Holiday Movie Preview: These 12 could be (Oscar) contenders

Think your holidays are hectic? Try keeping up with the annual late rush of new movies as Hollywood careers into awards season. From this week's release of The Road and Fantastic Mr. Fox until the new year, studios are piling up their contenders, thinking voters have short memories when filling out ballots. The holiday movie season is traditionally when Hollywood tries making money and art, collecting posterity along the way. The awards marathon ends four months from now with the Academy Awards, but to be eligible, films must play at least a week in New York and Los Angeles before Dec. 31. Studios also prefer rolling out contenders slowly to other markets, perhaps even into 2010, to sustain momentum. For example, we may see George Clooney on TV plugging Up in the Air (opening Dec. 4 in New York and L.A.) weeks before it arrives in Tampa Bay area theaters on Christmas Day. It's all part of the game, so just be patient. With the Oscars expanding to 10 best picture nominees, jockeying for a spot is more heated than usual. After nearly 11 months of deserving flicks, here are 12 more contenders for those nominations arriving in a matter of weeks. Release dates can change on a studio's whims, so check our weekly list of opening dates in Weekend. Happy holidays.

Everybody's Fine, Dec. 4

The plot: A widower (Robert De Niro) who neglected his children growing up travels cross-country to surprise them for the holidays. He's the surprised one, though, after realizing his estranged offspring (Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore) haven't been truthful about their lives.

Feels like: About Schmidt with less existential angst, with a little Terms of Endearment on the side.

Award possibilities: De Niro's most touching performance since Awakenings should garner lead actor consideration. Beckinsale and Barrymore deserve the same in supporting roles, along with Kirk Jones' screenplay, adapted from the Italian film Stanno tutti bene.

The Messenger, Dec. 4

The plot: An Iraq war veteran (Ben Foster) is assigned to the Army's Casualty Notification program, informing survivors of loved ones killed in combat. His by-the-book partner (Woody Harrelson) is concerned when the newbie gets too close to a widow (Samantha Morton).

Feels like: Classic 1970s road moviemaking, as the soldiers constantly travel, learning small, valuable lessons from a variety of American personalities.

Award possibilities: I blogged way back in March that Foster deserves attention in best actor balloting, after The Messenger opened the Sarasota Film Festival. Harrelson is equally fine, and on a roll this year with Zombieland and 2012. Morton could sneak into play, with so few knockout roles for women.

Brothers, Dec. 4

The plot: After a U.S. Marine (Tobey Maguire) is reported missing in Afghanistan, his brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) comforts his worried wife (Natalie Portman) more than he should.

Feels like: Pearl Harbor without Michael Bay's popcorn sensibilities or Coming Home without wheelchairs.

Award possibilities: Director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, In America) is popular among awards voters. The topical drama may bring out the best in two former Oscar nominees (Portman, Gyllenhaal). U2's original song White as Snow will contend. One acting dark horse: Bailee Madison, age 8, who's earning raves as the troubled couple's daughter.

Invictus, Dec. 11

The plot: After apartheid crumbles in South Africa, new President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) thinks a World Cup rugby title is what the nation needs to heal. Matt Damon co-stars as the team's captain in this fact-based story.

Feels like: Cry Freedom meets Rocky.

Award possibilities: Clint Eastwood sneaking a movie under the eligibility wire (Million Dollar Baby, Letters From Iwo Jima) can't be underestimated in best picture and director races. An actor like Freeman playing an icon like Mandela is practically guaranteed nominations. Don't count out Damon in support, either.

Avatar, Dec. 18

The plot: In the 22nd century (didn't director James Cameron see 2012?), humans invade the moon Pandora for resources, battling the native Na'vi race of giant blue humanoids. One U.S. Marine (Sam Worthington) is transformed into a Na'vi to infiltrate their society and falls in love.

Feels like: Typical Cameron bombast. But it looks spectacular judging from a 16-minute preview reel with astonishing 3-D, computer-generated special effects.

Award possibilities: Well, it won't be Titanic. Technical categories for visual effects, sound and cinematography are most likely, and no award show will again allow Cameron to do his "king of the world" gloating on stage.

The Young Victoria, Dec. 25

The plot: Forget Judi Dench's dour portrayal of Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) plays the monarch as an impetuous teenager assuming the throne, balancing affairs of state and the heart.

Feels like: Buckingham Palace, 90210.

