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Awards Bait It's nearing that time of the year when envious glances get thrown around Hollywood like confetti at a celebrity wedding. Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Oscars and - the really big one - the Empire Awards are all at stake. At first glance 2011 is looking like it'll be more competitive than ever, with marquee releases queuing up like passengers at a snowy airport.
First up - or rather, down - is 127 Hours on January 7. Unless you've fallen down a canyon lately, you'll know that Danny Boyle's latest tells the true story of self-amputee Aron Ralston, forced to cut off his own arm when he's stranded in the middle of nowhere under a tonne or two of solid boulder. It's gritty and uplifting in equal measure, with Boyle's rare class again coming to the fore. Expect to see Bury's finest back at the Kodiak on February 27, along with star James Franco, composer A. R. Rahman and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle.
James Franco in Danny Boyle's 127 Hours
Put your trilby on The King's Speech to join it. Also out on January 7, it's an early and very strong contender for Best Film, with awards buzz building like some kind of buzzing thing with an amplifier strapped to its bum. Colin Firth plays King George VI, better known as Bertie, who calls on Australia speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to help him overcome his reign-threatening stammer. Will it be second time lucky for Firth at the Oscars, too? Don't bet against it.
A week later on January 14 comes Conviction, another drama with awards pedigree to burn. It ticks plenty of Academy boxes - a true-life tale, emotional uplift and Hilary Swank, to name just three - with director Tony Goldwyn retracing the inspiring tale of a working mum (Swank) who puts herself through law school to defend her unjustly imprisoned brother (Sam Rockwell).
The Coen brothers come out six-shooters 'ablazing (not literally) with True Grit on February 11. It's a fresh adaptation of Charles Portis' novel rather than a remake of the Henry Hathaway/John Wayne Western, but comparisons will be inevitable. Jeff Bridges enters Wayne's world as one-eyed lawman Rooster Cogburn, with Josh Brolin, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper and - wait for it - Matt Damon rounding out a fine looking cast.
Natalie Portman in Black Swan
If there's a natural segue from the Old West to the New York City Ballet we can't find it, so we'll move swiftly on and point out that Darren Aronofsky's elusive (and illusive) Black Swan glides onto our screens on January 21. It's a thing of dark beauty and power, and features an immense turn from Natalie Portman that should leave an impression on all but the most stoney-hearted Oscar voters.
A week later comes another barnstorming performance, this time from Paul Giamatti in Barney's Version. Giamatti is set to outdo even his own high standards as the irascible, hopelessly romantic, often luckless TV producer Barney Pafonsky in this adaptation of Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler's tale of love, loss and small cigars. There's movie trivia, too, for the eagle-eyed: Dustin Hoffman's son Jake skips a generation to play Hoffman's grandson.
Also out on January 28 is Biutiful, in which Alejandro Iñáarritu won't be offering any of the following: 3D/motion-capture/jokes. He will be providing another celebral, meditative mood piece in the same spirit as Babel, illuminated by a firecracker performance from Javier Bardem. It's Iñáarritu's first Spanish-language film since Amores Perros, and it'll move you and twist your noodles.
February 4, meanwhile, brings the salty sea air of Brighton Rock. Andrea Riseborough and Sam Riley take on the iconic roles of Rose and Pinkie in Rowan Joffe's bold readaptation of Graham Greene's classic novel of love, hate, guilt and sugary souvenirs. But can Riley reach the heights of blank malevolence of Richard Attenborough's Pinkie? Here's where to find out (obvs).
Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in The Fighter
David O. Russell's The Fighter is another movie that's giving Oscar watchers the collywobbles. The back-from-the-brink story of junior welterweight boxer 'Irish' Micky Ward, it could go where that other ringside drama, The Wrestler, fell short and pick up a clutch of the little gold fellas, not least for Mark Wahlberg's towering title role. Russell's CV is a curate's egg of quality (Three Kings) and mediocrity (I Heart Huckerbees): this one falls firmly into the first basket. It's out on February 4.
Also on February 4 comes Rabbit Hole from John Cameron Mitchell. The director raised pulses - and hackles - with sex dramedy Shortbus a few years back. Expect much less of the same in this adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire's play about a couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) adjusting to the loss of their four year-old son. The Academy has always appreciated Kidman, but will audiences warm to her? Early word is she's back to her best after the soapy nonsense that was Australia.
Never Let Me Go sees Mark Romanek take Kazuo Ishiguro's contemporary sci-fi and fashion it into something breathtakingly cinematic. With high-calibre turns from Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan, expect it to feature strongly at the BAFTAs, although it may fly below the Oscar radar. You can catch it from February 11.
Fans of gritty urban drama, The Wire or Aussie cinema... heck, fans of cinema in general will love Animal Kingdom, the debut feature from talented Sydneysider David Michod on February 25. Like Mystic River ported to the Melbourne underworld, it's a twisty-turny thriller with Shakespearean undertones (Hamlet meets Blue Heelers?), lit up by spectacular, sinister performances from Jacki Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn. It might not get noticed by the Academy, but it definitely should.
Howl, also released on February 25, sees James Franco eat up the screen as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg who's forced to defend his great opus against charges of obscenity. It's home turf for the New York-based actor who writes, paints and probably sculpts perfect Greek figurines from marble in his spare time. Marble he's personally quarried. Talented bastard.
Later in the year - no release date as yet - comes The Tree Of Life. Terrence Malick movies are like the Halley's Comet of the movie world: they come around only very rarely, but when they goes you need to drop everything because they're more than likely to light up your life. This one is a meditation on life, the universe and everything, through the prism of an American family in the '50s. Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain appear. Dinosaurs TBC.
Sean Penn in Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life
To round out the year, Steven Spielberg's War Horse appears in time for the festive period. If you're thinking that nothing says Christmas like the bloody trench warfare carnage, you may be in luck. But while Spielberg isn't one to sugarcoat the horrors of war, he's just the director to fill this Great War-set story of a boy and his horse with saddlebags of heart and soul. We can't wait to see how he's brought the colossally popular stage play to the big screen.