<p>Steven Spielberg is playing the awards season game again with &quot;War Horse.&quot;</p>

Steven Spielberg is playing the awards season game again with "War Horse."

Credit: DreamWorks

Oscars 2012: 10 things we already know by June

Is it the most competitive field in years?

June is still two days away, but with the 2011 movie season edging close to the halfway mark, it's becoming painfully apparent Hollywood is in for one humdinger of a competitive awards season.  The fireworks won't really begin until the Venice/Telluride/Toronto triumvirate of festivals at the beginning of September, but with studios setting their fourth quarter release dates, hot Cannes titles getting acquired and buzz leaking about what contenders have already been screened it's hard not to see the wheels already in motion.  Taking all that into account, here are 10 topics of interest that should hold you over until August.  And besides, it's never really to early to talk Oscar, is it?

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<p>Jessica Chastain talks &quot;The Tree of Life&quot;&nbsp;with HitFix.</p>

Jessica Chastain talks "The Tree of Life" with HitFix.

Meet the next big thing: 'Tree of Life's' Jessica Chastain

With eight major releases including 'Life' you'll soon find out why

It might surprise you, but Jessica Chastain and "Thor" star Chris Hemsworth actually have a lot in common.  No, Hemsworth didn't attend Juliard and Chastain isn't from Australia, but both actors have waited quite awhile for their big movie breaks to hit theaters.  Hemsworth had already completed "The Cabin in the Woods" and "Red Dawn" before even landing his role as the Asgardian god in "Thor."  And Chastain? She's had an even longer journey to the public eye.

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<p>Kathryn Bigelow at the 2010 British Orange Awards.</p>

Kathryn Bigelow at the 2010 British Orange Awards.

Credit: AP Photo

Sony Pictures joins Kathryn Bigelow in the big screen hunt for Osama bin Laden

Recent events incorporated into the script

Osama bin Laden may be dead thanks to the efforts of the CIA, Navy SEALs and President Obama, but Columbia Pictures and Kathryn Bigelow are keeping his story alive.  The Sony Pictures division announced today that it had acquired the rights to produce and distribute Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's untitled thriller about the black ops mission to capture or kill bin Laden.

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Oscar Watch: Academy voting entering the digital age

Oscar Watch: Academy voting entering the digital age

Plus: Alexander Payne's 'The Descendants' gets a poster

It was simple, direct and to the point.  In one printed letter dated May 19, 2011, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences informed its almost 6,000 members that change was coming.  As soon as they mailed in what E-mail address they would prefer to be contacted at in the future, of course.  Yes, as early as next year, Academy members will discard mailed ballots with a new online voting system.  To say this is a sea change is an understatement, because with electronic voting all the established rules about how long you need to run the Academy Awards timetable gets thrown out the window.

There are no doubt many in the Academy who have big concerns about moving the annual date of the Academy Awards from the end of February to January (or the beginning of February for that matter), but the biggest issue about such a change has always been the lengthy voting process.  Currently, the Academy provides about three weeks for voters to submit their mailed in ballots for the big show.  Of course, ballots aren't even mailed to members until a week after the final nominations have been announced.  That's right, members currently have to wait a week after the field is revealed to even start voting.  What the Academy doesn't discuss publicly is that almost half the voters send in their ballots right away and the rest trickle in over the three week period.  The number of members who wait to the end rarely affects the outcome of any race as the controversies surrounding the actions of a "Hurt Locker" producer and Melissa Leo's now infamous campaign ads demonstrated over the past two years.  Basically, the extra long window is only assisting the stragglers in the process.

As for the earlier nomination process, members have almost two weeks from the end of the calendar year to submit their ballots (Jan. 13, 2012 this cycle).  Considering the deluge of screenings and screeners the membership has at their disposal before Dec. 31, let alone those who actually pay to see a film in theater, it's a window that could be severely shortened.  

 Publicly, don't expect AMPAS to mark this as anything more than moving the organization into the 21st Century, but when (not if) the Oscars move to an earlier date just remember it all started with a May letter asking for an E-mail address.  Oh, how 1999...

 In other awards season news…

 Fox Searchlight is working hard to make sure Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" becomes a prestige picture event.  The film won't hit theaters until December, but the studio has already launched a teaser site for the dramedy and today released a new poster featuring star George Clooney. Considering Payne hasn't directed a film since the beloved "Sideways" (also released by Searchlight) it appears the mini-major is pulling out all the stops to make sure everyone knows he's back.  Gotta love the confidence, huh?  Check out the new key art below and judge for yourself.

 

George Clooney in the new poster for Alexander Payne's THE DESCENDANTS

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<p>Jack Black is &quot;Bernie&quot;</p>

Jack Black is "Bernie"

Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey's 'Bernie' debuting at LA Film Fest

Richard Linklater's latest finds an unexpected home

In something of a minor surprise, the 2011 Los Angeles FIlm Festival has landed the world premiere of Richard Linklater's new film "Bernie" as its opening night feature.

The story finds Black as Bernie, a "beloved" mortician in a small Texas town.  MacLaine plays her now familiar role of the town’s richest, meanest widow, but - surprise - even she adores him.  The film appears to hinge on the fact that Bernie is so well liked no one will say anything bad about him even after he commits a horrible crime - killing MacLaine's character.  How McConaughey figures into the picture is unclear.

