Buzz only thickens Oscar mire

Awards season under way with no clear front-runner

In an awards race more uncertain than any in years, the past few weeks have brought a radical redrawing of the map. Dark horses have emerged as favorites, darlings have lost some of their promise, and unknowns have risen, fallen and risen again.

But as specialists take in the latest world order, they're asking a question increasingly common in this era of endless, breathless awards-season blogging: Is this current picture finally an accurate representation of the race or just one more snapshot that could change overnight?

In the past two days, the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. anointed two pictures, "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood," as front-runners with their respective best picture nods. The former has had Oscar buzz practically since Cannes, of course, but even rival execs admit the groups gave an important boost to the still-unreleased "Blood" and its star, Daniel Day-Lewis.

Other movies seem to be gaining a head of steam at just the right time. Fox Searchlight's pregnancy dramedy "Juno" has gone from an uncertainty to a bona fide contender. Focus' "Atonement" encountered dueling downbeat/upbeat reviews in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times — overall, says 86% of its reviews have been positive — but they don't seem to have slowed its momentum, at least based on descriptions from those at several screenings. Early entry "Michael Clayton," several veteran award-watchers say, is on the cusp of a comeback.

Even a movie that few have seen, Denzel Washington's period race movie "The Great Debaters," could pick up velocity as the Weinstein Co. makes clear it's laying down its chips on the film. The company has taken out full-page ads for the film, which doesn't open until Christmas Day, in the Los Angeles Times, and an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey should keep the movie on the public and Academy radars.

On the other side of the equation, early favorites like "American Gangster" will now have to withstand the upstarts that have emerged in recent weeks. Preliminary hopefuls like "In the Valley of Elah" and "Reservation Road" are no longer the focus of conversation.

The challenge for a movie like the upcoming "Charlie Wilson's War" is that despite the Oscar pedigrees of all involved, even before the film is unveiled to the public and much of the industry, a number of online pundits have been putting out lukewarm word.

All this should hearten those with films on the hot list and discourage those whose stock is slipping.

Or should it?

The scorecarding certainly has its place; it's fun, and as one exec put it, it's a less bleak subject than the writers strike. But more than anything, it's an indication of how many people now get paid to predict an awards season that is becoming, because of the number and range of fall movies, increasingly hard to predict. In other words, it may say more about the frenetic level of observation than anything being observed.

One studio publicist described the game of tracking the favorites to the topsy-turviness of the current college football ranking system. "Every day, I hear people say, 'We're up to No. 2 on so-and-so blog, and then the next week we worry because we're not there anymore.' And I keep wondering, 'What does it all mean?' "

To get attention in their own competitive marketplace, award blogs often must outdo each other, and themselves. If you read only the blogs (even those from highly respectable publications), Tim Burton should be mailed his statue — "I see all of the obstacles facing 'Sweeney (Todd)' but I don't see what can beat it" (The Envelope) — and newbie Diablo Cody can already start writing her acceptance speech with vets like Tony Gilroy because " 'Juno' and 'Michael Clayton' are in a dead tie for original screenplay" (Movie City News).

Even beyond the blogs, studios rejoicing at the critics' lists may want to be reminded that critics are notoriously bad predictors of Globes and Oscar nominations, in part because many choose movies they think the HFPA and Academy will overlook. Last year, the New York critics named "United 93" best picture and the L.A. critics hailed the film's Paul Greengrass as best director, but while the Academy granted Greengrass a best director nom, the film failed to make Oscar's list of best picture nominees.

At one point, this year's race was seen as so wide open that even an animated movie like "Ratatouille" could be a best picture contender. But even though the field remains unpredictable, some tightening has occurred. Disney, for example, is focusing its efforts on behalf of "Ratatouille" to ensure it scores a best animated film Oscar nom.

Still, the contest remains unusually diffuse. Without a "Titanic"-type picture that can capture technical, acting and directing nominations, it's likely to be a year with many contenders that each capture a relatively small number of noms.

Or as one strategist said, somewhat nostalgically, "There are many good movies but no great movies." In a year of hotheaded predictions, that may be the most accurate pronouncement of all.