Independents poised to dominate Oscar race

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The Oscar race has now begun, with the independents and specialty divisions ponying up their strongest contenders for consideration. And while the outcome is usually hard to forecast, this year no one's claiming any sure bets. "It's like a bloodbath, with too many people on the elevator and no one getting off," says Focus Features CEO James Schamus. "You want to say, 'For the good of all of us, please, get off!' But of course no one will. The only thing for sure is that at the end of the day, there will be tears in the milk. Passions are running measurably higher this year." What follows is a detailed rundown of the projects inciting all this emotion.

Focus Features

Joe Wright's adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel "Atonement," starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, broke out of the Venice Film Festival and earned resounding applause at Toronto. "The response is almost scarily enthusiastic," Schamus says. "You can't assume anything, but this is a movie that seems to hit every note. I think it defines the all-category movie."

Another strong contender is Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution," which was deemed ineligible for best foreign-language film but will compete for picture, direction, cinematography, score and performances. "Is it a hurdle that it's rated NC-17?" Schamus ponders. "I don't think so. 'Midnight Cowboy' (1969) won best picture, and it was rated X."

Another challenging standout in all categories is David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises," starring Viggo Mortensen, with a strong supporting performance by Armin Mueller-Stahl and an original score by Howard Shore. "David and Viggo were very close (in the Oscar race) for (2005's) 'A History of Violence,' so it's like, 'OK, guys, remember?'" Schamus notes. "And as far as Viggo's performance here, when have you ever seen that before?"

Other buzzy performances include those from Jennifer Connelly, Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo under Terry George's direction in the drama "Reservation Road," and Don Cheadle's turn as Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene in Kasi Lemmons' biopic, "Talk to Me."

Fox Searchlight

The Fox specialty division has six movies it believes are worthy of consideration, three of which were the first DVD screeners received by Academy voters. Mira Nair's "The Namesake" will be supported in all categories, including best adapted screenplay and best supporting performances by Tabu and Irfan Khan. Another lauded performance is Keri Russell's in Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress," with Shelly's screenplay being offered up for consideration. And John Carney's "Once" will be promoted in multiple categories, says COO Nancy Utley, with a push for two of the film's original songs. "People are also talking about it for screenplay and best picture," Utley says, "and Marketa Irglova has been on so many actress lists."

Utley says Searchlight also will push Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" in all categories, as well as Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages," with Laura Linney for best actress, Philip Seymour Hoffman for best actor and Philip Bosco for best supporting actor. Lastly, Jason Reitman's dramedy "Juno" will be supported in all categories as well, including Diablo Cody for best original screenplay and Ellen Page for best actress.

IFC

If IFC president Jonathan Sehring had his way, the Romanian film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" would sweep the Oscars. But he's not the only one trumpeting the film. The drama, written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year. "It really resonates for us with critics and in festivals," says Sehring. "On one level, it can be considered a challenging work because of the character's attempt to get an abortion, but on another level, it's a great suspense thriller."

LionsGate

"As far as our consultants tell us, it's all over, with '3:10 to Yuma' winning everything," jokes studio president Tom Ortenberg of James Mangold's Western starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. "But no joke, we think it's a contender from top to bottom -- from screenplay to direction through the technical awards. We're going to campaign aggressively, and we're going to spend aggressively." In addition to pushes for the leading men, Ben Foster and Peter Fonda will be championed as best supporting actors. The studio also will push Sarah Polley's "Away From Her," especially performances by Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis and Gordon Pinsent.

Miramax

"I'm far too superstitious to predict anything," says Miramax president Daniel Battsek, who nevertheless admits excitement across the board for a particularly strong slate of Oscar contenders, including Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; the Coen brothers' Palme d'Or-nominated "No Country for Old Men"; Ben Affleck's directing debut, "Gone Baby Gone"; and Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," which Paramount Vantage is distributing domestically. Standout performances include Richard Gere's in Lasse Hallstrom's "The Hoax," Casey Affleck's and Amy Ryan's in "Gone" and Anne Hathaway's in "Becoming Jane."

Paramount Vantage

Paramount's specialty division has several strong contenders for best picture, with Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," starring Daniel Day-Lewis and co-starring Paul Dano in a possible best-supporting role. For Sean Penn's "Into the Wild," in addition to direction and Emile Hirsch's performance, there will be a push for Hal Holbrook as best supporting actor and for Eddie Vedder's songs. Marc Forster's adaptation of "The Kite Runner" (Paramount Classics/DreamWorks) will be supported in all categories, as will Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding," starring Nicole Kidman and Jack Black, with a script by Baumbach. Says Vantage president John Lesher, "We're really proud of these movies and confident that audiences, critics and the Academy will recognize them at the end of the year."

