Awards Watch -- The Contenders

 Clockwise from top Left: Screen Gems; Sony Pictures Classics; Summit Entertainment; Warner Bros. Pictures

Who are the frontrunners in this year's awards race? We offer brief profiles of some of the leading above-the-line contenders for picture, director, actor and actress -- as well as supporting actor and supporting actress -- that have emerged early on in this year's award season. But don't rule out the surprises yet to come.


Ben AffleckThe Town

Why he's a contender: Affleck escaped the sophomore jinx with this follow-up to Gone Baby Gone, but more important still, Oscar voters like honoring actors doubling as directors -- think Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, Robert Redford's Ordinary People, Mel Gibson's Braveheart and Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves -- almost as much as they love a comeback. Affleck's skilled helming and performance complete his resurrection from a mire of tabloid headlines.

>Affleck: "We would run the scene twice without cutting and then sit and talk about it while the camera was rolling. Really, you can only change 10%-15% on the day with actors, but you're making huge decisions in the editing room. I knew I'd be able to cut everything that I hated out of my performance."

Darren AronofskyBlack Swan

Why he's a contender: Aronofsky has yet to earn an Oscar nomination -- The Wrestler was more a showpiece for star Mickey Rourke -- but core filmmakers admire his risk-taking and there's not much of that this season. Question is, will the dark horse vote go to him or Danny Boyle for 127 Hours?

Aronofsky: "Ballet is all about the sacrifice of the body for the moment, and when we started to work on Black Swan, we realized there were a lot of connections to The Wrestler. I was never afraid of it. That's kind of the magic of cinema, because as long as the character is a thinking, feeling human, it doesn't matter if they're a down-on-his-luck wrestler or an up-and-coming ballerina."

Danny Boyle127 Hours   

Why he's a contender: After Slumdog Millionaire, nobody expected Boyle to opt for what seemed like an exercise in claustrophobia, when he could have taken on the next James Bond film instead. His bold leap of imagination, applying a kinetic style and frequently splitting his frame into different images, dazzles by being so unexpected.

Boyle: "I was aware that, at times, [actor] James Franco was near the limit. Sometimes, there would be technical stuff, like a sequence where he rigs the rope to lift the boulder. That's one-handed rigging and I wouldn't allow anyone in to help him. Even when we said 'cut,' I made sure no one touched it so that he'd have to work it out himself. He would be doing it and cursing -- and I'm sure he was saying things about me."

Derek CianfranceBlue Valentine

Why he's a contender: Arguably the most demanding and heavyweight film of the season -- it won the 2010 Sundance jury prize for drama -- Cianfrance's Valentine is a surefire contender for indie awards, but can he cross over to the Academy?

"When I was kid, I had two recurring nightmares. One was about nuclear war, and the other was that my parents would divorce. When I was 20, they split up and it was so confusing and bewildering to me that I had to confront it artistically. This [also] became Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams' film; I'd be so inspired, I'd go home and rewrite it based on our conversations. I stopped counting at 66 drafts."

Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right

Why she's a contender: It took Cholodenko years to find backing for this film, which was almost made with Robin Wright in Annette Bening's role. Her efforts paid off, helped by the fact that the final work has a much lighter touch than her original, somewhat darker screenplay.

Cholodenko: "All of us felt that, if there was anything politically correct or sanctimonious, it needed to be taken out. I didn't want to make a righteous-rainbow-flag, pro-gay-rights movie. Instead of trying to appeal in a zeitgeisty way, I thought people could handle seeing a good family film."

Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit

Why they're contenders: The Coen brothers had their biggest success with adapted material, No Country for Old Men. Now the writer-director-producers are returning to adapted work with this rethinking of Charles Portis' novel.

Josh Brolin: "They have a great system: They have perpendicular desks that touch. Ethan usually looks at the preferred takes for whatever scene they're looking at, and Joel is sitting there doing the timeline. Ethan [finds] the best moment, drags it over to the corner of Joel's screen and then hits a bell -- 'ding!' -- and Joel looks to the upper left of his screen and drags it down to the timeline. It's such a bizarre Coens-esque moment. They do it every single time."

Clint EastwoodHereafter

Why he's a contender: Nowhere is Eastwood's work better than in the astonishing tsunami scene that opens his movie. Any other director would have made it big and loud; Eastwood gives it a haunting quiet that makes it all the more terrifyingly real.

David FincherThe Social Network

Why he's a contender: Fincher has long been admired by film buffs but spurned by the Academy. Seven and Fight Club, two semi-classics, were snubbed. Now, after the disappointment of seeing 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button earn 11 nominations and pick up only three below-the-line wins, he's gotten universal acclaim for the perfect blend of helmer and theme.

Cean Chaffin (producer): "David's very involved in the schedule, and he will go over it with us ad nauseam, which is good. He doesn't ask for a trailer, he doesn't ask for bells and whistles, but he asks for the shooting days because he wants that time for the actors. He wants that time for the mistake. So he does fewer setups, more takes."

Tom HooperThe King's Speech

Why he's a contender: Hooper (John Adams, The Damned United) should thank his mother that he's in contention. She first saw Speech as a play in Melbourne and kept nagging him to read it. When he did, plucking it from the 30 other scripts on his desk, he knew he had a winner.

Hooper: "One of the best lines in the film came from my dad. Early on, we were talking about therapy and he said the most important thing he had been told was, 'You don't have to be afraid of things that you were afraid of when you were 5 years old.' There is a lot of me in the characters."

Christopher Nolan, Inception (also contender for original screenplay).

Why he's a contender: Nolan earned his only nomination to date for screenplay (2000's Memento), so he might be overdue for Oscar love. Still, with only five director slots compared with the best picture category's 10 -- and with Nolan's aversion to campaigning -- this might be an uphill battle.

Leonardo DiCaprio: "When I saw the film for the first time, I was amazed by the intensity. The way Chris created tension -- even in the scene with the van falling off this bridge, the tension of not knowing where you really were was exhilarating. There aren't many directors who could come up with such an outlandish concept and do it this big.

David O. Russell, The Fighter

Why he's a contender: Russell is a fighter at heart -- just ask George Clooney, who notoriously had a falling out with him on Three Kings. A passionate boxing fan, Russell's take on the real-life story of "Irish" Micky Ward could get the never-nominated director establishment recognition after earning indie cred with Flirting With Disaster and I Heart Huckabees.

Russell: "What drew me to the material was the rawness of the people, the realness of these amazing colorful characters, and I did a lot of work to put my voice into it, a lot of collaborating with the script."

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