Academy members already picking their favorites
Empty"'The Kite Runner' was emotional, moving; it took me to a place I had never been before, with characters that I found sympathetic and well-developed."
Those are the words producer Adam Fields (2001's "Donnie Darko") uses to refer to one of his favorite films of the year, a picture many Academy members surveyed have singled out in the run-up to this year's Oscars, along with other front-runners like Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton" and Focus Features' "Atonement."
Fields was also impressed that the Paramount Classics/DreamWorks adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's best-seller avoided extremes of sentimentality or melodrama. "I have not read the book, but the story could easily have been far too maudlin or overly dramatic." Instead, "It felt real and not contrived."
That was one of the reasons writer Ed Decter (1998's "There's Something About Mary") loved "Michael Clayton."
"It's so much more difficult to write a film that has as its parameters absolute reality, rather than fantasy," he notes. "There are so many rules you have to abide by. Everything has to be believable and based on what's real. And (writer-director) Tony Gilroy pulled that off beautifully."
That concentration on character was pivotal to Fox Searchlight's "Once," the $150,000 Irish-made crowd-pleaser.
"The film barely has a plot, because it is so simple," says writer-director-producer Pen Densham (1996's "Moll Flanders"). "But what makes it work is the wonderful casting, and the performances, and the passion in the music, which is instantly engaging."
Care is what made Warner Independent's "In the Valley of Elah" compelling to writer-director Robin Swicord (Sony Pictures Classics' "The Jane Austen Book Club") -- the film's sensitivity to current events.
"It's very hard to see the world we are in while we are in it," she observes. "(Paul Haggis) made a film that was specifically about the warriors, but metaphorically about our entire country. I loved that he took on a very serious subject and did it in such a simple way, by focusing on a father who's a patriot, who's investigating what happened to his son when he came home from the war."
Conflict marked Focus Features' "Lust, Caution" -- the chaos of China during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s. And the complexity of conveying that to a modern audience was part of its appeal for producer and former Fox Studios chairman Bill Mechanic.
"It's a difficult movie to make: It is in Chinese and it is set during World War II, and those are pretty big potential pitfalls," he notes. "To pull off a drama like this is hard. When you do a comedy, the target is bigger, and as long as it's funny and amusing, it's OK; but with drama, it has to be perfect. I don't know very many just-OK dramas that have survived."
Mechanic was also taken with another film, Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" (Fox Searchlight) -- neither a drama nor a comedy."I liked the elliptical quality of it all. He doesn't go right at things; he circles around the nuances," he says.
The similar structure of "Atonement" won over producer Lindsay Doran (2006's "Stranger Than Fiction"). "They managed to maintain the elliptical quality of the storytelling in the book (by Ian McEwan)," she says. "But they kept it very emotional and accessible. It would have been easy to have it feel like an intellectual exercise, and instead it was one of the most emotional movies of the year."
Howard Cohen, co-president of indie distributor Roadside Attractions, responded to another well-executed thriller, "Eastern Promises" (Focus Features).
"It was really kinetic and well-directed and involving; it was a good night at the movies," Cohen says of the David Cronenberg film. "It could have been a routine story, with routine plotting -- but the acting and the setting and the writing elevated it."
Like "Kite Runner" and "Michael Clayton," he adds, "It had a little basis in reality."