Fifth element is most elusive

Empty

About the only phrase heard of late is, "I really think it has a shot at the fifth slot."

Awards consultants love to talk about a fifth slot. Every movie could fill the fifth slot. Movies you never heard of could fill the fifth slot. Movies featuring CG dogs could fill the fifth slot. Movies shot by your Uncle Murray could fill the fifth slot.

It's never the third slot, and never the 12th. There always are exactly four movies that are guaranteed, and the title in question, no matter how long its odds, is always right behind them.

The fifth-slot syndrome reminds me of a Little League team I played on as a child. There were 12 clubs in the division. One team won the championship. Everyone else was given a trophy for coming in second.

Still, the notion that underlies the fifth slot — that a movie that could sneak onto a list by hanging around long enough that all the traditional favorites have been sifted through — is real.

In recent years there have been numerous instances of fifth-slotters making good on the best picture side — either the most commercial or studio picture among the prestige and specialty ones ("Jerry Maguire" amid a host of indies in 1996), the comedy amid the dour dramas ("Juno" last year) or the film that's simply very different from any of the others ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000).

When the Oscar noms are announced Thursday morning, the chance for a fifth-slotter is real. So real, in fact, that there could even be … a fourth-slotter.

A quick look at the movies is in order. Assume "Slumdog Millionaire" is a lock. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is looking pretty strong too; yes, it has its critics, but it's impossible to imagine enough members of the Academy voting against a movie with such technical finesse and marketing muscle.

But that's where it gets tricky. The remaining pair in the supposed Fantastic Four, "Milk" and "Frost/Nixon," are very good movies. And they have a lot in common: Both are eloquently written period political pieces anchored by their lead performances.

It's refreshing that these kinds of films have made their way to movie theaters. But they represent a lot of seriousness for voters, and it wouldn't be a shock if one of the two doesn't get in.

Which leaves — two fifth slots.

So which would they be? Three other titles have realistic shots at best picture: "The Dark Knight," "Wall-E" and "Gran Torino."

The first is buoyed by its guild noms and a grass-roots effort on the Web to boost its chances. Not that your average Academy member is reading fan sites.

"Wall-E" has its share of supporters, too, including plenty of critics who hold sway over a certain segment of voters. And while there are some Academy members who would never put an animated title in the best picture race, there are those who want to make up for what they feel is years of snubs for toons.

Finally, there's Clint. The fact that Eastwood suddenly, if belatedly, has gotten so much favorable attention — and that "Gran Torino" has grossed an impressive $77 million so far — makes it an entirely plausible possibility.

Best picture is hardly the one with slots to spare. The best actor race has about four fifth-slotters. Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, Frank Langella and Eastwood are more than likely in; that leaves Richard Jenkins, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Philip Seymour Hoffman fighting for fifth-slot status.

And a host of other categories could see white knights and dark horses, if not white horses and dark knights.
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