The independently produced black comedy reunites Black and McConaughey with  Linklater after both worked with the filmmaker on "School of Rock" and "Dazed and Confused" respectively.  Even with Black and McConaughey's involvement, "Bernie" is still searching for distribution.  While you have to be happy LA Film Fest is getting such a high profile picture it's somewhat bizarre the film didn't debut at SXSW in March (Linklater is based in Austin, TX) or that the producer's wouldn't wait to show it at Toronto this September (where competing films and bidders could have driven up the price).  Strange to say the least. Most of the other big films at LAFF have screened at other festivals to significant acclaim ("Drive," "Another Earth," "The Future," The Guard" ) or are commercial Hollywood films looking for a fun send off ("Green Lantern," "Don't Be Afraid Of the Dark").  It's difficult to recall the last time LA Film Fest found a potential acquisition piece in it's coffers. 

"Bernie" will kick off the 2011 LA Film Fest on June 16.  

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<p>Rachel McAdams talks about her role in Woody Allen's &quot;Midnight in Paris.&quot;</p>

Rachel McAdams talks about her role in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris."

Watch: Rachel McAdams and Michael Sheen talk the magic of 'Midnight in Paris'

Is it one of Woody Allen's best?

One of the nicest surprises of May has been Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris."  Already a critic's favorite, the Cannes Film Festival opening night dramedy isn't at the level of Allen's most recent classics, "Vicky Christina Barcelona" and "Match Point," but it's clearly right behind them and is far superior to the disappointing "Scoop," "Whatever Works" and last year's frustrating "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger."  And with a Metacritic rating of 82 out of 100 and a stellar Rotten Tomatoes score of 91%, don't be surprised if Allen and "Midnight" become part of the awards season mix this fall.  That campaign also will have some financial incentive as "Paris" is primed to be one of Allen's biggest hits of the 21st Century.

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<p>Alexander Skarsgard and Kirsten Dunst in Lars von Trier's &quot;Melancholia.&quot;</p>

Alexander Skarsgard and Kirsten Dunst in Lars von Trier's "Melancholia."

Has Lars von Trier sabotaged any life for 'Melancholia'?

Dunst's award season chances may be over before they started

 

It can't get much worse for Lars von Trier, but somebody might need to let the mercurial director know the time for games are over.  The film world is still rocking after the filmmaker's statements yesterday at this year's Cannes Film Festival where he began a long diatribe that found him sympathizing with Hitler.  Today, the Cannes Film Festival effectively banned him from appearing 100 feet from the Festival's red carpet or Festival Palais because of his inappropriate remarks. 

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<p>Kristin Scott Thomas in the U.S. poster for &quot;Sarah's Key.&quot;</p>

Kristin Scott Thomas in the U.S. poster for "Sarah's Key."

Credit: The Weinstein Company

Exclusive: Kristin Scott Thomas searches for 'Sarah's Key' in U.S. poster

What does it open?

Finally hitting U.S. theaters after a worldwide tour, "Sarah's Key" is one of those rare international crowd pleasers (at least according to the critics and a high 7.4/10 recommend on IMDB) that could make some noise this summer on the art house circuit.

Debuting at last year's Toronto Film Festival and based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay, the dramatic thriller finds Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia, a journalist who begins to investigating a series of events that occurred in her French home during WW II.  Her research brings forth a painful secret to a family trying to put the war behind them.  

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<p>Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in Terrence Malick's &quot;The Tree of Life.&quot;</p>

Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life."

Credit: Fox Searchlight

Review: 'Tree of Life" has a grand canvas that ultimately can't connect

Brad Pitt is solid as Jessica Chastain hints at more

Terrence Malick is one of a kind.  Others have tried to imitate his signature naturalistic style, but when the veteran filmmaker is at his best there are few artists who can bring cinema to such grand heights.  The only thing that has been missing from Malick's resume is, well, a substantial one.  With only five films to his credit over the past 37 years it's often easy to contemplate what we've missed during his long breaks from the director's chair.  His first three films, "Badlands," "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line" are unquestionably classics.  Unfortunately, his last big screen endeavor, "The New World," was something of a mess.   A visually stunning one, but a narrative and disappointing mess.  After some delay, Malick is back with the incredibly ambitious "Tree of Life" which screened for critics at the Cannes Film Festival and in New York and Los Angeles on Monday.

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<p>Angelina Jolie waves at a press opp for &quot;Kung Fu Panda 2&quot;&nbsp;last week at Cannes.</p>

Angelina Jolie waves at a press opp for "Kung Fu Panda 2" last week at Cannes.

Credit: AP Photo/Joel Ryan

Angelina Jolie's 'In The Land of Blood and Honey' playing awards season game

Bosnian War drama will be released on Dec. 23

Producer GK Films and new distributor FilmDistrict have just made Angelina Jolie's directorial debut prime awards season fodder and an even bigger must-see for those in the industry.  The two entities announced in Cannes Sunday that "In The Land of Blood and Honey" would hit American theaters on Dec. 23, a signature awards contending date.

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