After a summer in which most of the films had the number three after them, the Hollywood studios and their specialised divisions are preparing for the deluge of prestige movies that comprise the so-called awards season - high-profile, director-led features which are being carefully groomed for prime positions in the Oscar race.
As always, the season begins with a slew of world premieres at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. Although some of these films have yet to find distribution in North America in time for awards consideration, most are already slotted in, with release campaigns carefully worked out to maximise critical acclaim and pique audience interest.
All eyes will be on studio-backed features from big name directors at Venice, which in the last few years has staged the world premieres of future Oscar players such as Brokeback Mountain, Good Night, And Good Luck, Lost In Translation, Finding Neverland, Vera Drake and 21 Grams.
Ang Lee, whose Brokeback Mountain won the Golden Lion in 2005, is back with his 156-minute Mandarin-language Lust, Caution, an espionage thriller set in Shanghai during the Second World War, while Paul Haggis, whose previous feature Crash beat Brokeback Mountain to the best picture Oscar, has his first Venice slot with In The Valley Of Elah, an Iraq-themed drama starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron.
Todd Haynes, whose last film Far From Heaven was also launched at Venice, kicks off a festival tour which also includes Toronto and New York with I'm Not There, his ambitious tribute to Bob Dylan featuring an ensemble cast including Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger and Richard Gere.
Opening Venice is Atonement, Joe Wright's second film after his hit debut Pride And Prejudice, which is perfect Oscar fodder with its tragic wartime story and cast headed by UK darlings Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. And Wes Anderson, not renowned for tugging the heartstrings, makes his first Venice appearance with The Darjeeling Ltd, an India-set road movie which is, by all accounts, his most emotionally mature work to date. Meanwhile Richard Shepard brings his latest film, the Bosnia-set The Hunting Party (aka Spring Break In Bosnia) starring Richard Gere and Terrence Howard.
New or second-time film-makers selected for Venice include screenwriter Tony Gilroy, whose debut feature Michael Clayton attracted a powerful cast led by George Clooney, Australia's Andrew Dominik, who follows up his searing Chopper with the 155-minute western The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford starring and produced by Brad Pitt.
Three old-timers make it back to the Lido with new pictures. Woody Allen debuts his UK thriller Cassandra's Dream starring Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell; Brian De Palma shows his ultra low-budget HD Iraq drama Redacted, in marked contrast to his lavishly overblown The Black Dahlia which played at Venice last year; and Kenneth Branagh, also at Venice last year with The Magic Flute, is back with his remake of Sleuth. In the new version, original film cast member Michael Caine takes the Laurence Olivier role and Jude Law takes the Caine role.
THE TORONTO LAUNCH PAD
Toronto will play all of those Venice films with the exception of The Darjeeling Ltd, which will have its North American premiere as opening night of the New York Film Festival on September 28. But Toronto, as always, has a host of other world premieres with awards consideration written all over them. This is the festival, after all, that launched Sideways, Crash, Capote, Walk The Line and last year The Last King Of Scotland, Little Children and Venus.
This year, Canadian master David Cronenberg has opted to give Toronto the world premiere of his latest film, Eastern Promises, a violent, London-set thriller which already has strong buzz from early screenings. Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen star. Noah Baumbach's eagerly anticipated Margot At The Wedding starring Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh gets its first outing at Toronto, as does Sean Penn's fourth directorial feature Into The Wild, starring Emile Hirsch, and Reservation Road, Terry George's first film since his 2004 hit Hotel Rwanda, and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly.
Gavin Hood follows up his Oscar winning Tsotsi with a big budget New Line movie, Rendition, a contemporary tale about the interrogation of political prisoners featuring a dream cast of Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Meryl Streep. And Julie Taymor is back for the first time since her Oscar-winning Frida Kahlo biopic Frida with ambitious musical Across The Universe, which uses 1960s pop standards to tell its story of love against the social upheaval of the time.
Oscar watchers will be waiting to see if Cate Blanchett can score a second nomination for playing the same character in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Shekhar Kapur's sequel to his 1998 hit Elizabeth, which made Blanchett a star.
And talking of performances, Ryan Gosling is already winning strong word-of-mouth for his new film Lars And The Real Girl, in which he plays a man in love with a blow-up doll. So is Ellen Page, the young actress from Hard Candy and An American Crime, who is earning early raves for playing a teen facing an unplanned pregnancy in Jason Reitman's second feature, Juno.
Two more established directors have new movies in Toronto. Neil Jordan is back with The Brave One, a highly charged New York-set thriller starring Jodie Foster, and Gillian Armstrong returns with Death-Defying Acts, which stars Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta Jones in a fictional story about an episode in the life of Harry Houdini.
First-time film-makers have films at Toronto, none of which yet have US distribution, but all of which could be hot buyer items at the festival. David Auburn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Proof, directs The Girl In The Park, an intense family drama starring Sigourney Weaver and Kate Bosworth; Alan Ball, the creator of Six Feet Under and Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty, directs his first feature Nothing Is Private with Aaron Eckhart and Maria Bello leading the cast; and two actors take to the director's chair for the first time - Helen Hunt, whose Then She Found Me has the glittering cast of Colin Firth, Bette Midler and Matthew Broderick; and Stuart Townsend, whose Battle In Seattle about the World Trade Organization riots features Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson, Ray Liotta and Michelle Rodriguez.
One directorial debut with distribution attached is screenwriter Robin Swicord's first film, the literary chick flick The Jane Austen Book Club, which features notable performances by Emily Blunt, Maria Bello and Hugh Dancy.
