Sharp turns on road to Oscar

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NEW YORK -- It's the time of year when everyone in the movie business makes lists. Critics compile their top 10 films. Academy members rank their favorites. Warners and Fox make a rundown of legal arguments for their "Watchmen" suit.

But what's an awards columnist -- without the authority of a critic or the voting power of an Academy member -- to do? Make lists about awards season, of course. With eight weeks to go until the Oscars, more surprises surely await.

The season, though, has come a long way already. From the ignoble to the inspiring, the subtle to the ridiculous, here are the 10 best stories and subplots from Oscar Race 2008.

The real world. Weren't movies supposed to be an escape from real life? Gus Van Sant makes a movie about a politician who fights anti-gay legislation -- and California promptly passes Prop 8. Danny Boyle makes a movie about sectarian violence in India -- and the country suffers one of the worst terrorist attacks in its history. Maybe all those period World War II Oscar movies aren't such a bad idea after all.

On the Button. In mid-November, Paramount is finally set to unveil "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." The industry has more pent-up excitement than a teenage girl at a Rob Pattinson sighting. Hundreds of expectant voters, tastemakers and critics await in the DGA theater. Then the digital projection goes kablooey, and the screening is stopped a half-hour in. Fortunately, at its rain-date screening two days later, Paramount rebounds with an excellent David Fincher-Eric Roth panel, and a release born under unusual circumstances turns out just fine.

Make his day. By now Clint Eastwood slips in a last-minute contender so often it's a surprise when he doesn't. But after "Changeling" floundered with critics, it might not be a Clint year after all: "Gran Torino" has earned mixed reviews, and the movie seems like a best film long shot -- though don't count out the former Dirty Harry for a best actor nom.

The Qantas of solace. "Australia." Baz Luhrmann. Big hopes. Misunderstood. You want to hear about it again?

Ambivalence. For reasons unclear, Paramount Vantage pushes back its "Defiance" opening and decides to give the movie only a token awards run, even though the picture is a tour de force and Daniel Craig, playing a tormented Jewish partisan, gives what is easily one of the best performances of the year.

Dark Knight, the dark horse: It's a shoo-in for best picture! No, they'll never nominate it in a million years! The Batman tentpole yielded as many alleged certainties as it did critics' top 10 spots. Now that the dust has settled, its prospects are where many thought it would be -- an Oscar lock for Heath Ledger and an outside shot for director Christopher Nolan. James Cameron can rest easy; his boxoffice record may be in jeopardy, but his Oscar total isn't.

The robot chronicles.
It's a shoo-in for best picture! No, they'll never nominate it in a million years! "WALL-E" has pretty much followed the same track as "The Dark Knight." And while it could occupy the so-called fifth slot that movies like "Juno" have occupied, it seems more likely than it misses the best picture cut and wins best animated. And the debate over a separate award for animation will start up again.

Seeing double. Meryl Streep a contender for both "Mamma Mia!" and "Doubt." Josh Brolin in the mix for "Milk" and "W." Kate Winslet a potential dual nominee for "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader." Forget SAG worries; does Hollywood have an actor shortage?

Readergate. Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin argue over when "The Reader" should come out, they sing "Kumbaya," they abruptly part ways. There hasn't been this much whiplash outside of Six Flags since, well, the last time Rudin, Weinstein and director Stephen Daldry worked on a movie. The conflict -- which may have stemmed from Rudin and Winslet also releasing "Revolutionary Road" -- ended well, with Weinstein getting four Globe noms for "The Reader" and Rudin landing four for "Road." But don't expect other co-productions anytime soon.

Going to the slumdogs. Warner Independent is making a little-hyped movie set on another continent. The company shuts down in the spring, the movie's orphaned in the summer -- and ends up a best picture front-runner when released by Fox Searchlight in the fall. About the only fairy-tale ending more unlikely is a slum kid going on a game show and winning
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