New rules for Oscar's best-picture race

Rafer Guzmán
Newsday (MCT)

With the release of "Amelia," a big-budget film starring Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart and directed by Mira Nair, it seems like Academy Award season has officially begun.

So this might be a good time to ask: How is the best picture race shaping up?

This year's rules for the award have changed: Ten films, rather than five, will be considered for best picture, a move designed to stoke new interest in the Oscar telecast. Already there's hope that the wider field will mean more diversity (indie fare, comedies, overlooked gems), though pessimists counter that it will simply include more mainstream films even less deserving of a nod.

It's too early to place bets, but 2009 has had few obvious best picture candidates. Stephen Soderbergh's "The Informant!," starring Matt Damon as a real-life corporate whistle-blower, made only a small splash. Oscar winner Jamie Foxx played a mentally ill homeless man in "The Soloist" (also based on a true story), but the film didn't strike the same chords as "Ray." And we haven't yet seen a snowballing hit like "Juno," "Little Miss Sunshine" or last year's surprise winner, "Slumdog Millionaire."

Still to come: "The Road," a post-apocalypse drama based on Cormac McCarthy's book; "Up in the Air," a glossy comedy-drama with George Clooney and Vera Farmiga; "Nine," a musical from the director of the Oscar-winning "Chicago"; "The Lovely Bones," based on Alice Sebold's acclaimed novel; and "Precious," a gritty drama whose unknown star, Gabourey Sidibe, is generating some Oscar talk.

About the only thing that seems certain is a best actress nomination for Meryl Streep, who played Julia Child in Norah Ephron's "Julie & Julia" (a movie that could rack up other nods). No offense to Streep, but haven't we seen that Oscar ceremony before? After all, she holds the 15-nomination record.

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