Now that the 78th Academy Awards are in the can, it's time to relax, take a deep breath — and start looking ahead to next year's crop of best picture candidates.
Too early, you say? Not in Hollywood, where the Oscar clock never seems to unwind.
Granted, most of these films won't unspool for at least six months, and there's plenty of time for the field to shift at festivals ranging from Cannes to Toronto, but this provides a framework for the conversations to come.
One word of caution: The dozen films on this list are not necessarily the ones you might expect among the 2006 releases.
For instance, a movie helmed by overdue director Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon due for a December release date looks like obvious Oscar bait, right?
But Scorsese's "The Departed" is loaded with the kind of crime-thriller elements that academy voters tend to pooh-pooh. So, for now at least, it will remain off this list.
The thriller element could also hurt the Oscar chances of Ron Howard's "The Da Vinci Code," starring Tom Hanks. Another factor working against the film is its May release date, which is generally too early in the year for serious contenders (of course, "Crash" was a May release in 2005, and that worked out all right).
The same early release difficulties could apply to June's "A Prairie Home Companion," with Meryl Streep, Robin Williams and Lily Tomlin in Robert Altman's portrayal of what goes on behind the scenes at Garrison Keillor's folksy radio show.
But enough about the films that probably won't contend. Here, arranged alphabetically, are contenders with fewer drawbacks and question marks.
Backstory: Director Alejandro Gonzàlez Iñàrritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga ("Amores Perros," "21 Grams") apply their gritty, time-jumbled narrative style to tell four stories set in Morocco, Tunisia, Mexico and Japan.
Stars: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal
Release date: Oct. 6
"Breaking and Entering"
Backstory: Director-writer Anthony Minghella's ("The English Patient") tale of an architect who is forced to reevaluate his comfy life when a Muslim thief breaks into his office, then reenters his life again and again.
Stars: Jude Law
Release date: August
Distributor: Weinstein Co./Disney
Backstory: Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters," "Chicago," "Kinsey") writes and directs this screen adaptation of the classic Broadway musical about the career rise of The Dreamettes (really The Supremes).
Stars: "American Idol" cast-off Jennifer Hudson has the big showy role as "Dreamettes" castoff Effie. Beyoncé Knowles is the Diana Ross equivalent. Also stars Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover and Eddie Murphy.
Release date: Dec. 22
Distributor: Dreamworks SKG/Paramount Pictures
"Flags of Our Fathers"
Backstory: Director Clint Eastwood teams again with his "Million Dollar Baby" screenwriter Paul Haggis (writer and director of reigning best picture champ "Crash") to tell the life stories of the six men who raised the flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
Stars: Ryan Phillippe, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker
Release date: October or November
Distributor: Dreamworks/Warner Bros.
"The Good German"
Backstory: Director Steven Soderbergh's story of an American journalist who becomes engulfed in a murder mystery while trying to find his ex-mistress in post-war Berlin.
Stars: George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Beau Bridges
Release date: September
Distributor: Warner Bros.
"The Good Shepherd"Backstory: Robert De Niro directs and stars in this thriller about a founder of the CIA who takes huge risks to square off against his KGB counterpart. Written by Eric Roth, who won an Oscar for "Forrest Gump."
Stars: Matt Damon, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Joe Pesci and Billy Crudup
Release date: Dec. 22
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Backstory: Two-time Oscar champ Milos Forman ("Amadeus," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") examines the life of Spanish painter Francisco Goya, who was a frequent target of the Spanish Inquisition.
Stars: Stellan Skarsgard, Natalie Portman and Javier Bardem
Release date: No studio distributor or release date announced
Backstory: Steven Soderbergh directs Benicio Del Toro (both Oscar winners for "Traffic") as Marxist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Stars: Benicio Del Toro, Javier Bardem, Benjamin Bratt, Ryan Gosling
Release date: December (limited), January 2007 (wide)
Distributor: Focus Features
Backstory: Director Christopher Nolan ("Memento," "Batman Begins") reveals the story of two rival magicians in turn-of-the-century London who resort to murder to discover each other's trade secrets.
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale
Release date: Oct. 20
Distributor: Disney/Touchstone Pictures
"Stranger Than Fiction"
Backstory: Marc Foster ("Finding Neverland") directs this tale of an IRS auditor () who hears the voice of a mysterious narrator in his head that can articulate his most intimate feelings, what he'll do next and even how he'll die.
Stars: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson
Release date: Nov. 10
"The Painted Veil"
Backstory: Director John Curran ("We Don't Live Here Anymore") and writer Ron Nyswaner ("Philadelphia") adapt W. Somerset Maugham's novel about a British scientist who drags his adulterous wife off with him to a remote area of China infested with cholera. When he dies, she discovers new insights about life and independence.
Stars: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts
Release date: Late December, wide release January 2007
Distributor: Warner Independent Pictures
"World Trade Center"
Backstory: Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone ("Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July") tackles the true story of two police officers who try to rescue people from the burning World Trade Center, but get trapped when the towers collapse.
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Release date: August 11