Amazing Race, Dark Horse picks

Almost every year, it's possible to guess at a good number of the Oscar nominees at least twelve months ahead. Only a fool would look at the release slate and suggest that a film like Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" won't be among the nominees. But that said, each year also brings a movie that looks from afar like a heavyweight and turns out to disappoint. Take "J.Edgar" last year, for instance, or "Carnage" or "The Ides of March."

But on the flipside, there are also films that can suddenly crop up late in the game and make a big impression. This time four years ago, "Slumdog Millionaire" was an unpromising work by a cult British director that Warner Bros. was considering dumping straight to video. After it was bought up by a rival studio and premiered at TIFF, it became a Best Picture winner. And "The King's Speech" was a similar surprise juggernaut.

With the TIFF and Venice line-ups now announced, it's a little clearer what films might pop up at festivals and turn out to be surprises, so it seemed like a good opportunity to look at some of them as well as other films that might suddenly get pushed up or picked up and end up becoming major nominees, at least in acting categories if not Best Picture. We took a similar tack last year, and many of the films ended up disappointing, not being awards fare, or only getting releases in 2012. But one, "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," looks like it'll figure into the race, so we weren't entirely crazy. And we're feeling a little more confident about some of the films below. We're not saying all of these will be big awards contenders. We're not saying that they'll be good, or even that they'll see the inside of a theater before 2013. But they're all worth keeping an eye on in the next few months. Read on below, and you can find our weekly Best Picture Chart at the end of the piece.

Broken City
"Broken City"
Why It Could Be A Contender: Put simply, a shit-hot script. A dark, bleak crime thriller by young writer Brian Tucker (who made the Black List with it a few years back), in the vein of "Chinatown," it involves a thuggish former cop (Mark Wahlberg) who's hired by the New York mayor (Russell Crowe) to investigate his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) only to uncover evidence of a much wider conspiracy, and marks the first directing effort from Allen Hughes, one half of the Hughes Brothers. And if he's managed to execute the script without diluting its bleaker moments (the ending is truly shocking), it could be something pretty potent. Unless it's astonishingly good, it's probably too dark for a Best Picture run, but if the performances by Wahlberg, Crowe or Zeta-Jones (or indeed, any of the impressive supporting cast, which includes Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper and Kyle Chandler) are worthy, it wouldn't be too difficult for Fox to move the film into December from its January 18th release date or at least give it a limited qualifying run in New York and L.A. Given the setting, maybe an NYFF premiere, or even a late addition to Toronto might happen?
Why It Might Not Be: Well, it's very execution-dependent, and the Hughes Brothers haven't been on form for nearly two decades at this point. Even if Allen does recapture his mojo away from his brother, the indications -- a major studio, a January release date -- are that they consider it a commercial rather than critical prospect, and major studios aren't usually in the business of giving their January releases limited awards runs. Probably a very long shot, but we liked the script enough that we wanted to float the prospect.

Great Expectations
"Great Expectations"
Why It Could Be A Contender: There's already quite a few high-profile literary adaptations among the front-runners, but there's always room for another if done exceptionally well, and few books provide better source material than "Great Expectations." Hot on the heels of another BBC take, this sees Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") take on the Charles Dickens classic in the writer's bicentennial year, with an all-star cast led by "War Horse" star Jeremy Irvine, Helena Bonham-Carter and Ralph Fiennes, and handsome production values. The film was announced last week as bowing at TIFF with a gala premiere, which suggests a degree of confidence, and it's got a prime UK. .release date of November 30th, putting it right in the middle of the BAFTA throng.
Why It Might Not Be: "Great Expectations" is one of the most-filmed tales of all time (David Lean's take was nominated for Best Picture 65-odd years ago), and the problem is that it would need to be truly exceptional to grab attention. And while we've liked plenty of his films, Mike Newell isn't exactly a visionary (he did direct one Best Picture nominee; "Four Weddings and a Funeral"...). And even if he had a bold take, that wouldn't necessarily be greeted well: Andrea Arnold's bold, Malickian "Wuthering Heights" is only just making it to theaters after mixed responses at festivals last year. And the last time he took on great literature, we got the rotten "Love in the Time of Cholera." It's also worth noting that it's very close to an excellent BBC TV version, which had more time to tell the story. And furthermore, it doesn't yet have a distributor in the U.S. Unless it looks like an obvious awards play in Toronto, don't expect it until 2013.

Scarlett Johansson
Why It Could Be A Contender: Five words: legendary actor in iconic role. It's twenty years since Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for "The Silence of the Lambs," and had three more nominations over the next six years, but ever since that first image of the actor in make-up as the great director Alfred Hitchcock, we'd reckoned it might be a serious awards player. The film, from "Anvil!" director Sacha Gervasi, revolves around the making of "Psycho," and as such, it's not quite typical biopic material, but that may not matter if the performance is good enough, or indeed if the film is of a "Capote" kind of calibre. After all, Oscar voters love movies about movies (see: "Hugo," "The Artist"), and it could serve as much as an acknowledgement of Hitch -- who never won a directing Oscar -- as Hopkins. Plus with a cast also including Helen Mirren, Toni Collette and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, there's plenty of opportunity for supporting nods, as with "My Week with Marilyn" last year.
Why It Might Not Be: Gervasi's lone fiction screenplay to date, "Henry's Crime," was a misfire, and as a result, the film could turn out to be more "Infamous" than "Capote," but then again, the picture was directed by Malcolm Venville, not Gervasi. And "Hitchcock" only got underway in mid-April; not an unheard of turnaround (it did wrap long before "Django Unchained," which is set for December), but it's probably the kind of film that would benefit from a TIFF debut, and that's a much tighter deadline, unless NYFF becomes an option. Perhaps most importantly, Fox Searchlight already have their hands full with "The Sessions," "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." Can they stretch their resources to one more? "Shame," "Margaret," "Win Win" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" picked up no nominations between them last year, in part due to "The Descendants" and "The Tree of Life" being higher priority. Searchlight may prefer to sit back and wait to give the film their full attention in 2013.