Films face challenges as they try to outdo each other

photos/_storypics/blind_125.jpg” HSPACE=10 align=”left”>‘THE BLIND SIDE’
‘Marty’ and’Rocky’ tip their hat to Sandra
Why it’ll win: From “Marty” and “Rocky” to “Forrest Gump” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” the ascension from zero to hero has been a perennial best picture hook. As helmed by John Lee Hancock, Michael Oher’s football-Cinderella true story is deeply felt but never sappy, its sentiment offset by nominee Sandra Bullock’s tart, tireless Southern matron. You could argue this is exactly the kind of crowdpleaser the expansion to 10 noms was designed to incorporate.
Maybe not: Nonstop best actress attention, including accolades from the Golden Globes and SAG, is looking good for Bullock on March 7. But she’s widely seen as the principal distinction of a pic otherwise blanked from consideration. Since the category slimmed to five nominees in 1944, only two best picture nominees have garnered just one other nod (for trivia buffs: 1951’s “Decision Before Dawn” and 1994’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral”). Suddenly there are two in a single year, this one and “A Serious Man.”

‘DISTRICT 9′
An ‘Avatar’ alternative – if voters like art films dressed as popcorn pics
Why it’ll win: For those uncomfortable with exalting “Avatar,” here’s another popular humans-vs.-aliens yarn around which voters can rally. It may not be in 3D, but it boasts its own Oscar-nominated vfx and potent ecological message. If anything, Neill Blomkamp’s political allegory is even more explicit than Cameron’s, the struggle of the “prawns” against Johannesburg “apartheid” conjuring up all sorts of resistance movements in the manner of “The Battle of Algiers.” Plus it’s perversely funny — a lot of movie for your money.
Maybe not: Its credentials (and the adapted screenplay nod) suggest a subversive art film masquerading as a popcorn pic. But it’s still a popcorn pic, subject to dismissal by stuffier voters who like their best pictures more conventionally serious.

‘AN EDUCATION’
With Carey Mulligan at its center, mod London never looked more contempo
Why it’ll win: With so many contenders in a heavily meaningful vein, why not opt for a mod look back at London, just before the four moptops claimed the town, sparked by a cheeky love affair between an older man and schoolgirl and featuring Carey Mulligan’s glittering breakthrough starring role? “Chariots of Fire” came through as best picture with equal nostalgia but much less romance, and a far less witty script than Nick Hornby’s (nominated) adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir.
Maybe not: It’s a modest effort, light on groundbreaking technique and not a B.O. smash. Since triumphant Sundance and Toronto debuts, predictions of Mulligan’s sweeping the best actress field haven’t panned out, and the pic’s prospects are likely tied to hers. Accusations of anti-Semitism in its treatment of Peter Sarsgaard’s mysterious Lothario have further dulled the luster.

‘THE HURT LOCKER’
The Iraq war surfaces bigtime in the Oscar consciousness
Why it’ll win: Though little seen compared with others on the list, it racked up a total of nine nods, and crix groups and the Producers Guild have proclaimed it as good enough and substantial enough to merit a big prize. The depiction of a bomb squad unit’s daily grind through Baghdad streets offers thrills other war films would envy, while it avoids their cliches. Indeed, many deem it the first great film of its particular conflict, a distinction often leading to best picture glory: “All Quiet on the Western Front” after WWI; “The Best Years of Our Lives” after WWII; “The Deer Hunter” after Vietnam.
Maybe not: Will industryites who all year have said, “I hear it’s great, but I haven’t seen it,” do so now? Some on the left say its apolitical stance offers too much comfort to the pro-war crowd. Moreover, the Academy is aching to anoint a distaff helmer for the first time. They can pull off a Solomon’s compromise by allotting best director to Kathryn Bigelow while handing the big enchilada to Cameron’s pic.

‘INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS’
Its big SAG win could presage even greater glory to come
Why it’ll win: Titular misspellings and all, Quentin Tarantino’s reimagining of “The Dirty Dozen” as the agents of Nazi Germany’s destruction is an outlandish movie-movie whose cinematic flair would not be amiss on the best picture winners’ roster. Selection as SAG’s best ensemble over the likes of “The Hurt Locker” and “Up in the Air” hints at deep support within the Academy’s largest branch, while its eight noms mean enthusiasm in other quarters as well.
Maybe not: Pic’s violence may be too messy, its Holocaust payback too jaunty for staid Academy types to sign on to. The script is squarely in the hunt for best original, well known to Tarantino as the traditional runner-up’s distinction after he won for 1994’s “Pulp Fiction.” With Christoph Waltz the one to beat for best supporting actor, voters needn’t feel compelled to lay any further wreaths here.

