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The book is closed on the 2008 awards season, and the stars and directors and producers can spend the summer in sweats before they have to start walking the red carpets and donning the formal wear again. And while we can look forward to a spring and summer full of big action movies that no one will bother showering with awards, there's already a full slate of contenders waiting to be considered for the 2009 Academy Awards.

Yes, yes, I know, you're totally sick of prestige films. But it's fun to take a look at what's coming, and try to guess which movies we'll be most excited about when fall rolls around. Below is a list of the prime contenders of the year, in order of release date, with my best guess at how well they might do at the Oscars. I've tried to limit the list to movies that might become big Oscar players, not the Iron Mans and Hellboy 2s of the Oscars that make their way into the technical categories. And yes, this does mean I don't think Watchmen will get past The Dark Knight's curse and get nominated for Best Picture.

And as for the "excite-o-meter," here it refers to how excited the Academy will probably get about, not how excited we are. I could really care less about a Nelson Mandela biopic, but you know that's the kind of thing the Academy loves.

State of Play, Dir. Kevin Macdonald
April 17

Who's in it: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Jason Bateman, Viola Davis, Robin Wright Penn.
What's it about: An adaptation of a British miniseries about political scandal, journalists and cops.
What are its chances: The all-star cast and complex plot seem baity, but if this movie were a real Oscar contender and not just entertainment, it would have been pushed later in the year. We'd also be hearing more about it by now.


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The Soloist, Dir. Joe Wright
April 24

Who's in it: Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx
What's it about: A journalist who finds himself by befriending a mentally ill, homeless musician.
What are its chances: Supposed to be released last fall, the push to spring may have killed this as a big Best Picture contender. But no one is more popular than Robert Downey Jr., and if he could get nominated for Tropic Thunder, this is more than possible.


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Up, Dir. Pete Docter
May 29

Who's in it: Some unknown voices, plus Ed Asner and, of course, John Ratzenberger
What's it about: A young Wilderness Explorer (Russell) and a grouchy old man (Carl) go on an unexpected adventure.
What are its chances: If you believe some people, Pixar came very, very close to a Best Picture nomination with Wall-E. If Up represents another step forward for the company, it may be able to ride that momentum to the big five. But Up looks like a more traditional movie than Wall-E, so I have my doubts.

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Away We Go, Dir. Sam Mendes
June 2

Who's in it: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal
What's it about: A young couple travels the country in search of a place to raise the child they're expecting.
What are its chances: Nice to see Mendes expand his suburban drama specialties into comedy, but comedy isn't really in the Academy's wheelhouse. If it's spectacular, though, they may be forced to give it a real shot.
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Public Enemies, Dir. Michael Mann
July 1

Who's in it: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Channing Tatum, Billy Crudup
What's it about: Gangsters! Real-life ones!
What are its chances: A summer movie with a stellar cast and a director who knows his way around action-- and the Academy. Looks very strong from where we stand.
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500 Days of Summer, Dir. Marc Webb
July 24

Who's in it: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel
What's it about: A look at 500 days in a relationship between two cute youngsters, all the while claiming "this is not a love story."
What are its chances: This is here mostly because Head Honcho Josh Tyler insisted it be included, and because it's being handled by Fox Searchlight, which really does have a talent with promoting those cute indies. Still, this seems more destined for indie date movie success rather than Oscar night.
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Funny People, Dir. Judd Apatow
July 31

Who's in it: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Eric Bana, Leslie Mann, Jason Schwartzman, Jonah Hill
What's it about: A stand-up comedian faces cancer, learns to live his life, tells some raunchy jokes.
What are its chances: The trailer makes it look like more drama than typical Apatow comedy, and the Academy loves comedians gone all serious. The addition of two-time Oscar-winning cinematography Janusz Kaminski can't hurt. But still, it's Apatow, and he may have more dues to pay before the snooty Academy let him in.
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Julie & Julia, Dir. Nora Ephron
August 7

Who's in it: Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci
What's it about: A frustrated secretary changes her life by cooking all of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, with some spiritual input from Julia herself.
What are its chances: This movie would have no place on this list if its two leads hadn't been sitting next to each other in the front row of the Oscars last night, both as nominees. Meryl Streep can get nominated for anything, and playing such a colorful, real-life character will be Academy catnip. Adams may once again come along for the ride.
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Taking Woodstock, Dir. Ang Lee
August 14

