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A number of strong awards contenders have opened already and are working their way around the country.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The studio appears to be bailing fast on director Andrew Dominik's attenuated Western, but it has a lot of critics in its corner, who'll stump for the beautiful Roger Deakins cinematography and the performances of Brad Pitt as James and Casey Affleck as his assassin. (Warner Bros.)
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Anton Corbijn directs this biopic of suicidal Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, and Sam Riley's portrayal of the haunted, angular Curtis is widely regarded as one of the best of the year. (The Weinstein Co.)
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Gone Baby Gone
Ben Affleck's directorial debut has been knocking critics and audiences flat, and earning awards talk for leading man Casey Affleck and nervy supporting actress Amy Ryan. (Miramax)
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In the Valley of Elah
Despite fading buzz, Paul Haggis' police procedural is still getting respect for Tommy Lee Jones' performance as a retired military man looking into his soldier son's disappearance. (Warner Independent)
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Into the Wild
Rumor has it that Academy screenings for Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's non-fiction bestseller have not exactly been love fests, but a younger generation of filmgoers is responding deeply to this true story of doomed nature enthusiast Chris McCandless (well-played by Emile Hirsch). (Paramount Vantage)
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Michael Clayton
George Clooney gives a classic leading man performance as a lawyer struggling with a crisis of conscience. Writer-director Tony Gilroy delivers as well, crafting an adult drama with subtle shadings and classical structure. (Warner Bros.)
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A high-powered cast -- including Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal -- grapple with the repercussions of the U.S. policy toward terror suspects in a heavily political thriller directed by Oscar-winning "Tsotsi" helmer Gavin Hood. A strong push for one or more of the actors could gain some traction. (New Line)
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Reservation Road
Acting awards favorites Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Connelly go through extremes of emotion as people united by a car accident and the loss of a child. (Focus features)
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Things We Lost in the Fire
Danish director Susanne Bier crafts this unconventional romance, starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro as two broken people who start to heal when they move in together. (DreamWorks/Paramount)
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