"I've been trying not to think about it," groans one Oscar consultant as the conversation inevitably turns to the upcoming Oscar race. Sure, the 84th Annual Academy Awards won't take place until Feb. 26, and the serious jockeying won't begin until Labor Day, when the festival trifecta of Telluride-Venice-Toronto gets under way. But it's never too soon to start drawing up those tout sheets, especially because this year's would-be contenders include such master moviemakers as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick and Roman Polanski, as well as newer auteurs like Jason Reitman, George Clooney, Alexander Payne and Cameron Crowe.
Harry Potter's last bid for serious validation
Since the best picture field was expanded to 10 nominees two years ago, there has been room for at least one blockbuster like Avatar or Inception. Who has a chance at securing that slot this year? Look for Warner Bros.' Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 to give it the old college try. Although a Warners insider says, "Right now we're focused on releasing the movie, and then we'll think about awards," the final Potter pic will offer the Academy its last chance to recognize a franchise that has taken in almost $6.4 billion in worldwide box office. The challenge, though, is that previous Potter movies have earned only scattered nominations in the technical categories, so the valedictory Hallows, opening July 15, will have to strike an especially emotional note. The other movie that could position itself as a populist entertainment is J.J. Abrams' Super 8. After all, it was designed as a tribute to Steven Spielberg's early movies such as Jaws and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and both of those films earned best picture noms -- even during the more restrictive days of five nominees.
Critics will be playing favorites as the fall festival circuit gets under way
The Academy doesn't always listen to the critics, but a solid critical push never hurts, either. Coming off its Palme d'Or-winning debut at the Cannes Film Festival, Malick's The Tree of Life has already established itself as a must-see movie. In his largely celebratory review, The New York Times' A.O. Scott called Malick a "visionary," though the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan (perhaps foreshadowing Academy taste?) faulted his "opaque, distancing style." Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris has been greeted with more unanimous applause, and French silent movie The Artist could enjoy a similar reception. The fall will bring a bumper crop of movies jostling for critical attention: The Juno team of director Reitman and writer Diablo Cody are reuniting for Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron; Sideways' Payne will open a new movie, The Descendants, starring Clooney (who also has directed a film of his own, the political drama The Ides of March); and Crowe will return with We Bought a Zoo, starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson.
Hang in long enough, and some actors' time comes due
It could finally be Leonardo DiCaprio's time. Every year, a consensus develops that at least one performer or filmmaker is "due." This year, that drumbeat could go to DiCaprio, who has a potentially plum part as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, which opens Dec. 14. He has been Oscar-nominated three times but hasn't won, and that could put him on the Academy's Most Wanted list. … Meryl Streep can't say she has never won an Oscar -- she scored a supporting actress trophy for 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer and best actress for 1982's Sophie's Choice -- but since then, she has been nominated 12 times (for a career total of 16 noms) without being called back to the stage. Based on word of her turn in The Iron Lady as steely former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher -- a promo reel was shown to buyers in Cannes -- rival studios are penciling her in as a favorite. … Veteran Christopher Plummer got one of those "he's due" pushes when he received his first Oscar nomination two years ago for The Last Station, but because he didn't win, there's sure to be a repeat of that refrain for his performance as a widower who comes out as gay late in life in Beginners.
For Hugo Cabret, Scorsese will pull a magic 3D act out of his hat
Just when 3D movies appear to be encountering resistance at the box office, Scorsese is out to prove that 3D should be taken seriously as Paramount releases his Hugo Cabret, produced by GK Films, on Nov. 23. While James Cameron's Avatar and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland mixed live action with performance-capture sequences, Hugo Cabret will be the first purely live-action 3D movie to make a bid for top Oscar honors. (Films like Saw 3D don't count.) Based on Brian Selznick's award-winning children's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the movie promises a softer, more family-friendly tone than the Oscar-winning director of The Departed usually delivers. It tells the story of a young boy, living in a Paris train station in the 1930s, who has a magical encounter with pioneering filmmaker Georges Melies (played by Ben Kingsley), who has become a down-on-his-luck toymaker. Scorsese, no stranger to cutting-edge visuals, has enthusiastically embraced the new medium. "Every shot is rethinking cinema," he has said of shooting in 3D, "rethinking narrative -- how to tell a story with a picture."
Harvey and Scott Duke it out again
Theirs is an epic Oscar rivalry. New York-based producer Scott Rudin took home the best picture trophy for 2007's No Country for Old Men. This year, though, it was Harvey Weinstein, who distributed The King's Speech, who seized the crown, beating out Rudin's The Social Network. This year brings another rematch. Rudin has produced three potential contenders: the baseball drama Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane; David Fincher's screen adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; and Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's post-9/11 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Meanwhile, the Weinstein Co. has not dated all of its releases, but it's preparing The Iron Lady; The Artist; My Week With Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe; and could push John Hillcoat's Depression-era drama The Wettest County in the World, if it's ready for a 2011 bow.
A couple of Broadway babies aim for the silver screen
Stage-to-screen transitions can be treacherous, but Spielberg and Polanski are looking to beat the odds. Spielberg is tackling War Horse, which DreamWorks opens Dec. 28. It's the tale of a horse drafted by the cavalry to fight in the trenches of World War I and the boy who goes in search of his steed. The filmmaker is working from Michael Morpurgo's children novel, which was adapted for the London stage in 2007 and this year hit Broadway, where it has been nominated for five Tonys. Onstage, the horse is brought to life by a team of puppeteers in a coup de theatre that's hard to duplicate on film, where real horses will be used. Polanski faces a different challenge with his screen adaptation of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, a tale of two well-heeled couples who meet to sort out their children's schoolyard squabble, only to descend into savagery themselves. Onstage, the entire showdown takes place in a minimalist living room, and the tone strikes a balance about halfway between the jocular Neil Simon and the darker Edward Albee. Polanski's version, which will simply be titled Carnage when it is released by Sony Pictures Classics, could be darker yet.
The Adventures of TinTin might just define the animation race
At the 2007 Oscar ceremony, Happy Feet beat out Cars for best animated film. But even though this year brings Cars 2 and Happy Feet Two, don't expect a repeat of that showdown. Amid a plethora of sequels, Fox's colorful Rio can claim novelty, and Paramount's Rango is full of Western references to movies like High Noon. The big question mark is The Adventures of Tintin (Dec. 23), which boasts Steven Spielberg as director and Spielberg and Peter Jackson as producers. To animate the Herge comics, Spielberg used performance capture, considered controversial by animators who still haven't accepted that Happy Feet, which also used motion capture, beat Cars. Although an Academy rule states, "Motion capture by itself is not an animation technique," it also doesn't disqualify a movie that uses motion capture as long as it employs other frame-by-frame animation techniques.