Award season preview

THE GANG'S ALL HERE: The last two months of the year at the boxoffice are packed with awards season hopefuls.

Once upon a time -- oh, say, two years ago -- major studios and indie boutiques alike held back their awards-caliber movies until the tail-end of the year for a token post-Christmas eligibility release in New York and Los Angeles. But because of the recently shortened awards-campaigning schedule, Hollywood has been making adjustments. This year has seen a remarkable number of solid Oscar and Golden Globe favorites on the Venice/Telluride/Toronto/New York festival circuit, and many of those films are already in limited release, and platforming weekly. A few major titles aside, this might be the first year in recent memory when the average moviegoer -- not just those with access to press screenings and Academy screeners -- will be able to view the most significant awards contenders by Christmas.

That doesn't mean, however, that these last two months of 2007 are any less
crowded. Prestige pictures and art house rebels will be rumbling through the multiplexes all throughout November and December, joining the quality films already playing. This is a year with a substantial number of major films by major filmmakers, so the people behind them are making sure that they all have a chance to be seen in plenty of time to raise their profile for an awards run and -- possibly -- a subsequent boxoffice bonanza.

Below is a weekend-by-weekend breakdown of the movies likely to make the most noise this awards season, as well as the sleepers lying in wait, and the movies that just want your money, not your accolades. Please note that all release dates are subject to change.

Nov. 2

"American Gangster"
Director: Ridley Scott; Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Cuba Gooding Jr.

The Breakdown: Given that Martin Scorsese struck boxoffice and Oscar gold last year with the sprawling crime saga "The Departed," either the zeitgeist is primed for another urban crime epic or the pros and public alike are preparing their "seen it" shrugs. Strong advance reviews -- and the presence of popular, award-winning stars Washington and Crowe -- would seem to indicate that things will fall "American Gangster's" way. If so, that would be a measure of vindication for screenwriter Steven Zaillian, who's been with this project since the year 2000, when Universal and Imagine Entertainment first optioned Mark Jacobson's New York magazine story about real-life heroin kingpin Frank Lucas. Zaillian has been on and off the film as it's passed from director to director, but one of Scott's first decisions when he signed on was to return to Zaillian's original draft; then the studio brought Zaillian back for rewrites. The result is a thematically tight period piece that follows Washington (as the perversely ethical Lucas) and Crowe (as the troubled vice detective who works to bring him down) through the heady early '70s.

Awards Hopefuls: Director Scott; screenwriter Zaillian; co-stars Washington and Crowe

Worthy Challengers: A month ago, not many would've pegged Sidney Lumet's low-key, twisty crime thriller "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (ThinkFilm) as an awards season player, but strong responses at festival screenings -- especially to Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance as a drug-addicted real estate executive masterminding a disastrous heist -- has thrust it into the mix. Also on Nov. 2: the Don Cheadle-backed documentary "Darfur Now" (Warner Independent), which pushes for greater international recognition of the tragic genocide in Darfur.

Going for the Purse, Not the Trophy: With a paucity of family films on the early November schedule, Jerry Seinfeld's computer-animated "Bee Movie" (Paramount/DreamWorks Animation) is poised to rack up at least a few good weeks of ticket sales. Though in a year that features Disney/Pixar's "Ratatouille" and Sony Pictures Classics' import "Persepolis," "Bee Movie" will have to be pretty astonishing to win awards in the animation categories.

Nov. 9

"No Country For Old Men"
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen; Cast: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones

The Breakdown: Rebounding strongly from the underperforming broad comedies "Intolerable Cruelty" (2003) and "The Ladykillers" (2004), the Coen brothers adapt Cormac McCarthy's literary chase thriller into a tough, suspenseful, funny, haunting and uniquely American movie. The movie's extreme violence -- most of it carried out by Bardem, playing a stunbolt-gun-wielding psychopath out to recover $1 million dollars in drug money found by shrewd hunter Brolin -- might turn off some of the more squeamish awards-givers. (And if the violence doesn't, there's always the elliptical ending.) Regardless, voters should pay attention to Jones, whose performance as a dry-witted sheriff who'd rather remain uninvolved represents some of the most nuanced and compelling acting he's done in years.

Awards Hopefuls: Director/screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen; co-stars Bardem, Brolin and Jones; cinematographer Roger Deakins; composer Carter Burwell

Worthy Challenger: "Lions for Lambs" (MGM), a United Artists production, skipped the festival circuit, and it's hard to know if the Robert Redford-directed political thriller -- starring Redford, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep -- is really more of a genre piece or a work of awards-worthy significance. Then again, the same was said of "The Departed" last year, and everything worked out pretty well for Scorsese and co.

