The Oscar race now officially includes Les Misérables and Zero Dark Thirty – which shouldn’t come as a huge shock, seeing how the former is an adaptation of producer Cameron Mackintosh’s award-winning Broadway smash from director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech). Meanwhile, the latter is a drama/thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden from Oscar-winning Hurt Locker screenwriter and director duo, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow.

Nonetheless, both films had their first public screenings over the Thanksgiving holiday frame and drew unadulterated praise from those in attendance. Read on for our breakdown of what the general consensus is for both titles… so far.

Hooper’s Les Miz has long been regarded as something special, seeing how trailer footage suggests it infuses Mackintosh’s original pop musical with a stripped-down aesthetic that helps ground the flamboyant proceedings (unlike Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera or Rob Marshall’s Nine, to name a few examples). Moreover, the cast boasts heralded actors with professional singing experience; that’s in opposition to some of the recent movie musicals that’ve relied on either name-actor casts (Mamma Mia!) or Broadway veterans (Rent).

Reviews for Les Miz are embargoed for the time being, but Indiewire has rounded up Twitter reactions from several critics and film journalists who were at the first open showing. Here’s a bullet-point summary of the responses:

  • Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean could land his first Best Actor Oscar nod.
  • Anne Hathaway as Fantine is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.
  • Eddie Redmayne as Marius turns in a solid supporting performance.
  • Russell Crowe takes a “Jesus Christ Superstar rock-opera” approach that distinguishes Inspector Javert (but may not be to everyone’s taste).
  • The film as a whole is a “tour de force” and “tearjerker” that seems destined to become a Best Picture nominee.

Anne Hathaway is earning lots of praise for ‘Les Misérables’

Similar to Les Miz, Zero Dark Thirty is picking up accolades for its leading lady – Jessica Chastain as CIA analyst Maya (who is based on the real CIA agent that led the manhunt for bin Laden) – and its qualities as a cinematic viewing experience. Deadline has published an article that touches on the heavy research by Boal and Bigelow, suggesting the two have learned some lessons from the blowback over Hurt Locker‘s portrayal of Iraq war military operations (which some real-life vets criticized as inauthentic).

Here’s an excerpt from THR critic Todd McCarthy’s review:

“As it has emerged instead, [‘Zero Dark Thirty”] could well be the most impressive film Bigelow has made, as well as possibly her most personal, as one keenly feels the drive of the filmmaker channeled through the intensity of Maya’s character. The film’s power steadily and relentlessly builds over its long course, to a point that is terrifically imposing and unshakable. Chastain carries the film in a way she’s never been asked to do before. Denied the opportunity to provide psychological and emotional details for Maya, she nonetheless creates a character that proves indelible and deeply felt.”

Time‘s Richard Corliss echoes those sentiments (read his review), saying that Zero Dark Thirty is a streamlined, but detail-oriented, representation of real events “in the tradition of [authors] Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.” Moreover, Corliss feels that Bigelow’s film trounces Ben Affleck’s own true story CIA thriller (and fellow Best Picture contender) Argo, in terms of both better direction and taking fewer liberties with the facts.

Jessica Chastain’s earning high marks for ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

In summation: both the Best Actress and Picture race heated up something fierce over the holiday frame, between early responses to Les Miz and Zero Dark Thirty. That’s not to mention, Ang Lee’s acclaimed 3D visual feast Life of Pi opening in theaters (read our review) and David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (read our review) beginning a limited release and generating discussion about Jennifer Lawrence’s performance therein.

Zero Dark Thirty begins an Oscar-qualifying run on December 19th. It begins a regular release next year on January 11th.

Les Misérables opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

Source: Indiewire, EW, Deadline, THR, Time