At this point, it sure looks like we have solid Oscar front-runners for best picture ("The Social Network"), best actor (Colin Firth, "The King's Speech") and best actress (Natalie Portman, "Black Swan"). It's very possible that all three could trot across the derby finish line without tripping en route.
However, we must remember how these top races appeared at this point last year. We knew that "The Hurt Locker" might be nominated for best picture, but that wasn't a certainty, and the front-runners were presumed to be "Up in the Air," "Invictus" and "Avatar." There were still high hopes for "Nine" and "The Lovely Bones," even "Brothers."
Looking forward on this year's derby track, what can beat "The Social Network"? "The King's Speech" may be more to the taste of those older chaps in the academy, but "Social Network" is more to the taste of the edgy film critics who are likely to heap best-picture prizes on it in early December, giving it the same early momentum that paid off for "The Hurt Locker" last year. But, wait! Isn't it a terrible thing to be the early leader? That's a widely believed fallacy, yes, but, in fact, that wasn't a problem for "Titanic," "American Beauty," "The English Patient" and many other eventual champs.
BEST-ACTOR RACE: "Crazy Heart" wasn't even scheduled to be released in 2009 at this point on last year's calendar, so Jeff Bridges wasn't yet in the running. The contest seemed to be a slugfest between George Clooney ("Up in the Air"), Daniel Day-Lewis ("Nine"), Morgan Freeman ("Invictus"), Tobey Maguire ("Brothers") and Viggo Mortensen ("The Road"). Only Clooney and Freeman ended up with nominations.
Right now, it looks like the only contender who can topple Colin Firth for best actor is James Franco ("127 Hours"), but Jeff Bridges will be back in the derby, this time starring in Joel and Ethan Coen's "True Grit." The last version earned John Wayne the Oscar, of course, so we shouldn't rule out the possibility that Bridges could join the ranks of those few thesps, such as Tom Hanks and Spencer Tracy, who won back-to-back trophies. Also in this year's best-actor bout are Javier Bardem ("Biutiful"), Robert Duvall ("Get Low"), Jesse Eisenberg ("The Social Network"), Ryan Gosling ("Blue Valentine") and Mark Wahlberg ("The Fighter").
BEST-ACTRESS RACE: We knew "The Blind Side" was coming out late in 2009, but no pundit except Pete Hammond (formerly of The Envelope, now at Deadline) took it seriously as a contender. In late September of last year, the leading contenders for best actress were Marion Cotillard ("Nine"), Abbie Cornish ("Bright Star"), Penélope Cruz ("Broken Embraces"), Vera Farmiga ("Up in the Air"), Helen Mirren ("The Last Station"), Carey Mulligan ("An Education"), Saoirse Ronan ("The Lovely Bones"), Gabourey Sidibe ("Precious"), Meryl Streep ("Julie & Julia") and Hilary Swank ("Amelia"). Nominees turned out to be Mirren, Mulligan, Sidibe, Streep and winner Bullock.
Right now, the only way I can see Portman losing is if a rival sweeps the early critics' awards -- probably Annette Bening ("The Kids Are All Right") or Nicole Kidman ("Rabbit Hole"). Lesley Manville ("Another Year") seems likely to be the fourth nominee. That fifth slot is up for grabs: Sally Hawkins ("Made in Dagenham"), Diane Lane ("Secretariat"), Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter’s Bone"), Julianne Moore ("The Kids Are All Right"), Carey Mulligan ("Never Let Me Go"), Hilary Swank ("Conviction"), Michelle Williams ("Blue Valentine"). There are rumors that "Country Strong" will come out this year, which could toss Gwyneth Paltrow into the derby.
So all this means: Hold your horses, Derbyites. It's just September — the start of the race track — and there may be many twists and turns ahead. Or maybe not.
Photos: "The Social Network." Credit: Columbia. "The King's Speech." Credit: The Weinstein Co. "Black Swan." Credit: Fox Searchlight