Best picture breakdown

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Sure, it's early in the season from an Academy Awards standpoint, but in Hollywood it's never too soon to start projecting possible contenders for the coveted title of best picture.

This year's race, for instance, could center on an old Oscar friend, like Steven Spielberg, who may get two chances to grab the gold. Or it might revolve around a reigning Hollywood hunk, in the form of George Clooney, or a next-generation hearththrob such as Jake Gyllenhaal.

There's even an 800-pound (and then some) gorilla lurking in the mist, one that could bring former Academy Award champ Peter Jackson back to the podium just two years after his hobbits enjoyed a record Oscar haul.

If there's an early consensus on contenders for the most hotly anticipated and closely watched of all Oscar categories, it's this: the 78th Annual Academy Awards are shaping up -- at least at this stage -- without any runaway leaders or clear-cut favorites.

The race figures to start with Spielberg, even though nobody's seen his film yet -- word is the director is still scrambling to complete the project before entry deadlines in early December.

The Olympic thriller "Munich" is being touted as Spielberg's most serious movie since "Schindler's List." As you may remember, that film was the only movie in modern times to win best picture from every major award group: the National Board of Review, the top three film critics groups (Los Angeles, New York and the National Society), Golden Globes, the leading guilds and the academy.

(Other movies have pulled off a clean sweep -- including "On the Waterfront" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai" -- but that was more than 40 years ago when there were far fewer awards.)

Can Spielberg pull off a similar feat this year? He'll certainly have his work cut out for him.

For one thing, "Munich" will surely be controversial, since it's about the hunt for Palestinian militants who killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games.

That means it likely won't be popular with many Arab sympathizers -- or some Jewish ones either, since Spielberg plans to spotlight how Israeli leaders sanctioned the deaths of Palestinians not involved in the Munich showdown.

There's also the potential for low box office, because instead of casting a superstar lead, Spielberg cast a superhero, "The Hulk"'s Eric Bana. In case you're wondering, box office performance does matter to the academy.

If "Munich" falls short, Spielberg can still pick up a piece of best picture gold as a producer on "Memoirs of a Geisha." The film figures to have a special appeal to Oscar voters, who are notorious as fans of big costume epics based on popular books.

They've also shown they like movies directed by Rob Marshall, picking his adaptation of "Chicago" as best picture three years ago. Marshall missed out on the director's award that year when voters got caught up with Roman Polanski. Now they may feel it's time to catch up with Marshall by bowing to "Geisha."

Another name director who may be considered overdue for recognition by academy voters is Terrence Malick. His "Thin Red Line" was nominated in 1998, although voters previously snubbed his "Days of Heaven" and "Badlands" despite huzzahs from critics. They could be ready to embrace his latest.

Malick's "The New World" has epic appeal, and it feels important because it's about the British settlement of Jamestown in the 1600s, John Smith's historic clash with natives and his romp with Pocahontas.

But there's another savage best picture threat lurking in ancient wilderness, too: "King Kong." Don't assume that a popcorn fantasy can't get a grip on the best picture prize.

Director Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" reigns as the biggest undefeated champ in Oscar history, and many of its craftsmen provided the muscle behind "Kong."

True, Oscar voters don't usually nominate blockbusters for best picture these days, but they used to do it all time. Remember "Airport?" "The Towering Inferno?" "Jaws?" Maybe Jackson could usher in the "The Return of the King Kong."

Speaking of reigning award winners, a screen adaptation of the biggest champ in Tony history, "The Producers" (12 trophies) may compete for best picture just three years after "Chicago" proved that musicals are alive and high-kicking. ("The Producers" already carries an Oscar pedigree: the Broadway tuner was based upon a 1968 film that won Mel Brooks an Academy Award for best screenplay.)

What's so intriguing about the possibility of "The Producers" following in the footsteps (or is that dance steps?) of "Chicago" is that its story appeals to the same sinister side of Hollywood denizens.

In "Chicago," the characters were singing and dancing about getting away with murder. In "The Producers," they're scheming to make millions off of a showbiz flop. Hmmm -- automatic best picture nominee? Probably at the Golden Globes because if "The Producers" is successful, there's a special category just for musicals and comedies.

That's good news for "Rent," too, another Tony champ being brought to the screen with much of its original cast.

Elsewhere, "Walk the Line," the biopic-with-music about the romance of Johnny Cash and June Carter has strong early buzz and great advance reviews. Its shot at a best picture bid will be bolstered by the fact that its stars, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, are in good shape to land nominations for best actor and actress.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in two films competing to be hailed as the year's best. In "Brokeback Mountain"--directed by Ang Lee, who's helmed two past best picture nominees ("Sense and Sensibility," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") -- Gyllenhaal portrays a gay cowboy whose heart has been lasooed by Heath Ledger.

And in "Jarhead," Gyllenhaal stars as a gung-ho Marine who becomes disillusioned with military service when the U.S. launches the first Gulf War. The film is directed by Sam Mendes, whose "American Beauty" swept the Oscars in 1999.

Of course, past Oscar performance is often a key to determining what films will play starring roles at future Academy Awards. That means "Syriana" may loom large, since it's penned by Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2000 best picture contender "Traffic."

"Syriana" stars Clooney as a career CIA operative who uncovers international intrigue by corporate oil titans. It's only a supporting role, which is also true of his appearance as a TV news producer in another best picture rival, "Good Night, and Good Luck."

That film may actually have a better shot at the top Oscar nomination, thanks to Clooney's role behind the camera. He directed and co-wrote the dramatization of Edward R. Murrow's historic clash with Commie-hunting senator Joe McCarthy.

Voters have a special fondness for actors-turned-directors, especially when they're hunky stars like Robert Redford ("Ordinary People"), Mel Gibson ("Braveheart"), Kevin Costner ("Dances with Wolves") and Clint Eastwood ("Unforgiven," "Million Dollar Baby").

That same thinking could help Tommy Lee Jones, whose "The Three of Burials of Melquiades Estrada" won best actor for Jones and best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival in May. This intense tale, about a Texas rancher seeking revenge against a U.S. border guard who killed his Mexican pal, was also a huge hit at the Toronto Film Festival.

Toronto was also the scene of breakout critical praise for another art-house film that could crack the best picture race if it gets a boost from the film critics' awards: "Capote." According to scores at, the drama about Truman Capote's writing of "In Cold Blood" is the best-reviewed film of the year so far. Not far behind is "The History of Violence," which could end up with a stranglehold on a best picture prize from the New York or Los Angeles journos.

Also bolstered by strong reviews is "North Country," starring former Oscar winner Charlize Theron as a fed-up miner who championed the court case that determined America's legal policy on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Both will be competing against an art-house fave that defied box-office projections this year: "Crash." That film hung on at theaters month after month to reap more than $50 million. Now it's out on DVD and its studio is driving hard for academy voters to give it a best picture bid.

Curiously, "Crash" could compete against a film that also came out early and was considered a box-office flop. Although "Cinderella Man" grossed $61 million, making it one of the highest-grossing dramas of the year, the film's Russell Crowe-Ron Howard pedigree made for bigger expectations. But don't count out the story about a Depression Era boxer, especially if it can land heavyweight DVD results.

These films take on another top-grossing drama, "The Constant Gardener," which got early momentum in the race by being released in late August.

Hoping to leap into the race at the end of the year is "Match Point," Woody Allen's big comeback hit about a sexy tennis pro who marries well but can't stop swinging his racket. Wily Woody wasn't taken seriously in the 1977 derby because "Annie Hall" was released early in the year, but he ended up pulling off a serious upset with his comedy.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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