Oscar Watch: Picture

Searchlight headed into the fall without much of a shot to match last year's best picture nom for "Juno." A couple of sly festival pickups later, it has not one but two serious contenders: the pro wrestling drama "The Wrestler" and the Indian rags-to-riches story "Slumdog Millionaire."

Of the two, Danny Boyle's "Slumdog" could be the one to watch. The movie, originally meant to be released by Warner Independent, almost went straight to DVD until Searchlight's Peter Rice stepped in and agreed to distribute it domestically. Now it's one of the strongest entries from any distributor, and the only question is whether the Academy will resist a film with foreign actors and based on a game show.

Critics are united in praising Darren Aronofsky's "Wrestler," and if Academy voters are not turned off by its brutality, it could prove best picture material. Searchlight is also hopeful for "The Secret Life of Bees," but few insiders expect the Southern period drama to go all the way.

Focus Features is in contention with "Milk," dominated by Sean Penn's portrayal of San Francisco politico Harvey Milk.

Sony Pictures Classics has "Rachel Getting Married," the ensemble drama that earned Jonathan Demme his best reviews in years.

Among other specialty divisions, Paramount Vantage fields Sam Mendes' "Revolutionary Road" and Ed Zwick's "Defiance." Both have a sterling pedigree, but only "Defiance" had been screened at press time. Vantage's Keira Knightley starrer "The Duchess" looks likely to do better below the line.

Miramax, which triumphed last year with its Vantage co-productions "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood," is resting its hopes largely on John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his play "Doubt" and Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky." Its other major release, "Blindness," has fallen off the awards radar.

And former Miramax chiefs Harvey and Bob Weinstein are back in the Oscar game they once dominated. True, they pushed the Dimension adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" until 2009. But with Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and Stephen Daldry's "The Reader," the Weinstein Co. could prove among the most competitive players this year.

Overture Films' "The Visitor" has won the hearts of many Academy members, especially the older voters; and if Lionsgate's "W." hasn't quite won their hearts, the Oliver Stone film may at least have won their minds.

These indie/specialty entrants will go head-to-head with an unusually strong bunch of studio entries.

"Benjamin Button," of course, is the great unknown. It was getting terrific buzz at press time -- but that was largely fueled by Paramount's awards team.

"Button" will go up against Universal's "Frost/Nixon," adapted from Peter Morgan's play about the duel of wits between Richard Nixon and cocky British interviewer David Frost, who interrogated the disgraced president shortly after his 1974 resignation.

Across town, Fox is in the running with Baz Luhrmann's epic "Australia" -- and, knowing how greatly studio chief Tom Rothman threw his weight behind Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge," one can bet Fox will pull out all the stops for this one.

Sony is hoping its latest Will Smith starrer, "Seven Pounds," will go further than his last contender, "The Pursuit of Happyness," which earned Smith an acting nomination but failed to gain traction in the picture category.

Two highly commercial releases -- Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight" and Disney/Pixar's "WALL-E" -- will also compete for Oscar attention, though the Academy often has relegated unabashed audience-pleasers to the below-the-line categories.

And then there's Clint. "Changeling" has earned solid reviews, but "Torino" is the real mystery. Not even Warners insiders had seen it at press time. Of course, that's exactly how things stood four years ago with "Million Dollar Baby," which went on to win best picture.