We are rapidly approaching the heart of the Oscar season. In previous years, it is likely that at least one or two films will have reserved their spot in the AMPAS top five. Last year, golden boy George Clooney’s “Good Night and Good Luck,” fueled by excellent reviews and a timely subject matter, seemed like a sure bet to snag a Best Picture nomination. Two years ago, “Sideways” captured the imaginations of critics everywhere. The year before, there was hardly any doubt Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” would reap major awards.

What about this year? In a fairly weak year for movies overall, there is only one film we are confident in describing as a “lock” for a nomination. That would be Marty Scorsese’s bloody and delightful gangster drama “The Departed.” For an October release, “The Departed” has shown tremendous box office potential, easily surpassing the $100 million benchmark. As you know, box office prowess is an important (although not deal-breaking) criteria when it comes to Best Picture consideration. It also helps that “The Departed” has been met with across the board stellar reviews. After failing to score director or picture wins for “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator,” Scorsese is a sentimental favorite for a “make-up” win. This could be his year. Speaking of which, when is the last time a director has seen three consecutive films nominated for Best Picture? If “The Departed” scores a nod, Scorsese will add another accolade to his resume.

Besides “The Departed,” are there any other films that qualify for “lock” status? If you believe a majority of the pundits, Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” is such a movie. We are not so sure. Although this thoughtful drama received superb reviews and features a brilliant performance by Best Actress frontrunner Helen Mirren, we still think it is too small to be considered a sure thing. Much will depend on how impressive some of the yet to be released films are. “The Queen” will likely find itself battling other independent type films, such as “Breaking and Entering,” “Bobby,” and “The Painted Veil.” If those films fail to make a lasting impression, “The Queen” will easily join “The Departed” on the top tier.

Some people describe “Dreamgirls” as a near lock, given its incredible buzz as well as the very solid recently released trailer. There is no doubt that “Dreamgirls” is probably your frontrunner and a bona fide contender. But no film can be considered a lock until its release (or at least until some of the early season critics’ awards start trickling in). The word is that “Dreamgirls” should be screened sometime in mid-November, so we’ll be able to better assess whether or not the advanced hype is legitimate.

Meanwhile, as we roll on, some films are generating momentum while others fall by the wayside. “Little Miss Sunshine” continues to climb up the charts. Despite being a summer release, it is still performing well in theaters and is ideally positioned for a December DVD release. With politics on people’s minds heading into the midterm elections, “Bobby” could be a sleeper hit. 2005 featured a plethora of politically charged films, such as “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Munich,” “Syriana,” and arguably even “Crash” and “Brokeback Mountain.” It shouldn’t be a surprise if “Bobby” finds a strong and passionate base of supporters.

On the other hand, early Oscar hopefuls “The Last King of Scotland” and “Little Children” are disappearing off the radar screen, due partially to their limited release. Despite overall solid reviews, both films are inexplicably only being marketed and touted for their lead performances (Forrest Whitaker, Kate Winslet). “United 93” and “World Trade Center” also seem to be slipping out of people’s memories, although WTC will have an upcoming DVD release to give it a last and desperate boost. Still, it is important to remember that a good film can be easily resurrected thanks to a major award. A few years ago, “Finding Neverland” opened to good reviews, but quickly faded in people’s minds. In December, the National Board of Review selected it as its Best Picture. “Neverland” rode that momentum all the way to a Best Picture nomination.

Well, Scorsese and Warner Bros. may be able to relax a little more than most, but as we all know, anything can happen. It will be extremely interesting to see what unfolds as we forge into December and the forecast slowly transforms from murky into partially clear. Happy Oscar hunting, folks!

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