The last year has yielded a remarkable selection of awards contenders (and a few that could sneak in as wild cards), the majority of which were made outside the studio system. Jeremy Kay reports

The annual awards season is the time for cinema to dazzle. A sprinkling of quality US cinema in the first half of 2010 became a monsoon in the latter stages of the year and the resulting crop of contenders is as good as any in recent memory.

The honours race is an opportunity to showcase the best of independent cinema. The majority of awards contenders this year were financed outside the studio system, and they do the independent arena proud. However it would be foolhardy to overlook the brilliance which also permeates the handful of studio selections.

In a neat dovetailing of fate, an independent production and a studio film are arguably the two lead candidates for the best picture prize. Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, acquired by The Weinstein Company for North America and select territories, represents everything Academy voters love: a spirited period drama which boasts a largely British cast and a fine performance at its heart by Colin Firth, who picked up a Golden Globe. The film also leads the Bafta race with 14 nominations.

Sony’s The Social Network is considered the leading studio hope and was the big winner at the Golden Globes, picking up four trophies, for dramatic picture, director, screenwriter and score. The antithesis of The King’s Speech, this blistering saga about the dawn of Facebook is a high-octane cerebral treat. Propelled by Aaron Sorkin’s much-fancied script, David Fincher’s muscular direction and a performance of oddball intensity by Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, it plays like a verbal action movie.

Open field

Of course, in the awards race nothing is certain and several titles can lay claim to being the best of the year. Danny Boyle’s riveting 127 Hours was funded by Pathé and Fox Searchlight and features a commanding performance by James Franco as the real-life trapped rock climber Aron Ralston. Despite a stomach-turning amputation scene, it has played a storm at festivals and been hailed as a work of intense spirituality.

Warner Bros has a heavyweight pair of critical and commercial favourites. Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi mystery Inception is a global blockbuster starring Leonardo DiCaprio which also happens to contain an audacious intellectual vision the like of which is rarely seen in mainstream cinema. Ben Affleck’s crime drama The Town is more down to earth but executed with impeccable skill and has an engaging ensemble cast.

Disney’s Toy Story 3 is another global smash considered by many to be a shoo-in for the animation contest but the studio is going all-out for a best picture nod too. Paramount’s True Grit has taken more than $125m in the US since its release in late December and picked up eight Bafta nominations. The Kids Are All Right,Blue Valentine and Winter’s Bone are Sundance emigres and acclaimed indie darlings while Darren Aronofsky’s bewitching Black Swan is a hybrid, financed by Fox Searchlight and Cross Creek Pictures.

David O Russell’s feisty true-life drama The Fighter is widely liked — and picked up two Golden Globes, for Melissa Leo as supporting actress and Christian Bale as supporting actor. The project started out at Paramount before Relativity Media acquired it and fully financed. John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, Mike Leigh’s Another Year and Peter Weir’s gulag escape adventure The Way Back are also products of the independent arena and, as is the case with other contenders here, foreign pre-sales were key.

Wild cards?

In addition to the frontrunners in contention for best picture recognition comes a group of titles which deserve special mention. Any of these could sneak an Oscar nomination on January 25 and they have earned the respect of voters, critics or audiences and in some cases all three.

Two godfathers of modern cinema were in fine form in 2010 and kicked off the year with a pair of noirish thrillers, both of which launched at the Berlinale.

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is a haunting tale of paranoia and stars an excellent Leonardo DiCaprio as a 1950s US marshal who goes on assignment to a mental institution on a remote island.

Roman Polanski endured a difficult year personally but will prefer to recall the widespread approval for The Ghost Writer (aka The Ghost), as well as his Berlinale Silver Bear award. This engrossing mystery centres on shady goings-on among the entourage of a former British prime minister, played by Pierce Brosnan, as
he compiles his memoirs. Ewan McGregor is the ghost writer who uncovers secrets.

A solid year for on-screen intrigue also delivered Summit Entertainment’s CIA spy thriller Fair Game. Doug Liman directed the real-life saga of outed agent Valerie Plame Wilson, starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, and the film secured a prestigious Competition slot in Cannes. George Clooney graced Anton Corbijn’s intelligent drama The American as a romantic spy whose time is running out.

Oliver Stone was in action with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which divided the critics. Michael Douglas’ second turn as Gordon Gekko — the role which brought him a leading actor Academy Award in 1988 — is the highlight.

Matt Reeves crafted one of the more accomplished English-language remakes of recent years with Let Me In, his take on the Swedish vampire story Let The Right One In. Now there are 10 available slots up for grabs, a classy genre picture such as this stands a chance of awards recognition.

Sofia Coppola returned with Somewhere, a sweet father-daughter story starring Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning which won the Golden Lion in Venice.

Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland boasted the combined talents of Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter and gave Burton the biggest hit of his career. As a bona fide crowdpleaser, the 3D film’s credentials are unimpeachable: it launched in spring and grossed more than $1bn, ending 2010 as the year’s second biggest global hit behind Toy Story 3. It also picked up five Bafta nominations.

DreamWorks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon is a brilliantly made family tale which scored at the box office and may hit the target with voters this season.

Romantic comedies tend to be overlooked in the best picture category, but many people enjoyed Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal together in Ed Zwick’s Love And Other Drugs (Fox).