From an edgy drama set in Harlem to a glamorous Fellini-inspired musical, the red carpet at this year's Academy Awards has never been wider, writes Nicholas Barber
With next month's Academy Awards listing 10 Best Picture nominees rather than the time-honoured five, I'd put money on most of the films listed here being up
for the top award.
In 2009, there were complaints that the shortlist was biased towards "Oscar-type" films, or glossy middlebrow dramas, at the expense of superior releases that didn't quite fit the standard criteria. The Dark Knight and Wall-E were two of the most enthusiastically received films of the year, but because one was a superhero blockbuster and the other a cartoon about a lonely robot, neither was nominated, leaving the Oscars looking as if they had slipped into irrelevance, as they so often do. Now that there are 10 slots to fill, the academy can cast its net a little wider. So, on with the predictions....
After last year's grumblings about Wall-E being snubbed, there's not much doubt that Pixar's follow-up, Up, will have a berth in the Best Picture category, and there's even less doubt about it winning the Best Animated Feature prize on 7 March. The omens are also promising for Up In The Air, a slick comedy drama starring George Clooney as a redundancy consultant who flies around America, refusing to become attached to anyone or anything along the way. It doesn't have much going on beneath its shiny surface, but that hasn't stopped it winning rave reviews as well as the Best Film trophy at the National Board of Review awards in the US.
Nine is also certain to be among the 10. Made by the director of Chicago—a Best Picture winner itself—it's a glamorous, Fellini-inspired musical starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a director stricken by a mid-life crisis. The women in his character's fevered mind—including Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard and Judi Dench-have plenty of Oscars already, so the academy voters could be tempted to hand Best Supporting Actress nominations to the lot of them.
Avatar looks like a safe bet, too. It's the first non-documentary film made by James Cameron since the Oscar-laden mega-hit that was Titanic, so even though it's an all-action science-fiction blockbuster—not the most award-friendly genre—it could get a Best Picture nomination as Hollywood's way of welcoming Cameron back to the director's chair after his long leave of absence. And its cutting-edge motion-capture computer animation is bound to take home the technical prizes.
Invictus, meanwhile, ticks every possible box: the Oscar-winning Clint Eastwood directs it, the Oscar-winning Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon star in it, and it's an inspirational true story about Nelson Mandela. Trophy-magnets don't come much more powerful than that. In particular, Invictus tells the story of South Africa's participation in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which gives the film an even better pedigree: the last time Eastwood and Freeman collaborated on a sports film, it was Million Dollar Baby.
Precious should do well for acting nominations, too. Praise has already been heaped on Gabourey Sidibe, who plays its abused teenage Harlem heroine, not to mention Mo'nique, taking the part of her monstrous mother, and Mariah Carey, who is her social worker.
The Lovely Bones is also a frontrunner. Alice Sebold's source novel, about a murdered girl's trip through the after-life, was showered with awards, and there's no one more suitable than Peter Jackson to adapt it. The director is best known now for the Lord of The Rings trilogy, but an earlier film, Heavenly Creatures, showed that he could balance wondrous special effects with more intimate narratives and darker, more complex emotions. Acting nominations could well go to Saoirse Ronan, the Irish girl who was astonishing as Keira Knightley's younger sister in Atonement, along with Susan Sarandon, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci and Mark Wahlberg.
Viggo Mortensen, star of The Road, definitely deserves a nomination because he looks as if he was buried under a rubbish heap for two months before filming. Other contenders include A Serious Man, the Coen brothers' acclaimed comedy set in the 1960s, and The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's nail-biting depiction of life in a US Army bomb squad stationed in Iraq; Jeremy Renner is getting Oscar buzz for his portrayal of the swaggering maverick who leads the team.
I wouldn't dismiss A Single Man, the tender directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford. Colin Firth picked up a prize at the Venice Film Festival for his thoughtful portrayal of a university professor who's planning to kill himself after the death of his long-term lover.
Britain's brightest hope is An Education, the sprightly drama extrapolated from Lynn Barber's memoir of her schoolgirl affair with an older man. It's quite something for a young, unknown actress to carry every single scene of her debut film, so its star, Carey Mulligan, has been tipped for Best Actress. And if Hollywood looks beyond the English-speaking world, it should focus on A Prophet, a brilliant French prison thriller, and Let The Right One In, a Danish vampire film that's also a touching fable about childhood friendship.
By the time you read this article, the nominations will already have been announced, whereas at the time of writing, they're still up in the air. As for which of them will win Best Picture... well, I've got a strong feeling that it'll be Precious.