Award possibilities: Blunt wowed critics at the Toronto Film Festival, screenwriter Julian Fellowes previously collected prizes for Gosford Park, and costume designers never met a corset-and-crumpets movie they didn't like.

Nine, Dec. 25

The plot: Italian film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) tackles midlife crises on and off the set, with solutions confused by women in his life (Penelope Cruz, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Fergie, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench). Based on the Broadway musical, which was adapted from Federico Fellini's 1963 autobiographical 8 ½, bringing this sexy fantasy full circle.

Feels like: 8 ½ meets All That Jazz.

Award possibilities: Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood) gets acting nods just for showing up on screen. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) was criminally bypassed at the Oscars in favor of a criminal (Roman Polanski). Set designers and costumers will embrace the dazzle. At least one of Contini's muses should make the cut, most likely Cruz for sex appeal or Loren for nostalgia.

Sherlock Holmes, Dec. 25

The plot: The renowned detective's world isn't elementary anymore, thanks to director Guy Ritchie's rambunctious style and Robert Downey Jr.'s bad boy portrayal. Holmes and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) still save England from some dastardly villain, though.

Feels like: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Calabash Pipes.

Award possibilities: Not many since this looks like a cinematic lark. Preview trailers suggest the set designs, costumes and James Herbert's whip-crack editing may surprise.

Up in the Air, Dec. 25

The plot: George Clooney plays a corporate hatchet man obsessed with air travel and amassing elite status perks. His detachment from personal relationships is challenged by another road warrior (Vera Farmiga) and a colleague (Anna Kendrick) with a different style of firing people.

Feels like: Billy Wilder's brand of ethical comedy (The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie) blended with Michael Clayton's character study.

Award possibilities: All the biggies. Writer-director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking) is a double shoo-in, Clooney is at the top of his tender/masculine game, and Kendrick nearly steals the movie from him.

The Lovely Bones, January

The plot: A young murder victim (Saoirse Ronan) watches from limbo over her grieving parents (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz) and her killer (Stanley Tucci).

Feels like: Director Peter Jackson returns to his dreamy, provocative Heavenly Creatures vibe, after a decade of Lord of the Rings trilogy grandeur.

Award possibilities: Perhaps the season's perfect storm, boasting previous Oscar winners (Jackson, Weisz), based on Alice Sebold's bestseller and tragically topical, if you're a Nancy Grace watcher. Pick a category and The Lovely Bones may be nominated, but Tucci, after a long, admired career, is overdue for major recognition.

A Single Man, January

The plot: A gay English lit professor (Colin Firth) carries on glumly in 1960s Los Angeles after the sudden death of his partner. This is the first film directed and co-written by fashion designer Tom Ford.

Feels like: Mad Men (West) meets the last reel of Brokeback Mountain, with a dash of Tim Gunn's fussiness.

Award possibilities: Firth is popular among actors, and overdue for recognition. Julianne Moore is getting raves for her supporting role as a boozy confidant. Award shows love "discovering" newcomers, so Ford — a Rodeo Drive favorite — will get votes. The period costume designs are assured of consideration.

Crazy Heart, January

The plot: An alcoholic country music singer (Jeff Bridges) on the skids finds redemption through love with a magazine interviewer (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Feels like: Tender Mercies 2, especially with Oscar winner Robert Duvall in the cast.

Award possibilities: None until a month ago when Fox Searchlight moved up the release so Bridges' performance could qualify for prizes. It has been called his best work ever, and that's saying something. After four fruitless Oscar nominations, Bridges may be this year's Mickey Rourke, finally getting his due by carrying a small movie on his shoulders.

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Just for fun: These movies don't have a snowball's chance in Hollywood of winning many awards but do offer relief from holiday hassles.

The Princess and the Frog (Dec. 11): Disney introduces its first African-American princess in a fairy tale retold. Randy Newman's music and animated feature races are possible through force of habit.

Did You Hear About the Morgans? (Dec. 18): Sarah Jessica Parker kills time before Sex and the City 2 with Hugh Grant, as snobby urbanites moved to the Midwest by a witness protection program.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel (Dec. 23): More high jinks with Alvin, Simon and Theodore who, although animated, act less cartoonish than Jason Lee in the flesh.

It's Complicated (Dec. 25): This year's menopausal rom-com for the holidays, with Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin in a love triangle that's, well, complicated.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

Holiday Movie Preview: These 12 could be (Oscar) contenders 11/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 7:48am]

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