A look at possible contenders thus far

Today marks the halfway point for the calendar year, which in theory means that half of the 2010 awards contenders will have opened.

This is why they call it the Dream Factory.

Though the studios in recent years have found success by opening films in “unpopular” months (“Taken” in January, “District 9″ in August, et al.), the majors and indies are generally sticking to the old timetable by hoarding kudos hopefuls until the last part of the year.

So, in an annual bid to shame distribs into acknowledging that the January through June period can be fruitful — Summit’s “Hurt Locker” bowed in June last year — here is a look at what’s opened in the first half of the year. As usual, there was good work, but the glass is less than half full.

With AMPAS and the Producers Guild increasing their best pic nominations to 10 last year, “Up” broke out of the toon ghetto. So might DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon” and Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story 3″ follow in its footsteps? Neither is a sure bet, but they are more likely best-pic fodder than live-action releases to date.

However, there was terrific work, particularly the performances, in the Leonardo DiCaprio-Martin Scorsese “Shutter Island” (Paramount), Music Box’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and Roadside Attractions’ “Winter’s Bone.” Otherwise, there have been strong contributions in various categories like tech/craft/design (everything from Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” to Universal’s “Robin Hood”) and music (Janet Jackson’s tune from Lionsgate’s “Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too” and Summit’s “Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” though the Academy’s music branch seems to avoid popular songs).

As for visual effects, Variety’s resident expert David S. Cohen has been underwhelmed (see separate story).

Do some of these titles seem like Oscar longshots? They are. But awards voters last year recognized good work in “offbeat” pics as varied as “In the Loop” and “The Messenger,” so hope springs eternal. It’s definitely worth mentioning some smaller 2010 films that have garnered many fans, like Sony Classics’ “Please Give” and “Mother and Child,” Magnolia’s “I Am Love” and Anchor Bay’s “City Island” and “Solitary Man.”

The year’s front-runners and dark horses won’t be known until the last qualifiers screen in December — but the race may start taking shape by September, as Telluride, Venice and Toronto fests unveil some hot-sounding films. Certainly the fest circuit offered a lot of possibilities in the January-June period.

Sundance hits included “The Kids Are All Right” with Annette Bening and Julianne Moore (Focus Features); “Buried” with Ryan Reynolds (Lionsgate); the Philip Seymour Hoffman-helmed “Jack Goes Boating” (Overture); “Get Low” with Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, plus the Oz crime drama “Animal Kingdom” (both Sony Pictures Classics); and two from Weinstein Co.: “Blue Valentine,” directed by Derek Cianfrance, and John Wells’ “The Company Men.”

Aside from “Shutter Island,” Berlin unveiled Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” (Summit).

Cannes debuted Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps” (Fox); Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” and Stephen Frears’ “Tamara Drewe” (both Sony Classics); “Fair Game” with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts (Summit); the Javier Bardem-starrer “Biutiful” (no U.S. distrib yet), and “Carlos,” which IFC will release domestically in two versions. “Carlos” is an interesting case: Because of its French TV origins, it’s ineligible for Oscars, though could garner a lot of attention from critics groups, other film-voting orgs — or even Emmys.

Why do film companies avoid the first six months of the year for awards hopefuls? Sometimes, it’s habit. Sometimes it’s to appease filmmakers and talent, who gripe that their work is being buried unless it opens in the fourth quarter. Often, it’s because studios build schedules around potential profits, not necessarily trophies.

But it’s worth remembering that “Hurt Locker” was the latest in a string of pics that opened in the first half of the year and went on to win best picture, after “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Braveheart,” “Gladiator” and “Crash.”

The next six months offer an array of titles: Some sound terrific, some simply intriguing, others dubious. There’s no way of knowing how realistic the chances are for the following titles, since few people have seen these films. When the votes are in, some will be cited in a few categories, some in multiple races. And many will get left behind. (There’s a broken heart for every light on Hollywood Boulevard.)

And, as a note, the names attached to the titles are to help readers ID the film, not predictions of who’s the hottest contender. And the films are listed alphabetically by distrib. (Everyone is so touchy when it comes to awards talk!)

JULY: Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (Warner Bros.)

AUGUST: “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” (Anchor Bay)

SEPTEMBER: a Focus Features duo, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (“Half Nelson”) starring Zach Galifianakis, and George Clooney in “The American”; Fox Searchlight’s “Never Let Me Go” (Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley), and WB’s Ben Affleck-helmed “The Town.”

OCTOBER: Searchlight’s Hilary Swank pic “Conviction”; “Stone” (John Curran-helmed Robert De Niro-Edward Norton ensemble pic, Overture); Sony’s “The Social Network” (David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin); the Clint Eastwood-helmed Matt Damon pic “HereAfter” (WB) and the young-John Lennon pic “Nowhere Boy” (Weinstein).

NOVEMBER: Fox’s “Love and Other Drugs” (Ed Zwick, Anne Hathaway, Fox 2000); Par’s “Morning Glory,” directed by Roger Michell; “Made in Dagenham,” Brit drama from Nigel Cole (“Calendar Girls”) with Sally Hawkins; “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I” (WB), and the Tom Hooper-helmed “The King’s Speech” with Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush (Weinstein).

DECEMBER: “Tron: Legacy” (Disney); Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” (Focus); the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” (Par); Par-Relativity’s “The Fighter” (David O. Russell), and James L. Brooks’ “Everything You’ve Got” (Sony).

There are also some biggies that are yet to be dated, like Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn (Apparition); the Danny Boyle-Simon Beaufoy “127 Hours” with James Franco, and the Darren Aronofsky-helmed “Black Swan,” with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis (both Fox Searchlight); Summit’s Jodie Foster-helmed “The Beaver”; and Julian Schnabel’s “Miral” (Weinstein).There will be last-minute shifts and additions (two years ago at this point, Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire” was not on the kudos radar).

Interestingly, unlike the live-action narratives, docus and animation are a year-round business. The docu cornucopia started in January as Sundance bowed a slew of hotties, including Par Vantage’s “Waiting for Superman,” Magnolia’s “Countdown to Zero,” Weinstein’s “The Tillman Story” and National Geographic Entertainment’s “Restrepo.” And every week and every fest seemed to bring the bow of another good docu (IFC Films’ “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” Sony Classics’ “Inside Job,” etc.).

In addition to the animated “Dragon” and “Toy Story 3,” there was DWA-Par’s “Shrek Forever After”; other feature-toon possibilities coming up include “Despicable Me” (Universal); “The Illusionist” (from “Triplets of Belleville’s” Sylvain Chomet, Sony Pictures Classics); “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” (WB); DreamWorks Animation’s “Megamind”; “Tales from Earthsea” (made by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Disney); “Hoodwinked Too: Hood vs. Evil” (Weinstein); “My Dog Tulip” (Apparition); “Alpha and Omega” (Lionsgate), and “Tangled” (Disney).Under Academy rules, if all 13 bow this year, that’s enough for three Oscar nominees; if 16 toons open, that would mean five.

All in all, an interesting lineup. But one question: Since the early 2010 box office was so dominated by Fox’s “Avatar,” maybe we should give it another shot at best pic? Just a thought…

Otherwise, good luck to all.

Related: Underwhelming results for vfx pics

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