Who's in it: Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Emile Hirsch, Liev Schreiber
What's it about: A gay kid helping out at his parents Catskills inn inadvertently helps cause the Woodstock music festival.
What are its chances: Ang Lee worked well with baby boomer nostalgia in The Ice Storm, and up-and-coming comic Demetri Martin may be one to watch.
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Inglourious Basterds, Dir. Quentin Tarantino
August 21

Who's in it: Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, Dian Kruger, Daniel Bruhl, B.J. Novak, Samm Levine, Til Schweiger
What's it about: Killin' and scalpin' Nazis.
What are its chances: Tarantino always gets attention no matter what he does, but he hasn't gotten attention from the Academy since Pulp Fiction. I don't see why this one will change that streak, Holocaust theme aside.
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The Hurt Locker, Dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Rumored August release

Who's in it: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse
What's it about: Specialized bomb-diffusing teams operating in Iraq.
What are its chances: The movie has been getting positive buzz for over a year now, and Bigelow is an acclaimed action director. But for action movies to hit with the Academy, the acclaim had better be overwhelming when it finally opens.
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9, Dir. Shane Acker
September 11

Who's in it: Voices of Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Crispin Glover, Martin Landau, Christopher Plummer
What's it about: Post-apocalyptic animation.
What are its chances: It's hard to claim any hopes for animated films other than in their own Best Animated Picture ghetto, but this one is too intriguing, and beautiful, to leave out.
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The Informant, Dir. Stephen Soderbergh
September 18

Who's in it: Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, Thomas F. Wilson, Scott Bakula, Patton Osawlt, Tony Hale
What's it about: An employee at an agricultural business giant turns whistleblower for the FBI.
What are its chances: Damon bulked up to play the real-life character, and whistleblower stories are always powerful Academy draws. This may be Soderbergh's return to his populist outrage, classical Hollywood filmmaking roots.
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Shutter Island, Dir. Martin Scorsese
October 2

Who's in it: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer
What's it about: Two investigators look into the disappearance of a convicted murdered believed to be hiding out on remote Shutter Island in Massachusetts. Based on a novel by Mystic River writer Dennis Lehane.
What are its chances: Scorsese's return to New England crime after The Departed, with DiCaprio too. Do you need more?
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A Serious Man, Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
October 2

Who's in it: Richard Kind, Adam Arkin, George Wyner
What's it about: A Midwestern college professor's life slowly unravels.
What are its chances: The Coens are sticking with comedy after Burn After Reading, and given how that movie was snubbed, it's clear Oscar only invites the Coens when some amount of drama gets involved.
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Where the Wild Things Are, Dir. Spike Jonze
October 16

Who's in it: Max Records, Catherine Keener, voices of Benicio del Toro, Forest Whitaker, Michelle Williams
What's it about: Adaptation of the classic children's book about a naughty boy who runs away to play with wild animals.
What are its chances: Plagued by reshoots and bad buzz, it'd be risky for Oscar even if it were perfect. But a great screenplay could get it somewhere Academy-wise.
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Amelia, Dir. Mira Nair
October 23

Who's in it: Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Virgina Madsen
What's it about: Biopic about the famed aviator Earhart.
What are its chances: Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank + period setting + famous real-life character + revered international director = Oscar bait to the max.
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The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Dir. Wes Anderson
November 6

Who's in it: Voices of George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman
What's it about: Adaptation of the Roald Dahl children's book about a family of foxes.
What are its chances: Anderson isn't beloved enough by the Academy to automatically warrant consideration, and that goes double for animation. But the cast is so intriguing, and the idea so charming, that it may make its way in the Animated category at the very least.
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Sherlock Holmes, Dir. Guy Ritchie
November 13

Who's in it: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong
What's it about: Not your grandfather's detective in a hunting cap and monocle.
What are its chances: Guy Ritchie and a shirtless, cage-fighting Holmes are not automatic Oscar draws. But as I said above about The Soloist, Downey Jr. is hugely, hugely popular. If the movie is a hit, it might work its way into all kinds of crazy consideration.
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Nine, Dir. Rob Marshall
November 25

Who's in it: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren, Fergie
What's it about: A film director, creatively blocked, is haunted and tormented by the many women from his life.
What are its chances: A prestige Broadway musical, adapted by prestige Chicago directed Rob Marshall, with a killer cast. The musical is back (again)!
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The Lovely Bones, Dir. Peter Jackson
Dec. 11

Who's in it: Saiorsie Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon
What's it about: A young girl who was murdered tries to help her parents catch her killer. Adapted from the hit novel by Alice Sebold.
What are its chances: The prestigious novel and the stellar cast, especially Saiorsie Ronan in the lead role, suggest very good things for Peter Jackson's return to straight drama.
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The Princess and the Frog, Dir. Ron Clements & John Musker
Dec. 25

