Pedigree drives the buzz until films finally screen

If a movie looks like an Oscar contender on paper, that’s no guarantee that ultimately it will be one. The race wouldn’t hold our attention if it were that easy.

Of the five top Oscar nominees this year, “Slumdog Millionaire” was perhaps the only one greenlit without much, if any, consideration for Oscar potential, and yet the scrappy indie has taken the awards season by storm. On the other side of the equation, “Australia” was a dream project that couldn’t miss — until it did.

Figuring out 2009′s equivalent of “Slumdog” is nearly impossible, but the shape of the Oscar race is generally telegraphed early by the studios and names involved. Harvey Weinstein, back this year with “The Reader,” enters the 2009 race with “Nine.”

While musicals and Oscar have been hit and miss, “Nine’s” prospects increase with the mention of its strong cast, toplined by Daniel Day-Lewis and Marion Cotillard in their first roles since last year’s Oscars. The late Anthony Minghella is also listed as one of the writers on the film. (The Weinsteins will also handle Quentin Tarantino’s World War II epic “Inglourious Basterds,” targeting an August release.)

Warner Bros.’ most anticipated prestige pic this year is Clint Eastwood’s “The Human Factor,” starring the Academy-friendly prospect of Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. The December release date keeps with Eastwood’s effective awards strategy that landed past films “Million Dollar Baby” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” in the best picture race.

Focus Features will have some strong contenders, with Javier Bardem in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Biutiful”; Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” with Emile Hirsch; and Joel and Ethan Coen’s “A Serious Man,” which stars Alan Arkin as a Midwestern professor whose brother is ruining his life.

Paramount has slated for October the Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio reteam, “Shutter Island,” based on the novel by “Mystic River” author Dennis Lehane. With so much going for it, the trick will be how to manage expectations so as not to kill the film on arrival, as there’s nothing that rankles the Acad more than taking their appreciation for granted.

Being a crowdpleaser doesn’t always bode well for a picture’s Oscar potential, but occasionally the twain interests will meet with a quality commercial film like “The Departed.” At least two ’09 Universal releases have the potential to be blockbuster crossovers: Michael Mann directs Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in the 1930s gangster epic “Public Enemies,” given tentpole treatment with a summer release, while “Green Zone” reunites Matt Damon with “Bourne” director Paul Greengrass.

Exploring similar topical territory is MGM’s “Brothers,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire as siblings whose relationship is upended by the Afghanistan conflict. Six-time Oscar nominee Jim Sheridan directs the English-language remake of Danish helmer Susanne Bier’s 2004 film.

Genre is another bete noir for the Academy, but there are always exceptions. James Cameron’s “Avatar” is his first feature since “Titanic.” At the very least it seems like a visual effects nominee, with competition no doubt from Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones,” about a young spirit (played by “Atonement’s” Saoirse Ronan) who observes the aftermath of her own murder.

Michelle Pfeiffer may have another chance to claim the Oscar that has so far eluded her when Miramax releases “Cheri,” the Collette novel adapted by Christopher Hampton, and directed by Stephen Frears — the same team behind “Dangerous Liaisons.” Miramax could have another acting contender in Julie Taymor’s “The Tempest,” which stars Helen Mirren (also appearing in her husband Taylor Hackford’s “Love Ranch”).

Their competition includes Hilary Swank, who takes a shot at Oscar No. 3 as Amelia Earhart in Mira Nair’s “Amelia” (distributor Fox Searchlight may also release “Margaret,” a tragic story starring Oscar winner Anna Paquin). Another perennial best actress favorite is Meryl Streep, reteaming with fellow “Doubt” nominee Amy Adams in Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia” (in which Streep plays “French Chef” Julia Child).

Leftovers from last year could spring back to life, including Joe Wright’s “The Soloist,” Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” or “The Road,” based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning sci-fi novel.

Oscar-magnet producer Scott Rudin has another McCarthy property, “Blood Meridian,” in pre-production now as well as Pulitzer winner “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” set for “The Reader” helmer Stephen Daldry to direct.

Promising fest darlings include Sony Pictures Classics’ “An Education” and Lionsgate’s “Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire,” which won three prizes at Sundance, including a special acting kudo for Mo’Nique.

Dominican baseball recruit story “Sugar,” from “Half Nelson” creatives Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, began building positive support at Sundance 2008, and last year’s Cannes launched “Two Lovers,” featuring strong performances by Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix.

Wild-card fare might find its way into the race, like Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” with George Clooney. Terrence Malick’s secretive “The Tree of Life” co-stars ’08 nominees Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.

As always, it’s risky to read too much into films’ on-paper pedigree — it’s wise to stay open to surprises from festivals and abroad. The Oscar race is fluid, not static, but it never hurts knowing where to start.

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