Akeelah and the BeeDoug Atchison won the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship in 2000 for this touching story about a young spelling bee contest-ant from South L.A. Six years later, “Akeelah,” backed by Lionsgate and 2929 Prods., became something of a sleeper hit, grossing more than $18 million on a $6 million budget. Pic’s 13-year-old star, Keke Palmer, has won raves. Babel Despite its lukewarm showing at the box office, the multicontinental drama from helmer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has emerged as a serious contender in nearly every major Oscar category (though not for lead thesps, as it’s an ensemble) thanks to critical support, its resonant storyline and a strong marketing push from Par Vantage. Inarritu (who won Cannes’ director prize in May), scribe Guillermo Arriaga and thesps Brad Pitt, Rinko Kikuchi (who just won a Gotham Award) and Adriana Barraza all could be poised for noms. Bobby Emilio Estevez’s homage to Robert F. Kennedy could resonate with kudos voters, given it’s social messages, historical sweep and starry ensemble cast. Though critics were somewhat divided on its merits, audience approval could make the various quib-blings irrelevant. “Bobby” hit nearly every major festival of the season — Toronto, Deauville, AFI, Vienna, London and Venice, where it won the Biografilm award — so underexposure isn’t a concern. And with Weinstein Co. behind the pic, history is defi-nitely on its side. Drawing attention are thesps Freddy Rodriguez and Sharon Stone, and the film’s catchy song “Never Gonna Break My Faith.” Breaking and Entering Oscar-winner Anthony Minghella directs his first originally penned script since 1991′s “Truly Madly Deeply.” Unlike his “English Patient” or “Talented Mr. Ripley,” helmer stuck close to home, focusing on the King’s Cross area of London to explore myriad issues, from immigration to adultery to parental responsibilities. Intense supporting perf from Juliette Binoche has gotten buzz, as has Vera Farmiga’s small but comedic role as a prostitute. Wider kudo chances could depend on film’s ability to get noticed as awards season heats up. Catch a Fire Phillip Noyce’s apartheid drama comes in a year heavy with African political fare and may be overshadowed by bigger-budget “Blood Diamond” and Forest Whitaker’s outsized turn in “The Last King of Scotland.” Nonetheless, the film has done solid if unspectacular business, and its themes of government oppression and terrorism might have particular relevance for auds. Among pic’s kudo strongpoints are Derek Luke’s portrayal of freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso. The Focus release unspooled at Telluride and Toronto, and had a November bow. Only time will tell if it has the staying power to slip into the Oscar mix. Come Early Morning This Sundance 2006 competition film by actress and first-time director-writer Joey Lauren Adams is tonally very different from the breezy Kevin Smith films in which she made her name. Ashley Judd plays a beaten-down alcoholic in a small Arkansas town, and her solid work here has been compared to that of her breakthrough “Ruby in Paradise.” The Roadside Attractions pickup played at Deauville and Vienna in addition to Sundance, but its dark subject matter and low-key profile could mean kudo hurdles. Curse of the Golden Flower Internationally renowned, never-nominated director Zhang Yimou teams with many of the names behind “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and its star Chow Yun-fat, for this sumptuous period epic set in 10th-century China. Ostensible similarities to that critical and B.O. smash could fuel public interest, although its bow at the AFI fest showed “Curse” to be a different film. As the official Chinese selection in the foreign-language category, pic will have to contend with the other 10th-century Chinese royal epic featuring a “Crouching Tiger” star, Hong Kong’s entry “The Banquet” with Ziyi Zhang, but Sony Classics’ promo savvy could give it the edge. The Dead Girl Sophomore feature from writer-director Karen Moncrieff preemed at the AFI fest and went on to snag three Independent Spirit noms for feature, director and supporting actress (Mary Beth Hurt). That momentum as well as the presence of another solid perf from supporting Oscar alumna Marcia Gay Harden could push the complex, multicharacter pic into the greater kudos sphere. Wider attention could be forthcoming if distrib First Look Studios can gain traction at theaters with the pic’s name cast, which includes Toni Collette and Brittany Murphy. Factory Girl Awards buzz has been orbiting around Sienna Miller, who plays Andy Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick in this biopic, which is curious considering the film hasn’t been widely screened yet. Whether her perf is the real thing or just the beneficiary of the Weinstein brothers’ characteristically shrewd marketing