George Clooney film leads Golden Globe nominations

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The tale of a corporate hatchet man who travels the US sacking people and obsessively collecting air-miles has emerged as front-runner in the early stages of Hollywood’s awards season, as George Clooney’s recession-era satire Up In The Air drew six nominations to lead the field for next month’s Golden Globes.

Nods for Clooney, as “best actor in a drama,” along with co-stars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, helped the film narrowly overshadow other fancied titles like the musical Nine, drama Precious, war movies The Hurt Locker and Inglorious Basterds, and James Cameron’s Avatar when the shortlist was unveiled today.

Competing with him will be Jeff Bridges, Morgan Freeman, Tobey Maguire and the British actor Colin Firth, whose portrayal of a suicidal gay academic in A Single Man, Tom Ford’s adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel, garnered his first ever nomination for a major Hollywood award.

The “best actress in a drama” category also marked a bright spot for British prospects. It will pitch Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria), Helen Mirren (The Last Station) and newcomer Carey Mulligan (An Education) against US rivals Gabourey Sibie, the star of Precious, and Sandra Bullock.

The Golden Globes have a mixed record in predicting the outcome of the Oscars, which take place in March. But the event nonetheless has totemic significance. Its early scheduling, on a Sunday in mid-January, helps set the tonefor subsequent red-carpet events.

To that end, Up In The Air’s inclusion in the “drama” category (when many pundits predicted that it would instead be short-listed for the less-prestigious “comedy or musical” race) may add momentum to its challenge for the Oscars, where weightier titles usually tend to dominate.

It also underlines the potential for the dark satire, which subverts corporate culture and confronts the topical issue of redundancy, to catch the spirit of the age, in a country where the unemployment rate is still hovering at around ten percent.

“I can’t put into words how exciting it is to feel and to know that I’ll be going to the Golden Globes with everyone I worked with on this film,” said director Jason Reitman, who adapted it from a novel he chanced-upon in a second-hand bookstore

Reitman, who was today celebrating nominations in the best director and best screenwriter categories, is best known for the films Juno and Thank You For Smoking, which both punched above their commercial weight in awards seasons.

Up In The Air’s nearest rival, for sheer weight of nominations, is the musical Nine, by Chicago creator Rob Marshall, which was short-listed for five Globes in the “muscial or comedy” category, including acting slots for Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz and Marion Cotillard.

The joker in the pack, though, is James Cameron’s Avatar, which was frozen out of acting categories but nonetheless scooped four picks. The film took seven years to make, cost between $350 and $500 million, and has been almost universally well-reviewed in advance of its opening this weekend.

Hollywood is hoping that it will go on to mount a strong Oscar challenge, like Cameron’s last blockbuster Titanic, which swept the boards in 1997. Otherwise, there will be precious few commercial hits in the running for major prizes this awards season, aside perhaps from Pixar’s Up and The Hangover.

Viewing figures for awards ceremonies have been steadily declining in recent years, a trend many have blamed on the tendency of judges to ignore films that make waves at the box-office. Last year saw The Dark Knight, one of the highest-grossing films ever, fail to even make the Best Picture short-list.

That resulted in the third worst viewing figures ever for an Oscar ceremony and prompted the Academy to announce that they will this year widen the nominations for the “best film” category to ten titles.

In TV categories the Globes saw strong showing from Glee, a musical comedy about a high school dance troupe, which led the field with four nods. Otherwise, shortlists were dominated by usual suspects such as 30 Rock, Mad Men, and House, starring the British Actor Hugh Laurie.

The BBC and HBO mini-series Into the Storm, a historical drama about Winston Churchill, was the other homegrown success story. It garnered three nominations, including one for Brendan Gleeson, who played the wartime Prime Minister.

What was the most memorable arts event of 2009? In the comments form below (or via email to nominate your favourite - in film, music, theatre, comedy, dance or visual arts - with a brief explanation as to why it tops your list and we'll print a selection in The Independent Readers' Review of 2009.