According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, the major studios have had a change of heart about movie-themed Web sites -- going from disapproval of early reviews by unaffiliated Web critics, to reaching out and inviting bloggers to see Oscar hopefuls even before they are screened for mainstream entertainment press.
The number of Web sites dedicated to movie news -- and joining in the Oscar handicapping -- may not yet rival the number of political Web sites, but bloggers have joined the online free-for-all that has prompted more than one observer to equate the Web with "the wild, wild West."
In keeping with the "anything goes" nature of blogging, the writers sometimes criticize one another much as they would pan a movie.
Tom O'Neil, the host of GoldDerby.com, told the Times that David Poland, who runs moviecitynews.com, is a "terrible Oscar forecaster." Poland countered that his record as an Oscar prognosticator is as good as O'Neil's -- and he claims to be the first to single out Charlize Theron as a serious contender for the Best Actress Oscar that she won last year for "Monster."
One of the more-established sites of its kind, GoldDerby.com rounds up critics from leading publications such as USA Today, US and Entertainment Weekly to gab about all manner of entertainment news and handicap all the major awards and some of the minor ones.
Emmanuel Levy, who blogs at Emanuellevy.com, sees this as the year of biopics -- with stories of the lives and work of Ray Charles, Howard Hughes, Alfred Kinsey and J.M. Barrie dominating the proceedings. The biography genre this year also centers on real-life figures who did not gain as much fame as those well-known subjects -- including Vera Drake, a British housewife who provided abortions, and Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who provided shelter for more than 1,000 Tutsis from the Hutu militia in Rwanda in the 1990s.
"The Best Actor category could consist of at least three, and possibly more, performances in a biopicture," said Levy. "How about this potential scenario for the male acting award: Javier Bardem ("The Sea Inside"), Colin Farrell ("Alexander"), Johnny Depp ("Finding Neverland"), Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Aviator"), Jamie Foxx ("Ray"), Kevin Kline ("De-Lovely"), and Liam Neeson ("Kinsey").
Levy pointed out that the last two Best Picture Oscars went to pictures in genres that the academy typically does not reward -- the musical "Chicago" and the fantasy "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" -- but he said the biography appears poised for a comeback.
Oscarrace.com's list of Best Picture favorites begins with "The Aviator," followed by "Million Dollar Baby," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Finding Neverland" and "Ray."
There is some talk among the bloggers that Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" could contend for the top Oscar -- but neither title seems to be near the top of many handicappers' lists.
At moviecitynews.con, Poland includes "Million Dollar Baby," "The Aviator," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Sideways," "Finding Neverland" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" on his list of Best Picture front-runners.
Poland said "Million Dollar Baby" feels "unbeatable." He said the "media elite has the knives out" for "Phantom" but speculated that workaday critics could give the picture a lift as critics groups announce their picks during the awards season.
Writing in Britain's The Observer, Anne Thompson makes "Million Dollar Baby" her top Oscar pick. Starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank, it's the story of a wizened boxer-turned-trainer who trains a woman set on becoming a top fighter.
"The intimate three-hander is masterfully orchestrated by producer-director-composer Eastwood, who also plays the role of his life opposite three-time Oscar nominee Morgan Freeman and Oscar winner Hilary Swank," said Thompson. "In an ordinary year Eastwood would walk away with a Best Actor prize, something he has never won. He'll be a strong competitor in the Best Director race, and could well return to the podium for his second Best Picture Oscar."
Eastwood won for Best Director and Best Picture in 1992 for "Unforgiven."
The rest of Thompson's Top 10: "The Aviator "; "Finding Neverland"; "Kinsey"; "Sideways"; "Ray"; "Closer"; "Spanglish"; "A Very Long Engagement" and "Hotel Rwanda."
It is probably futile to try to aggregate all the online picks in search of a consensus. Even if one were discernible, the critics groups probably still set the standard for Oscar contenders and pretenders.
The National Board of Review has already declared "Finding Neverland" as its top pick of the year. Critics from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Toronto will weigh in during the coming weeks -- and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will do its bit to identify true Oscar contenders next week when it announces the nominees for the Gold Globe Awards.
That's the soonest that anything like informed speculation about this year's Oscars can legitimately begin.
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