risky business

Oscar race waits patiently under the Christmas tree

Finally, the Oscar race is about to begin. What's that you say? It feels like this year's Oscar battles have been going on for months?

Well, sure, such awards hopefuls as "No Country for Old Men," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and "A Mighty Heart" surfaced in May at the Festival de Cannes. "Atonement" served as the opening-night film at the Venice Film Festival in August. Such other contenders as "Juno," "Into the Wild" and "I'm Not There" made their presence felt at the Telluride and Toronto fests. And even though "There Will Be Blood" doesn't open until the day after Christmas, its creators already have begun working the Hollywood Q&A circuit.

But that's all the early positioning.

Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences don't receive their Oscar nomination ballots until next week and don't have to return them until Jan. 12; for many of them, serious consideration of this year's lineup is just beginning. Although some companies try to jump-start the process — Fox Searchlight sent out screeners for "The Namesake," "Once" and "Waitress" in September — it's the Christmas holiday period that matters.

That's when a lot of voters get down to the serious business (and most Academy members do take their responsibility of surveying potential nominees seriously) of seeing the year-end releases and catching up with the films they missed earlier in the year. The conversations that take place at holiday parties and family gatherings become critical: What films have you seen? What did you like? What shouldn't I miss?

The first wave of critics' picks, followed by the nominations for the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards, can help shape the conversation, but they don't necessarily determine its outcome.

Critics nationwide have embraced the Coen brothers' scorched-earth "No Country," named best picture by the New York Film Critics Circle. But while it's sure to be a big player when the Oscar noms are announced Jan. 22, it could encounter some resistance along the way.

You just have to read the tea leaves. This week, in a conversation with critic David Edelstein on NPR's "Fresh Air," Terry Gross, who's hardly unsophisticated, voiced a contrary opinion, rather abashedly confessing: "Is it just me? … It seems to degenerate into a chase film with an occasional existential voice-over by Tommy Lee Jones." And a couple of weeks ago in the New Yorker, Nora Ephron, an influential member of the New York film community, penned a piece titled "No, but We Saw the Movie," in which an earnest couple puzzles over the "No Country's" plot points. Her jibe could be read as either a critique of overly literal moviegoers or of the enigmatic movie itself.

Of course, any attention a film receives during the next few weeks is better than no attention at all. "Into the Wild," which Gross could fairly describe as an existential road trip, looked like it was losing momentum when the Globes voters last week awarded it just two mentions for song and score. But it came roaring back at Thursday's SAG noms, where it prevailed in four categories — certainly, in part, a reflection of SAG's admiration for its actor-turned-director Sean Penn. But while the SAG spotlight boosts star Emile Hirsch's bid for a best actor Oscar nom and should usher Hal Holbrook into a supporting actor slot, there's still anecdotal evidence out there that Academy voters are not as enthusiastic about the film.

So don't call the winners, or even the likely nominees, just yet. When it comes to the Academy, the Oscar race really doesn't open until Christmas.