TOMS, JACK BACK
There are plenty of large-scale uber-prestige films coming to theatres in time for Oscar qualification which will not be at either Toronto or New York. And they include work from some of the biggest directors in film such as Robert Redford, Francis Ford Coppola, Mike Nichols, Ridley Scott, Paul Thomas Anderson and Tim Burton.
Redford's Lions For Lambs is one of the season's most anticipated releases, not only because it is the first release from the newly remodelled United Artists and features a cast led by Tom Cruise, Redford himself and Meryl Streep, but because it is a globe-spanning story with multiple strands taking in the US political system and the war against terror. Nichols also goes political with the highly charged satire Charlie Wilson's War starring Tom Hanks as the Texas congressman who paid to train resistance fighters in Afghanistan.
Hanks is back, but so, too, is Oscar staple Jack Nicholson alongside another perennial favourite, Morgan Freeman, in emotional comedy The Bucket List from director Rob Reiner. The two veterans play terminally ill men escaping from a cancer ward to fulfil some last wishes before they die.
Some of Europe's finest imports have English-language films ready for awards consideration. Denmark's brilliant Susanne Bier makes her US debut with Things We Lost In The Fire, an intense drama teaming Oscar winners Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro; and Switzerland's Marc Forster adapts bestselling Afghanistan-set novel The Kite Runner. Spain's Isabel Coixet adapts Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, with Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz, and the UK's Mike Newell takes a stab at filming Love In The Time Of Cholera starring Javier Bardem, Benjamin Bratt and Giovanna Mezzogiorno.
Meanwhile Ridley Scott directs an epic true story in American Gangster, which stars Denzel Washington as a 1970s Harlem druglord and Russell Crowe as the cop on his tail.
And Francis Ford Coppola delivers Youth Without Youth, his first feature film as a director since John Grisham's The Rainmaker in 1997, starring Tim Roth as a professor pursued through Europe before the Second World War. Daniel Day-Lewis returns to the screen in Paul Thomas Anderson's Upton Sinclair adaptation There Will Be Blood, which looks at greed in the early days of the oil business.
The annual end-of-year musical slot is taken by Tim Burton's version of the Stephen Sondheim Broadway classic Sweeney Todd, which sees Johnny Depp pitching for a third Oscar nod as the demon barber of Fleet Street alongside a cast that includes Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman and Sacha Baron Cohen.
And who knows if George Clooney's period football comedy Leatherheads and New Line's latest fantasy epic The Golden Compass will register with awards voters as much as their studios are hoping they will click with audiences'
The animated feature category, now widely deployed by critics groups as well as the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, will be dominated by Pixar's Ratatouille, the latest film from Brad Bird and one of the year's best reviewed.
However, there are still two unknown quantities in Robert Zemeckis' epic Beowulf which employs the same CG performance capture technique as The Polar Express, and Jerry Seinfeld's eagerly awaited Bee Movie from DreamWorks Animation. Other US contenders include Surf's Up, The Simpsons Movie, Shrek The Third and Meet The Robinsons.
- See Venice buzz, p16-20
OSCAR HOPEFULS: US RELEASE DATES*
Sept 7 - The Hunting Party (TWC), 3:10 To Yuma (Lionsgate)
Sept 14 - Eastern Promises (Focus), Across The Universe (Sony), The Brave One (Warner Bros), In The Valley Of Elah (WiP)
Sept 21 - Into The Wild (Paramount Vantage), The Jane Austen Book Club (SPC), The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros)
Sept 28 - The Darjeeling Ltd (Fox Searchlight), The Kingdom (Universal), Lust, Caution (Focus)
Oct 5 - Grace Is Gone (TWC), Michael Clayton (Warner Bros)
Oct 12 - Control (TWC), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Universal), Lars And The Real Girl (MGM), Sleuth (SPC), We Own The Night (Sony)
Oct 19 - Rendition (New Line), Reservation Road (Focus)
Oct 26 - Funny Games (WiP), Things We Lost In The Fire (Paramount)
Nov 2 - American Gangster (Universal), Bee Movie (Paramount), The Kite Runner (Paramount Vantage)
Nov 9 - Lions For Lambs (MGM), No Country For Old Men (Miramax)
Nov 16 - Beowulf (Paramount), Elegy (MGM), Love In The Time Of Cholera (New Line), Margot At The Wedding (Paramount Vantage)
Nov 23 - I'm Not There (TWC)
Nov 30 - Cassandra's Dream (TWC)
Dec 7 - Atonement (Focus), The Golden Compass (New Line), Leatherheads (Universal)
Dec 14 - Juno (Fox Searchlight), Youth Without Youth (SPC)
Dec 21 - The Bucket List (Warner Bros), Charlie Wilson's War (Universal), The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (Miramax), Persepolis (SPC), Sweeney Todd (Paramount)
Dec 28 - There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage), The Savages (Fox Searchlight)
* dates correct as of August 16
2006 festival favourites released in 2007
The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Away From Her, The Hoax, Rescue Dawn, The Namesake, Jindabyne
Sundance 2007 world premieres
Grace Is Gone, The Savages, Once, Waitress
Berlin 2007 world premieres
La Vie En Rose, 2 Days In Paris
Cannes 2007 world premieres
No Country For Old Men, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, A Mighty Heart, Control, We Own The Night, Persepolis
Released in the US outside festival circuit
Zodiac, Hairspray, The Bourne Ultimatum, Ratatouille, Feast Of Love, 3:10 To Yuma, Breach, You Kill Me.