Who's in it: Voices of Anika Noni Rose, Terrence Howard, Oprah, John Goodman, Jenifer Lewis
What's it about: A girl growing up in the jazz age of New Orleans is courted by a frog prince.
What are its chances: Disney's return to traditional 2-D animation probably won't revolutionize the genre, but song nominations are almost always assured for these lush musicals.
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Untitled Nancy Meyers Romantic Comedy, Dir. Nancy Meyers
Dec. 25

Who's in it: Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, Zoe Kazan, Lake Bell
What's it about: An older woman gets caught between a romance with her ex-husband and a new suitor
What are its chances: Probably slim, but Diane Keaton scored an Oscar nomination when she was in Meyers' Something's Gotta Give, and Meryl Streep, as we've mentioned, is Meryl Streep.
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Untitled Nelson Mandela Project, Dir. Clint Eastwood
Rumored December release

Who's in it: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon
What's it about: Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa, and somehow, rugby.
What are its chances: Clint Eastwood directing Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. There is nothing more Oscar-baity than that.
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Cheri, Dir. Stephen Frears
Who's in it: Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend, Kathy Bates
What's it about: An older woman in 1920s Paris embarks on an affair with a younger man-- the son of her close friend.
What are its chances: It got middling reviews at the Berlin Film Festival, but Michelle Pfeiffer in a smoldering costume drama has some pretty serious Academy appeal.
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The Boat That Rocked, Dir. Richard Curtis
Who's in it: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy
What's it about: A "pirate boat" off the coast of England in the 1960s that hosted an illegal radio station.
What are its chances: The trailer looks too goofy and fun to be a real Oscar contender, but the star-heavy cast may make it a contender.
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Up in the Air, Dir. Jason Reitman
Who's in it: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga
What's it about: A miserable executive who lives only to collect frequent flyer miles.
What are its chances: On the surface it sounds like a simply, light, character-driven dramedy, but the last time Jason Reitman made one of those, it was Juno. Plus, never underestimate the appeal of Clooney.
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The Road, Dir. John Hillcoat
Who's in it: Viggo Mortensen, Kod Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron
What's it about: A father and son struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. Adaptation of a novel by Cormac McCarthy
What are its chances: Pushed from last year's awards race at the last minute, it almost seems too bleak to get any audience, but Mortensen's starpower and the McCarthy source material may bring some good 2007-style depression into the race.
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The Tempest, Dir. Julie Taymor
Who's in it: Helen Mirren, Ben Whishaw, Alan Cumming, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper. Alfred Molina, Russell Brand, Djimon Hounsou
What's it about: A gender-bending, Taymor-ized adaptation of the Shakespeare play.
What are its chances: This is a giant question mark, given that Across the Universe turned out to be more baffling than brilliant. Taymor is talented at adapting original materials, though, and the acting talent here may help it all come together.
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Biutiful, Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu
Who's in it: Javier Bardem, Ruben Ochandiano
What's it about: Drama about two childhood friends, one a crook, the other a policeman.
What are its chances: The prestige of the director and one of the stars is pretty much all we know at this point, but that's enough to make it worth keeping an eye on.
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Broken Embraces, Dir. Pedro Almodovar
Who's in it: Penelope Cruz, many other Spanish actors who did not recently win Oscars.
What's it about: An old-fashioned, 50s-set melodrama featuring, like all Almodovar movies that star her, the beauty of Cruz.
What are its chances: Cruz was nominated for Best Actress for Almodovar's Volver a few years back, and now she's even more prominent in the Academy's view. It's hard for a foreign language film to get beyond that one category, though.
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An Education, Dir. Lone Scherfig
Who's in it: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper
What's it about: A coming-of-age story about a young girl having an affair with a playboy, with lots of British stars thrown in the mix.
What are its chances: Seemingly every journalist at Sundance left raving about Mulligan, and the movie itself to boot. It might be the little indie to look out for.
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Green Zone, Dir. Paul Greengrass
Who's in it: Matt Damon, Jason Isaacs, Brendan Gleeson, Greg Kinnear
What's it about: Adaptation of a non-fiction book about life in Baghdad's Green Zone.
What are its chances: Greengrass and Damon together have meant classy action movies, but Greengrass was also critically hailed for United 93. His talent with action coupled with a serious topic could mean real awards results.
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