Drama club

The Golden Globe nominations are just weeks away, and the race for one of the ceremony's top prizes remains wide open.

And the clock just keeps ticking. With nominations for the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.'s 64th annual Golden Globe Awards just weeks away -- announcements are set for the early morning hours of Dec. 14 -- a clear front-runner has yet to emerge for one of the ceremony's top two prizes, namely the best drama of the year. Unlike the musical/comedy race, which will surely fete Paramount/DreamWorks' big-screen adaptation of the award-winning Broadway production "Dreamgirls," the dramatic categories remain decidely murky, and almost no one is willing to go on record supporting any particular movie as a lock for a best picture trophy.

That said, a handful of films -- specifically Miramax's "The Queen," Paramount/DreamWorks' "Flags of Our Fathers" and Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed" -- finally seem to be emerging as likely favorites for a nomination. But just when pundits were beginning to believe they had a handle on things, Warners issued a surprise announcement that it would release "Flags" director Clint Eastwood's companion World War II film, the Japanese-language "Letters From Iwo Jima," on Dec. 20, just in time for awards consideration.

Although the film itself is eligible in every category except best picture, "Letters" does factor into how "Flags" might fare in the top drama race. On paper, of course, "Flags" has everything going for it: Eastwood behind the camera and Steven Spielberg in the producer's chair, an adapted screenplay by Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr. and subject matter with pointed parallels to today's military conflagration in Iraq. Yet the film has not drawn quite the enthusiasm of Eastwood's last two ventures, 2003's "Mystic River" and 2004's "Million Dollar Baby" (the latter of which won the best picture Oscar but lost out as best drama at the Globes to Scorsese's 2004 Howard Hughes biopic "The Aviator").


Scorsese's violent gangster picture starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson, on the other hand, has drawn raves from critics, proclaiming that Scorsese has returned to form, and from audiences, who continue to turn up at the boxoffice to support the film, which, at press time, had earned upward of $111 million domestically.

But the addition of "Letters" to the December lineup is complicating matters. The film has a much smaller budget than its sister project -- somewhere in the range of $20 million, insiders say -- only one widely known actor in the cast (Ken Watanabe) and the additional distinction of being shot in a foreign language with English subtitles. However, should the picture earn a warmer reception from the HFPA membership than did "Flags," it might wind up making its predecessor look like a more impressive achievement. In other words, "Flags" and "Letters" could be perceived as one cinematic undertaking -- though they were shot separately from one another -- much in the same way voters came to think of Peter Jackson's epic "Lord of the Rings" trilogy as one single piece of filmmaking.

But there are a few other unknown quantities that could swoop in and earn one of the five drama nominations. Perhaps the biggest question mark is Buena Vista's "Apocalypto," Mel Gibson's Mayan adventure that takes place in a dead language and features a cast of unknowns, though that film, like "Flags," is not eligible for the best picture prize. Instead, the studio might opt to put its campaigning muscle behind "The Prestige" and that film's star Christian Bale and its director, Christopher Nolan, both of whom seem to be gaining momentum in recent weeks.

Sony appears to be scaling back its plans for "Marie Antoinette" -- though that film is sure to receive attention for its below-the-line achievements in costume and production design -- and is instead pinning its hopes on the upcoming "The Pursuit of Happyness," with Will Smith taking on a rare dramatic role in this real-life story of an unemployed father who becomes a stockbroker.

Universal has equally high hopes for its Matt Damon starrer "The Good Shepherd," co-starring and directed by Robert De Niro, but the studio also has another very strong contender in its arsenal with Paul Greengrass' understated but affecting "United 93," which is still enjoying traction with awards-season voters even though it was released back in April. Some have even gone so far as to call it the year's best film.

The increasingly busy Warners has two additional drama contenders with the planned December releases "The Good German" and "Blood Diamond." "German" reteams director Steven Soderbergh with leading man George Clooney in a tale of intrigue set in post-World War II Berlin, while the politically charged "Diamond," helmed by Edward Zwick, features DiCaprio as a South African who discovers a rare gem. Both films, given their international themes, could play well with HFPA members, as might Paramount/ DreamWorks' "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," which drew positive reactions at screenings and has played like gangbusters in director Tom Tykwer's native Germany.

Among specialty pictures generating buzz, two British-made movies stand out. "King" is director Kevin Macdonald's feature about Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) and his young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy). It stands a good chance of being nominated in the screenplay category -- unlike the Oscars, the Globes doesn't divide scripts into original and adapted categories -- and an even better chance of a best dramatic actor nomination for Whitaker, who has earned rave reviews for his electrifying performance.

If Whitaker appears to be an early favorite in the dramatic actor category, Helen Mirren is a near lock for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in "Queen." Stephen Frears' examination of life inside Buckingham Palace in the wake of Princess Diana's death, which seems to be a shoo-in for a best drama nomination at the Globes, also features a nomination-worthy supporting turn from Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Should that film -- and the company's "Venus," which features a strong leading performance from veteran Peter O'Toole -- live up to expectations (and Miramax could barely contain its glee at the picture's American reception), that will be especially welcome news for Miramax's new president, Daniel Battsek, as he enters his second year on the job.

Battsek scored a victory early in his tenure with a best foreign-language feature nomination at the Globes for 2005's South African drama "Tsotsi" (the film went on to win the Oscar in the same category); now, he might do even better with "Queen," helping him cement the new Miramax's reputation for small, savvy art house releases.

Of course, Miramax founders and awards-season mavens Harvey and Bob Weinstein aren't doing too shabby themselves with their new venture, the Weinstein Co., which partnered with IFC Films on the release of 2005's "Transamerica," for which star Felicity Huffman won the best actress in a drama award at January's Globes ceremony.

This campaign, Renee Zellweger is likely to be a contender in the same category for her work in the planned December release "Miss Potter," director Chris Noonan's biopic about author Beatrix Potter, as might Sienna Miller for her starring turn in director George Hickenlooper's "Factory Girl," another biopic about the life of Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick.

In fact, the best actress race is looking highly competitive, with Kate Winslet also in the running for her portrayal of an alienated suburban housewife in Todd Field's "Little Children" from New Line; Judi Dench also could easily earn a nomination for Richard Eyre's "Notes on a Scandal," which is slated for a late-December release through Fox Searchlight. Both films also have a shot at a best picture nom.