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The best thing Rush has going for it in the Oscar race is that it has a great Oscar story attached to it, and that is that Ron Howard couldn’t get the thing made and had to scramble around for funding — kind of amazing when you think about it. How could anyone say no to race cars and Chris Hemsworth? Maybe the mild bummer of it being a true story that doesn’t have a crowd-cheering climax so much as a thoughtful rumination on risk taking versus valuing safety first. Given that Rush opens with Hemsworth having sex with Game of Thrones’ uber hottie Natalie Dormer, it should be an easy sell, giving women dragged along for the ride with their “interested in race car driving” dates a thrill from the outset. I don’t get where all of this doesn’t add up to great box office.

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Rush has gotten some rave reviews from critics, but ends up with a score in the mid-70s on Metacritic, which means good — but that won’t necessarily get it into the Oscar race. Ron Howard, the cinematography, the box office, and the all-important “nobody wanted to make it” Oscar story could. What it really has going for it above all over things is a notable performance by Daniel Bruhl as Niki Lauda. As lead, Bruhl would have a tough time squeezing into a very crowded category (remember, almost all movies now, especially Oscar movies, revolve around a central male character, so Best Actor is always crowded) but they’re apparently running him as supporting. Bruhl should have no trouble being considered there, although it’s filling up quickly.

Rush is entertaining, thrilling to watch and gives Hemsworth a chance to look like a real human being. No longer bulked up like a superhero, his smaller frame coupled with his exceptional good looks and charisma puts him right at the top of the list of major heartthrobs. And indeed, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a good actor — he holds his own right alongside Bruhl — but it does mean the movie is going to greatly benefit from that singular detail. I dare say he might be having his Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall moment in that regard.

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Prisoners opens to the same kinds of reviews Rush received — some really love it and some are just okay about it, which puts it in the mid-70s on Metacritic. Like Rush, Prisoners is a crowd-pleasing thriller that takes you on a dark ride but won’t leave you there. The actors are given a lot of room to show their stuff and they act their hearts out, Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano. But like Rush it also leaves you wondering whether it’s a film destined for big crowds and high box office or whether it can break into the awards race. One of the things holding both films back is they aren’t “important” in a year of very important films. They are going to be competing with other thrilling films that leave you staggering out of the theater, like Gravity and Captain Phillips. Getting a leg up in a competitive year will be the key. I suspect that, in the end, it will come down to box office. If there is enough shock and awe one of them could break through the Best Picture race.