Strong Globes contenders have already begun to emerge

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"The Lovely Bones"
 
Just a few years ago, "Million Dollar Baby" came out of nowhere to scoop a fistful of nominations at the Golden Globes. The movie was so late in the game, hardly any of the awards pundits had given it serious thought, not least because advance word had spread that it was just a female "Rocky."

The film, of course, went on to win best picture at the Oscars.

This year, not one but three contenders remained largely unseen -- Clint Eastwood's "Invictus," Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" and James Cameron's "Avatar" -- and that doesn't include the Weinstein Co.'s "Nine," which was just beginning to be screened at press time. All this leaves the current Globes race with an element of mystery far greater than a year ago when "Slumdog Millionaire" rode its post-Toronto buzz to a sweep of the top awards.

Further complicating predictions is the uncertainty about how to define at least one major contender, Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air." Paramount has submitted the movie as a drama, usually a far more competitive category than comedy/musical, but the movie could equally compete in the latter category. Ultimately, the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. will decide for themselves -- and they've been known to reject studio definitions and categorize actors and pictures as they see best.

Their decisions will affect which pictures become the ones to watch in the all-important Oscar race, which now -- like the Globes -- will have 10 nominees as opposed to five in years past. But anyone expecting the Oscars to be a mirror image of the Globes will likely be disappointed; after all, the motion picture Academy's board of governors deliberately chose not to go the Globes route by refusing to divide its top 10 choices between comedies and dramas.

Here's where some of the key races stand right now.

Motion picture -- drama


"Precious"
 
"Up in the Air" and Lionsgate's "Precious" emerged from this year's Toronto International Film Festival with the same kind of buzz as "Slumdog" last year -- well, almost: No matter how many fans they have, neither has quite sealed the deal as the front-runner, leaving considerable wiggle room for other contenders. Those should include "An Education," the charming English period-piece that has already made a star of Carey Mulligan. The movie has a huge core of support among HFPA members, though there's some debate about whether its negative portrayal of its Jewish co-lead (played by Peter Sarsgaard) will hurt it down the line. "Precious" could equally be hurt by rumblings from some members of the black community, who have complained that it conveys a negative image of black people. With question marks like this, the race will remain wide open until "Lovely Bones," "Invictus" and "Avatar" stake their claims. Other hopefuls include across-the-board contenders "A Serious Man," "A Single Man," "District 9," "Inglourious Basterds" and "The Hurt Locker." Most insiders believe some of big mainstream movies, like "Star Trek," stand a better chance at the Oscars than in this category.

Motion picture -- comedy or musical


"Julie & Julia"
 
There's one surefire contender here, Nora Ephron's "Julie & Julia," which was praised by critics and became a box­office hit to boot. In addition, much of the movie takes place in Paris during the post-World War II era, guaranteed to appeal to members of the foreign press. The Rome-based musical "Nine" could take advantage of its Oscar-winning cast and follow on the success of director Rob Marshall's previous musical, "Chicago," providing "Julia's" toughest competition. Among other comedies, "The Hangover" has solid support and "(500) Days of Summer" could continue Fox Searchlight's winning streak after "Slumdog." In a field with few awards-worthy contenders, another Meryl Streep vehicle, "It's Complicated," could sneak in, as could the anti-war satire "In the Loop" and Judd Apatow's "Funny People." One to watch out for: "Crazy Heart" -- if the HFPA deems it a musical, though it's being pushed as a drama by Searchlight. "This Is It," which emerged out of nowhere to become one of the best-regarded movies of the year, is not eligible for best picture as it falls into the documentary category.

Best actor -- drama


Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart"
 
Searchlight made a shrewd bet on "Crazy Heart," the country music opus that was meant to be released next year until execs looked at the playing field and realized Jeff Bridges was a lock for a nomination. You can expect the same for Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela in "Invictus," who could be this year's "Gandhi," a case where people are voting as much for the saintly real-life character as for the actor. In the fictional domain, Colin Firth may get his first nomination for playing a gay professor going through a midlife crisis in fashionista Tom Ford's "A Single Man" as may relative unknown Michael Stuhlbarg for the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man." Viggo Mortensen may be back with "The Road." The "Brothers" cast could contend, with Tobey Maguire the most likely nominee for his scene-stealing turn as an Iraq War vet -- though he'd stand a better chance in support. Until "Invictus" screens, the front-runner may be George Clooney, delivering one of his most assured star turns in "Up in the Air." The press loves him and most critics say he's never been better.

Best actress -- drama


Carey Mulligan in "An Education"
 
The most interesting acting race of the year won't come into its own until the Oscars, when new face Carey Mulligan ("An Education") will go head-to-head with the most acclaimed actress in the world, Meryl Streep ("Julie & Julia"). But the Globes niftily avoids that competition by putting both into different categories, with Mulligan in drama and Streep in comedy. As always, there are relatively slim pickings, given how rarely Hollywood puts a woman in a leading role. Other major contenders include previous Oscar winner Helen Mirren, who plays Tolstoy's temperamental wife, the Countess Sofya in "The Last Station," Abbie Cornish for the real-life Fanny Brawne in "Bright Star" and Emily Blunt ("The Young Victoria"). Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is also a strong contender for the lead in "Precious" -- while some skeptics initially argued that she was just playing herself, a widespread publicity campaign has convinced voters she's not at all like the role she plays. Saoirse Ronan and Rachel Weisz could be considered contenders for "Lovely Bones." Given the sparse field, Hilary Swank could contend for "Amelia" despite the film's flame-out at the boxoffice.

