Top Oscar contenders took a while to emerge

Sun Feb 17, 2008 8:09pm EST
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By Stephen Galloway

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - One evening last November, a handful of journalists and industry insiders eased into the plush armchairs of a Hollywood screening room to watch "The Golden Compass," the Nicole Kidman fantasy based on the first novel in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

New Line Cinema had been touting the costly movie as a sure-fire awards contender, destined to take its place alongside their last major Oscar winner, 2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

Within hours, New Line's hopes crashed as e-mails and text messages swept across town. After two years, $180 million in production costs and the best efforts of the studio's Oscar campaigners, the movie would go on to be shut out of the major categories.

Welcome to the reality of the Oscar race, in which highly touted thoroughbreds can pull up lame while unheralded upstarts turn into Seabiscuits.

This year has seen its share of both. "Juno," a $7 million comedy that premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2006, came out of nowhere and surprised even its director, Jason Reitman, when it earned four nominations, including one for Reitman himself. But far more often this season, pictures stumbled along the way.

Remember "Lust, Caution?" The tony teaming of director Ang Lee, co-writer James Schamus and Asian superstar Tony Leung never gathered momentum, despite wowing at the Venice Film Festival.

Then there was "In the Valley of Elah," Paul Haggis' follow-up to his 2006 best picture Oscar winner "Crash." The movie got only one nomination -- for its star, Tommy Lee Jones.

Even films that did well with both critics and audiences got lost in the mix -- like Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" and Marc Forster's "The Kite Runner."   Continued...

<p>A line of Oscar statuettes can be seen at a "Meet The Oscars" display in Times Square, New York February 15, 2008. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson</p>