Awards Season Shake-Up

Dale Robinette/DreamWorks II Distribution Co.

The Globes and SAG nominations bring a blurry Oscar picture into focus as contenders scramble for momentum.

It's been a wide-open awards season, but now the road to Oscar is narrowing. The first wave of nominations and critics lists has hit, and on Dec. 27, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences mails out its own nomination ballots. Here's what we've learned so far.

A front-runner has emerged (sort of)

When Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist was unveiled at Cannes in May, no one except for Harvey Weinstein, who had already shrewdly picked up distribution rights, would have predicted that the silent dramedy would become the season's awards magnet. But Artist led the field in Golden Globe nominations; was named best picture by the New York Film Critics Circle; tied with Hugo for the most noms dispensed by the Broadcast Film Critics Association; and was a runner-up to The Help for SAG Awards noms. Hazanavicius was sitting in a cafe when he got the news of the Globe noms -- how French! -- and told THR, "I made this movie out of desire and never expected this sort of response." But that now leaves the film in a precarious position. With two months to go before the 84th Academy Awards on Feb. 26, it has become a target, especially to those who prefer that a best picture winner have more gravitas. And in that case, a movie like The Help, which deals with race and class, could make its move.

Broad contenders pull away from actors' showcases

Some films already are positioned to claim markers in multiple categories when Oscar noms are announced Jan. 24. Along with Artist and Help, The Descendants and Midnight in Paris are showing real depth in picture, director and other categories. And even though Woody Allen's time-travel comedy has just hit DVD, Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker says, "We're definitely going to keep it alive in theaters." The Broadcast Film Critics, who often share the Academy's mainstream taste, also gave an 11-nom boost to Martin Scorsese's Hugo and an eight-nom endorsement of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, which was ignored by SAG. The Globes, in turn, contributed to renewed momentum for Moneyball -- both Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill got invites to the party -- and continued its love affair with George Clooney by showering four noms on The Ides of March. For a commercial, R-rated comedy, Bridesmaids keeps beating all expectations, especially with its ensemble nom from SAG, making its way into the top echelon. "It's hard to wrap your head around," star Kristen Wiig admits.

On the other hand, some films are getting attention mostly for their performances: Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady; Glenn Close and Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs; Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh in My Week With Marilyn; Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin; Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer in J. Edgar; Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan in Shame; Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt in Young Adult; and Christopher Plummer in Beginners.

Others are still looking for traction

Some movies will have to scramble. Except for in the BFCA noms, Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which barely began screening before various voting deadlines, hasn't yet made an impression, but its champions are betting it will be discovered by Academy voters. The British spy drama Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy also remains undercover, though it should get a shout-out when BAFTA noms are announced Jan. 17. Both Steven Spielberg's War Horse (which did pick up a Globe drama nom) and David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which made it onto the AFI list) could help their cases if they turn into box-office winners over the Christmas holiday, much like True Grit did last year. But some movies are fighting the odds: While Warner Bros. has made a strong case for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the finale of the Potter series was still restricted to crafts categories by the BFCA. And despite its Gotham and Spirit noms, the financial thriller Margin Call has yet to break out of the indie arena.

Crafts could changethe race

Since the guilds and below-the-line organizations have yet to weigh in with their awards, there likely are surprises ahead. Consider Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Critics groups have been nearly unanimous in hailing Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography. And the film also made the Academy's short list of VFX contenders. A flood of crafts attention could catapult it into a broad contender.

"It reminds me of the year [2006] when we had Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and Good Night, and Good Luck," says one veteran Academy member. "Everyone liked parts of every movie, but then Crash came in at the last moment and won."

 So which movie is this year's Crash?