Past Oscar power players dominate in 2008

As one character tells another in “No Country for Old Men,” “You can’t stop what’s coming.” You can, however, try to predict it.

This year’s Oscars may not have happened yet (assuming they happen), but it’s never too early to start handicapping next year’s race — based solely on the evidence presented on paper, of course. (Experience warns us not to count too heavily on the so-called “sure things,” as left-field surprises always have a way of sneaking in, but a handful of projects sure sound promising.)

Considering Scott Rudin produced “No Country” and exec produced “There Will Be Blood,” this year’s top nomination-getters, his upcoming slate is a good place to start. Assuming voters don’t get it confused with last year’s “Reservation Road,” Paramount’s “Revolutionary Road” would seem to have a clear path into awards season. Directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”), pic reunites much-nominated, never-victorious “Titanic” stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in a 1950s marital drama adapted from the Richard Yates novel.

“Road” is only one of several Rudin productions slated for 2008 release: Others include the Weinstein Co.’s “The Reader,” which reteams Rudin with “The Hours” helmer Stephen Daldry and scribe David Hare; and Miramax’s adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning “Doubt” with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Two thesps who drew early kudos buzz this season seem like possible contenders for next year’s actor race: Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara in “The Argentine,” the first in Steven Soderbergh’s two-part study of the Cuban revolutionary; and Frank Langella, reprising his Tony-winning performance as President Nixon in Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of “Frost/Nixon.”

As for actors who were nominated this season: Cate Blanchett, current holder of two Oscar nominations, will rendezvous with Brad Pitt in F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Though helmer David Fincher got no Acad love for February opener “Zodiac,” his latest will have the benefit of a year-end release date from Paramount/Warners.

Actor nominee Viggo Mortensen could ride the recent resurgence of the Western with New Line’s “Appaloosa,” co-starring Renee Zellweger and directed by Ed Harris. Meanwhile, his “Eastern Promises” co-star Naomi Watts will appear with Clive Owen in Sony/Columbia’s “The International,” a high-end thriller from helmer Tom Tykwer.

These are tough times for topical dramas, but two CIA-themed thrillers come with impressive pedigrees. Helmer Ridley Scott reteams with “American Gangster” thesp Russell Crowe for an untitled Oct. 10 release, which also stars DiCaprio and is scripted by William Monahan, Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Departed.” And “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” a fact-based look at life in Iraq’s U.S.-occupied Green Zone, could put Paul Greengrass and his “Bourne” star Matt Damon on the Acad’s radar.

Other striking actor-director combos: “Moulin Rouge’s” Nicole Kidman and Baz Luhrmann will reunite on 20th Century Fox’s “Australia,” also starring Oz thesp Hugh Jackman. Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire will play “Brothers” torn apart by the war in Afghanistan in Jim Sheridan’s remake of Susanne Bier’s Dutch drama. And Joe Wright, though denied a helming nom for his otherwise well-received “Atonement,” will direct DreamWorks’ “The Soloist,” starring Jamie Foxx (an Oscar winner for “Ray”) as a homeless musician.

Oscar favorite Clint Eastwood returns this year, sparking expectations for his period child-abduction drama “The Changeling.” Even without Paul Haggis’ magic touch, the U/Imagine production (which stars Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich and Amy Ryan) could go over big with voters.

“Mystic River” winner Sean Penn could end up back on the ballot for “Milk,” about gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, who was assassinated by a fellow San Francisco politician (played by Josh Brolin) at the height of his popularity. The Gus Van Sant-helmed project beat out a rival biopic from director Bryan Singer.

But Singer won’t be empty-handed this fall. His “Valkyrie,” which stars Tom Cruise in a historical thriller about a plot within the German army to assassinate Hitler, marks a reunion between Singer and “Usual Suspects” scribe Christopher McQuarrie.

In Paramount Vantage’s “Defiance,” director Ed Zwick tackles another inspirational WWII story about three Jewish brothers (played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell) who join forces with Russian resistance fighters to battle the Nazis.

Former directing nominee Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”) could be back in the hunt with Miramax’s “Blindness,” starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo and adapted from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s satire about a worldwide outbreak of the titular condition.

A pair of lighter, femme-geared projects may stoke mainstream popularity to generate Oscar heat: “Mamma Mia!,” a screen version of the Abba musical starring Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth; and the feature-length “Sex and the City,” which reunites the cast of the Emmy-winning HBO skein.

Weird titles are never a bad gambit for attracting publicity, good or bad. “Synecdoche, New York” marks the directing debut of Oscar-winning scribe Charlie Kaufman (with “Adaptation’s” Spike Jonze producing), while “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” features Woody Allen’s third collaboration with Scarlett Johansson.

The death of Heath Ledger has also amped up curiosity over his turn as the Joker in Warners’ “The Dark Knight,” stirring speculation about a posthumous supporting nom. Chris Nolan’s latest “Batman” caper could also draw recognition in tech categories, as should “Prince Caspian,” the second chapter in Disney/Walden Media’s so-far-successful “Chronicles of Narnia” franchise.

Finally, now that “No Country” has made Cormac McCarthy fashionable again (after the disappointing “All the Pretty Horses”), all eyes should be on two upcoming McCarthy adaptations: John Hillcoat’s “The Road” and Ridley Scott’s “Blood Meridian.” They won’t be in contention for Oscars until 2010 — but it’s never too early.

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