eventually landing smack in the midst of the explosive mayhem that follows.
Birdman, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's tragicomic tale of a washed-up actor looking to make a comeback by starring in a Broadway production, is anchored by a fierce turn by former Batman star Michael Keaton in the title role, backed by an all-star cast that includes Emma Stone as his rebellious teen daughter. Both Keaton and Stone have netted Independent Spirit Award nominations for their roles.
And a young boy's eventful, complicated progression from the age of five to eighteen is the focus of the aptly titled Boyhood, the acclaimed new film by Richard Linklater, which gets appearances by actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, with whom Linklater famously collaborated on the Before Sunset movies. According to top critics, the coming-of-age tale (a best feature nominee for the Independent Spirit Awards) is a shoo-in for a screenplay nomination and possible nods for directing and best picture of the year.
But the director on everyone's lips these days is Jean-Marc Vallée, the auteur behind Wild, the "haunting," "visceral" page-to-screen adaptation of Chery Strayed's (Reese Witherspoon, who also produces) autobiographical account of her trek across the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother's (Laura Dern) sudden passing.
While both Witherspoon and Dern are highly favoured to bag acting nods, prognosticators are betting on Vallée (who earned Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto Oscar wins for 2013's Dallas Buyers club) to take home a slew of best-director prizes this season, on account of the fearless approach he brings to the story, capturing the heartbreak, flashbacks and even graphic sexual encounters in his own inimitable style and uncanny precision.