Well, here we go. It’s November and merely a month away from all the precursor awards. We have a completely wide open race. A race, where after last season, nobody wants to be perceived as the frontrunner. At least fifteen films have a legitimate chance at winding up in the Academy Award’s top five. Oscar Frenzy breaks down the contest for you, separating the pretenders from the contenders.

At the very top of the list has got to be “Atonement,” which received very positive advance reviews at Toronto. It’s logging the top spot on most internet Oscar sites and has the prestige factor going for it – period piece, acclaimed literary bestseller, stellar cast. It revokes memories of The English Patient, a film that snapped up 9 Oscars. Also in its favor is that it’s not being hyped in the same manner and intensity as Dreamgirls. It’s still largely under the radar and primed for an awards season push by “been there, done that” studio Focus Features (the new Miramax). Look for Atonement to crack the Best Picture five.

After Atonement, the selections become a lot less clear. “No Country for Old Men” is riding a wave of critical buzz and has in its favor the fact that it’s supposedly the Coen brothers’ “return to form.” It’s ultra-violent and fairly simplistic, which may play to its advantage in light of the public’s appetite for something pure and entertaining. Josh Brolin and Javier Barden are said to be excellent and as we’ll mention in more depth later, the western is definitely back. All that should be good enough to propel it to a Best Picture nomination.

“Charlie Wilson’s War” is still up there in the buzz category although the film has been seen by none. The Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Mike Nichols triumvirate make it a de facto frontrunner, but we think this film will fall by the wayside when all is said and done. For evidence, look at how poorly political (or message) films have done so far. “In the Valley of Elah” got decent reviews, but nobody went to see it. “Rendition” and “The Kingdom” were total flops. Does anyone even remember a little film called “A Mighty Heart?” “Lions for Lambs,” which has Tom Cruise barking about how we’re going to win the war on terror, has been advertised on network TV for a month. You know what that means. The film will be a disaster. The public wants a distraction from current events, and Charlie Wilson’s War will likewise struggle to find an audience.

“American Gangster,” on the other hand, is a wild card. Early box-office returns are sensational, which is always a boost in the Best Picture race (see The Departed, Crash, etc.) It’s got mostly positive reviews and features the heavyweight matchup of Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. The possible stumbling blocks are a lengthy running time (2 hours 40 minutes) and inevitable comparisions to The Departed, a far superior film. Gangster’s fortunes will likely rise and fall on how well received other, more critically raved films are.

A film we’re really keen on is the surprise Paramount Vantage hit “Into the Wild.” Sean Penn has really done it again, flexing his directing chops in an emotional story about one young man’s journey in search of ultimate freedom. It’s got universal themes sure to resonate with today’s cynical audiences, fantastic performances (especially Hirsch and Holbrook), and a unique freshness in approach that distinguishes it from other plot-driven formulaic films.

Many Oscar prognosticators are high on “Michael Clayton,” and although it is a solid film, it’s missing that one killer memorable moment that will keep people talking. “Gone Baby Gone” has got to be one of the surprises of the fall and Casey Affleck turns in a gritty, uncompromising performance. It’s a little too small for the Oscars however, and doesn’t quite have the emotional/moral heft of “Mystic River,” which it will inevitably be compared to. “Eastern Promises” showcases David Cronenberg at his very best, but Cronenberg (perhaps just like PT Anderson), just doesn’t seem to resonate with the Academy, at least not yet. Don’t worry fans. It took decades for Scorsese to win an Oscar, but he finally got there, didn’t he?

“The Kite Runner,” we are now convinced, will not be a contender. It goes back to the same old problem. You just encounter too many obstacles when trying to adapt a beloved novel. From the trailer, it looks like the film will focus on the character’s adult life rather than the more poignant childhood in Kabul, which will likely be told in flashbacks. It is not hard to imagine critical reviews touting The Kite Runner as scattered and unfocused and possibly manipulative, given director Foerster’s film-making style. I hate to say this, but I sense another Memoirs of a Geisha.

