One of the most anticipated films of the year, Christopher Nolan's "Inception" is a complex, intelligent and moving thriller and a worthy follow up to the filmmaker's masterpiece "The Dark Knight." Challenging the viewer on numerous levels, the picture is yet another example of how Nolan continues to navigate the delicate balance between commercial success and artistic significance in his feature film work.  Granted, some audiences will wonder what the integral set up is leading up to during "Inception's" first hour, but the picture's third act pay off is one of the most thought provoking and rewarding you'll find at the multiplex this or any other year.

As Cobb, our film's hero, Leonardo DiCaprio is once again playing a man driven to extremes to escape a seemingly inevitable fate. This time around, he's on the run overseas, unable to return to the states due to mysterious circumstances. In the meantime, he survives as a corporate "dream spy."  His clients pay him to set up virtual scenarios in the mind of his competition where he and his colleague (a fine Joseph Gordon-Levitt) "retract" information that can make companies go boom or bust.  Desperate to see his two children back in America though, he agrees to one last job that would find his name cleared.  The kick is the job isn't a retraction, but inception -- planting a suggestion within a user's subconscious that will cause the competition, (in this case young CEO Robert Fischer, Jr. played by Cillian Murphy), to make significant decisions in their life.  To make it work, Cobb has to recruit a number of new partners including Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young architect who designs the dream world(s), and Eames (Tom Hardy), another experienced dream spy with a welcome sense of humor. Rounding out the cast is Ken Watanabe as Cobb's new client who inserts himself in the process to make sure nothing goes wrong and Marion Cotillard as Mal, DiCaprio's seemingly dead wife (or is she?), who shows up at the most inopportune times.

In order to make the inception work, Cobb and his team have to create three dreams within a dream to reach Fischer's subconscious.  As the narrative moves on it becomes unclear what is real and what isn't.  And the film's "don't spoil the secret" ending will no doubt spur lots of provocative discussion afterward. 

A significant achievement, "Inception" should benefit from strong reviews and is clearly a player in a number of categories this Oscar season.  However, "Inception" won't be for everyone.  As noted, the picture requires the viewer to pay close attention to events even as they are clearly spelled out in front of them.  Not all audiences will be prepared to have to "think" during their summer movie season, but those that go for the ride will find an incredibly stimulating reward hit them before the credits roll.

Taking this very early date in awards season in mind, here's a rundown of the film's Oscar chances. 

Best Picture
Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas
Lowdown: Should make the ten, but its not the frontrunner.  Not yet.

Best Director
Christopher Nolan
Lowdown:  After being passed over for "The Dark Knight" (clearly a mistake after the DGA nod), the Brit is clearly in the mix for recognition here.

Best Actor

Leonardo DiCaprio
Lowdown: If the field is weak DiCaprio could get in, but because he's played this note a number of times in previous films (most recently "Shutter Island") the membership may not deem this performance awards worthy.  A curious situation to watch as awards season heats up.

Best Supporting Actress
Marion Cotillard
Lowdown: The Best Actress winner for "La Vie en Rose" is quickly becoming one of the most captivating figures on the screen.  She shines in what is clearly one of the most difficult roles to pull off in the film. Would be stunned not to see her recognized here.

Best Original Screenplay

Christopher Nolan
Lowdown: Considering the lack of competition in this category, it would be hard to imagine Nolan's peers not rewarding him for pulling this one off.

Best Editing
Lee Smith
Lowdown:  One of the few major nominees for "The Dark Knight," Smith had the difficult task of transferring Nolan's version of multiple dreams into a series of visual cues an audience could easily understand.  The two-time nominee's work is so noteworthy it will no doubt find itself as film school reference material in the years to come.  Smith is one of "Inception's" biggest Academy contenders.

Best Cinematography
Wally Pfister
Lowdown: More impressive work from Nolan's longtime collaborator.  This should be his fourth nomination, but he may not be "due" yet.

Best Original Score
Hans Zimmer
Lowdown: Slowly joining the ranks of John Williams as one of the most significant composers to work on the silver screen, Zimmer has not been recognized by the Academy as many times as you'd think.  "Inception" would only be his eighth nod.

Best Production Design

Guy Dyas
Lowdown:  More gorgeous and impressive work from a man whose resume includes "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" and "Agora." The field still needs to be sorted, but Dyas should be a player in this category and possibly land his first nod.

Best Sound Editing and Sound Effects Editing

TBD
Lowdown: Unclear who will make the grade in the always complex editing breakdowns, but the only real shocker would be if "Inception" didn't make at least one of this lists.

Best Visual Effects
TBD
Lowdown:  Very strong work all around, but whether it's significant to break through against competition that should include "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," "Iron Man 2," "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1," "The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader," "Gulliver's Travels" and "Tron Legacy" remains to be seen.

In terms of box office, "Inception" won't be the $400 million behomoth "Dark Knight" was, but it should pass the $200 million mark as word of mouth spurs the adult audiences who go to the cinema three or four times a year to find out what all the buzz is about.

"Inception" opens nationwide and in IMAX on July 16.