And here we go…

We’re in the thick of the fall movie season and Oscar buzz is gradually building to a fever pitch. Unlike last year, where smaller, independent films dominated awards season, the big studio offerings are BACK and ready to cash in both on the awards circuit and the box office. Plus, unlike last year’s films, many of which shared a common theme of isolationism, this year’s films are all over the map. To sort things out, let’s first start by reviewing our Spring predictions.

Our Best Picture predictions were:

Revolutionary Road
The Reader
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Of those, one remains fiercely strong, and that is David Fincher’s fantasy drama Benjamin Button. As you can see from the trailer, this film promises to be something that we have never seen before. Some may find this an odd comparison, but this could be the next Forrest Gump. In that, I’m referring to a movie that captures the public’s imagination through amazing, unconventional, storytelling and special effects. The only fear is that “Button” plays more like “Big Fish” than “Gump.” Fincher’s been hit or miss, but his last film “Zodiac” reveals this director’s immense talent to tell a dramatic story. If all things go right, we could be witnessing a sweep of awards on Oscar night.

The other colossal contender, Revolutionary Road, is more of a puzzle. You may be aware that OscarFrenzy predicted “Road” to sweep the Oscars, taking Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Actress. We regretfully now must back off those projections. The trailer hints at a strong character drama with powerhouse performances from DiCaprio and Winslet, but something is missing. That something is the feeling of newness. We feel like we’ve seen this before. In addition, a story about a marriage falling apart just doesn’t seem big or important enough for the Oscar. “Road” may still slip into the final five, but it won’t be competing for the big prize.

Among our other predictions, “The Reader” has received little buzz and looks to attract more controversy than for its own good. “Australia” looks really pretty, I mean really pretty. But we get the sense that the story is a little shallow. Also, this is unfortunate, but when’s the last time an epic romance scored well at the Oscars? Cold Mountain and Atonement didn’t quite inspire intense passion, although Atonement did snag a Best Pic nomination. Eastwood’s “Changeling” looks dead in the water. Something about the film just doesn’t add up. It doesn’t feel like an Eastwood film. The better bet, for fans of Clint, is December’s “Gran Torino,” about a war veteran confronting his own prejudices and bigotry when immigrants move into his neighborhood.

So if those films aren’t making the cut, who will? This year more than ever, the real choices seem few and far in between. You’ve got Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” starring Sean Penn as a gay activist. It’ll probably be a solid movie, and Penn will nab a Best Actor nomination, but the film appears too political, as opposed to biographical, and that will be a turn-off to the Academy. “The Soloist,” starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. looks downright horrible. If the trailer is any indication, it’ll be the next Pay It Forward. “Doubt” has drawn little buzz, and we think it’s more of a Meryl Streep vehicle than anything else.

One real contender is Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” about the real-life interviews Richard Nixon gave to a talk show host covering Watergate and a host of other topics. Howard’s overdue for a hit and the story seems compelling. No less than six acclaimed directors including Martin Scorsese and George Clooney competed for the film rights. The appeal here might be that although the film is political in nature, it focuses more on the battle between two men, Nixon and Frost, and the psychological drama of what’s at stake for both men. Frank Langella, who plays Nixon, may very well be your frontrunner for Best Actor.

There’s always room for a couple of smaller, lighthearted films (a la Juno, Little Miss Sunshine) and this year’s entries include “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Rachel Getting Married.” Both are cute, but may fall just a tad short of a nomination. Anne Hathaway will likely score her first Best Actress nomination for “Rachel.” As for “Slumdog,” a tale about an Indian boy who tries to be on the Indian equivalent of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” seems just a little bit outside the conventional radar. Remember that “Juno” and “Sunshine” were significant box offices hits, and we’re just a little skeptical if “Millionaire” will connect with audiences the same way. We’ll predict, however, that if it grosses more than $70 million, it’ll get a nomination.

Continuing our rundown, “W” may turn out better than anticipated, but no way it’s getting a nomination. We don’t trust anything that comes from the creative mind of Ed Zwick, so we’re writing off “Defiance.” There’s been little buzz for “The Road” and it just seems a little too dark for the mainstream. Besides, a Cormac McCarthy adaptation (No Country for Old Men) won Best Picture just last year. Viggo Mortenson, however, could get his second consecutive Best Actor nomination.

That leaves one remaining film, and it’s the biggest one of all. Need a hint. Or shall I say, wanna see a magic trick? “The Dark Knight” is the phenomenon of the year and it simply cannot be ignored in the Oscar race. For those who have seen the film multiple times, you know it is so much more than an action flick. It’s a film about the power of fear on our society. It’s a film about what is really means to be a hero, and whether the whole concept of heroism is overrated. It’s a film about our humanity. How do people react when they are truly tested? Heath Ledger is spectacular, indeed, but this film is too good to garner just a Best Supporting Actor victory.

The way we see it, “The Dark Knight” is still the film to beat. You simply cannot ignore a film that grosses more than $500 million. There are two films on the horizon, though, that possess a better than average shot to knock if off the throne. One is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and the other is “Frost/Nixon.” But they will have to be really great. If you look at the winners from the last few years, you will see that the rules of the Academy Awards have changed. When have small films like “Crash” and violent gangster flicks like “The Departed” ever won the top prize before? Not recently at least. If they can do it, so can “The Dark Knight.”

So here are our revised predictions heading into the final months of the year. We’ll go in depth on the acting races later. Critics’ awards start rolling out in a couple of months. Oscar season is upon us again.

Best Picture:

The Dark Knight
Revolutionary Road
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Gran Torino

Best Picture winner: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Director: David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Actor: Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

Best Actress: Kristin Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long

Best Supporting Actress: Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight