The Contenders

Release date: March 2 Distributor: Paramount

With “Zodiac,” David Fincher, the director of stylish genre pics (“Seven,” “Panic Room”), becomes David Fincher, the master craftsman. Widely considered his most mature and accomplished work to date, the thriller is a precise, methodical and suspenseful chronicle of San Francisco’s Zodiac serial killer and the newspapermen, detectives (and one unassuming cartoonist) who obsessively tried to solve the case with no end.

Hardly a big success, “Zodiac” is Fincher’s worst performer in theaters, with $33 million in ticket sales (just behind his DVD cult hit “Fight Club,” which made just $37 million at the domestic B.O.). But a chorus of critics has championed the film, among them, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis was left “slack-jawed” by the film’s “scrupulous attention to detail.”

If the Academy is equally impressed by Fincher’s directing prowess, he stands an outside chance of landing a nom, as does James Vanderbilt for his adapted script. But the pic’s meticulousness may be more suited to recognition in craft categories, especially given the track record of past Fincher films (“Fight Club” and “Seven” received, respectively, sound effects and editing noms).

For their richly textured and yet muted re-creation of ’70s San Francisco, production designer Donald Graham Burt and cinematography Harris Savides, working in HD, could receive attention. And while Robert Downey Jr.’s flamboyant reporter and Jake Gyllenhaal’s naive cartoonist are credible, compelling characters, they’re no Woodward and Bernstein: “All the President’s Men” may be Oscar past’s most equivalent movie, but for better or for worse, “Zodiac” is its darker, more haunting flip side.

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