LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Who are the frontrunners in this year’s best picture Oscar race? Here are some early contenders, but don’t rule out the surprises yet to come.
Why it’s a contender: The Academy frequently taps Mike Leigh’s films for some kind of recognition, though he hasn’t had a best picture nomination since 1996’s “Secrets & Lies.” A modest reception at the Cannes Film Festival might make “Another Year” a tough sell, but in a race with few actor-oriented films, this could make it to the final 10.
Why it’s a contender: Buzz began after “Black Swan‘s” Venice Film Festival premiere and it has only grown louder for director Darren Aronofsky’s follow-up to “The Wrestler.” Although the creepy psychological thriller might lean too dark for some Academy voters, Natalie Portman’s performance will garner their attention.
Why it’s a contender: Early viewers have said David O. Russell’s boxing movie is a worthy successor to “Raging Bull,” “Rocky” and “Million Dollar Baby.” The film will be helped by star Mark Wahlberg’s commitment to promoting the movie that he also produced.
Why it’s a contender: Clint Eastwood is arguably the most beloved filmmaker among Academy members, and his late-career resurgence makes each new film a must-see. A terrific tsunami scene and strong performances might make voters overlook an ending that has left many dissatisfied.
Why it’s a contender: Ever since winning the Oscar for “Terms of Endearment,” James L. Brooks has been a must-consider for Oscar voters. That said, he was unsure whether a film his colleagues described as commercial would play with awards voters and was holding off until the film’s release before granting interviews. At worst, the movie is likely to contend for a Golden Globe/comedy; at best, it could be in the run for an Oscar.
Why it’s a contender: DreamWorks Animation thought it had a fizzler when “Dragon” opened to tepid box office in March. But word-of-mouth, a terrific promotional campaign and the ready availability of its two likeable directors will keep this front and center of voters’ minds -- even if Pixar has won the past three animated movie Oscars in a row.
Why it’s a contender: Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to “The Dark Knight” is no “Avatar” -- and that’s a good thing. Voters will appreciate how the dreamscape drama eschewed 3D gimmickry and still managed to pull off the most complex intersection of sci-fi and fantasy.
Why it’s a contender: Strong performances always resonate with the Academy’s actors’ branch. Plus, the indie hit never moralizes on same-sex marriage, instead offering a humorous and heartfelt take on two mothers, two teenage kids and a cool biological father. The family may not be typical, but the movie’s themes -- parenting, adolescent rebellion and forgiveness -- are universal.
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Why it’s a contender: The Weinstein brothers are masters at taking British period pieces and turning them into Oscar winners -- think “The English Patient” and “Shakespeare in Love.” Add to that an actor who seems a lock for a nomination, Colin Firth, and it’s hard to imagine a stronger entry.
Why it’s a contender: Two years after Danny Boyle won the Oscar for “Slumdog Millionaire,” nobody can ignore his new film, especially one that takes a claustrophobic subject and explodes it with cinematic skill. Raves at the Toronto International Film Festival make it a lock for a nomination, though the severing-arm scene might prevent it from going further.
Why it’s a contender: The Martin Scorsese thriller was meant to be a contender last year, only for Paramount to switch its release at the last minute from late 2009 to February -- but don’t count it out. Each of his previous collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio -- “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed” -- has garnered a best picture nomination.
Why it’s a contender: After a lukewarm opening weekend, “The Social Network” now has plenty of friends. The Facebook drama is probably the strongest front-runner alongside “The King’s Speech.”
Why it’s a contender: Ben Affleck said he was so stressed making “Gone Baby Gone” that he felt sick almost every day. That didn’t prevent him from taking on a triple-threat challenge as writer-director-star and pulling it off with fantastic box office and reviews. Now he’s as much in demand to direct as to act.
Why it’s a contender: Pixar has won best animated feature three years in a row; now it’s aiming for best picture, period. Even though only two animated movies have been nominated in this category before, the rave reviews and expansion by the Academy to 10 nominee slots gives it a good chance.
Why it’s a contender: The Coen brothers are still editing their version of Charles Portis’ novel, said to be substantially different from the John Wayne film. But when you’re the guys who made Oscar winner “No Country for Old Men,” teaming with last year’s best actor winner Jeff Bridges, how can you not be in contention?
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Why it’s a contender: Woody Allen has had ups and downs with the Academy ever since he failed to appear in person when “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” won Oscars. This charmer, though it played to mixed reviews in Cannes, is seen by many as his best film since “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” for which Penelope Cruz took home an Oscar last year.