Movies: A Sluggish Start to the Oscar Race

It happens pretty much every year, usually right about now: Hollywood insiders grumble that they haven't seen any Oscar-worthy movies yet and fret that there might not be any to come. The last two best-picture winners—"No Country for Old Men" and "The Departed"—both opened in this pre-Thanksgiving period, but those in the know knew all about those movies long before they hit theaters. This year? Based on an informal NEWSWEEK poll of Hollywood experts, the consensus so far is that the field is barren.

One reason for the sluggish start to the Oscar season, insiders say, is the presidential election. Not wanting their films to get overshadowed by a blockbuster vote, some studios pushed their prestige movies into later release dates, creating a December logjam. (One exception is the indie "Slumdog Millionaire," a quiz-show fable that debuted at the Toronto film festival.) By some counts, as many as a dozen Oscar aspirants will be released between Thanksgiving and Christmas, including David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and Baz Luhrmann's "Australia."

If enough of the holiday hopefuls flop, Oscar voters might take a second look at some unconventional options. At the top of the list: the box-office monster "The Dark Knight," which will get an ambitious push from Warner Brothers that includes Blu-ray screeners, and Pixar's rapturously reviewed "Wall-E." Then there's "Rachel Getting Married," a small, talky drama now in theaters. Critics love it, and director Jonathan Demme has Oscar pedigree. If this field stays weak, "Rachel" could be getting an Oscar nod, too.