Oscar candidates lagging this year

First half of 2008 comes up short on potential

As of Monday, the year was at the halfway mark, so in theory, the 2008 awards race is half over.

Not a chance. The past six months have offered fewer potential contenders than any January-June period in memory.

At least on paper, this year looks like a return to the old days, when the majors dominated awards and most of the nominees bowed late in the year — in contrast with recent history, when the Oscar charge was led by specialty divisions and fall launches.

In the last six months, there have been possible nominees in the below-the-line Oscar races (“Iron Man,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Forbidden Kingdom,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” “Wanted,” “Hancock,” etc.), and there have been strong toons (“Horton Hears a Who,” “Kung Fu Panda,” “Wall-E”) as well as too many docus to mention.

But as for potential action in the “money” categories, not so much. However, keep an eye on Overture’s “The Visitor”: Lead actor Richard Jenkins has rightly earned awards buzz, but the film has many other virtues (Thomas McCarthy’s script and direction, the other performances, etc.). McCarthy, a talented actor in his own right, has crafted an actors’ movie — a character study with current-event concerns — that will play well on DVD, so late-year mailings could pay off.

Otherwise, awards prognosticators have to look to the fests. Last year, Cannes boasted a lot of eventual Oscar pics, including “No Country for Old Men.” This year’s Cannes saw hot prospects in Universal’s “Changeling”; the Weinstein Co.’s Woody Allen pic, to be distribbed by MGM, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — particularly for the respective perfs by Angelina Jolie and Penelope Cruz; and Sony Classics’ “Waltz With Bashir,” all of which will open this year.

The Berlin Film Festival embraced Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” with Sally Hawkins winning the actress prize, while Sundance was bullish on “Frozen River,” with Melissa Leo. The pics will be released in the U.S. by Miramax and Sony Pictures Classics, respectively.

Of course, their fate depends on what else opens.

After the specialty divisions dominated the 80th Oscars, the major studios predicted they will return triumphantly this year (Variety, March 3-9), and there are plenty of biggies on the books that make the 2008 lineup sound like the most promising from the majors in several years.

But even at the halfway point, there are questions.

  • Will the early buzz sustain for Disney-Pixar’s “Wall-E” and WB’s “The Dark Knight” and Heath Ledger?

  • What effect will the Clint Eastwood double whammy — November’s “Changeling” and the December bow of Warner Bros.-Village Roadshow’s “Gran Torino,” in which he stars as well as directs — have on kudos? Similarly, Scott Rudin, who was in the winner’s circle with “No Country,” has two December openers — but will he have a third with “The Reader,” whose opening date is not yet set?

  • Benicio Del Toro won Cannes’ actor award for Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” but will it find a U.S. distrib this year and, if so, in what form will the two-part film be released?

  • And then there are … other questions. In the last few years, the song category has been dominated by tunes that were production numbers (as opposed to those end-credit or background songs). So does this bode well for Disney’s “High School Musical 3” and Focus’ “Hamlet 2”? (If the song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” can win, there may be hope for the latter pic’s “Rock Me Sexy Jesus.”)

A few years ago, film-awards shows followed the lead of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and moved their ceremonies a month earlier, but it’s clear that the studios are not similarly shifting their release schedules to accommodate the moves. Bottom-line thinking comes first, and release dates are more focused on box office than on awards.

Still, this year will be an interesting one for the majors as they woo Oscar.

For decades, Oscar voters had a reputation for going with more mainstream films, preferring “Ordinary People” to “Raging Bull,” to use an often-cited example. But in the last few years, Acad members have embraced darker, arthouse-style films like “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood.” So it will be interesting to see how the majors’ lineup meshes with this growing specialty sensibility among the voters.

Following are the month-by-month releases that sound like awards fodder. Of course there are always disappointments — there’s no point bringing up the many, many painful memories of films whose makers thought they had a shot — and there are always surprises.

Last year, “Juno” wasn’t on anyone’s radar because it wasn’t skedded for a 2007 release. And the Weinstein Co. has two that may be added to its 2008 slate: “Shanghai,” directed by Mikael Hafstrom and starring John Cusack, and “The Reader,” directed by Stephen Daldry, scripted by David Hare, produced by Rudin and starring Kate Winslet).

But here’s a blueprint for the next six months.

July: It’s an f/x extravaganza with New Line’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (going out through WB); and Universal’s “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.”

August: DreamWorks’ “Tropic Thunder”; U’s “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.”

September: Disney’s Spike Lee movie “Miracle at St. Anna”; Focus’ “Burn After Reading,” the follow-up film from this year’s triple Oscar winners, Joel and Ethan Coen, that stars George Clooney and Tilda Swinton; Miramax’s Fernando Meirelles pic “Blindness”; “The Appaloosa,” directed by and starring Ed Harris (New Line, via WB); Paramount Vantage’s “The Duchess,” with Keira Knightley.

October: Lionsgate’s Oliver Stone bio-politico-comedy-drama “W.” starring Josh Brolin; WB’s Ridley Scott film “Body of Lies,” written by William Monahan (“The Departed”) and starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio; Fox Searchlight’s “The Secret Life of Bees” (Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah); Universal-Spyglass’ Greg Kinnear film “Flash of Genius,” with Marc Abraham making his directing debut; and Sony Pictures Classics’ “I’ve Loved You So Long,” with Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” with Anne Hathaway.

November: Paramount-DreamWorks’ “The Soloist” (Joe Wright directing Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.); Focus’ “Milk” (Gus Van Sant, Sean Penn); Fox’s “Australia,” from Baz Luhrmann and starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman; MGM-Sony’s “Quantum of Solace,” with Daniel Craig returning as 007; WB’s “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”; and the Weinstein Co./Dimension’s “The Road,” an adaptation of the book by Cormac McCarthy (who penned the novel “No Country”) that’s going out via MGM and stars Charlize Theron and Viggo Mortensen.

December: Miramax’s “Doubt” (starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman and produced by Rudin); Paramount’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett under helmer David Fincher (Warner Bros. has the pic overseas); Paramount Vantage-DreamWorks’ “Revolutionary Road” (Sam Mendes, DiCaprio, Winslet and Rudin again); Par Vantage’s “Defiance” (Ed Zwick, with Craig); Disney’s Adam Shankman-helmed “Bedtime Stories” with Adam Sandler; Lionsgate’s Frank Miller-directed “The Spirit”; Sony’s “Seven Pounds,” reuniting Will Smith with Gabriele Muccino (who directed “The Pursuit of Happyness”); Universal-Imagine-Working Title’s Ron Howard-helmed “Frost/Nixon.”

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