This year the fest will honor Modern Master James Cameron (Avatar) and Outstanding Performance of the Year Colin Firth (A Single Man), as well as four recipients of the new Cinema Vanguard Award: Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), Peter Sarsgaard (An Education), Stanley Tucci (Julie & Julia, The Lovely Bones) and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds). (I look forward every year to moderating SBIFF's annual writers' panel.)
A fest with influence during the earlier Oscar nomination season is Palm Springs (January 5 to 18), which is giving Mariah Carey its breakthrough performance award for Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire. Past recipients of the award include eventual Oscar-winners Marion Cotillard and Jennifer Hudson. Other fest honorees this year are Morgan Freeman (Invictus) and Farmiga's Up in the Air co-star Anna Kendrick.
Along with critics top ten lists and group prizes and shows like the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, well-promoted fest awards help to build momentum toward that collective sense of a winner, a snowball that gets bigger as it rolls toward an Oscar nomination, front-runner status and hopefully, a win.