Summer’s almost halfway over, which means the season of serious films will finally soon be upon us. Since most of the predicted Oscar contenders have yet to be fully screened, there is not a whole lot to report. Nonetheless, marketing strategies, insider word of mouth, festival buzz, and other factors have helped us to narrow the field. Let’s take a closer look at who’s ahead, who’s dropping, and who’s still hanging around in the prestigious Best Picture sweepstakes.

The favorite at this point has got to be Dreamgirls. The advance buzz has been terrific and a limited screening of select scenes reportedly drew raves. Furthermore, after a couple years of relatively depressing, issue-driven films, the Academy mgiht be ready to embrace a rousing, show-stopping musical. Closely behind Dreamgirls are Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and De Niro’s CIA drama The Good Shepherd. Though skeptics doubt Eastwood can follow up Million Dollar Baby with a second Best Picture win, if anyone can do it, it’s the Clint. One question here is whether audiences are up for another war movie, especially given the state of current events.

Goya’s Ghosts, directed by Milos Forman and starring Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman, is probably next on the step ladder. One obstacle dogging this picture is whether or not it will be finished in time, being that it is still currently in production. Forman, as well, could be a little rusty being that he has not directed a film since Man on the Moon.

Two fillms that were once high on the Best Picture radar, but now sinking fast, are Scorsese’s The Departed and Steven Zaillian’s All the King’s Men remake. Early reviews of Marty’s gang thriller reveal it to be unfocused and in need of better editing. While this is typical for Scorsese films, this is never a good sign. All the King’s Men, meanwhile, suffers from the fact that the original already won a Best Picture. That, along with the film’s release date being pushed back twice do not bode well.

Speaking of also-rans, perhaps the biggest one is Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which got trashed at Cannes. We could have told you so. Something about Kristen Dunst as the French ‘heroine’ just didn’t seem right.

Two of the biggest question marks of the fall season are Mel Gibson’s Mayan epic Apocalypto and Emilio Estevez’s Bobby. While both certainly have the potential of being Best Picture material, they also run the risk of catering only to a select audience. With Apocalypto, the big question may be whether or not this is more of an adventure film or a historical epic. The fact that Passion of the Christ was passed over a few years back could possibly help Gibson with Academy voters.

Among the already released films, only three have generated substantial Oscar buzz. First is United 93, which is topping a lot of analysts’ early Best Picture lists. Don’t count on it. Voters have a short memory these days. Furthermore, the overall reaction to 93 was more a feeling of respect rather than actual passion. Sure, the critical response was superb, but can you really imagine any critic bashing that film, especially since it played out like a memorial tribute to the victims? Likewise, don’t expect Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center to figure into the race. As evidenced by United 93’s lackluster box office, audiences aren’t ready to revisit 9-11 yet, and WTC hits even more closely to home.

The second and third, respectively, are A Prairie Home Companion and An Inconvenient Truth. Prairie Home opened to mixed reviews and despite solid performances, it’ll likely be forgotten in a few months (if not already). Meanwhile, Al Gore’s global warming horror film is a real masterpiece. Unfortunately, its recognition is already set in stone – something they call Best Documentary Feature.

Looking for some sleepers? Here’s three. In the spirit of 21 Grams and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, Babel got a rocking reception at Cannes. Could it be too indie for Oscar though? Sometimes tells me after last year’s unbelievable indie crop, this year’s Academy might veer back toward big studio offerings, which means bad news for movies like Babel, The Painted Veil, and The Last King of Scotland. Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering could sneak in there though, particularly since Minghella was so viciously snubbed for Cold Mountain. A final sleeper pick is Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, about two rival magicians engaged in a destructive war. Buzz has been great, but is the story Oscar material? A cast featuring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, and critical darling Scarlett Johansson certainly helps.

Well, so what’s it all mean? We certainly have a long ways to go, but as the buzz starts to slowly mount, we can begin to separate the contenders from the pretenders. Something tells me Oscar will go in a fresh direction this year. Typical Oscar-friendly costume dramas, historical set pieces, and depressing fare may get shoved aside for more unusual and creative offerings. With that said, let’s take a look at OscarFrenzy’s Sweet Sixteen – sixteen films likely to play a major role in this year’s Best Picture showdown. Here we go (in alphabetical order):

Breaking and Entering
Flags of Our Fathers
For Your Consideration
Goya’s Ghosts
Little Children
Lucky You
The Good German
The Good Shepherd
The Last King of Scotland
The Painted Veil
The Prestige

Seven months to go, folks. Wow! And we’re only getting started.