will be revealed in time, but the film should have a built-in arthouse audience either way, with its re-creation of Warhol’s legendary Factory. And helmer George Hickenlooper has explored the fringes of fame before, most recently in his Rodney Bingenheimer docu “Mayor of the Sunset Strip.” For Your Consideration Veteran thesps Marilyn Hack and Victor Allan Miller are making waves in this year’s Oscar race. Too bad they’re fictional characters in “Home for Purim,” the movie-within-a-movie that is at the center of Christopher Guest’s latest spoof. The aptly titled “For Your Consideration” focuses on how Oscar hype affects the lives of “Purim’s” modest actors, performed by Guest’s familiar ensemble, including hilarious turns from Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer and Parker Posey. Though comedy has made rare inroads with the Acad, Hollywood always likes an inside joke — remember “The Player’s” three nominations? If nothing else, O’Hara’s Hack and Shearer’s Miller would make terrific presenters on Oscar night. Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus On paper, this film about legendary shutterbug Diane Arbus seems like automatic Oscar bait: It’s about an artist, has high pro-duction values, stars Oscar darling Nicole Kidman, boasts the writer-director duo behind “Secretary” (Erin Cressida Wilson and Steven Shainberg), and is backed by the marketing muscle of Picturehouse. But “Fur” may be too unconventional: Rather than being a straight biopic, it’s more of a fantasy take on how Arbus’ life took a creative turn. After bowing in Telluride and opening the Rome Film Festival, “Fur” has been largely ignored by audiences, grossing $150,000 in limited release so far. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints First-time helmer Dito Montiel became the Sundance darling this year when his semiautobiographical debut feature took home the fest’s director and special jury prizes. And while this tale about growing up on the mean streets of 1980s Queens went on to pick up another pair of awards at Venice, it will be facing an uphill battle after grossing just $500,000 in limited release for First Look Studios. It has stiff competition from the deeper-pocketed mini-major releases and another, more visible Gotham-set low-budget indie, “Half Nelson.” Half Nelson “Half Nelson,” Ryan Fleck’s feature debut about a crack-addled teacher, may be the little-indie-that-could of this year’s Oscar race. Ryan Gosling delivers a tour de force performance as a Brooklyn high school teacher wrestling with addiction, while educat-ing inner-city students. While “Half Nelson” left Sundance empty-handed, the film won top prizes in Deauville, Locarno and San Francisco and won three Gotham Awards. ThinkFilm pic’s best kudo chances lie with Gosling, and possibly script, if the dark subject matter doesn’t get in the way. Harsh Times First feature effort from “Training Day” scribe David Ayer, “Harsh Times” is one of two MGM releases dealing with the after-effects of the Iraq wars on returned soldiers. Ayer’s “Training Day” script helped win Denzel Washington a second Oscar for his perf as an ethically challenged cop, and here Christian Bale gets a similar chance to show his evil side, as a psychologically unhinged ex-soldier seeking employment in the LAPD. Pic’s tepid box office so far, however, could hamper kudo chances. The History Boys Adapted from Alan Bennett’s smash Tony-winning legit production about a group of history students gunning for Oxford or Cambridge, this film version borrows both the original cast and director Nicholas Hytner, and features some of the same standout performances and stellar select moments from the stage original. Nominated for four British Independent Film Awards but winning none, the movie nevertheless has a diminutive profile in the U.S., where Fox Searchlight is staging a cautious theatrical rollout this fall, fueled by largely positive reviews. While young discoveries include Samuel Barnett as a tortured Jewish gay student and Dominic Cooper as the suave object of his affections, it’s veteran thesps Richard Griffiths as a poetry-inclined history teacher, and Frances de la Tour, as his acerbic colleague, that steal the show. Hollywoodland TV director Allen Coulter’s feature debut digs into one of Hollywood’s darkest mysteries: How did actor George Reeves, the Man of Steel on TV’s “Adventures of Superman” die from a gunshot in 1959? With echoes of past insidery Oscar winners “L.A. Confidential” and “Chinatown,” “Hollywoodland” uncovers the seamy side of L.A.’s rich and powerful. While Focus Features’ fall release doesn’t have the momentum of its past contenders “Brokeback Mountain” and “Lost in Translation,” Ben Affleck’s performance as the dejected actor is surprisingly affecting. For his portrayal of the struggling thespian, one that could resonate with members of the actors branch, Affleck received