Picturehouse

While Olivier Dahan's "La Vie en Rose" was passed over by France in favor of Sony Pictures Classics' "Persepolis" for its official entry in Oscar's foreign-language film race, enthusiasm remains high for the film, the director and especially Marion Cotillard's performance as Edith Piaf. "I don't want to jinx it, but everyone loves her," says Picturehouse president Bob Berney. "And I hope there are some surprises with categories like makeup and costumes."

Two other foreign-language possibilities are Juan Antonio Bayona's Spanish film "The Orphanage," which has also been mentioned in the best picture category, and Sergei Bodrov's "Mongol" from Kazakhstan; Berney lauds both features' direction. As far as performances, Berney singles out Jennifer Lopez's and Marc Anthony's turns in Leon Ichaso's "El Cantante."

Sony Pictures Classics

The studio is riding high with the animated film "Persepolis," the French entry directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi and based on the graphic novels about growing up in Iran. The film won the jury prize at the Festival de Cannes and closed the New York Film Festival with a standing ovation. "That will be pushed for best foreign-language film but also best animated feature for sure," says co-president Michael Barker, who also hopes for recognition for best adapted screenplay, best score, editing and various technical achievements.

Barker's also thrilled by Francis Ford Coppola's period romance "Youth Without Youth," which had its world premiere in Rome in October. "We're going to go for everything," Barker says. "I don't think anyone has seen a more technically brilliant film in years. It's reminiscent of the great films from the '70s." Barker hails Tim Roth's performance as best actor-worthy and Alexandra Maria Lara as a possible best supporting actress contender. SPC also will support Michael Caine's performance in Kenneth Branagh's "Sleuth."

In the foreign-language category, the studio will get behind "The Counterfeiters," Stefan Ruzowitzky's concentration camp drama, which is based on a true story and earned its director a nomination at the Berlin Film Festival, as well as the Israeli film "The Band's Visit," from Eran Kolirin, which will receive an Oscar-qualifying run. "It's not unlike (2006's) 'The Lives of Others' in terms of being the birth of a new talent," Barker says. "I think it's the best Israeli film ever made and has a shot at best director and best screenplay."

ThinkFilm

"It does appear that there is a consensus that we have worthy films and not just by people who are employed by us," jokes head of U.S. theatrical Mark Urman. Topping that list is Sidney Lumet's thriller "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." "The film stars so many Oscar winners and nominees, it's silly," says Urman, who singles out extraordinary performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei and Rosemary Harris, as well as the potent directing of the 83-year-old Lumet and the strength of Kelly Masterson's screenplay.

The company traditionally shines in the documentary category, and this year is no exception, with a record four films on the Academy's docu shortlist: the abortion epic "Lake of Fire"; Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's "Nanking," on the 1937 Japanese massacre of the Chinese city; Alex Gibney's "Taxi to the Dark Side," an examination of the use of torture by U.S. forces; and Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine's look at a Ugandan musical competition, "War/Dance."

Finally, Urman is enthusiastic about Woody Harrelson's and Lauren Bacall's performances in Paul Schrader's Washington thriller, "The Walker." "Woody's performance is the finest thing he's ever done, and Bacall's performance and dialogue are worthy of framing," he says.

The Weinstein Co.

As always, Michael Moore will compete strongly in the best documentary category. But the Weinsteins have other contenders besides "Sicko." Already guaranteed a big push is the Denzel Washington-directed drama "The Great Debaters," which stars Washington and Forest Whitaker in the fact-based story about a professor who founded a debate team. "That's across the board -- from best picture to best director, performances, cinematography, set, score, everything," says executive vp Gary Farber. There will also be campaigns for Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan project, "I'm Not There," specifically Cate Blanchett's performance in the project; Sam Riley's turn as Joy Division front man Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn's biopic, "Control"; and John Cusack's performance in James C. Strouse's "Grace Is Gone." "Grace's" score, composed by Clint Eastwood (who has never before scored a movie he hasn't produced), also will get attention, as will as Sheryl Crow's contribution in the best original song category.

Warner Independent Pictures

Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah," starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon, will be championed across all major and below-the-line categories, including cinematography, editing and score. Says WIP president Polly Cohen, "We have a lot of faith that the film will get recognized for being as good as it is."

Yari Film Group

Bob Yari will campaign for Samuel L. Jackson's performance in Rod Lurie's "Resurrecting the Champ." "We really believe that this could be Sam Jackson's year," Yari says. "His performance was universally praised and is one of the strongest -- if not the strongest -- of his career. I don't think his performance will be overlooked. It's too good."
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