Best actor: comedy or musical

If you thought the lead actress drama category was thin, wait until you look at the comedy/musical category, where insiders can barely come up with five contenders. Possible nominees include Daniel Day-Lewis playing Fellini's alter-ego Guido in "Nine," Bradley Cooper in "The Hangover," Matt Damon as the corporate con-man in "The Informant!" or Nicolas Cage in "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," which is being pushed as a comedy. Otherwise, it's anybody's guess.

Best actress: comedy or musical

Here there's no contest: Meryl Streep will win this award. In fact, her biggest competition might be herself in "It's Complicated," which is permitted under Golden Globe rules (just three years ago, Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for both "The Departed" and "Blood Diamond"). Does anyone else have a shot? Sandra Bullock had one of her biggest years ever, with "The Proposal" and "The Blind Side," and she'll probably be nominated for one of them; and there's a chance the HFPA might consider Marion Cotillard for lead, playing Day-Lewis' mistreated wife in "Nine."



Best supporting actor

Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who won the best actor award at Cannes for his turn as a diabolical Nazi in "Inglourious Basterds," is contending in support here -- even though for a brief time the Weinstein Co. toyed with pushing him in the lead category -- and he seems a front-runner. Competition may come from Peter Sarsgaard in "An Education"; Christopher Plummer who plays Tolstoy in "The Last Station"; "Up in the Air's" Jason Bateman; Christian McKay, who scores a triumph portraying boy genius Orson Welles in "Me and Orson Welles"; Alfred Molina is drawing acclaim for "An Education" and Zach Galifianakis, who stole "The Hangover" from that terrific ensemble. While Alec Baldwin is receiving a push for "It's Complicated," the HFPA may consider him a lead in that film. Matt Damon could get a nomination here, depending on the size of his role in "Invictus"; same for Stanley Tucci in either "Julie & Julia" or "Lovely Bones."

Best supporting actress

She keeps saying she's a comedian, not an actress, but that shouldn't impede Mo'Nique's chances of locking a nomination and likely a win for her unflinching portrayal of an abusive mother in "Precious." Voters love to honor new faces in this category, and another strong contender is Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air," who plays the hotshot young executive tutored by George Clooney. Kendrick could find herself nominated with co-star Vera Farmiga, who has a smaller but very difficult role as Clooney's lover. Look for one of "Nine's" strong female class to make an appearance -- either Marion Cotillard or Penelope Cruz would seem likely, unless the HFPA decides to push Cotillard into the lead category. And this may be where the HFPA rewards Sigourney Weaver for enduring countless hours of blue-screen work with James Cameron on "Avatar."

Best director

Some of the best-known directors in the business (Clint Eastwood, Peter Jackson and James Cameron) will contend with two relative newcomers, Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air") and Lee Daniels ("Precious"). With "Invictus," "Bones" and "Avatar" still unseen, that leaves room for other contenders, should they fail -- and those could include some strong female helmers in the form of Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker"), Jane Campion ("Bright Star") and Nora Ephron ("Julie & Julia"). But the real woman to look out for is Lone Scherfig, the Danish director of "An Education."

Best screenplay

Forty years ago Frederic Raphael was nominated for an Oscar for his script for "Two for the Road," one of the first romantic dramas that dared to tell its story out of chronological order. Now Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber look to follow in that tradition with their smart script for the indie hit "(500) Days of Summer," one of the very few originals of note this year. The Globes, unlike the Oscars, include both original screenplays and adaptations in the same category, and that means the "Summer" duo could face tough competition from Brit novelist-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby, who took a wisp of a short story and turned it into "An Education." Other leading contenders include Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for their adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel "Up in the Air"; "Precious" adapter Geoffrey Fletcher; the late and much-loved Anthony Minghella, one of several writers who worked on bringing the stage musical "Nine" to the screen; as well as the leading movies in the two picture categories. This is where Quentin Tarantino is also most likely to get nominated for "Inglourious Basterds."

Best animated film

This is one of the strongest and most competitive categories of the year. In fact, it could be argued that animated films surpassed the live-action entries of 2009. Disney/Pixar's "Up," with it senior citizen appeal and its imaginative computer animation, seems like the movie to beat. But there's a lot of support for Henry Selick's "Coraline" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox," in which director Wes Anderson translates the wry sensibility of his live-action movies to the field of animation. Sony could contend with "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs." But a more interesting match-up looms between "Up" and another Disney movie, "The Princess and the Frog," because the latter is one of the rare hand-painted movies to go up against the new Pixar digital technology. And "Princess" has the added novelty of being Disney's first animated movie with a black lead character.
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