a best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival and Hollywood Film Festival’s supporting actor of the year honor. Oscar nominee Diane Lane also turns in a stunning perf as Reeves’ lover and benefactor. Home of the Brave MGM returns to a narrative that won the studio seven Oscars 60 years ago — the postwar homecoming. This time the war in question is Iraq, and whether “Home of the Brave” will approach “The Best Years of Our Lives’” critical reception remains to be seen. The film’s topicality and strong young cast should capture public interest, and director Irwin Winkler has the Oscar pedigree to take “Brave” into the fray. The Illusionist Only the third feature from producer Bob Yari’s Yari Film Group Releasing, magician period-piece performed far better than expected, earning nearly $40 million domestically. Though it returned from a festival run, starting at Sundance, empty-handed, its crowdpleasing abilities could make it a contender. The film offers a showcase for Academy bridesmaids Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton as well as top-notch production design that could be feted come January. Infamous WIP faced a herculean task marketing the second Truman Capote biopic in as many years, and award chances for Toby Jones’ Capote perf might be crippled by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s 2005 win for the same character. Pic was well received at the Ven-ice, Toronto and Telluride film fests, but business has been sluggish. The depth of the supporting cast may draw attention — Daniel Craig nabbed an Independent Spirit nomination — but it still looks to be an uphill battle. Inland Empire David Lynch’s latest bowed at Venice to decidedly mixed reviews. Though he did pick up a Career Gold Lion and a Future Film Festival Digital Award on the Lido, his three-hour Dadaist experiment may be too out there for Academy tastes. Then again, Lynch’s similarly nonlinear “Mulholland Drive” garnered the helmer an Oscar nom. “Inland Empire’s” production saga could make a Lynchian story of its own, with the director eventually deciding to distribute it himself, as well as handle Oscar campaign duties for star Laura Dern. The Last King of Scotland The Fox Searchlight property went over big on the festival circuit (Toronto, Telluride, London), and excitement has been building around Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin after kudos from the Hollywood and Santa Barbara Film Festivals. Though business has been modest since its limited October opening, first fiction feature from Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald made the most of its low budget and difficult Ugandan location shooting, earning British Independent Film Awards for director and cinematographer. Little Miss Sunshine The subject of one of the largest bidding wars in the history of the Sundance Film Festival, this dysfunctional family road-trip comedy from helmers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris proved to be worth every penny of its $10.5 million price tag. Since opening in July, the crowd-pleaser has racked up rave reviews and a whopping $59 million domestically for distrib Fox Search-light. But will the summer release date and broad comedic tone hurt “Sunshine’s” chances in the major categories? Tough to say, although first-time scribe Michael Arndt continues to be mentioned as a front-runner for an original screenplay nod. The Lives of Others With just a one-week qualifying run in Los Angeles, German-language juggernaut “The Lives of Others” could break out at this year’s Oscars. Hollywood discovered the pic at its Telluride and Toronto unspoolings, but “Lives,” which chronicles the exploits of an East German secret police officer who eventually starts to protect the artists he’s spying on, had already garnered European fest acclaim and kudos. Earlier this year, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut feature scored a record 11 noms and seven wins at the German Film Awards and it’s a top nominee at the European Film Awards (tying with “Volver”). Distrib Sony Classics is betting on the pic’s gripping storyline to attract Academy voters outside of the foreign-language branch. Notes on a Scandal With an Oscar-pedigree cast and crew, this Fox Searchlight entry had kudo pundits buzzing long before the pic started its awards screenings. Acad faves Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench are being touted, in supporting and lead actress categories, respec-tively. And Dench in particular, as the lonely, scheming older school teacher seems poised for a nom. She reteams with her “Iris” helmer Richard Eyre. Pic’s sharp, wicked script by “Closer” scribe Patrick Marber also could be among the pic’s noms. The Painted Veil With few industry screenings to date, “The Painted Veil” will remain something of a mystery until WIP releases it Dec. 20. But that hasn’t stopped