BEST PICTURE: After building up amazing early buzz, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" finally burst out of the derby gate this past week at the AFI Fest. And it emerged as a major contender in many top races. As Pete Hammond reported, "The gala premiere at Grauman's Chinese had all the trappings of an end-of-season victory party rather than an early November awards season launch. Stars like Jamie Foxx and Will Smith turned up on the red carpet, admitting the incredible advance hype about the movie drew them there." This weekend it opens in limited release in theaters in L.A. New York, Chicago and Atlanta, then gradually it expands nationally.
The Oscars have never nominated a documentary feature for best picture, but Michael Jackson's "This Is It" could be it in terms of a breakthrough, based upon the enthusiastic response it got at its packed-to-the-rafters academy screening this week. Personally, I don't believe that it can happen, but a spy reported to Gold Derby, "Audience broke into applause at least 10 times. They were 'mesmerized' and gave film an enormous reception as credits rolled."
BEST ACTOR & ACTRESS: In the aftermath of the crash experienced by "Amelia's" Oscar hopes, Fox Searchlight mounted a brisk studio rescue mission by deciding to jam "Crazy Heart" in the derby at the last minute and cranking up its campaign support behind "(500) Days of Summer." Smart move. The academy is so crazy about Jeff Bridges that they nominate him for practically everything. Now, after four losses, he's overdue. Expect strong sentiment building for his role as a booze-addled country singer in "Crazy Heart," which could also reap a lead actress bid for Maggie Gyllenhaal as a journalist who, well, goes bonkers for him.
The heightened boost behind "(500) Days of Summer" is good news for Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as awkward lovers in a romantic comedy so popular with viewers (it's getting major repeat biz in theaters) that Fox Searchlight hopes it might have another "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Juno" on its hands.
Suddenly joining the lead race is Sandra Bullock, who burns "up the screen as an upscale Southern woman who finds her heart and soul, who should finally earn some awards attention, according to Hammond's report on another late-derby entry, "The Blind Side."
Also surging forward in this homestretch in the closing weeks of 2009 is Saoirse Ronan, who, we hear, has overwhelming screen time in "The Lovely Bones" as a murder victim yearning for justice from the grave.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Speaking of Hammond, there was major news buried in his report on AFI Fest: he revealed that two more films — "The Missing Lynx" and "A Town Called Panic" — may qualify for Oscar considering, thus bringing the total to 17, one more than needed to expand the category to five nominees from three. Steve Pond of TheWrap did excellent, expanded reportage on "Lynx," "Panic" and what this latest news means to the battle over best animated feature.
Photo: Fox Searchlight