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December surprise

The Contenders 2012

Don’t worry about “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” When it comes to the Oscars, too much is never enough.

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom roaming around the Academy Awards, much of it poised to be proven true. If Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t get an acting nomination for “Lincoln,” just as an example, prepare for a sudden influx of monkey’s uncles.

But as confident as prognosticators might be about this movie or that performance, be it something already screened like “Argo” or Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master,” or the potential impact of late entries “Django Unchained,” “The Hobbit,” “Les Miserables” or “Zero Dark Thirty,” there’s no guarding against Oscar’s late-season surprises.

Look back no further than last year’s lead actor race, when Michael Fassbender (“Shame”) and Michael Shannon (“Take Shelter”) gave revered performances — admittedly in non-mainstream films — only to be bypassed by Demian Bichir in the even lower-profile “A Better Life.” Albert Brooks, posited not only as a likely supporting actor nominee but strong candidate to win for “Drive,” also found coal in his post-Christmas stocking from the Academy.

Three years ago, “Avatar” rode the Oscar waves, initially weighed down by fears that it would be a creative misfire, then surging to frontrunner status upon being screened — only to lose out for best picture to the little “Hurt Locker” that could. That same campaign, the lead actor winner was Jeff Bridges for his work in “Crazy Heart,” a film that Fox Searchlight hadn’t even decided to release when Nov. 1 rolled around.

In 2007, hype surrounded Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia,” only to dissipate when the film world turned its nose at the late-November release. Similarly, “Dreamgirls” began the 2006 Oscar speculation season in the catbird seat, and while it did earn a supporting acting nom for Eddie Murphy and a win for Jennifer Hudson, it did not show up among the picture finalists.

Surprises abounded that year — “The Departed,” a genre pic that most figured would be another Oscar also-ran for Martin Scorsese, ended up winning him the grand prize. And Clint Eastwood’s ballyhooed “Flags of Our Fathers” was waylaid for a best picture nomination by the last-minute release of a lesser-seen foreign-language film: Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima.” It was a formula echoed in 2004 when Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” snuck into the race at the expense of a fave of early season pundit fave, “The Aviator” — and won.

We can also mark the 10th anniversary of the unexpected surge of Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” across multiple categories: Roman Polanski for director, Ronald Harwood (a contender for this year’s “Quartet”) in screenplay and Halle Berry-kissing Adrien Brody for lead actor. One speculates that if Oscar season had lasted just a bit longer, “Chicago” might have fallen victim to “The Pianist” for best picture.

For the second year in a row, the Academy Awards races appear to be fairly wide open, and the less that is set in stone, the less impactful a surprise might be. But as you peruse this year’s contenders, keep in mind that the one you dismiss out of hand in November could very well be the one who’ll have a statuette in hand come February.

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