Going for The Purse, Not the Trophy: The family comedy "Fred Claus" (Warner Bros.) stars Vince Vaughn as the slacker younger brother of Santa, who's played by a put-upon Paul Giamatti. Two quality actors to be sure, but don't expect much acclaim; this one was never intended to be a critics' darling. Also on Nov. 9, the Indian musical mystery "Om Shanti Om" (Eros Intl.) represents a bold attempt to push Bollywood beyond the specialty theater ghetto.

Nov. 16

"Love in the Time of Cholera"
(New Line)
Director: Mike Newell; Cast: Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Benjamin Bratt

The Breakdown: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel has been a steady seller and lit-class favorite since its publication 20 years ago, so Newell and screenwriter Ronald Harwood either have smooth sailing to awards-ville, or they're on their way to disappointing millions of Marquez fans. Given the track records of both gentlemen, the smart money's on them to pull it off, especially with Bardem on board as a lovesick young man who waits for decades to be reunited with childhood sweetheart Mezzogiorno.

Awards Hopefuls: Director Newell; screenwriter Harwood; co-stars Bardem and Mezzogiorno; cinematographer Affonso Beato; composer Antonio Pinto; costume designer Marit Allen

Worthy Challengers: Writer-director Noah Baumbach's 2005 scathing divorce comedy "The Squid and the Whale" earned him a best original screenplay Oscar nomination, and his "Margot at the Wedding" (Paramount Vantage) might enjoy a similar fate, along with acting nods for Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who play competitive sisters who clash at the latter's wedding. However, Academy voters will have to get over Baumbach's unforgiving take on his self-absorbed characters, all of whom are easy to identify with but hard to like. Another Nov. 16 opening that might be a sleeper: "Elegy" (MGM), an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel, starring Ben Kingsley as a professor who develops a crush on a student.

Going for the Purse, Not the Trophy: No one seems to know quite how to categorize Robert Zemeckis' computer-animated "Beowulf" (Paramount), which apparently won't be allowed to compete for the best animated feature prize at the Academy Awards and looks to be too much of a straight sci-fi action piece to have a chance at more than some special effects nods. Expectations are equally all over the map from "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" (Fox Walden), a family fantasy movie writen and directed by 2006's "Stranger Than Fiction" scribe Zach Helm and starring Dustin Hoffman as an ancient toymaker.

Nov. 21

"I'm Not There"
(The Weinstein Co.)
Director: Todd Haynes; Cast: Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere

The Breakdown: Todd Haynes' unconventional Bob Dylan biopic has six actors portraying six quasifictional versions of the iconic singer-songwriter, playing out storylines that weave between each other in ways that don't always make literal sense. It's an audacious movie and probably too allusive to wow many outside the closed circle of art-minded film critics and Dylan fans. But at least one participant in the project is likely to emerge from the melee with some awards attention: Blanchett, who plays the newly electric, speed-freak Dylan in a romp through a Fellini-esque Europe in the mid-'60s. For Blanchett, pretending to be Dylan isn't a gimmick. She fully inhabits the headspace of an artist figuring out how to not give the media what it wants.

Awards Hopefuls: Director Haynes; star Blanchett; cinematographer Ed Lachmann; editor Jay Rabinowicz

Worthy Challengers: Disney's live-action self-parody "Enchanted" starts in a cartoon fairy-tale universe before crossing over to grubby real-world New York. Big boxoffice is likely, but if the creative team handles everything right, "Enchanted" could add at least one original song nomination and maybe even a hard look at star Amy Adams, who earned a supporting actress Oscar nom for 2005's "Junebug." Meanwhile, Kirsten Sheridan's directorial debut, "August Rush" (Warner Bros.), is about an orphaned child prodigy trying to find his parents, which might sound a little generically heart-tugging, but perhaps Sheridan's father, Jim -- helmer of 1989's "My Left Foot" and 2002's "In America" -- has passed on the secret for from-left-field awards-gathering.

Going for the Purse, Not the Trophy: Hollywood's devoting Thanksgiving weekend to a couple of boy-friendly genre pieces: The pumped-up videogame actioner "Hitman" (Fox) and director Frank Darabont's first stab at adapting a Stephen King story, "The Mist" (MGM/The Weinstein Co.). Also opening: Preston Whitemore's African-American family holiday comedy "This Christmas" (Screen Gems).

