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Dark horse movies could crash Oscars

Indie films, Oscar-winning filmmakers among competition

In competing for the “little film that could” slot in the best picture race, Thomas McCarthy’s “The Visitor” should give Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” and Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” a run for the money. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers calls the indie feature, McCarthy’s followup to “The Station Agent,” “a heartfelt human drama that sneaks up and floors you.” And the critics were pretty much in alignment.

John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” which the playwright adapted and directed from his Tony-winning play, benefits from a Pulitzer Prize pedigree and two Oscar-winning leads: Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Ed Zwick’s “Defiance,” like his 1998 Civil War yarn “Glory,” sheds light on a little-known pocket of history: Jewish Resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Russia.

And in a year when the general prognosis points to a paucity of surefire top contenders, the fact that three Oscar-winning filmmakers might be considered dark horses indicates, at the very least, that the competition boasts more than the usual heft: Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” while proving a breakthrough vehicle for Anne Hathaway, has also earned Demme some of his best reviews since “Philadelphia.” Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” appears to be another thumbs-up effort after a couple of misfires, aided by a sexy ensemble and a city that has invigorated the writer-director as much as London did for his “Match Point.” And Oliver Stone’s “W” will undoubtedly create a partisan divide between those who view its portrait of the current president as too soft and amorphous and those who deem it a cheap shot with a transparent agenda.

Then there’s Clint Eastwood’s other movie, “Gran Torino,” opening in the wake of “Changeling.” Many reviewers shortchanged “Letters From Iwo Jima” as being Eastwood’s other WWII movie in 2006, but it ended with four Oscar nominations, including best pic and director slots; meanwhile “Flags of Our Fathers” ended up with two sound noms. So much for conventional wisdom.