‘PRECIOUS’
The Acad would send a message if it chose this uncompromising depiction of abuse
Why it’ll win: The visceral impact of Lee Daniels’ risk-taking, in-your-face anatomizing of a seemingly impossible escape from terror echoes winners like “No Country for Old Men” and “The Departed.” In the age of Obama, the Haitian rescue operations have focused increased attention on the downtrodden, and voters could choose to send a message by voting for it.
Maybe not: Intense it is, but perhaps overly so: To many, it plays like a horror movie, hardly the Academy’s favorite genre. Top prizes in times of national malaise tend to go to lighter fare. (The least escapist Depression-era best pictures were “All Quiet” and “The Life of Emile Zola”; the others were all unabashed entertainments.) Also, backlash could chill its chances, just as controversy dimmed “The Hurricane’s” campaign in 1999.

‘A SERIOUS MAN’Bleak is beautiful, as well as funny, in the Coen brothers’ latest
Why it’ll win: The Coen brothers’ re-creation of 1960s Minneapolis, for a modern retelling of the Book of Job, is one-of-a-kind, like all of their films, and the Academy likes its best pictures to stand apart from the pack. This critics’ darling has been lauded for its bleakly funny take on the quirks of fate.
Maybe not: Equally bleak but not so funny are the accusations of Jewish self-hatred that have dogged it since it opened. And even admirers are perplexed by the mythical opening, apocalyptic ending and much in between. It’s been largely a bridesmaid this awards season, and its absence from all categories other than screenplay doesn’t bode well.

‘UP’
In a banner year for toons, one of them breaks through with a best pic nom
Why it’ll win: Until Dec. 18 and our first look at Pandora, Pixar’s heartwarming adventure was the year’s premier 3D event, amassing critical praise and box office gold. It remains a solid performer on homevid and one of the principal works for which 2009 will be remembered. The screenplay nod means the Acad’s writers branch was impressed, and its forthright treatment of personal loss surely strikes a responsive chord among older-skewing Acad members (which, some would allege, takes in all of them).
Maybe not: As long as that best animated feature category exists as a separate entity — and some predict the 10-nomination policy will shortly lead to its demise — the actor-dominated Academy will likely save best picture for stories enacted by fully human thesps. (Of course, where does that leave “Avatar”?)

‘UP IN THE AIR’
Dialogue and acting fly high in this populist pleaser set during the Great Recession
Why it’ll win: If the field comes down to “Avatar” vs. “The Hurt Locker,” their nine noms going head to head, Jason Reitman’s satirical romancer about work and class is well positioned to gallop on the outside to the finish line. Smart and contemporary in a “Kramer vs. Kramer” vein, it’s got a timely populist strain bubbling beneath the executive suite machinations. Few folks are pleasanter to spend two hours with than George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, all nominated and working in crisp form. Voters may crave a classy addition to the best picture rolls.
Maybe not: Following the early National Board of Review win and top honors from several crix groups, pic has been garnering writing awards but little else, suggesting a potential stall-out. Questions can be raised about its plausibility (consultants are expensively flown in to dismiss custodians?) and moral center (it might’ve argued more forcefully for execs’ manning up to do their own dirty work). In a poor economy, the time spent on Clooney’s character’s alienation strikes some as petty. Is this a case of less there than meets the eye?

‘AVATAR’
Can billion-dollar baby teach the Acad to love and honor sci-fi?
Why it’ll win: James Cameron’s Golden Globe winner is the $1 billion-plus gorilla in the room, with its game-changing 3D vfx, must-see status and eco-friendly message tapping into the zeitgeist the way Jake Sully’s braid bonds with his beast. Precedent works in its favor, as several other titles standing atop the all-time grosses chart have brought home the bacon: “Gone With the Wind,” “The Sound of Music” and, of course, Cameron’s own “Titanic.”
Maybe not: How deep is the Academy’s love? Self-styled “king of the world” is little esteemed for his writing, practically the only un-nominated aspect of both “Titanic” and “Avatar” other than their craft services. Matters didn’t improve when Internet parodies comparing the plot to “Pocahontas” went viral. As for top B.O. smashes, sci-fi-based “E.T.” and “Star Wars” lost out to more weighty competition. “Avatar” will do well in tech categories, but so did “Cabaret” in 1972, nabbing eight trophies, though denied top laurel by “The Godfather.”

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