Nov. 30

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
Director: Julian Schnabel; Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Jean-Pierre Cassel

The Breakdown: Acclaimed French actor Amalric plays a paralyzed journalist who blinks to communicate in Schnabel's affecting examination of what happens to a caged imagination. Schnabel's daring use of point-of-view shots and his subtle sentimentality impressed the critics and judges at the Festival de Cannes in May and went over well at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Not everyone has connected with this tale of tragedy and triumph, but those who do really do, which means "Diving Bell" could creep into serious contention -- or could slide away to "cult item" status.

Awards Hopefuls: Director Schnabel; screenwriter Ronald Harwood; star Amalric; cinematographer Janusz Kaminski; composer Paul Cantelon

Worthy Challenger: Long-absent director Tamara Jenkins returns with melancholy slice of life "The Savages" (Fox Searchlight) (Nov. 28), which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings dealing with their dying father

Going for the Purse, Not the Trophy: Genre films take a kinkier turn at the end of November, with "Teeth" (Lionsgate), a blackly comic horror film about a young woman who discovers she has incisors where incisors would not ordinarily be.

Dec. 7

(Focus Features)
Director: Joe Wright; Cast: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Vanessa Redgrave

The Breakdown: Wright surprised everyone two years ago with "Pride & Prejudice," a Jane Austen adaptation that looked strikingly stylish and modern. Now he builds on that success with a tony, never-obvious adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel about WWII-era secrets and lies in a wealthy British family. Knightley and McAvoy play their star-crossed lover roles to the hilt, while Wright continues to toy with creative editing and camera moves to tell a story that's both aesthetically stunning and intellectually stimulating. "Atonement" might prove to be too elusive for some audiences, but American awards-giving bodies always have responded strongly to filmmakers like David Lean and Michael Powell, with whom Wright shares an interest in giving prestige-picture subjects a dynamic, cinematic feel.

Awards Hopefuls: Director Wright; screenwriter Christopher Hampton; co-stars McAvoy and Knightley; supporting actors Romola Garai and Saoirse Ronan; cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; editor Raul Tothill; composer Dario Marianelli; costume designer Jacqueline Durran

Worthy Challengers: John Cusack impressed Sundance Film Festival attendees with his performance in "Grace Is Gone" (The Weinstein Co.) as a man whose wife dies fighting in Iraq. The film itself has gotten mixed reviews, but Cusack's attempts to avoid telling his two daughters that their mother is dead can't help but jerk a few tears.

Going for the Purse, Not the Trophy: New Line is dearly hoping that director Chris Weitz's adaptation of Philip Pullman's youth fantasy novel "The Golden Compass" -- Part 1 of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy -- will catch on with audiences and become the Next Big Franchise, though Pullman's twisty parallel-universe plots and none-too-subtle anti-religion themes might make this franchise-to-be a tough sell.

Dec. 14

(Fox Searchlight)
Director: Jason Reitman; Cast: Ellen Page, Jennifer Garner, Jason Batemen

The Breakdown: Prior to its near-simultaneous unveiling at Telluride and Toronto, few would've pegged this Diablo Cody-penned teen pregnancy comedy to be much of an awards season player, but rapturous audience response at both festivals has vaulted this sardonic indie into the elite ranks. There are probably too many substantial movies coming out in 2007 for Juno to pull a "Little Miss Sunshine" and become a best picture or director contender, but expect some hard looks at Cody's wickedly funny (and surprisingly sweet) screenplay, as well as the star-making lead performance by Page, who handles wry quips and real heartbreak with equal aplomb.

Awards Hopefuls: Screenwriter Cody; star Page; supporting actor Garner

Worthy Challengers: It's a big week for awards-worthy fare, including "The Kite Runner" (Paramount Vantage), director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Benioff's adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's best-selling historical novel about two boys coming of age in Afghanistan. Between the political undertones, the grim plot twists and the relatable childhood emotions, "Kite Runner" should be a lock to find an audience in awards-giving bodies and beyond. The response to Woody Allen's latest London-set crime drama "Cassandra's Dream" (The Weinstein Co.) has run hot and cold depending on the time of day and the festival screening it, yet even the film's supporters admit that it suffers from being compared to Allen's remarkably similar 2005 drama, "Match Point." Meanwhile, Francis Ford Coppola's "Youth Without Youth" (Sony Pictures Classics) -- his return to small, personal filmmaking -- bypassed the festival circuit in favor of a few earl