Now that we've crossed the midway point of the year, it's time to start taking stock of the field for the next Academy Awards best picture race.
Too early, you say? Not at all. At this point last year, remember, "Crash" had already been starting conversations and building a quiet buzz for more than a month.
So how do you spot the films that figure to be contenders for the Oscar derby? Start by checking their pedigree. Consider, for instance, the director. Oscar-overdue Martin Scorsese has another major release, so his film, "The Departed," makes the list. Steven Soderbergh won best director for "Traffic," but still aims for the picture prize -- thus "The Good German" is a good bet.
And considering how much voters love actors-turned-directors, two past champs are back in the running: Mel Gibson ("Apocalypto") and Clint Eastwood ("Flags of Our Fathers"). And there's another decorated actor who's relatively new to directing: Robert De Niro ("The Good Shepherd").
Other leading candidates resemble past champs (Does "Dreamgirls" = "Chicago"?) while some have already proved their awards' prowess (this year's Tony award darling "The History Boys").
Here, in alphabetical order, is a roundup of 43 films that Oscarwatchers will be tracking closely over the next six months.
"All the King's Men": Sean Penn portrays a popular Southern politician corrupted by power in a remake of the 1949 classic that won Oscars for best picture, actor (Broderick Crawford) and supporting actress (Mercedes McCambridge). (Sony Pictures) Sept. 22
"Apocalypto": Following the surprise success of "Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson directs and writes another bloody drama performed in an obscure language. This time the language is Mayan and the ancient Mexican culture is beset by a religious campaign of human sacrifice. (Disney) Dec. 8
"Babel": Director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu 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. (Paramount Pictures). Release: Oct. 6.
"The Black Dahlia": Director Brian DePalma ("Body Double," "Mission: Impossible") adapts James Ellroy's novel about Los Angeles police detectives (Josh Harnett, Aaron Eckhart) investigating the 1947 murder of an aspiring actress, whose body has been found in pieces, dumped in an empty lot. Also stars Hilary Swank and Scarlett Johannson. (Universal) Sept. 15
"Bobby": Emilio Estevez wrote and directed this dramatization of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and its effect on 22 witnesses (Anthony Hopkins, Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, Elijah Wood, Laurence Fishburne, Lindsay Lohan). (The Weinstein Company) Nov. 22
"Breaking and Entering": Director/writer Anthony Minghella (Oscar winner for "The English Patient") spins this tale of an architect (Jude Law) forced to re-evaluate his comfy life when a Muslim thief breaks into his office, then re-enters his life again and again. (Weinstein Co./ Disney). Release: August.
"Catch a Fire" : A rebel (Derek Luke) makes secret attacks against the apartheid regime of South Africa while being pursued by a headstrong police officer (Tim Robbins). (Focus Features) Release: Oct. 27 (limited)
"Children of Men": Set in the future when no new children are born due to a mysterious plague of infertility, a former peace activist (Clive Owen) and his militant ex-wife (Julianne Moore) team up to protect a woman who has miraculously become pregnant. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Y tu Mamá También"). (Universal) Sept. 29
"The Departed": After five defeats in Oscar's best director race, Martin Scorsese reteams with his "The Aviator" star Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon for an update of the 2002 hit Hong Kong film "Internal Affairs." Here the plot is moved to Boston, where parallel stories follow a policeman who infiltrates the Irish mafia and an Irish thug who goes undercover to spy within the ranks of the cops. (Warner Bros.) Oct. 6
"Dreamgirls": 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). "American Idol" cast-off Jennifer Hudson has the big showy role as "Dreamettes" cast-off Effie. Beyoncé Knowles is the Diana Ross equivalent. Also stars Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy. (Dreamworks/Paramount) Release: Dec. 22.
"Flags of Our Fathers": Director Clint Eastwood reunites with "Million Dollar Baby" screenwriter Paul Haggis (and writer/director of "Crash") to tell the life stories of the six men who raised the flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. Ryan Phillippe, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell and Paul Walker are among the featured players. (Dreamworks/Warner Bros.) Release: October or November.
"For Your Consideration": Satirist Christopher Guest ("Spinal Tap," "Best in Show," "A Mighty Wind") sets his sights on Oscar campaigns with this looks at the stars of a drama film set in the 1940s. (Warner Independent) Sept. 22
"The Fountain": Darren Aronofsky's sci-fi tale of a man (Hugh Jackman) who travels through time to save his wife's life (Rachel Weisz). (Warner Bros.) Oct. 13
"Fur": Nicole Kidman portays Diane Arbus, the famous fashion photographer who committed suicide in 1971. Directed by Steven Shainberg ("Secretary"). (Picturehouse) November (limited)
"The Good German": George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Beau Bridges star in 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. (Warner Bros.) Release: September.
"The Good Shepherd": Robert De Niro directs and stars in this thriller about a founder of the CIA (played by Matt Damon) who takes huge risks to square off against his KGB counterpart. Written by Eric Roth, who won an Oscar for "Forrest Gump." Stars Angelina Jolie, Joe Pesci and Billy Crudup. (Universal Pictures) Release: Dec. 22.
"A Good Year": Russell Crowe rejoins Ridley Scott, director of "Gladiator" (Oscar best picture of 2000) for this story of a failed British banker who takes over a vineyard in Provence that he inherited from his uncle (Albert Finney), only to meet an American woman (Marion Cotillard) who claims that she really owns the property. (20th Century Fox) Nov. 10
"Goya's Ghosts": Two-time Oscar directing 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. No studio distributor or release date announced.
