risky business

'Heart' pumping life into early Oscar talk

There's no official starting gun to the annual Oscar race, and the finish line for the 80th Annual Academy Awards isn't until Feb. 24. But a number of races already have begun — some quietly, some not so quietly.

This weekend, Paramount Vantage is launching "A Mighty Heart," director Michael Winterbottom's re-creation of the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl at the hands of Pakistani militants. Starring Angelina Jolie as Pearl's wife, Mariane, who led the search for her husband, the film debuted at the Festival de Cannes in May.

As of Thursday, the documentary-like thriller rated a 74% positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com, but higher-end critics have been even more positive, with an 82% rating. Vantage isn't being shy about using the "O" word: Print ads quote Ben Lyons of E! Entertainment proclaiming, "The early favorite for best picture at this year's Oscars," while TV ads also invoke its Oscar-worthiness.

Actually, months from now, when the Oscar campaigns are in high gear, "Heart's" awards hopes probably will coalesce around Jolie's performance as the actress succeeds in the tricky job of capturing a real-life woman whose tragic story made headlines in 2002. But a nomination isn't automatically guaranteed since this year's best actress field is one of the strongest in years.

Lionsgate Films already has released Sarah Polley's "Away From Her," a portrait of a couple coping with Alzheimer's, starring a luminous Julie Christie as a woman battling the disease, which could earn the actress the fourth nomination of her career. Picturehouse recently launched "La Vie en Rose," starring French actress Marion Cotillard as chanteuse Edith Piaf. At the Seattle International Film Festival, which concluded last weekend, Cotillard was rewarded with the Audience Award for best actress, a harbinger of future trips she could well make to the winner's podium.

Next weekend, another possible contender enters the field when Focus Features debuts "Evening," Lajos Koltai's screen adaptation of the Susan Minot novel that stars Vanessa Redgrave as a dying woman looking back over her life.

And that's just the best actress heat, which is destined to get more crowded as the year progresses and other films — like Universal Pictures' "The Golden Age," in which Cate Blanchett reprises the role of Queen Elizabeth I, which earned her an Oscar nom for "Elizabeth" in 1999 — enter the field.

At the same time, other categories are just beginning to take shape. Next weekend also will see Buena Vista's release of Pixar's "Ratatouille," which is earning rave advance reviews. Although only nine reviews have been posted on RottenTomatoes to date, they have registered a resounding 100% approval rating. There's still a wide array of animated films to come: among others, 20th Century Fox's "The Simpsons Movie"; DreamWorks' "Bee Movie"; and Sony Pictures Classics' "Persepolis," which uses animation to tell a very grown-up story of a young Iranian woman caught up in the Islamic Revolution. So "Ratatouille" isn't necessarily a shoo-in, but by summer's end, it's likely to have established itself as the animation front-runner.

However it ultimately fares at the boxoffice and with critics, Michael Moore's "Sicko," which also moves into wide release next weekend, is sure to kick-start discussions about the documentary race. The film itself already has elbowed its way into the national conversation.
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