It's that time of year again. Let Oscars battle begin

Hollywood is usually not receptive to what you might class as 'indie films', but as awards fever hots up, they are in the running for the big prize, says Guy Adams

C all me a traitor, if you will. But this year, I hazard that watching the Queen's traditional speech will play second fiddle – in the nation's Christmas holiday plans – to venturing out to witness The King's Speech.



This hugely-anticipated film stars Colin Firth and, at this admittedly-early stage, is the roughly even-money favourite to win Best Picture – along with a sackful of other gongs – at February's Academy Awards.

The movie is cut from unlikely cloth. It's based on King George VI's relationship with a speech therapist called Lionel Louge, who was hired in the 1920s to cure his chronic stammer.

But it opened to standing ovations at the Telluride Film Festival and won audience awards at the Hamptons and Aspen. Firth, who plays the future monarch – and was, of course, nominated for the Best Actor Oscar earlier this year for A Single Man – now boasts what pundits generally call a sporting chance of going one better.

All of which means, of course, that it's a very special time of year again. The period when shadows lengthen, evenings close in and Hollywood asks discerning filmgoers to forget about the tent-pole rubbish it's been churning out all summer and instead head to the cinema to catch intelligent, independent-minded movies expected to make waves during the heady few months of red-carpet excess known as "Awards Season".

To qualify for the Oscars, a film must have run for at least a week in both Los Angeles and New York by 31 December. As a result of this rule, a slew of well-regarded titles have been stored-up for release in the coming weeks. Their makers hope they'll remain in the minds of a few thousand voting Academy members when decision time arrives a few weeks into the New Year.

For moviegoers, this is therefore the best of times. Given that recent years have been peculiarly tough on the independent film, the November/ December "corridor" has become perhaps the only time of year when many small and medium-sized titles have a chance of being released into cinemas.

In normal circumstances, in today's market, many of these films might struggle to wash their face financially. An awards season "run" can, however, add tens of millions of dollars to their box office. The Hurt Locker, for example, made just $4m (£2.6m) in its first month in cinemas, in July 2009. But by the time it had been named Best Picture the following March had generated almost $50m.

Tom O'Neil, the editor of the awards website Gold Derby, and one of Hollywood's foremost Oscar-ologists, cites Danny Boyle's coming movie 127 Hours as a classic example of the sort of film that will these days only get released in the run-up to awards season (Slumdog Millionaire, of course, was very nearly not released at all). The movie's Oscar campaign will become part and parcel of its marketing.

"It's one of those mid-budget movies considered a possible Oscar contender for months. It's done well at Toronto and has a serious lead star and director," he says.

"That kind of buzz will eventually bleed across not just Hollywood but also into the mass market and propel it to must-see status.

Mr O'Neil adds that only a handful of the Studio films released so far this year (Inception, The Social Network, The Kids Are All Right and Toy Story 3) have a decent shot of even featuring on awards shortlists. It therefore follows that the vast majority of this year's finest movies are about to arrive in theatres, in a brilliant rush.

Here is a guide to the ones generating early buzz.

The King's Speech

Funny, sad and almost universally beloved of critics, The King's Speech will be flying the flag for British film this Oscar season, showing our enduring mastery of the costume drama. Aside from Firth, who is maturing into complex roles after years typecast as a Darcy-esque character actor, it features a wonderful turn by Helena Bonham Carter; she plays our Queen Elizabeth, just a few months after she played the far less fragrant Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland.

127 Hours

James Franco is Aron Ralston, the climber who famously saved his life by cutting his own arm off with a pen-knife, after getting it trapped under a rock at the bottom of a canyon in Utah. The real star, though, is director Danny Boyle, who uses every trick in the book to make a watchable film out of a story which involves a single character, stuck alone and basically unable to move for several days.

At one point, in classic Boyle style, he even takes the cameras inside Ralston's body. Does it work?

Well, several viewers have fainted at screenings, if that's any indicator of success.

True Grit

The Coen brothers remake the 1969 cowboy movie which helped then leading man John Wayne win his only Oscar. This time, Jeff Bridges fills his shoes as Reuben J Cogburn, a US marshal helping a woman find her father's murderer.

His co-stars in the film, based on a novel by Charles Portis, are Matt Damon and Josh Brolin. Although it has yet to be seen by a single critic, the pedigree of its cast, along with the Cohens' status as perennial Academy Awards bait, mean it's widely expected to secure nods in the Acting and Best Picture categories.

The Fighter

Writing yet another chapter in the great history of Hollywood boxing movies, from Raging Bull and Rocky to Million Dollar Baby, is the former boyband member "Marky" Mark Wahlberg, now reinvented as a successful actor, producer and all-round swinging dick. The film is also unseen by critics, though various highly promising trailers are hot stuff on YouTube, where they've clocked up several million hits. Based on the story of "Irish" Micky Ward, a former Junior Welterweight World Champion from the meanest streets of Massachusetts, the film has Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo in supporting roles.

Black Swan

Critics adore Darren Aronofsky. Mass-market audiences? Not so much: despite his heavyweight reputation, only one of the director's films has ever made more than $15m – and that was 2008's The Wrestler, which turned in a commendable, if hardly exceptional $44m. Black Swan is likely to plough the same furrow.

A complex, character-driven film set in the world of ballet, opened Venice, screened at Toronto and Telluride and has been universally-acclaimed by fans of highbrow cinema.

Natalie Portman's turn as leading lady puts her on anyone's shortlist for acting honours.

Hereafter

Clint Eastwood's charming take on death and life after it, sees him once more team up with his Invictus collaborator Matt Damon. Written by Peter Morgan, the British screenwriter and playwright behind The Queen and Frost/Nixon, it represents one of his first cinematic ventures into the world of fiction.

The movie performed modestly at the box office, despite strong reviews, when it was released in the United States last month, but is likely to play better overseas. As a Director Clint Eastwood is becoming a master of the well-made film.

How Do You Know

On paper, it's a Christmas chick-flick. Owen Wilson stars. So does Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd. Oh, and it's being marketed as a romantic comedy. But for all the alarm bells, there also lie hints of potential greatness. There's Jack Nicholson, for starters, who has been shuffled out of virtual retirement for the film.

James L Brooks, the director, turned another rom-com Terms of Endearment into one of the great films of the early 80s, which won five Oscars. Oh, and the trailer isn't half bad, either.

The Way Back

Colin Farrell is nothing if not mercurial, but he proved in last year's Crazy Heart that there's more to him than a heavy brow and a thick accent.

Here, he stars as a Russian soldier who escapes from a gulag in Siberia during the Second World War and – with a team of collaborators – treks to freedom in India.

It's based on Slawomir Rawicz's famous memoir The Long Walk, was directed by Peter Weir, of The Truman Show and Dead Poet's Society and had them crying in the stalls at Telluride, where it premiered.

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