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Darkhorse best picture Oscar contenders

Our picks of top movies, music, books and more
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

“Gone Baby Gone”

It would be easy to dismiss “Gone Baby Gone” as a nothing more than a starter project for Ben Affleck, something inconsequential to get his directorial feet wet. Yet, sometimes, like when marginal baseball players turn into great Major League managers, actors find their true talents behind the camera. Affleck, who smartly cast his brother Casey as a somewhat naïve but street-smart Boston private investigator, took Dennis Lehane’s novel and turned it into a compelling story of a missing child, with a tour-de-force performance by Amy Ryan as the baby’s drug-addicted mother. Don’t think that just because Ben Affleck cashed a paycheck in stinkers like “Reindeer Games” and “Daredevil” that he doesn’t know how to make a great film. We might’ve suffered through those bombs, but he was learning the whole time.

“Juno”

How many Lifetime movies must we endure where a high school girl gets pregnant, contemplates for weeks about whether she should have the baby or not and then, while drowning out her parents’ screaming, makes the “right” decision, whatever that is? That’s way too formulaic for “Juno,” where the title character gets knocked up and, without much sturm and drang, offers up the baby to adoptive parents Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. She doesn’t make the decision lightly, of course, but former stripper Diablo Cody’s smart and sassy screenplay allows Juno to complete her pregnancy with grace, style and a terrific sense of humor. The situation, of course, is far from a joke, but director Jason Reitman — as he did in the taboo-shattering “Thank You for Smoking” — takes an afterschool special subject and gives it a refreshing twist.

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”

Just when we thought 83-year-old director Sidney Lumet was going to fade out quietly, he delivers this whopper. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a bullying lout who convinces his weaker and younger brother Ethan Hawke to rob their parents’ jewelry store. They get the stones, mom and dad get a check from the insurance company, and no one’s worse for wear. Not so fast. The caper goes horribly wrong and we’re glued to the screen to see what other catastrophes will unfold, wondering just how these two could be so stupid. Lumet, who brought us classics such as “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and the criminally underrated “The Verdict,” proves he’s still got the touch.

“The Savages”

The eminently likeable Laura Linney has long been on the cusp of being classified as an A-list star along the lines of Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman. Now, supported here by the strong work of Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, there should be little doubt. The two are distant siblings forced to come together and take care of their dying father. A serious subject made entertaining via its dark comedic overtones, “The Savages” hits close to home in dealing with an ailing parent — and that might make some moviegoers feel uncomfortable — but the authentic relationship between the two leads makes the film well worth the overall experience.

“3:10 to Yuma”

Westerns, huge in the Gary Cooper and John Wayne days, may have gone out of fashion decades ago but when they’re good, they’re great. And that’s the best way to describe “3:10 to Yuma,” a brilliant remake with three standout performances by Christian Bale, Russell Crowe and Ben Foster, as Crowe’s maniacal rock star sidekick. Like any tried and true Western, dialogue is slow, guns are fast and there’s the classic good vs. evil showdown. Basically, it has all the elements you’d want in a best picture nominee. Now all it needs is to rustle up some voters who’ve got the guts to make a stand.