LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Tales of tragedy and struggle will vie for Oscar attention on Tuesday as an unusual awards season overshadowed by the Hollywood writers strike heads into its final stretch.
Nominees for the 80th annual Academy Awards, the film industry's highest honors, will be announced at the crack of dawn in Beverly Hills (about 8:30 a.m. EST) amid a rare degree of agreement among critics and Oscar pundits about the most likely, and most deserving, contenders.
But there is always room for surprise. In a caustic open letter to Oscar voters, Rolling Stone movie critic Peter Travers said they deserve to watch "Transformers" forever in hell if they do not nominate the likes of "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country For Old Men" for best picture.
As is often the case, the majority of the front-runners in this race are films whose rave reviews have yet to excite the masses, though their distributors are hoping Oscar recognition will provide a box-office bump.
One such movie is "There Will Be Blood," writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's grim exploration of the corrupting nature of power and money. British actor Daniel Day-Lewis stars as a turn-of-the-century oilman in California, who says "I hate most people." Most pundits expect he will add a best-actor statuette to the one he picked up in 1990 for "My Left Foot."
The film has earned just $8.2 million since opening on December 26. Now playing in 389 theaters -- about one-tenth the total of current box office champ "Cloverfield" -- it will double its theater count next weekend, said Paramount Vantage, which partnered on the film with Miramax Films.
"No Country for Old Men" comes from sibling filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, who could end up with nods for best picture, director, adapted screenplay and editing.
Their gritty thriller features Spanish actor Javier Bardem as a homicidal psychopath cutting a path of destruction across small-town Texas, pursued by a weary lawman played by Tommy Lee Jones. Bardem is considered a lock for a supporting-actor nomination. As with Day-Lewis, he has already won honors at the Critics Choice and Golden Globe awards.
Another Miramax-Paramount Vantage venture, "No Country" has earned $48.7 million after 11 weeks, surpassing "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" as the Coens' most popular movie.
Other dramas regarded as favorites for best picture are the legal thriller "Michael Clayton," which stars George Clooney as a lawyer who specializes in getting clients out of a jam; and the French-language film "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," the true story of a paralyzed magazine editor who dictates a book by blinking his eye for each letter.
Warner Bros. will relaunch "Michael Clayton" on Friday, after disappointing sales of $39 million during its initial run. Miramax's "Diving Bell" is in its eighth weekend of limited release, having earned $2.5 million from 107 theaters.
Those four movies -- "Blood," "No Country," "Michael Clayton" and "Diving Bell" -- were among the top five picks of the Producers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America, representing key constituencies of Oscar voters.
The Sean Penn-directed wilderness adventure "Into the Wild" rounded out the directors' list of nominees, while "Juno," the lone comedy among the Oscar favorites, starring Ellen Page as a pregnant teenager, was nominated by the producers. "Into the Wild" was snubbed at the Critics Choice Awards, a key Oscar barometer, while the Academy often shuns comedies.
Other films that could score multiple nominations include the British period drama "Atonement," the Golden Globe winner for best drama; the bloody musical "Sweeney Todd," the Globe winner for best comedy/musical, and the political satire "Charlie Wilson's War."
Paramount Vantage is a unit of Viacom Inc. Miramax Films is a unit of Walt Disney Co. Warner Bros. Pictures is a unit of Time Warner Inc. "Juno" was released by Fox Searchlight, a unit of News Corp. "Atonement" was released by Focus Features, and "Charlie Wilson's War" by Universal Pictures. Both are units of General Electric Co's NBC Universal.
Additional reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Philip Barbara