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Oscar race is still up for grabs

No film has jumped out to the front of the pack.
/ Source: Reuters

Hollywood’s major studios are parading their big Oscar contenders, but low-budget art films and even animated movies are stealing their thunder as the contest warms up for the U.S. film industry’s top honors.

The documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” and the cartoon “The Incredibles” want a shot at the best feature film award. The French-language “A Very Long Engagement” and the Spanish-language “The Motorcycle Diaries” are among the most talked-about films of the Oscar sweepstakes.

It is not the $160 million epic “Alexander” but the  tiny art film “Sideways,” with a principal cast of four, which is wowing many of the 5,800 voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who will pick the Oscar winners.

Handlers of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”  say it isn’t waging an Oscar advertising campaign, even though they are sending out promotional DVDs to award voters.

“It is really uncharted waters for Oscars. Hollywood is still looking for that one movie everyone is going to rally around,” said Pete Hammond, veteran writer and Oscar watcher.

The critical film awards season that leads up to the awarding of the Oscars in February is just beginning.

On Dec. 1, the members of the National Board of Review name their picks for top films. On Dec. 13, the New York Film Critics Circle names its selections and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announces its Golden Globe nominations. All those lists help narrow the contestants for Oscars.

Early contendersMost Oscar contenders are launched during the upcoming holiday season, but because of a scheduling change by the Academy, several serious bids came early. They included “The Motorcycle Diaries,” in which Mexico’s Gael Garcia Bernal plays revolutionary Che Guevara.

Also in the mix and currently playing are three film biographies: “Kinsey” about the life of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, “Finding Neverland,” about “Peter Pan” writer J.M. Barrie, and “Ray” in which Jamie Foxx portrays soul-singing legend Ray Charles.

An early print of the musical “Beyond the Sea,” in which Kevin Spacey plays 1950s singing sensation Bobby Darin, premiered at September’s Toronto Film Festival to a lukewarm response. The final version now being shown in industry screenings in Los Angeles is earning wide praise.

Another comeback is “Collateral,” which debuted this summer to good reviews, but many Oscar watchers forgot about it. DreamWorks will push for its star Tom Cruise as best actor and mount a major effort behind the release of the DVD in early December.

Other best actor contenders include Spain’s Javier Bardem portraying a quadriplegic fighting the courts for the right to take his own life, and Don Cheadle playing a man saving lives amid the Rwandan genocide in “Hotel Rwanda.”

“Long Engagement,” a possible contender in the best picture race opening shortly, could earn a nomination for Audrey Tautou as a woman searching for her lover at the end of World War I.

Finally, there are films that will open next month that are generating talk. They include Howard Hughes epic “The Aviator,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, musical “The Phantom of the Opera,” director Mike Nichols’ “Closer,” “A Love Song for Bobby Long” with John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson, and “Million Dollar Baby” with Hilary Swank and Clint Eastwood.