Why this is my favorite part of Oscar season

“For the love of God, it’s MARCH. Keep your pants on!” tweeted Mark Harris when we speculated about whether Meryl Streep would win another Oscar for “August: Osage County,” which recently held a test screening for a select few whose praise may or may not presage the eventual reaction of audiences, critics, or the Academy when the film is released by the Weinstein Company in November.

Harris is right, of course. It’s way too early to tell if Streep will win. It’s too early to guess if “August” will be good or bad, a hit or a flop, but its potential is clear. Its screenplay is by Tracy Letts, based on his Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play, and its cast is a dream team that includes Streep, Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, and Ewan McGregor, and others. We don’t know if it’s any good yet, but we know we’re excited to see it, and rooting for it to live up to its high expectations.

That’s why this has become my favorite part of the awards season. Before critics, campaigners, Harvey Weinstein, or we bloggers get our hands on it, before a cavalcade of precursors narrow down hundreds of titles to the dozen or so that Oscar voters will bother to watch, there’s still a sense of eager anticipation and discovery for every unseen film slated for release between now and December 31.

There is no clear frontrunner, and we haven’t yet suffered the fatigue of watching a film like “Argo” or “The Artist” win everything that isn’t nailed down. It’s March, and Oscar season still has that new-car smell.

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Could “Dreamgirls” director Bill Condon follow last year’s Razzie win for the “Twilight” finale with a return to Oscar form with “The Fifth Estate“? That film stars Cumberbatch as infamous Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange. The actor is poised for a career breakthrough this year; in addition to this and “Osage County” he also plays a villainous role in this summer’s likely blockbuster “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Capping the year with an Oscar bid could elevate him from “Sherlock” cult figure to bona fide star.

Will Baz Luhrmann‘s “The Great Gatsby,” originally scheduled for last Christmas, be worth the wait when it opens this summer? And will it trump Martin Scorsese‘s “The Wolf of Wall Street” when deciding what Leonardo DiCaprio‘s stronger Oscar vehicle will be? At just 38 years old, DiCaprio has starred in a whopping six Best Picture nominees in his career, including two winners (“Titanic” and “The Departed”). Three of his nominated films were directed by Scorsese. Has his time come?

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And yes, we must wonder whether Meryl Streep will tie Katharine Hepburn‘s record for the most acting wins at the Oscars. She may have won three, but she’s also lost more Oscars (14) than any other actor has ever been nominated. This is not the first time she’s taken on a Tony-winning role, though. She did so in “Doubt,” which earned her a nomination but not a win.

This year is also expected to include new films from directors as diverse and intriguing as Lars von Trier (“Nymphomaniac“), Steve McQueen (“Twelve Years a Slave“), Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity“), the Coen brothers (“Inside Llewyn Davis“), Alexander Payne (“Nebraska“), Jason Reitman (“Labor Day“), Paul Greengrass (“Captain Phillips“), Spike Lee (“Oldboy“), and Pedro Almodovar (“I’m So Excited“), to name just a few.

Such an exciting slate! And there may be great titles to come that none of us have even considered yet. No one can say with any real confidence where the chips will fall (this time last year we thought Laura Linney would win Best Actress for “Hyde Park on Hudson“). But it’s never too early to get excited about it.

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