Dave Karger
November 27, 2009 AT 05:00 AM EST

And here we all thought this year’s Oscar season was going to be dull. In the last few weeks, several surprising developments have upended the three biggest Academy Award categories. Earlier in November, Fox Searchlight announced it will release the drama Crazy Heart — starring Jeff Bridges as a washed-up country singer — on Dec. 16, which means that the four-time nominee will now qualify for Best Actor against odds-on favorites like Up in the Air‘s George Clooney and A Single Man‘s Colin Firth. ”It’s an impeccably honest portrayal of an artist wrestling with his demons,” says Fox Searchlight co-president Nancy Utley. ”You forget you’re watching Jeff Bridges.” In the Best Actress category, the phenomenal box office performance of Precious has catapulted its rookie lead actress, Gabourey Sidibe, to the top of the heap alongside 15-time nominee Meryl Streep, who’s likely to be recognized for Julie & Julia. ”Gabby is absolutely brilliant,” says her costar Mo’Nique, who’s earning her own buzz in the Supporting Actress race. ”People truly believe that she is Precious.” Sidibe’s charming appearances on The Tonight Show and The Ellen DeGeneres Show have only helped her case.

Meanwhile, the Academy’s documentary branch may have thrown a major wrench into the Best Picture competition when it announced its list of 15 semifinalists for Best Documentary Feature on Nov. 18. Though acclaimed entries The Cove, Valentino: The Last Emperor, Every Little Step, and Food, Inc. made the cut, one of the best-reviewed films of the year, the heavy metal exposé Anvil!: The Story of Anvil, was left out. In response, the film’s PR firm, 42West, is now mounting a Best Picture campaign. ”Because of what’s happened in the last week, there’s definitely a spotlight on the movie,” says Anvil! director Sacha Gervasi, who says he’s been flooded with support from outraged voters. ”We’re a million-to-one shot, but we’re open to anything. This movie is evidence that miracles can happen.”

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