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Oscars preview: 15 front-runners for best picture

June 15, 2011 |  8:00 am

Now that we're nearing the half-year mark, it's time to take a serious peek at the contenders in the 2011 Oscar derby. Most are not yet at the starting gate, so we haven't seen them. But here is what we know about the 15 films we consider to be top Oscar contenders.

"THE ARTIST" -- A French silent film in black-and-white might seem like a tough sell to Oscar voters, but it was well received at the Cannes Film Festival and has the potential to be an art house hit. More important, the Weinstein Co. acquired American distribution rights, and when it comes to Oscars, it's never safe to bet against the Weinsteins.

"THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL" -- Director John Madden was nominated 13 years ago for helming "Shakespeare in Love," which won best picture. His upcoming film about a retirement home in Bangalore, India, has a cast that includes two-time winner Maggie Smith, one-time champ Judi Dench, and two-time nominee Tom Wilkinson, as well as Dev Patel and Bill Nighy.

Carnage

"CARNAGE" -- Roman Polanski failed to gain any Oscar traction for last year's political thriller "The Ghost Writer," but this time around he's working from a Tony-winner for best play and a very Oscar-friendly cast: Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, and John C. Reilly, who have four wins and 12 nominations among  them.

"A DANGEROUS METHOD" -- Filmmaker David Cronenberg has not historically been an Oscar favorite, but his previous two films, "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises," both earned major nominations, and this time around he's working with an Oscar-annointed writer, Christopher Hampton ("Dangerous Liaisons," "Atonement"), in an Academy-friendly genre: the historical biopic. "A Dangerous Method" focuses on the relationship between psychology pioneers Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

"THE DESCENDANTS" -- The first collaboration between Oscar-winning actor George Clooney ("Syriana") and director/writer Alexander Payne ("Sideways"). Set for a December release, it's about a man trying to reconnect with his daughters after his wife is killed in a boating accident.

"EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE" -- It's directed by Stephen Daldry, who has been Oscar-nominated for every one of his films ("Billy Elliot," "The Hours," "The Reader"). It's written by Eric Roth, who penned best picture nominees "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Munich," "The Insider" plus best picture winner "Forrest Gump." Its cast is led by Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. And its subject matter is timely and topical: A boy copes with his father's death on 9/11. On paper, you couldn't devise a more Oscar-ready film.

"THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO" -- Stieg Larsson's wildly popular mystery thrillers have already been made into Swedish-language films, but now the first entry in the trilogy is being remade by director David Fincher, who is on a roll. He earned best picture and director nods for his last two films ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Social Network"). With interest already high and Fincher now considered overdue after his loss this year to Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech"), the film could be a force to be reckoned with.

"HUGO CABRET" -- The adventure film, adapted from a novel by Brian Selznick about a boy living in the walls of a Paris train station, seems like an unlikely fit for gritty director Martin Scorsese, who finally won his first Oscar for the gangster epic "The Departed," but teaming again with "The Aviator" writer John Logan and a cast that includes Jude Law and Ben Kingsley, you can never rule him out.

"THE IDES OF MARCH" -- George Clooney directs his first collaboration with co-writer Grant Heslov since "Good Night, and Good Luck." Viewing a presidential race from the point of view of a staffer, it could be well timed, coming just as the 2012 presidential race begins in earnest. It boasts an all-star cast, including Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

"THE IRON LADY" -- Meryl Streep must always be considered a possible contender at the Oscars, but her only film in the last 20 years to compete for best picture was "The Hours" back in 2002. That could very well change with "The Iron Lady," in which she plays controversial British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during a period that includes the Falkland Islands War in 1982.

"J. EDGAR" -- Clint Eastwood failed to get Oscar's attention last year with his supernatural drama "Hereafter," but his chances are probably much better this year. The Academy loves a good biopic (and even a few not-so-good ones), and Eastwood has got a juicy subject (FBI director J. Edgar Hoover) an Oscar-winning screenwriter ("Milk's" Dustin Lance Black), and three-time nominee Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role.

"LIKE CRAZY" -- This romantic drama, about the long-distance romance between British and American college students won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It's generating buzz for the performance of Felicity Jones. The last two Sundance winners went on to compete in Oscar's top race ("Precious," "Winter's Bone").

"THE TREE OF LIFE" -- Terrence Malick has only directed five feature films in his nearly 40-year career, including "The Thin Red Line," which was nominated for best picture in 1998. His latest -- about parents raising three sons in the 1950s -- has earned rave reviews and won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It's unusual for the Palme d'Or winner to earn a corresponding Oscar nod for best picture, but those odds look rosier when you consider just the English-language Palme d'Or winners ("The Pianist," "Secrets & Lies," "Pulp Fiction").

War Horse

"WAR HORSE" -- Steven Spielberg directing a film about war can never be underestimated. He won for directing both "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" in the 1990s. This time he turns his focus on World War I and the relationship between a young man and his beloved horse. Oscar nominee Emily Watson co-stars, and the script is by Oscar nominees Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") and Lee Hall ("Billy Elliot").

"YOUNG ADULT" -- Jason Reitman's last two films, "Juno" and "Up in the Air," both earned picture and director nods. In "Young Adult," he's rejoined by Oscar-winning "Juno" writer Diablo Cody to tell the story of a fiction writer returning to her small-town home after a divorce. The film stars Oscar-winner Charlize Theron.

-- Tom O'Neil

Photos: "Carnage" (Sony Pictures Classics), "War Horse" (DreamWorks)

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