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Oscar derby off to early start

A few faves stir up buzz, including 'Tree of Life,' 'Midnight in Paris'

On June 30, the year will officially be half over, so in theory, 50% of the 2011 awards contenders have bowed. Of course, that is never the case. While the race is just a guessing game at this point, a trio of films are running ahead of the pack: Fox Searchlight’s “The Tree of Life,” Sony Pictures Classics’ “Midnight in Paris” and Paramount’s “Super 8.”

In Oscar races, you don’t have to have unanimous love; all you need is a group of voters who are passionate about your work, and those three have that. If voting were held today, they would do very well. The big question is whether those pics can sustain that heat through the end of the year. (At this point, the only race that could be described as “heated” is the feature-animation contest.)

Otherwise, there are multiple questions, including AMPAS’ rule change that will see the number of best pic contenders fluctuate from five to 10. Will that affect campaigning? Will this prove to be a disadvantage for either smaller indies or big crowdpleasers, both of which did well with the 10-nom setup? Will this innovation affect other awards orgs? Who knows?

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The bulk of kudos contenders always come late in the year, and 2011 has a lineup that seems one of the most amazing in memory. Of course, at this point, every year sounds like the potential best ever. But it’s hard to be skeptical when the July-December sked includes films from Pedro Almodovar, David Cronenberg, Stephen Daldry, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher, Alexander Payne, Roman Polanski, Jason Reitman, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh and Steven Spielberg (with two pics).

Among those whose work is upcoming this year are scribes Dustin Lance Black, Christopher Hampton, Eric Roth, Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian; stars such as George Clooney and Tom Hanks (who each star in a film and direct-star in another), Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, Colin Firth, Hugh Jackman, Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet; and producers such as Graham King, Ryan Kavanaugh and Scott Rudin (with three!).

In the January-June period, the fests offered some tantalizing titles.

Sundance: “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (Fox Searchlight); “Pariah” (Focus Features); “The Devil’s Double,” with Dominic Cooper in two roles (Lionsgate); “Like Crazy” (Paramount); “Take Shelter” and Vera Farmiga’s helming bow, “Higher Ground” (both Sony Pictures Classics).

Berlin: “Coriolanus,” directed by Ralph Fiennes and starring him, Gerard Butler and Vanessa Redgrave (Weinstein Co.).

Cannes: Aside from “Tree” and “Midnight,” there were Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In” and Gus Van Sant’s “Restless” (both Sony Classics), as well as French silent comedy “The Artist” (Weinstein Co.); “Drive,” helmed by Nicolas Winding Refn (FilmDistrict); “Melancholia” directed by Cannes bad boy Lars von Trier (Magnolia Pictures); and the Lynne Ramsay-directed “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (Oscilloscope).

Of the films that have opened in the past six months, Focus’ “Beginners” has gotten a lot of attention (especially for Christopher Plummer), and other films seem like possibilities in a few categories, including “Jane Eyre” and “Hanna” (both Focus), “Water for Elephants” (Fox), “Win Win” (Searchlight), “The Conspirator” (Roadside), “A Better Life” (Summit) and “Bridesmaids” (Universal). Some may not seem like best pic fodder, but Summit’s “The Hurt Locker” seemed like an extreme dark horse at the midyear point.

Summer tentpoles often fare well in vfx-sound-editing areas, so “Thor” (Par), “Fast Five” (Universal) and “Green Lantern” (Warner Bros.) are factors, as is, presumably, the not-yet-seen June opener “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (Par). So are “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” (Disney) and “X-Men: First Class” (Fox) and, in a year of kudos changes, they also merit consideration in other categories (hey, you think it’s easy to re-energize a franchise?)

Below are the scheduled openers for the next six months. The names attached to some projects are there to jog your memories, not meant as forecasts. (It’s too early to make kudos predictions about films most folks haven’t seen.) Some pics are likely tech-craft-design contenders only, some seem like shoo-ins for major consideration, while others are longshots.

JULY: “Captain America” (Paramount); “Cowboys and Aliens” and “Larry Crowne” (both Universal); “The Guard,” starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle (Sony Classics); and the big finale, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” (WB).

AUGUST: Lone Scherfig-directed “One Day” (Focus); Disney-DreamWorks’ “The Help,” with a strong lineup of actresses, from writer-director Tate Taylor; John Madden-helmed “The Debt” (Focus); “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (Fox); and “The Whistleblower” (Goldwyn).

SEPTEMBER: “Warrior,” starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton (Lionsgate); “Moneyball,” directed by Bennett Miller, starring Pitt and scripted by Zaillian-Sorkin (Sony); Summit’s “50/50,” starring Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt; “Dream House,” from Jim Sheridan, with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz (U).

OCTOBER: “The Ides of March,” from co-writer/director Clooney, and “Anonymous,” Roland Emmerich’s Shakespeare pic (both Sony); Disney/DreamWorks’ “Real Steel,” from Shawn Levy and starring Jackman; and WB’s “Contagion” from Soderbergh, starring Matt Damon and Winslet.

NOVEMBER: “Hugo Cabret,” Scorsese’s debut in 3D (Par); Focus-Working Title’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” with Gary Oldman and Firth; the Ben Stiller-Eddie Murphy starrer “Tower Heist” (U); “Immortals” (Relativity); and “My Week With Marilyn,” with Michelle Williams (Weinstein Co.).

DECEMBER: The Rudin-Fincher-Zaillian “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (Sony); “War Horse,” Spielberg’s adaptation of the play and book (Disney-DreamWorks); “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” with Angelina Jolie making her writing-directing bow (FilmDistrict); “We Bought a Zoo,” from scribe-helmer Cameron Crowe (Fox); Searchlight’s Payne pic “The Descendants,” with Clooney; Brad Bird-helmed “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” with Cruise and Jeremy Renner (Par); “Another Happy Day” (Phase 4); WB’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (Rudin, Daldry); Weinstein Co.’s “The Iron Lady,” starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher.

And there are other fourth-quarter titles with no date yet, including “J. Edgar” (Eastwood, Black, DiCaprio, WB); Polanski’s “Carnage” and Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” scripted by Hampton (both Sony Classics); “Young Adult,” from Jason Reitman and starring Charlize Theron and Patrick Wilson (Par); Gerard Butler starrer “Machine Gun Preacher” (Relativity); “The Thing” (U); and the Madonna-helmed “W.E.” (Weinstein Co.).

Among possible late additions — pics with festival buzz but no announced dates — are Walter Salles’ “On the Road,” Todd Solondz’s “Dark Horse,” Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” and Steve McQueen’s “Shame.”

And a final question: With the expanded best-pic race, two toons have made the cut with Oscar. When are docus and/or foreign-language films going to get their turn?

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