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 Affleck, Aaron Stockard and Peter Craig, The Town

Adapted from the Chuck Hogan novel Prince of Thieves

Why they're contenders: Voters have already shown their love for Affleck's writing, giving him an Oscar for 1998's Good Will Hunting. Better still, they have a predilection for classy crime thrillers -- think The Departed.

Stockard: "The first thing we did was talk to the FBI's taskforce on armed robbery in Boston. They were able to fill in all these details that really opened our eyes a bit about this neighborhood that neither of us had spent any time in growing up -- even though it was a stone's throw away from us. At first we were like, 'People don't really jump out with AK-47s on the streets of the North End of Boston.' But in fact, they really do."

Michael Arndt, Toy Story 3

Why he's a contender: Arndt proved his appeal with Academy voters when he won an Oscar for his first produced script, 2006's Little Miss Sunshine. Delivering an acclaimed third outing in this Pixar franchise only furthers his standing.

Arndt: "At Pixar, the feedback cycle is almost immediate. You write something and then, the next day, artists start sketching those characters; it comes to life almost immediately. Writing a screenplay on your own is like trying to cross the ocean on a little homemade raft; getting hired by Pixar is like having a giant ocean liner come along and pick you up. They've done this 10 or 11 times before, so you feel like you're in good hands."

Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle, 127 Hours

Adapted from Aron Ralston's nonfiction book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Why they're contenders: Oscar voters love a triumphant true story, as this one labels itself, but it also benefits from being unique, relying on a kaleidoscopic structure and heart-stopping moments. Beaufoy has been nominated (The Full Monty) and won (Slumdog Millionaire), making him a force to reckon with.

Beaufoy: "I was really hoping [Boyle's first draft] would be bad. Danny always said he's such a bad writer, and he continues to say that. I was hoping that it would be poor. But I read it and thought, 'He found a way into an impossible story.' It was a really compelling 40 pages."

Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, Winter's Bone

Adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell

Why they're contenders:The film about an Ozark girl looking for her deadbeat father took the jury and screenplay awards at Sundance. Fellow scribes should be impressed with the mythical undertones in the realistic dialogue.

Granik: "Daniel Woodrell's novel was the blueprint, and then our actual trips to Missouri fleshed things out. I remember the interactions we saw between high schoolers and military recruiters were much more textured and emotional than our East Coast bias had prepared us for."

David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole

Adapted from his play

Why he's a contender: The play won Lindsay-Abaire a Pulitzer Prize -- and that classy pedigree will remind voters to look carefully at the writing here.

Lindsay-Abaire: "There's so much off-stage action in the play that it really leant itself to adaptation. I thought, 'I can finally see all the scenes and meet all these people.' With Gaby [a grief support group member], there are maybe four lines about her in the play, but I always knew who she was."

Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

Adapted from the nonfiction book, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebookby Ben Mezrich

Why he's a contender: Arguably the best dialogue writer in the business, Sorkin has earned three Golden Globe nominations for his film work and multiple Emmys for The West Wing. Without him, voters may have relegated the film to teenybopper land.

Sorkin: "There were three different versions of the truth. Instead of picking one and deciding, 'That's the truth,' or picking another one and deciding, 'That's the sexiest,' I liked that there were three. Suddenly it felt like a courtroom drama and I wanted to embrace that."

Alex Garland, Never Let Me Go

Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro's novel

Why he's a contender: Garland's script captures the patrician reserve and melancholy of Ishiguro's book, which follows the dark paths traveled by British youngsters raised to have their organs harvested. History may be on Garland's side: Voters awarded the Ishiguro adaptation The Remains of the Day with eight nominations, included adapted screenplay.

Garland: "There was a point about halfway through the second day of rehearsal where I just relaxed, and I thought, 'These guys get it.' It was hearing them talk about what their characters were thinking in a particular scene. There was this slow relief that spread through the day." 

Reported by Taylor Antrim, Mark Blankenship, Stephen Galloway, Eriq Gardner, Christy Grosz, Todd Longwell, Tom McLean, Carita Rizzo, Tom Roston, Scott Timberg and Stacey Wilson

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