Critics writing their lists, checking them twice

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The awards race is on. Not the race to position films for year-end awards consideration -- that dance has been going on since at least the September trifecta of the Telluride, Venice and Toronto film festivals, if not before. (Current front-runner "Dreamgirls" actually got a trial trot around the track when selected scenes screened at a press event during May's Festival de Cannes.) No, the current race is the rush by film organizations and critics' groups to be among the first to anoint the best films of 2006.

For the regular moviegoer stuck in multiplexes showing "Turistas" and "Van Wilder 2," the whole process has to look fairly mysterious. A number of the season's highly lauded films, such as Sony Pictures Classics' "Volver" and New Line Cinema's "Little Children," still are in limited-engagement holding patterns; others won't be released for a few more weeks. The Weinstein Co. is rushing to ready its "Factory Girl," for which it hopes Sienna Miller will receive attention for her role as Andy Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, for a one-week-only Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles via MGM starting Dec. 29. In the meantime, to court awards groups, it has taken the unorthodox tack of screening a work-in-progress print.

Given the last-minute crush of films, the current rush to judgment can look almost arbitrary. On Dec. 1, the International Press Assn., which fancies itself as an alternative to the Golden Globe-wielding Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., released an exhaustive list of nominees. Nominating seven films for best drama -- alphabetically, ranging from "Babel" to "The Queen" -- and another six for best comedy, it more than covered its bases. But it overlooked late-breaking movies like Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima," which just started screening last week and doesn't open in limited engagements until Dec. 20.

That oversight was quickly remedied by the New York-based National Board of Review, which Wednesday anointed "Letters" as its picture of the year. NBR isn't necessarily a predictor of Oscar glory; it never included any "The Lord of the Rings" movies on its lists of top 10 films, which tend to favor movies with more conventional literary or historical credentials. This year, except for a shared breakthrough performance by an actress award for Jennifer Hudson, it ignored the formidable "Dreamgirls."

Simultaneously, New York's indie-centric IFP and Los Angeles' similarly oriented Film Independent also have come forward with their respective awards and nominations. But because both groups focus on indie films -- concentrating on titles that surfaced as early as January's Sundance Film Festival -- they, at least, have had more time to ponder their choices.

At its Gotham Awards last week, the IFP gave a boost to the resolutely indie "Half Nelson," Ryan Fleck's drama about the bond that develops between a drug-addicted teacher and one of his students, naming it best feature. Film Independent also elevated that film's profile by showering it with five nominations. Whether that will lead to a best actor Oscar nomination for star Ryan Gosling remains to be seen, though. The movie's low-key naturalism might not win over the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which well could prefer to honor the year's other big indie critical favorite, the more accessible "Little Miss Sunshine."

In the end, all the awards that shower down on the movie business at this time of year -- next up are the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the American Film Institute, which announce their choices Sunday -- say more about the taste of the groups doing the awarding than they do the films themselves.
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