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?
It's a year of ingenues
We'll talk about Ms. Streep's chances at finally winning a third best actress prize in a minute, but 2012 is clearly looking like the younger ladies could dominate both acting races. The list of contenders includes Elizabeth Olsen ("Martha Marcy May Marlene"), Felicity Jones ("Like Crazy"), Jennifer Lawrence ("Like Crazy"), Kristen Stewart ("On the Road"), Michelle Williams ("My Week with Marilyn"), Kirsten Dunst ("Melancholia"), Bryce Dallas Howard ("The Help"), Jessica Chastain ("The Help," "Take Shelter"), Keira Knightley ("A Dangerous Method"), Scarlett Johansson ("We Brought a Zoo"), Evan Rachel Wood ("The Ides of March") and Anna Kendrick ("50/50"). Needless to say, the roles for ladies have much improved over the past 12 months.
The animated feature race is wide open
"Cars 2" is expected to be a monster at the box office next month, but the original holds the distinction of being only one of two Pixar films not to win the best animated feature Oscar since the category began over 10 years ago. This year, "Cars 2" will have to prove it's a better film than the critically acclaimed "Rango," the highly anticipated "Puss in Boots," Aardman and Sony Pictures Animation's "Arthur Christmas" or "Happy Feet II" the sequel to "Happy Feet" which - you guessed it -- beat "Cars" for Oscar gold the first time around. Will history repeat itself?
Ladies will represent in the best director race
After Katheryn Bigelow's historic best director win in 2010, the 2011 class returned to an all boys club. That may change in 2012. Whether it's Phyllida Lloyd ("The Iron Lady"), Jodie Foster ("The Beaver"), Lynne Ramsay ("We Need to Talk About Kevin") or, no joke, Angelina Jolie ("In the Land of Blood and Honey"), a number of women will at least be in contention for a nomination this year.
Don't fear being the frontrunner
If last season taught awards consultants anything it's that fears over being the frontrunner can be vastly overstated. "The King's Speech" was a favorite of many after it's Telluride/Toronto debuts even if "The Social Network" stole some of its thunder for a good six weeks beginning in Dec. However, for every fallen contender such as "Up in the Air" or "Brokeback Mountain" there is a "Speech," "Slumdog Millionaire" or "No Country for Old Men" that proves being the presumed winner for most of the race isn't always a bad thing.
Meryl Streep's campaign for number three is on
We're not sure why the greatest American actress in history keeps doing this to herself, but we're beginning to believe she's just so talented she can't help it. Yes, Meryl Streep is tempting fate to land her 17th Academy Award nomination by playing former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the new biopic "The Iron Lady." Streep can claim two Oscars, but unlike peer Jack Nicholson she still hasn't won a third (and she clearly deserves it). Instead, she has returned as a nominee 12 times since 1983 and lost every single time. Again, Streep has lost 12 times over the past 28 years. If she'd never won that would be viewed as Susan Lucci-level psychological torture. So, needless to say, she's due.
Sundance and Cannes have had a significant say
The annual January competition in Park City, Utah has become a launching ground for many Oscar contenders and individual nominees over the past decade and 2011 was no different. Film such as "Project Nim," "The Guard," "Like Crazy," "How to Die in Oregon," "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Happy Happy" should all make noise in numerous categories by the time Oscar roles around. Cannes, on the other hand, hasn't provided much the past few years outside of "Inglourious Basterds" and best foreign language film players. That should change in 2012. "The Artist," "Melancholia," "The Tree of Life," "We Need To Talk About Kevin" and "Midnight in Paris" should all provide nominees in numerous races. And "Paris," "Artist" and "Tree" even have a legitimate shot at best picture.
He's baaaaaaacckkkkkkkkkk, Pt. 1 (Steven Spielberg, that is)
Yes, before he tackles the ultimate Oscar bait biopic "Lincoln," Spielberg has returned with his first film set during WW I. Even if it wasn't an epic, even if it wasn't based on a beloved novel, Spielberg and a late December release date is pure awards play.
He's baaaaaaacckkkkkkkkkk, Pt. 2 (Clint Eastwood, that is)
Let's be blunt here. When Clint Eastwood drops a movie in the fall or December, it's going to be immediately viewed under the awards season microscope. With "J. Edgar," Eastwood is tackling the controversial FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. He also has Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role and an impressive cast including Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Armie Hammer and Dermot Mulroney. Of course the script is by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black which is a double-edged sword. After Black's atrocious "Whats Wrong with Virgina" (still waiting for the release), "Edgar" will need to prove Black isn't the one script wonder many think he is.
Another George Clooney double take
When George Clooney plays the Oscar game he's made it a habit -- or a coincidence -- of usually having more than one picture in the game. In 2005, Clooney was nominated for best director and best original screenplay for "Good Night, and Good Luck," but took home his first statue for best supporting actor for his work in "Syriana." In 2010, Clooney was nominated for best actor for "Up in the Air" and provided the lead voice in best animated feature film nominee "Fantastic Mr. Fox" (and yes, we know he was nominated for best actor in 2008 for "Michael Clayton" and that was it, but please don't throw water on our theory yet). This season, Clooney is directing and appearing in "The Ides of March" as well as starring in Alexander Payne's potential frontrunner "The Descendants." Don't be surprised if it's 2005 all over again for Clooney.
The most competitive best picture field in years?
After "The Blind Side" made the field of ten nominees in 2010, there were many that said it would be difficult to find enough worthy films in the expanded best picture category. The second year of the expansion proved that theory false with a number of significant films being left out in the cold. This year, quality prestige films are on a comeback trail. Look at this preliminary list of 28 possible contenders (those in bold have already screened).
"Crazy Stupid Love," "J. Edgar," "The Descendants," "We Built A Zoo" (Cameron Crowe), "Like Crazy," "Take Shelter," "My Weekend With Marilyn," "The Iron Lady," "War Horse" (Spielberg), "Hugo Cabret" (Martin Scorsese), "Moneyball," "Dream House" (Jim Sheridan), "Midnight in Paris," "Drive," "The Tree of Life," "Young Adult" (Jason Reitman), "50/50," "The Artist," "Contagion" (Steven Soderbergh), "Ides of March" (Clooney), "The Guard," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (Stephen Daldry), "Gods of Carnage" (Roman Polanski), "On the Road" (Walter Salles), "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (Tomas Alfredson), "In the Land of Blood and Honey" (Angelina Jolie), "A Dangerous Method" (David Cronenberg).
And those are just the ones we know should be released this year. And you wonder why we're talking about Oscar in June, er, May. Now you know.
For year round entertainment commentary follow Gregory Ellwood on twitter @HitFixGregory
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