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Oscar picture race an endurance test for most

Major contenders had to withstand backlash

Now that the Oscar race for best picture is a 10-deep scenario, securing a spot in the nominees’ circle is less about clawing one’s way there than keeping a spotlight on the qualities that initially put a pic in contention.

“The Social Network” didn’t need 500 million friends — to quote its memorable ad language — to land its spot, but instead a richer, media-friendly nexus of reviewer praise, solid box office, zeitgeisty controversy, a handful of creative names enjoying their biggest moment (Jesse Eisenberg, David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin) and rafts of awards, from critics’ groups to the top Golden Globe prize. All it had to do was avoid an Academy-wide unfriending.

From the feel-good side of the aisle is “The King’s Speech,” a movie pegged as Oscar material from early on, delivering a beloved actor (Colin Firth) in full bloom raking in awards (SAG, Globe, critics’ groups), an admired screenplay and that sometimes elusive intangible: audience uplift.

Well-received summer blockbusters like “Inception” and “Toy Story 3,” meanwhile, repped the biggest brains and hearts, respectively, in today’s studio system. Christopher Nolan’s taut mind-bender gave Academy voters who snubbed his equally acclaimed “The Dark Knight” a chance to rectify that omission, while Pixar showed that its creative attention to a threequel merited extra recognition outside the animation category.

Hot festival entries that kept their profile alive included “Black Swan,” which exploded out of Toronto. Its dark subject matter and graphic nature made it an iffy prospect initially for Academy kudos, but star Natalie Portman has been an awards fixture, winning the Globe and SAG, among others. Likewise, Toronto debut “127 Hours” wasn’t an obvious contender — even with “Slumdog Millionaire” Danny Boyle’s best picture-winning pedigree — except for the widespread acclaim for James Franco’s perf and the actor’s Renaissance Man stardom. (He’s also co-hosting the Oscars.) It’s the only nominee without a winning box office record.

Much harder for a small film is to carry January-to-January buzz from Sundance through the Oscars. But when the Park City fest’s 2010 Grand Jury winner “Winter’s Bone” became the out-of-nowhere indie sensation of the year with critics and arthouse audiences, its nominee status seemed quite viable. Sundance fave and indie hit “The Kids Are All Right,” meanwhile, boasted top notices for its stars — Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo — and appearances on plenty of top-10 rundowns and nominations lists, not to mention the Globes’ comedy/musical top honor.

The road can be equally difficult — but in the opposite way — for a late-year release. How to ramp up to nomination day? For “True Grit,” a Christmas entry with no major awards foreplay — no Globe nominations, meager notice from critics’ groups, no DGA nom — it was the element of surprise, winning over audiences and voters in the nick of time with its intelligence, wit, western flavor, starmaking ability (Hailee Steinfeld) and typical Coen brothers craftsmanship. “The Fighter,” meanwhile, scored a KO immediately with critics and at the box office with its unexpected humor and boisterous ensemble cast, spearheaded by SAG/Globe winners Christian Bale and Melissa Leo.

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