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TheWrap Picks the Oscar Contenders

It’s never too early to figure out who’ll be battling for the big award.

It may not yet be the Fourth of July, but it’s always Oscar time in Hollywood.


"Slumdog Millionaire" — winner of eight Academy Awards back in February — is ancient history. Already, studios, indies, publicists, managers, agents, caterers, limo companies and, mostly, film geeks, are looking ahead to the 2009-2010 race.


This year an army of celebrated directors returns to the fray (see sidebar): James Cameron is back. So is Peter Jackson, Jim Sheridan and Steven Soderbergh.


They’ll be mixing it up with Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Pedro Almodovar.


So in the spirit of Oscar enthusiasm, here’s TheWrap’s ridiculously early list of potential, maybe, could-be and why-the-hell-not Oscar contenders for major awards consideration. Trailers appear, when available.



SHUTTER ISLAND (Paramount, Oct. 2)

He finally won his directing Oscar (for "The Departed"), but Martin Scorsese isn’t slowing down. He’s back — with Leonardo DiCaprio again — in a movie based on "Mystic River" novelist Dennis Lehane’s prison-set novel. Anyone who has seen the trailer knows Scorsese’s grand style is present here, but, more importantly for awards consideration, he’s also on quite a roll: His last three features, "Gangs of New York," "The Aviator" and "The Departed," all were nominated for Best Picture. At this point, Scorsese and Clint Eastwood (see "Invictus" below) are at the top of the Hollywood heap, both in terms of their films and on the awards circuit.



A SERIOUS MAN (Focus, Oct. 9)
Let’s just say that after "No Country for Old Men," the Coen brothers are in "Can’t-Miss Land," and their most recent black comedy will test those limits. With eight Oscars between them for "No Country" and "Fargo," they loosened things up a little last year with "Burn After Reading," and despite the hip goofiness that turned some off, it still landed on many Top 10 lists at year’s end. "A Serious Man" is about a man (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose life changes when his wife prepares to leave him. If there’s even a modicum of critical support behind it, that’s usually enough for the Coens.


THE INFORMANT (Warner Bros, Oct. 9)
Based on Kurt Eichenwald’s sizzling book about a whistleblower, "The Informant" has plenty of pedigree behind it, including Steven Soderbergh and star Matt Damon. The director returns to the mainstream movies after the five-hour epic (and little-seen) "Che," the obscure "The Good German" and the current experiment, "The Girlfriend Experience." The plotline is similar to 2007 best picture nominee "Michael Clayton" and an overall seriousness that feels like voters will pay attention. Soderbergh does well at awards time when he deals with populist adult themes — he won an Oscar (for "Traffic") and was nominated for another (for "Erin Brockovich"). And both movies were nominated for Best Picture.


PRECIOUS (Lionsgate, Nov. 6)

There’s always a little movie in the mix, and for now, "Precious" feels like it’s the one. Lee Daniels’ Sundance award winner already has so many fans it seems to be the odds-on favorite to take the "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Juno" slot as the season’s "gotta see" gem. Small movies that come from nowhere have more of shot than ever,  since "Slumdog Millionaire" slew last year’s studio giants.



BROKEN EMBRACES (Sony Pictures Classics, Nov 20)

In his own way, Pedro Almodovar is as popular on the awards circuit right now as Scorsese and Eastwood. Having won a screenplay Oscar for "Talk to Her," Almodovar has found a way to stay true to his indie roots while playing the Hollywood game, all to great critical and audience acclaim. He’s back with Penelope Cruz, so one of these days, the writer-director will become a force in the major categories, and this may be the year.



NINE (The Weinstein Co., Nov. 25)

From the trailer alone, "Nine" looks and sounds like Oscar bait. The cast — Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz — is a walking-talking-singing trophy magnet. The musical is a well-known Broadway production, the director already helmed an Oscar-winning film in "Chicago," and it’s from Bob and Harvey Weinstein.  But here’s the problem: "Dreamgirls" was supposed to be a slam-dunk three years ago. It had everything going for it — until it swung and missed at a Best Picture nomination. Lesson learned? You’re a frontrunner — until you’re not.


BROTHERS (Lionsgate, Dec. 4)
Jim Sheridan has a great young cast in Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire. Based on Susanne Bier’s Danish film that won many awards back in 2004, the subject matter is post traumatic stress syndrome. It’s yet another war movie — we learned last year that people just didn’t want to see "Lions for Lambs," "Stop Loss" or "Redacted" — but the star power, a push from Lionsgate and a respected director who has delivered powerful dramas before ("In America," "In the Name of the Father," "My Left Foot") could lead to some Academy love.


INVICTUS (a.k.a. The Human Factor, Warner Bros., Dec. 11)

If there were one film that feels like a sure-thing, this is it. Oscar’s good will  ambassador, Clint Eastwood, directs Morgan Freeman in the story of Nelson Mandela. That’s about all voters will need to hear to perk up their ears (and turn up their hearing aids?). Add in another role from Damon, a late platform release, Eastwood’s recent awards history and historical gravitas, and it’s likely this will be a big part of the discussion more than any other release this year.


THE LOVELY BONES (Paramount/DreamWorks, Dec. 11)

Peter Jackson hasn’t directed since "King Kong," so his next film is ripe for hype. "Lovely Bones" is an adaptation of a huge, haunting bestseller which has attracted a strong cast in Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci and Mark Wahlberg. Jackson may be getting a lot of press lately for his 2010 "Tintin" collaboration with Steven Spielberg, but if he can pull off a dramatic tour de force with "Bones" like he did with the movie that put him on the map, "Heavenly Creatures," and the "LOTR" trilogy, this one could be a true contender.


BIUTIFUL, (U.S distributor TBD, Dec 11)

Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu proved he could lead adult dramas to the winners circle  since "Babel" took home a Golden Globe and was nominated for seven Oscars three years ago. Now he’s got Javier Bardem playing a criminal whose life becomes complicated when he runs into an old friend, who happens to be a policeman. Sounds good.


AVATAR (Fox, Dec. 18)

James Cameron — once the king of the world — is back with what he promises will be a game-changing dive into 3-D and moviemaking in general. Nobody’s seen anything, but the buzz, based only on bloggers and chat rooms, is deafening. It’s amazing to think that "Titanic" was 12 years ago. Cameron has directed nothing since then. But that’s exactly the point: No movie will get more of a free ride in the mass media and blogosphere based on the backstory alone. Now just think what will happen if it’s as good as Cameron says it is.


UP (Disney-Pixar, already released)

The exact same discussion always bubbles up come Oscar time: Can an animated film get a Best Picture nomination — the first since "Beauty and the Beast?" If it can, then any Pixar title is usually the one to go with. Problem is, "Wall-E," which many consider to be Pixar’s finest, couldn’t even land a spot, so while "Up" is certainly a B.O. fave and a major critics’ darling, it will probably have a hard time getting into the top five.