Oscar often likes to bestow attention to a smaller, more light-hearted film, such as “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Full Monty,” “Lost in Translaton.” This year, we’ve got our eye on “Juno,” a satirical comedy about a young girl who gets pregnant, but decides to give her child up for adoption to a young couple. Ellen Page, as the protagonist, is said to be amazing and the film appears to be both hilarious and heartwarming. Another film to consider is “Once,” a comedic love story about two budding musicians, but its summer release may push it too far back into people’s memories.

In a way, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” may be considered a comedy. Of course, it IS a musical, which makes it a hard sell for the Academy, given recent track record. The subject matter may ultimately prove a little too gruesome for some people’s tastes and the late release date could also be a disadvantage. You have to wonder, with Oscar nominations now revealed in mid-January, why are so many studios still positioning their films for late December releases? There just isn’t enough time to build momentum.

“There Will Be Blood” has gotten some phenomenal advance praise, but we still think PT Anderson’s work (Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love) isn’t quite Academy-friendly. Also, Daniel Day Lewis’ supposedly exceptional performance may overshadow the rest of the movie. Our bet is that “Blood” is the one favored film that gets left out in the cold (much like Dreamgirls last year and Cold Mountain a few years ago).

And then there’s “3:10 to Yuma,” which demonstrates clearly that Christian Bale is this generation’s most intense character actor. On the surface, the film is a crowd-pleaser, but look a little deeper and you will see powerful themes of what it means to be honorable and to have humanity. Lionsgate, which distibuted Crash a few years ago, certainly knows how to push an Oscar contender and with a timely DVD release, who knows what can happen.

“3:10 to Yuma” is the third western with a legitimate chance at Best Picture. Why is the western doing so well? Well, for one it’s a throwback. And it’s simple. If you examine years past, every year seems to have a theme in terms of what audiences are looking for. 2004 was the year of the bio-pic, with movies like The Aviator, Finding Neverland, and Ray. 2005 was about controversy and people standing up for something (Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich, Crash). 2006 was a little trickier, but I think it was about the disconnect people feel to each other. This was evidenced in both direct and subtle ways in Babel, The Departed, and The Queen, even Little Miss Sunshine. This year, we hypothesize, will be about escape. Escaping from our society to a time when things were easier, more exotic, more beautiful. Our lives are so demanding and time-driven and people want something different.

Which brings us to our official November projections. Your nominees for Best Picture 2008 are:

1. Atonement
2. No Country for Old Men
3. Into the Wild
4. Juno
5. 3:10 to Yuma

And for the acting categories:

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

He should have won for Gangs of New York and the Academy knows that. If Hanks can be a two time winner, why not Day-Lewis?

Best Actress: Ellen Page, Juno

In a weak year, we think the Academy goes out on a limb to award the youngest winner ever. Blanchett’s “The Golden Age” was poorly received and Jolie is long forgotten. Cotillard and Christie are too obscure and Knightley will likely have her due in the near future.

Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men

He’s a fantastic actor and his role in Country is both frightening and funny. The Academy loves a good villain.

Best Supporting Actress: Saorise Ronan, Atonement

Briony’s character is the heart of the film and we think Atonement may engineer an English Patient like sweep which would surely include at least one acting category.

Last but not least, our predictions for the grandest prize of all, Best Picture and Best Director.

In this group of five, you’ve got to say that Atonement has the edge. It’s an epic, it’s got star power, it will likely score lots of technical nominations as well as wins. The only real question is whether or not the country is ready for a truly romantic picture in this time of chaos and cynicism. Movies often reflect the national mood and recent winners such as “Crash,” “The Departed,” and “Million Dollar Baby” haven’t exactly been passionate and uplifting. “Cold Mountain” flopped four years ago and many believe Atonement could be in for a similar fate. We disagree. Atonement will capture people’s hearts and even restore our faith in film as a means to really move people. Joe Wright will win Best Director and James McAvoy and Keira Knightley will achieve success similar to DiCaprio and Winslet exactly 10 years ago. It’s been ten years since “Titanic” swept audiences off the feet. Get ready to swoon once again.

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