"Hail Caesar": Those wacky director/writer brothers Ethan & Joel Coen team again with George Clooney ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?) for a fun romp about a theater group performing Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." (Touchstone) (no release date)
"The History Boys": The original cast of the London stage hit and the sensation of Broadway's Tony Awards -- reprise their roles as British schoolboys preparing for an exam. Directed by Nicholas Hynter ("The Madness of King George"). (Fox Searchlight) (no release date)
"The Hoax": Lasse Halstrom ("Cider House Rules") directs Richard Gere as Clifford Irving, the writer who claimed to be the ghostwriter of Howard Hughes' autobiography. (Touchstone) November
"The Holiday": Director/writer Nancy Meyers ("Something's Gotta Give") presents the tale of two women (Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet) who swap houses and fall in love with local men. (Columbia) Dec. 8
"Hollywoodland": Ben Affleck portrays George Reeves, TV's "Superman," who died under suspicious circumstances. (Focus Features) Sept. 8
"Infamous": Following in the footsteps of last year's "Capote" (which brought Philip Seymour Hoffman a Best Actor Oscar), this film examines the life of Truman Capote as he writes "In Cold Blood." Little-known British actor Toby Jones is supported by lots of famous stars, including Sandra Bullock as novelist Harper Lee and Gwyneth Paltrow as singer Peggy Lee. (Warner Independent) Oct. 13 (limited)
"Inland Empire": Laura Derns and Jeremy Irons star in director David Lynch's mystery about a woman fleeing trouble. (No U.S. distributor or release date)
"Killshot": Being in the witness protection program doesn't save a couple (Diane Lane, Thomas Jane) from being pursued by thugs. Directed by John Madden (Oscar best picture champ "Shakespeare in Love"). (MGM/The Weinstein Co.) Sept. 22
"Last King of Scotland": Forest Whitaker portrays savage Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. (Fox Searchligh). Sept. 27 (limited)
"Little Children": Todd Field, director and cowriter of "In the Bedroom," shows how the lives of young couples change as they interact while looking after their children in a small community. Stars Kate Winslet, Partrick Wilson and Jennifer Connelly. (New Line) (no release date)
"Lucky You": A pro poker player must deal with a full hand while participating at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas: he falls for a struggling singer (Drew Barrymore) while clashing with his estranged father (Robert Duvall). Directed by Curtis Hanson ("In Her Shoes," "L.A. Confidential"). (Warner Bros.) Sept. 15
"Margaret": A high-school student (Anna Paquin) tries to make things right when she believes she feels she played a role in a fatal traffic accident. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan ("You Can Count on Me"). Costarring Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo and Matthew Broderick. (Fox Searchlight) (no release date)
"Nativity": Keisha Castle-Hughes (a Best Actress nominee as a teenager for "Whale Rider") portrays pregnant Mary, mother of Jesus, journeying to Bethlehem to give birth. (New Line) Dec. 1
"Notes on a Scandal": A teacher (Judi Dench) tries to cover things up when a new colleague she admires (Cate Blanchett) has scandalous affair with a student. (Fox Searchlight) Dec. 22 (limited)
"The Painted Veil": Director John Curran ("We Don't Live Here Anymore") and writer Ron Nyswaner ("Philadelphia") adapt W. Somerset Maugham's novel about a British scientist (Edward Norton) who drags his adulterous wife (Naomi Watts) off to a remote area of China infested with cholera. When he dies, she discovers new insights about life and independence. (Warner Independent) ) Sept. 20 (limited), Oct. 20 (wide)
"The Prestige": Director Christopher Nolan ("Memento," "Batman Begins") reveals the story of two rival magicians in turn-of-the-century London (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale) who resort to murder to discover each other's trade secrets. (Disney/Touchstone) Release: Oct. 20.
"Running with Scissors": Buzz is that this will finally be Annette Bening's Oscar-winning performance, as a bipolar mom who comes out as a lesbian and ships her son off to live with her shrink. But is a late-September release too early? Also stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Evan Rachel Wood and Vanessa Redgrave.
"Stranger Than Fiction": Marc Foster ("Finding Neverland") directs this tale of an IRS auditor (Will Ferrell) 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. (Sony Pictures) Release: Nov. 10.
"The Pursuit of Happyness": A struggling salesman (Will Smith) gains custody of his eight-year-old son (portrayed by Smith's real-life son Jaden) and takes on a challenging business endeavor. (Sony) Dec. 15.
"The Queen": Helen Mirren stars as Queen Elizabeth II, trying to cope with the news that estranged ex-daughter-in-law Diana has died in a car crash. Directed by Stephen Frears ("High Fidelity," "Mrs. Henderson Presents"). (Miramax). Dec. 15.
"The Science of Sleep": A man (Gael Garcia Bernal) tries to wake up and shake himself loose from the people who control his life while dreaming. Directed and written by Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") (Warner Independent) August (limited)
"Scoop": A college journalist (Scarlett Johansson) falls for a man she believes is Britain's "Tarot Card Killer." Written and directed by Woody Allen (Focus Features) July 28
"Volver": Pedro Almodovar (Oscar winner for best screenplay "Talk to Her") directs Penelope Cruz as a woman comforted by the ghost of her mother. (Sony Pictures Classics) Nov. 3 (limited)
"Wind That Shakes the Barley": Director Ken Loach won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival for this tale of brothers (Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney) torn apart as they fight the British during the Irish rebellion in the 1920s. (No distributor or release date)
"World Trade Center": Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone ("Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July") tackles the true story of two police officers (Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena) who try to rescue people from the burning World Trade Center, but get trapped when the towers collapse. Also stars Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal. (Paramount Pictures) Aug. 11.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times