Early Oscar contenders scarce

'Robin Hood,' 'Iron Man 2' unlikely to garner noms

As the first half of 2010 draws to a close, serious Academy Awards contenders have yet to emerge.

Admittedly, the 83rd annual Academy Awards, set for Feb. 27, is a long way off. And traditionally most awards hopefuls arrive during the second half of the year.

But when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded its best picture race to ten nominees last year, it opened the door so that commercial hits could be rewarded alongside narrower, specialty fare.
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At its March meeting, the Academy's board of governors approved following the ten-best formula again. "It worked out really well last year," Academy president Tom Sherak says. "And, hopefully, it will work out really well this year. Even if it hadn't been as successful as it was, we always felt you had to try it for a couple of years."

Yet despite the Academy's open-door policy, the film industry hasn't been pumping out likely nominees.

"I don't think we're going to look back on the first six months and find anything," says one campaign consultant, who's been stymied in drawing up early tout sheets.

"Robin Hood," given the full red carpet treatment at the Festival de Canne's opening night, may have reteamed Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott, but it paled next to their Oscar-winning "Gladiator." With more than $300 million in domestic grosses, "Iron Man 2" has moved ahead of the original's boxoffice at the same point in its release, but the sequel failed to generate the critical enthusiasm that surrounded its 2008 predecessor.

Far from championing awards hopefuls, critics have spent the first half of Hollywood's summer movie season competing to see who could deliver the most devastating put-downs of movies like "Sex and the City 2" and "The A-Team."

All that should change this weekend, as Disney releases Pixar's "Toy Story 3," the first blue-chip contender in the 2010 awards race. As of Thursday, it boasted a 100% rating on rottentomatoes -- just like the first two installments in the franchise.

And just as Pixar's "Up" was the earliest 2009 release -- it opened on May 29 last year -- to go on to score a best picture nom, the third "Toy Story" could become the first 2010 entry to make it into the circle of ten.

Last year, at this point, Oscar pundits were debating whether an animated film could break out of the animated feature ghetto to score a best picture nom. "Up," which ultimately lifted off with five noms, made that conversation moot. This year, the debate could well center on whether more than one animated movie can hold down a spot in the best picture circle.

DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon," released by Paramount, racked up some of the best reviews of the year to date, picking up a 98% approval rating at rottentomatoes. And Sylvain Chomet's "The Illusionist," which Sony Pictures Classics will release toward year's end, is not only directed by the creator of 2003's "The Triplets of Belleville," which collected two Oscar noms, it is based on an unproduced screenplay by the late Jacques Tati -- one of cinema's greats.

Looking toward July, the next great Oscar hope likely to stake its claim is Christopher Nolan's "Inception," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which Warners opens July 16. Visually-arresting trailers have only hinted at what Nolan's original screenplay is all about -- something about invading dreams -- but the director has built up such a loyal fan-base and devoted critical following that there will be cries of distress if the movie fails to deliver. (When the Academy failed to nominate his last film, "The Dark Knight," for best picture, it set off a fury of criticism that, in part, led to the new ten-pic field.)

On the other hand, the Academy's new model doesn't guarantee that every boxoffice hit is guaranteed automatic tickets to the Kodak Theatre.

Currently, Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," which Disney released in March, is the year's top grosser: It has taken in $334 million in the states and more than $1 billion worldwide. But the idiosyncratic Burton has yet to be embraced by the Academy -- he has only received one nom, as producer of the animated "Corpse Bride" -- and "Alice" was greeted with decidedly mixed reviews. All of which could limit its Oscar profile to tech categories.

Sight unseen last year, Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" was on many handicapper's lists as a 2009 competitor. But then Paramount delayed its release to February. In its new release slot, the psycho-thriller collected a solid $128 million domestically, and with a total haul of $295 million became Scorsese's top-grossing film worldwide, edging out his 2006 Oscar winner "The Departed." But while Warners treated "Departed" as a genre release that gradually proved its mettle as an Oscar contender, "Island," which met with lukewarm reviews, seems to have gone in the other direction.

Prospects are similarly sparse on the specialty front.

Debra Granik's hard-scrabble Ozarks-set drama "Winter's Bone" was the big narrative film winner at this year's Sundance, where it took the dramatic grand jury prize and a screenplay award. Its young star Jennifer Lawrence could follow in the footsteps of "Precious'" Gabourey Sidibe or "An Education's" Carey Mulligan, both of whom began their awards season trek at the previous year's Sundance.

"Winter's Bone"

Roadside Attractions released the film last weekend to enthusiastic reviews and an impressive $84,887 in just four theaters. Still, it's a long haul to end-of-year noms.

"Oscar positioning hasn't been a major part of our release strategy, but we'd certainly be excited if that's its destiny," says Roadside co-head Howard Cohen, who opted for a summer release to offer up the critical hit in counterpoint to bigger, escapist entertainments.

Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are All Right," another Sundance debutante, is also looking to succeed as counterprogramming when Focus releases it July 9. (It opened the Los Angeles Film Festival last night.) Starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as lesbian parents whose comfortable life is upended by the sudden appearance of sperm donor Mark Ruffalo, it's the sort of upscale crowd-pleaser that could find favor.

Meanwhile, Cannes didn't push many other films to the fore. The Palme d'Or winner, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's demanding "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives," doesn't yet have an American distributor.

Although applauded by critics, Mike Leigh's "Another Year" went home empty-handed. But the slice-of-life movie about a circle of middle-aged friends should still find itself on the radar when SPC releases it later this year -- especially for Lesley Manville's performance as a quietly desperate single woman, which includes a drunk scene that's got to be considered awards bait.

There weren't any honors, either, for a couple of Hollywood entries: Oliver Stone's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," from Fox, and Doug Liman's "Fair Game," from Summit. But both movies combine stars ("Street's" Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf, "Game's" Naomi Watts and Sean Penn) with hot-button topics (high finance, political payback) that might allow them to ride the zeitgeist into the Academy conversation.

Still, that leaves a lot of very open slots awaiting the onslaught of wannabes that will attempt to survive the Venice-Telluride-Toronto obstacle course. As far as Oscar 2010 is concerned, the race has only just begun.
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