<p>Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgely in &quot;Margin Call.&quot;</p>

Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgely in "Margin Call."

Credit: Roadside Attractions

Contender Countdown: Can 'Margin Call' crash the Oscar party?

Plus: A rundown of the best picture, director and screenplay races

"Frozen River," "The Messenger," "The Savages," "In Bruges," "Dirty Pretty Things," "You Can Count on Me," "Winter's Bone," "In the Loop," "City of God," "The Sweet Hereafter."  All examples of smaller and/or independent films over the past 15 years or so that found a way to sneak past the big boys into the Oscar party.  There are a number of potential candidates to join that list this year, but the big surprise among them may be "Margin Call."

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<p>George Clooney and Alexander Payne talk &quot;The Descendants&quot;</p>

George Clooney and Alexander Payne talk "The Descendants"

George Clooney and Alexander Payne talk shooting on 'The Descendants' and praise 'The Wire'

Film icons talk 'shooting film and beating up actors' on TV

To be honest, I'm normally not a fan of studio created features or interviews edited by them, but after watching this conversation between George Clooney and Alexander Payne the chance to exclusively premiere it was just too hard to turn down.  

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<p>Elizabeth Reaser talks about &quot;The Twilight Saga:&nbsp;Breaking Dawn&quot; and Jason Reitman's &quot;Young Adult.&quot;</p>

Elizabeth Reaser talks about "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn" and Jason Reitman's "Young Adult."

'Breaking Dawn's' Elizabeth Reaser talks about the climactic scene in 'Young Adult'

Busy schedules for Reaser and 'Nurse Jackie's' Peter Facinelli

Let's be frank.  For Elizabeth Reaser and Peter Facinelli, being part of "The Twilight Saga" hasn't given them that much to do.  As Dr. Carlisle Cullen (Facinelli) and his wife Esme Cullen (Reaser), the two pros are usually background players to the drama following their on screen adopted "son" Edward (Robert Pattinson) and the love of his, um, life, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart).  While that changes just a bit in "Breaking Dawn," it's given two of the more experienced members of the ensemble a different perspective on the fourth production in the series.

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<p>Kim Wayans and Adepero Oduye in &quot;Pariah.&quot;</p>

Kim Wayans and Adepero Oduye in "Pariah."

Credit: Focus Features

Focus handling Sundance drama 'Pariah' with special care

Pay attention young Sundance filmmakers

During this time of year it's pretty common to hear someone incredulously remark "Why is [insert movie studio] releasing [insert this movie] during awards season?  It could do so much better in the [name a more appropriate time of year]."  Usually, it's because a filmmaker associated with the picture has unrealistic Academy Awards dreams for either the picture, one of their stars or, sadly, themselves.  The problem is that audiences would likely embrace the picture at a different time of year which could mean, um, better financial returns.  And, sometimes, it's a smaller distributor making a gutsy, go for broke call with little chance of success.  I'll be quite honest, until a lunch at the Chateau Marmont Thursday afternoon, I had put the striking Sundance drama "Pariah" in the "gutsy" category.

The rare example of a good opening night film at Sundance (almost a miracle), Dee Rees' "Pariah" tells the story of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a Brooklyn teenager who is struggling with her gay identity both at home and amongst her friends.  As I noted in my review from the film's premiere last January, "Pariah" is a perfect example of the resurgence of quality gay themed indie films (a trend that continued this year at SXSW with "Weekend").  However, I'm not sure anyone who saw the film at Sundance would have considered it an "awards" picture outside of obvious Independent Spirit Awards consideration.  

Of course Focus Features, which picked up "Pariah," has an impressive history with releasing and supporting groundbreaking gay films.  From "Brokeback Mountain" to "Milk" to "The Kids Are All Right" to "My Summer of Love" to "Far From Heaven" to last summer's "Beginners," the mini-major has been a social force for opening audiences to all aspects of gay life on the big screen.  With "Pariah," the studio decided to release the drama in limited release on Dec. 28 and expand it throughout January and February.  That's a pretty competitive time frame on the art house circuit, but the studio obviously believes the positive reviews the picture received so far will fuel strong limited returns. On this day, the studio had fashioned an intimate lunch featuring writer/director Rees, the incredibly charming Oduye, Kim Wayans who plays Alike's conservative mother (yes, that Kim Wayans) and Aasha Davis (best known for a short stint on "Friday Night Lights") who plays a family friend.  

Speaking to these talented ladies and a few invited journalists, I was immediately reminded of how rare it is these days for a film about real African American women to hit theaters.  Sure, there are Tyler Perry movies, but an original movie about African American women? Let alone a film that shines the light on African American lesbians?  That's almost unheard of.  And for the writers present who cover African American entertainment it was the subject they kept returning to again and again.  For Kim Wayans, who has fought for years to be given a chance with a meaty dramatic role (and succeeds beautifully), it was important to make "Pariah" for her gay niece and in memory of a gay male friend who was beaten and killed by a younger man he'd met at club. Wayans also lamented about how few positive role models there are on TV for African American girls as it's mostly filled with reality shows featuring women who just fight with each other in over-the-top arguments ("My friend and I don't know who those people are. We've never seen women act like that."). Oduye, who still looks a decade younger than her 33 years, has been moved by audiences all oner the world finding a universal truth in the picture of a person just trying to find acceptance for who they are.  Dees is looking forward to taking the film to cities in the south such as Atlanta and just getting it in theaters for audiences to discover.  And when you take all that into account, frankly, perhaps Focus is making the right move.

