Best Actress race shaping up to be one to watch

The year is half over — so, in theory, the annual kudos season has seen 50% of its entrants. Of course, this is never the case, but if the first six months are any indication, the actress race is going to be the one to watch this year.

So far, Julie Christie in Lionsgate’s “Away From Her,” Marion Cotillard of Picturehouse’s “La Vie en rose” and Angelina Jolie in Paramount Vantage’s “A Mighty Heart” have earned awards buzz. Three serious contenders for five slots make for a lively start.

And while there are isolated possibilities in other categories, the only other race that’s crowded is visual effects, thanks to pics such as Warner Bros.’ “300,” Sony’s “Spider-Man 3,” Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and Fox’s “Fantastic Four,” with July bringing DreamWorks-Par’s “Transformers” and WB’s latest “Harry Potter.”

The first six months of 2007 also offer clues from two festivals that are increasingly key to the awards season: Sundance and Cannes.

Last year, Fox Searchlight acquired “Little Miss Sunshine” at Sundance and turned it into a B.O. and kudos winner. Will lightning strike twice? Searchlight came away from this year’s Sundance with “Waitress” and “Under the Same Moon” (formerly “La Misma Luna”). Also at Sundance, the Weinstein Co. acquired the well-received “Grace Is Gone,” starring John Cusack, and is sharing “Moon” with Searchlight.

The 2006 Cannes bowed several pics that went on to kudos attention, including Oscar best film contender “Babel.” This year, there was a lot of buzz on the Croisette for two films that Miramax will release at the end of the year: the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” and Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Also a hit there: Picturehouse’s “The Orphanage,” produced by Guillermo del Toro, who struck gold last year with “Pan’s Labyrinth” at Cannes.

There are awards possibilities in other films from the first half of 2007, including Paramount’s impeccable David Fincher drama “Zodiac,” which may find a wider audience via DVD and screenings.

And while kudos buzz for “Away From Her” and “Mighty Heart” centers on the actresses, those films boast possible contenders in other categories, such as thesp Gordon Pinsent and writer-director Sarah Polley for “Away,” and Michael Winterbottom’s direction and John Orloff’s script for “Heart.”

Also worth remembering are Fox Searchlight’s “Once” (particularly in the music races), Focus Features’ “Evening” and Miramax’s “The Hoax.”

The first six months have also offered plenty of possibilities in the feature animation, docu and foreign-language races, but more on those at a future date.

Many of the above films may seem like awards darkhorses, but it all depends on what opens later this year. When “Gladiator” and “Crash” bowed, few declared them Oscar front-runners, but as the awards season progressed, their stock rose.

Below are films, month by month, that have kudos potential. Most of them sound intriguing on paper — which sometimes pays off bigtime, but not always.

July: Focus’ Don Cheadle vehicle “Talk to Me”; MGM’s “Rescue Dawn,” directed by Werner Herzog and starring Christian Bale and Steve Zahn; New Line’s “Hairspray”; and Sony Classics’ “Moliere.”

August: Picturehouse’s “El Cantante” and “Rocket Science”; and Yari Film Group’s “Resurrecting the Champ,” starring Samuel L. Jackson.

September: Focus’ duo of David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” and Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution”; Searchlight’s Wes Anderson-helmed “The Darjeeling Limited”; MGM’s Robert Benton movie “Feast of Love”; Paramount Vantage’s “Into the Wild,” directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch; Sony Classics’ “The Jane Austen Book Club”; Universal’s Middle East drama “The Kingdom”; Warner’s Jodie Foster starrer “The Brave One,” from Neil Jordan, plus “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” starring Brad Pitt; and Warner Independent’s Iraq-themed “In the Valley of Elah,” directed by Paul Haggis.

October: DreamWorks’ “Things We Lost in the Fire,” with Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro; Focus’ Terry George-helmed “Reservation Road”; Lionsgate’s “3:10 to Yuma,” directed by James Mangold and starring Bale and Russell Crowe; New Line’s “Rendition,” starring Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Meryl Streep; Par Vantage’s “Margot at the Wedding,” a Nicole Kidman starrer from Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”); Sony Classics’ “Sleuth,” with Michael Caine and Jude Law; Universal’s Cate Blanchett sequel “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (who would have guessed Elizabeth I would become a franchise?); and, from WB, Tony Gilroy’s directing debut, the George Clooney vehicle “Michael Clayton.”

November: New Line’s Mike Newell-directed “Love in the Time of Cholera”; Par Vantage’s “The Kite Runner,” from the bestseller and helmed by Marc Forster; Universal’s “American Gangster,” directed by Ridley Scott and starring Denzel Washington and Crowe; United Artists’ debut feature under the new regime, “Lions for Lambs,” directed by Robert Redford and starring Redford, Tom Cruise and Streep; Disney’s “Enchanted” (Amy Adams, Susan Sarandon); and Weinstein Co.’s Woody Allen opus “Cassandra’s Dream” with Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor.

December: Columbia’s “The Other Boleyn Girl,” with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson; DreamWorks’ “Sweeney Todd,” from Tim Burton and Johnny Depp; Disney’s “National Treasure: Book of Secrets”; Focus’ Working Title pic “Atonement,” from Joe Wright (“Pride and Prejudice”); Searchlight’s “The Savages,” with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney; Lionsgate’s “The Return,” about Iraq vets, starring Rachel McAdams and Tim Robbins; New Line’s Chris Weitz epic “The Golden Compass”; Par Vantage’s “There Will Be Blood,” with Daniel Day Lewis starring in Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of an Upton Sinclair novel; Sony Classics’ “Youth Without Youth,” the first Francis Ford Coppola film in a decade, plus “The Band’s Visit”; Universal’s “Charlie Wilson’s War,” directed by Mike Nichols and starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, plus the Clooney 1940s-set comedy “Leatherheads”; and the Weinstein Co. duo of “The Great Debaters,” helmed by Washington and starring Washington and Forest Whitaker, and Wayne Kramer’s immigration drama “Crossing Over,” with Penn and Harrison Ford.

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