2011 Oscar Contenders: Scorsese, Polanski … or Ben Stiller?

The first quarter saw big stars and respected filmmakers, but not many nominees

The first quarter of 2010 is in the books, and we’ve already got a whole slate of high-profile hopefuls for next year’s Oscars: Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski, Ben Stiller and Leonardo DiCaprio, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning …

Hopefuls, maybe. But are they contenders?

In fact, the first quarter of 2010 is looking a lot like the first quarter of 2009, in which precisely one future Oscar nominee was released.

How to Train Your DragonThe one was “Coraline,” which got a nod for Best Animated Feature. And this year’s first-quarter release “How to Train Your Dragon” (left) has a decent shot of ending up in the same category, particularly if enough animated films are released to bump the category from three to five nominees once more.

But other than that, we’re probably dealing with a bunch of longshots among the films that were released in the first three months of 2010.

I’m not including the movies that have screened or played film festivals but have yet to be released – so this leaves out the well-received British indie “Fish Tank,” or the SXSW fave “Kick-Ass,” or the Sundance winners “Winter’s Bone” and “happythankyoumoreplease,” or “The Exploding Girl,” with its wonderful Zoe Kazan performance. Those are for later (though "The Exploding Girl," it should be noted, was released on April 2 and is now in theaters).

The films we’ve seen in the first three months of the year have certainly come from some awards-worthy directors, from Scorsese and Polanski and Paul Greengrass and Tim Burton and Noah Baumbach.

And they include stars who’ve won or been nominated before (DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Michael Shannon, Ben Kingsley) and others who might well get there someday, from Ben Stiller to Kristen Stewart to mumblecore grad Greta Gerwig.

But somehow, little has connected in the way it’d have to connect to be a player when awards season picks up steam in five or six months.

Kristen StewartI mean, Kristen Stewart gets to glower and act sullen and play a real person, rocker Joan Jett, in “The Runaways” (right), but the film itself isn’t likely to be on any Oscar voters’ radar screens by year end.

Meanwhile, DiCaprio’s role in “Shutter Island” is deceptive, and more complex than it initially appears. Still, the performance is hardly on a level with the actor’s previous collaborations with Scorsese (“The Departed,” “The Aviator”), and the chances that he’ll be recognized for it are almost nonexistent.

His director’s chances aren’t much better. “Shutter Island” may have been considered an Oscar possibility last year, until its release was delayed into 2010 – but as enjoyable and stylish a genre exercise as it is, the film is likely too slight to make a dent in this year’s race unless it slips into a category like Art Direction.

And if Paramount opted not to spend on an awards campaign for the film last year, are they really apt to change their minds and back a first-quarter release that’ll be on video long before most voters start thinking about awards?

Polanski’s “Ghost Writer,” meanwhile, didn’t establish much presence at the box office, and its reviews, while largely positive, are studded with remarks like that of the New York Times’ A.O. Scott: “This is a nice, stripped down, spare, modest little thriller.”

Which is to say that while Polanski’s film is a tense, dramatic, smart drama with a tough, cynical point-of-view, it’s not real Oscar bait the way “The Pianist” was.

Among the other high-profile filmmakers to release work during the first quarter, Tim Burton enjoyed some record-setting grosses with “Alice in Wonderland,” but the lackluster reviews probably doom his film with the Academy – and the film’s performances are all so studiously quirky and largely one-dimensional that suggestions of, say, Helena Bonham Carter getting a nod for her Red Queen seem like pipe dreams. (Art Direction and Costume Design might be real possibilities, though.)

Similarly, Paul Greengrass’ Iraq-set “Green Zone” took a respected director into familiar territory but failed to connect with critics; it’s currently at a dismal 54 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. After “United 93” and two “Bourne” movies, I suspect that some Academy members wouldn’t mind saluting Greengrass, but it doesn’t feel as if “Green Zone” is the movie that’ll give them a reason to do that.

Ben Stiller and Greta GerwigThe other green movie, Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” (left), is modest, low-key and charming, an understated and dry comedy-with-a-bite that might have had a better shot with a later release date – although Oscar voters might also prefer Baumbach’s more lacerating side (i.e., “The Squid and the Whale”) to the light, sweet touch he shows on the new film.

That said, Greta Gerwig is marvelously casual and winning in the film, and could be slotted in either the Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress category depending on how the races line up. (Leading man Ben Stiller might need to make a few more appearances on the Oscar show not wearing a silly costume or makeup before the Academy takes him seriously.)

So who else might have a shot? I think Michel Shannon is the one person who might emerge from “The Runaways” with a remote chance of getting some awards heat, with a performance as producer/Svengali Kim Fowley that’s energetic and perverse enough to stand out.

“How to Train Your Dragon” will certainly be an Animated Feature contender, and possibly the likeliest of the three 2010 DreamWorks animated features (the others being “Shrek Forever After” and “MegaMind”).

And also on the animated front, the documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” about the revival of Disney animation in the 1980s and 1990s, could figure in the Documentary Feature race if the branch’s voters can momentarily relax their overwhelming focus on serious, issue-oriented docs.

The best-reviewed release of the quarter, though, may be the French film “Un Prophete,” which was knocked out of 2010 Oscar contention by virtue of the fact that it landed a 2009 Best Foreign-Language Film nomination. If it had been passed over by the foreign-language committee (the way, say, the Korean film “Mother” was), it’d be eligible, and probably as formidable a contender as these three months have produced.

(As it is, Hye-ja Kim certainly deserves Best Actress attention for her lead role in “Mother,” though limited distribution and the timing of a first-quarter release makes it nearly impossible that actors-branch voters will remember her eight months from now.)

So I guess it’s time to turn to the second-quarter offerings for legitimate Oscar contenders. After all, last April, May and June saw the release of a handful of films that went on to get some Academy attention: there was the Animated Feature winner “Up,” the Makeup champ “Star Trek,” and a low-budget late-June release called “The Hurt Locker.”