Realistically, "Pariah" could easily find itself the recipient of numerous critics awards outside the traditional best picture race (best first film, special achievement in filmmaking, etc.) and could also make enough top ten lists to help publicize the picture in art house theaters outside of New York and Los Angeles.  The studio is also making a smart strategic decision by making sure the screener is in Academy and guild member hands by Thanksgiving.  Granted, there will be numerous screeners hitting mailboxes ("Warrior" and "Contagion" are two recent arrivals), but in races such as original screenplay (where another indie "Margin Call" has been mentioned by members) or cinematography (remember Bradford Young's name) you honestly never know.

More importantly though, many distributors could pick up a film like "Pariah" and lose interest in it just a few months down the road.  But Focus? Nope. That's not gonna happen.  When they care. They care.  Pay heed young Sundance filmmakers.  You only get your first chance to shine once and in Dees case, she's in more than capable hands.

Oh, and don't forget to watch that screener Academy and guild members.  You may be surprised at what you think of it.

"Pariah" opens in select theaters on Dec. 28.

For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.

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<p>Billy Crystal stopping by the 83rd Academy Awards this past February.</p>

Billy Crystal stopping by the 83rd Academy Awards this past February.

Credit: AP Photo

Confirmed: Billy Crystal is hosting the 84th Academy Awards

Legendary host stepping in to save the day after Eddie Murphy's departure

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has confirmed that Billy Crystal will host the 84th Academy Awards.

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<p>Hugh Laurie talks &quot;Arthur Christmas.&quot;</p>

Hugh Laurie talks "Arthur Christmas."

Hugh Laurie didn't imagine he would be so 'buff' in fantastic 'Arthur Christmas'

'House' star talks about his role in new Aardman animated film

Hugh Laurie is no stranger to voice over work.  Whether it's "Monsters vs. Aliens," "Stuart Little" or numerous other appearances, Laurie's vocal talents has served him well.  Now, just in time for the holidays, the "House" star can be heard in Aardman Animation and Sony Picture Animation's clever and charming new feature "Arthur Christmas."

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<p>Brian Grazer with Brett Ratner at the premiere of &quot;J. Edgar&quot;&nbsp;last week in Hollywood.&nbsp; How times change.</p>

Brian Grazer with Brett Ratner at the premiere of "J. Edgar" last week in Hollywood.  How times change.

Credit: AP Photo/Matt Sayles

It's official: Brian Grazer steps in to replace Brett Ratner as Oscar producer

From one 'Tower Heist' man to another

Quickly moving on after the Brett Ratner debacle, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced this afternoon that Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer would step in to co-produce the 84th Academy Awards alongside previously announced Don Mischer.

In a statement, AMPAS president Tom Sherak noted, "Brian Grazer is a renowned filmmaker who over the past 25 years has produced a diverse and extraordinary body of work. He will certainly bring his tremendous talent, creativity and relationships to the Oscars®."

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<p>Eddie Murphy on the Today Show last week.</p>

Eddie Murphy on the Today Show last week.

Credit: AP Photo/Pete Kramer

Eddie Murphy stands by his man and his legacy suffers for it

Ditching the Oscars was not a good move

When it rains it pours and for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the past few days has been something close to a hurricane of bad publicity.  Monday and Tuesday dealt with the drama of co-producer Brett Ratner's incredulous comments over the weekend and his subsequent resignation.  This morning, less than 24 hours later, Ratner's chosen host, Eddie Murphy, bowed out of emceeing this year's 84th Academy Awards.

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<p>A&nbsp;moment from Gore Verbinski's &quot;Rango.&quot;</p>

A moment from Gore Verbinski's "Rango."

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Contender Countdown: 'Rango' vs. 'Tintin' for animated feature Oscar?

Plus: 'J. Edgar' takes a dive in the best picture race

While there aren't too many changes in this week's best picture countdown things are heating up in the best animated feature race.

The Academy announced 18 films that had qualified for the animated feature which means there should be five nominees this year. Even with newly expanded rules, this is only the third time that's occurred.  In 2003 when "Spirited Away" won and in 2010 (perhaps the greatest field of nominees so far) when "Up" took the Oscar. In this pundits view, this year's race comes down to a three-way race between the critically acclaimed "Rango," Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" and Aardman produced "Arthur Christmas." Verbinski's "Rango" was a surprise hit and arguably the most thematically sophisticated (let alone triply) animated film in years. "Tintin" is already a hit overseas, but its also motion-capture.  Will the Academy really recognize a motion-capture film for best animated feature?  "Arthur" will be adored by critics and audiences, but is facing very tough domestic box office prospects with "Muppets" and "Hugo" opening on the same day.

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<p>Former Academy Awards co-producer Brett Ratner.</p>

Former Academy Awards co-producer Brett Ratner.

Credit: AP Photo/Matt Sayles

Brett Ratner resigns as Academy Awards co-producer over gay slur controversy

Updated: GLAAD issues statement on working with the 'Tower Heist' helmer

This hasn't been a good week for Brett Ratner.  His first film in four years, "Tower Heist," was both a critical and commercial disappointment after debut on Friday.  Ratner complicated matters by responding to a question during a "Tower Heist" Q&A over the weekend by using the phrase "rehearsals are for fags."  That set off a firestorm of criticism on Monday which has now lead to Ratner withdrawing from co-producing the 84th Academy Awards.

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