awards-season pundits from speculating that this passion project from producer-thesp Edward Norton is poised for a kudo run. The ingredients are there: an A-list cast in Norton, Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber, an Oscar-nommed scribe in Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia”), literary pedigree (it’s based on Somerset Maugham’s novel), and a genre — the period romance/drama — that seems to never outstay its welcome with Acad voters. Pan’s Labyrinth Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s dazzling adult fairytale is set during the cruel realities of Fascist Spain, as a young girl is forced to contend with her evil stepfather, a merciless captain in Franco’s Army, and an imaginary world. Critics have gone gaga for the picture, singling out everything from del Toro’s masterful handling of the difficult material to the f/x team’s wizardry to stellar performances from 12-year-old thesp Ivana Baquero, as the ill-fated Alice in this dark wonderland, and Sergi Lopez, as the nefarious stepfather. A Prairie Home Companion The late great American maverick Robert Altman already received his Oscar spotlight this year: an honorary award at the 2006 ceremony presented by “Prairie” cast members Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep. “Prairie,” the director’s delicate swan song, is a rambling, funny and sweet-natured tragic comedy about death and an old radio-show’s final act. The Picturehouse release was one of Altman’s most successful films. Bearing his trademark collection of multiple characters — an ensemble cast that was nominated by the Gotham Awards — the film may not add another nomination to Altman’s five best director mentions, but always the outsider, he probably wouldn’t have minded. The Queen Helen Mirren’s brilliantly restrained performance as Queen Elizabeth II carries the day in this account of the week following the sudden death of Princess Diana and its effects on the nation and its leaders. Helmed by Stephen Frears (Oscar nommed for “The Grifters”) and scripted by Peter Morgan, pic uncovers the complexities of the queen’s inner life and her relationship with then-newly elected prime minister Tony Blair. It won actress, screenplay and the critics prize at Venice, Chicago’s audience award and continues to strike a chord with U.S. audiences: After expanding to more than 600 theaters in November, the Miramax pic has crossed the $20 million mark. Sherrybaby Maggie Gyllenhaal delivers a knockout performance as Sherry Swanson, a young mother recently out of jail who is trying to get her kid back and grappling with drug addiction. Alternatively tough as nails and vulnerable as a kitten, Gyllenhaal won the actress prize at the Karlovy Vary film fest. The thesp had a strong year, also receiving praise for her supporting role in “World Trade Center.” But “Sherrybaby,” a much smaller and subtler tale of survival — it was developed and screened at Sundance (and acquired by Netflix’s Red Envelope Entertainment) — remains a bit of a long shot with the Acad. Thank You For Smoking This tobacco industry satire was a 2005 Toronto film fest darling — and the object of an acrimonious buyer battle that was ul-timately won by Fox Searchlight. Pic did solid business for the distrib earlier this year, grossing nearly $25 million. While Aaron Eckhart’s deliciously devious performance as a big tobacco spin doctor won him raves, it’s first-time feature helmer Jason Reit-man’s adapted script (based on Christopher Buckley’s novel) that could most likely draw kudo attention this season. Venus Roger Michell’s “Venus” offers Peter O’Toole another chance to join Oscar’s ranks, where acclaimed films from “Lawrence of Arabia” to “My Favorite Year” had previously failed him. As Maurice, a fading actor who falls in love with a teenage girl, O’Toole delivers a memorable liver-spots-and-all perf, charming film festival audiences from Telluride to Venice to Toronto. Pic’s supporting players also are worthy of consideration, including bright newcomer Jodie Whittaker and British stage vet Leslie Phillips. While some themes may resonate with the aging Academy, the provocative script — written by Oscar nominee Hanif Kureishi — could turn off more prudish kudo voters. Volver Following two high-profile wins at Cannes (for screenplay and female ensemble cast), mostly gushing reviews, a respectable U.S. opening (nearly $200,000 in two days on only five screens), and recent EFA and BIFA noms, “Volver” is shaping up as the foreign-language film to beat. Penelope Cruz has come to be regarded as a lock for a best actress nom, and director Pedro Almo-dovar’s Oscar cache is already two statues deep. With “Curse of the Golden Flower” and “The Lives of Others” also in contention, “Volver” distrib Sony Pictures Classics has a magnificent hand to play in the foreign category.
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