Should Fox Searchlight be happy I can't get the beautiful final song from the new drama "Crazy Heart" out of my head?  That question might answer itself.

The studio had the first of a few preview screenings for selected press on the Fox Lot this morning to gauge reaction to the music-themed drama and this writer was lucky enough to get an invite.  Most recently slated for a March release (with an expected Sundance Film Festival premiere), the picture will likely move to mid to late December for an expected awards season push.  It's unclear what all the other journalists in attendance thought, but this pundit sees a new Oscar contender on the horizon and an almost sure thing best actor nod for star Jeff Bridges.

Written, produced and directed by Scott Cooper (who has had more success as an actor than filmmaker to this point), "Crazy Heart" is an adaptation of Thomas Cobb's novel that centers on down on his luck country singing star Bad Blake (Bridges) who has escaped into alcohol after his career dramatically falls behind that of his former protege Tommy Sweet (think a dark haired Kenny Chesney played superbly by Colin Farrell).  Blake's life seems to turn around when he falls for a small town reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal), but as expected, old habits die hard.  How the film rebounds from that arc is what makes it so intriguing.

While not a final edit (the screening was projected from an AVID source), the film's biggest asset is Bridges  charismatic and multi-layered performance as Blake.  This easily could have slipped into caricature, but Bridges makes Bad an incredibly real and sympathetic figure (even with all his faults).  The actor's few scenes with Farrell in particular are full of dramatic tension provided almost entirely by the actors themselves.  Is Blake gonna punch Sweet? Is he going to blow an opportunity to kick start his career?  Is this all about Sweet just using Blake for his songwriting skill? This is really compelling stuff from actors at the top of their game.

The juxtaposition of seeing De Niro in the feeble "Everybody's Fine" last night with Bridges in "Crazy Heart" this morning is somewhat startling.  The legendary De Niro can't seem to get the artistic side of his acting career back on track while Bridges resume grows stronger and stronger.  This may be the "year of the Clooney" as many have dubbed it, but with Bridges hilarious supporting role in "The Men Who Stare At Goats" it could turn out to be the "year of the Bridges" (and yes, we know he has "Tron Legacy" next December too).

One of the finest American actors of his generation (not an exaggeration), Bridges has been nominated four times before but never held his own Academy Award.  Can "Starman" win this time around?  His entry will clearly create a three-man race between "A Single Man's" Colin Firth and Bridges' "Goats" co-star Clooney who will get lauded for "Up in the Air."  Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman are also serious contenders for "Invictus" although it's still unclear whether one of them will be knocked down to supporting.

As for the rest of the cast, Gyllenhaal's emotional performance isn't her absolute best work, but she has an excellent chance at a Best Actress nomination if she can qualify.  Considering Paramount is campaigning "Air's" Vera Farminga in that category and she's in "Air" just as much as Gyllenhaal is in "Crazy Heart" it just makes too much sense than pushing her into the ultra-competitive Best Supporting Actress field.

Musically, "Crazy Heart" is a gem. The film has four songs that could be eligible for Best Original Song, but Searchlight would be smart to push just the last one, "The Weary Kind."  It's one of those tracks you could see a number of acts re-recording over the years and with the right singer behind it be a popular contemporary hit on the country charts. It sounded as though Farrell was singing the final version and its possible it will be re-released with another star singing it, but I'll let my colleague Melinda Neuman wax on that after she has a chance to see the movie.

As for picture?  That's a tough one.  The film's producers include none other than Robert Duvall (who has a small role onscreen as well) and legendary music producer and songwriter T-Bone Burnett.  However, the race is getting tighter for the final ten and a picture such as "District 9" or "A Serious Man" may have to drop for "Heart" to sneak in.  Still, it's hard not to see it as a legitimate contender for sure.

It appears award season's annual November surprise has already arrived and it's only the 5th.  What can the rest of the month bring?  Your guess is as good as mine.
 

 

For constant updates on awards season and entertainment news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter at Twitter.com/HitFixGregory