Box office hits aplenty, kudos fodder missing

So far, 2009 has been filled with surprise box office hits: “Taken,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Fast and Furious,” “The Hangover.” But kudos possibilities? Not so much.

At the year’s halfway point on June 30, the awards race should theoretically be half over. Certainly, audiences have seen strong animated-feature contenders and, as usual, film festivals have showcased some terrif prospects. But otherwise, the awards hopefuls will again be backloaded in the last months of the year.

There are already intriguing questions. Two of the best-reviewed films of the year are Paramount’s “Star Trek” and Disney-Pixar’s “Up.” The pair offer parallels to last year’s “The Dark Knight” and “Wall-E” — popular popcorn films that merit serious awards consideration. Many lamented the fact that last year’s duo missed out on best-pic Oscar noms. Will that raised consciousness help this year’s duo?

The second question concerns pedigree. The list of releases for the next six months includes some intriguing titles from a slew of Oscar-winning directors: James Cameron, with the 3-D “Avatar” (Fox); Clint Eastwood, the Nelson Mandela biopic “Invictus” (Warner Bros.-Spyglass); Peter Jackson, “The Lovely Bones” (Paramount’s release of a DreamWorks pic); Ang Lee, “Taking Woodstock” (Focus); Martin Scorsese, “Shutter Island” (Par); Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant,” with Matt Damon (WB); Robert Zemeckis’ “A Christmas Carol” (Disney); and the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” (Focus-Working Title).

Also ahead through the end of the year are pics from former nominees, including Michael Mann’s July release “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp (Universal); the Jason Reitman film “Up in the Air,” with George Clooney (Par’s release of a DreamWorks pic); Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (WB); and Rob Marshall’s starry musical “Nine,” toplined by Daniel Day-Lewis (Weinstein Co.).

Question No. 3: All these films have Oscar pedigrees, but does that mean they are necessarily kudos fodder this year? Answer: Of course not; some are definite contenders, others won’t live up to expectations, while still others were never intended for the awards circuit. (For example, there are two pics already released from Oscar winners: Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go,” from Focus, and Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works,” from Sony Pictures Classics. Kudos fodder? You decide.)

The next six months will see the bows of several films that stirred up enthusiasm on the fest circuit. At Sundance, Lionsgate snapped up “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” which it opens later this year; Fox Searchlight brought “500 Days of Summer,” from helmer Marc Webb, and bought the Max Mayer-directed “Adam,” starring Hugh Dancy.

Also at Sundance, Sony Pictures Classics grabbed “An Education.” That pic will be added to SPC’s array of Cannes hits: Michael Haneke’s “White Ribbon,” Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” and Pedro Almodovar’s “Broken Embraces.”

And the startup company launching from the savvy Bob Berney and Bill Pohlad will release Cannes hit “Bright Star,” from Jane Campion.

Question No. 4 concerns the unknown factor. Last year at this time, “Slumdog Millionaire” was not even mentioned by kudos prophets. So there are some under-the-radar films that could be serious players, and there are also pics like U’s “Green Zone” (from the formidable Paul Greengrass) and Overture’s “Jack Goes Boating” (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s directing debut) that may bow in 2009 … or 2010.

The fifth question concerns the few nuggets to be found in the January-June period. Did enough people see (and love) Overture’s “Sunshine Cleaning,” Big Beach’s Michael Caine starrer “Is Anybody There?,” Focus Features’ Cary Fukunaga-helmed “Sin nombre” and this week’s Summit pic “Hurt Locker”? Last year voters for the Golden Globes and Oscar saluted “In Bruges” — a terrific script, but a February bow and $7 million domestic take — so it’s possible dark horses will be remembered.

Other first-half work worth remembering are the tech contributions in pics including “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” “A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” “Terminator Salvation” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

The feature toon race is already a hot one. Three 3-D pics have opened and gained lotsa fans: Focus’ “Coraline,” DreamWorks Animation’s “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “Up.”

In the next six months, the roster includes Fox’s “Ice Age 3″ (July); Disney’s Hayao Miyazaki pic “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” (August); Focus Features’ “9″ (September); Sony’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” (September); Summit Entertainment’s “Astroboy” (October); Fox Searchlight’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (November); and Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” (Thanksgiving).

But, as with everything else, these titles lead to the Big Question in all the races: What’s the competition? In the past, such films as “Gladiator” and “The Departed” were popular films, but they weren’t touted as surefire awards bait — until everything else had opened and paled in comparison.

And, of course, there’s the issue of timing. Award-winning films always capture the zeitgeist, and in June it’s pointless to even guess the December-February mood of voters. After a run of dark and violent films (“The Departed,” “No Country for Old Men”), Oscar voters in February went with the feel-good movie of the year, “Slumdog.” So will voters be in the mood for darkness or fun, extravaganzas or small-scale works?

Docus and other foreign-lingo films will be dealt with in later columns. Meanwhile, here’s a sampling of openers for the next six months that could be contenders in various categories:

July: Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” with Adam Sandler (Universal); “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (WB).

August: Sony’s “Julie and Julia,” with Meryl Streep; the Weinstein Co.’s Quentin Tarantino pic “Inglourious Basterds.”

September: Miramax’s Clive Owen starrer “The Boys Are Back.”

October: Fox Searchlight’s “Amelia” biopic with Hilary Swank; “New York, I Love You” (Vivendi); the Weinstein Co.’s long-delayed “The Road,” starring Viggo Mortensen in the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel; Calibra Pictures’ “Iron Cross,” Roy Scheider’s last film (tentative date).

November: Sony’s Roland Emmerich f/x extravaganza “2012.”

December: Anchor Bay’s “City Island,” starring Andy Garcia (the date is tentative); Miramax’s “Everybody’s Fine,” a Kirk Jones-helmed pic starring Robert De Niro; Universal’s untitled Nancy Meyers comedy with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin; and Warner Bros.’ “Sherlock Holmes” from helmer Guy Ritchie.

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