The full extent of this year's Oscar contenders so far? A couple of Sept. 11 movies (United 93 and World Trade Center) and a menacing Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. But just as four of last year's five Best Picture nominees were released in the fall, the final months of 2006 should provide most, if not all, of the finalists at next February's ceremony. Here are the 15 top candidates, in order of release date:
ALL THE KING'S MEN SEPT. 22
COULD BE A CONTENDER...since the cast of the Southern-fried remake of 1949's Best Picture includes two Oscar winners (Sean Penn and Anthony Hopkins) and a gaggle of other nominees.
UNLESS...the long delay (the film was set for release last fall) signals a movie in serious trouble.
THE QUEEN SEPT. 30
COULD BE A CONTENDER...since Stephen Frears' look at Queen Elizabeth's reaction to Princess Diana's death is said to include a strong performance from Helen Mirren and has already scored opening-night honors at the New York Film Festival.
UNLESS...its chances remain limited to Best Actress.
LITTLE CHILDREN OCTOBER
COULD BE A CONTENDER...if Todd Field's adaptation of Tom Perrotta's suburban novel, featuring Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly, earns In the Bedroom-caliber reviews.
UNLESS...purists balk at liberties taken with one of the central characters.
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS OCT. 20
COULD BE A CONTENDER...for its Academy-fave director (Eastwood's last two films earned Best Picture nominations) and subject (World War II).
UNLESS...the film, which Eastwood is following next year with a retelling of the same events from Japan's POV, strikes some as telling only half the story.
THE PRESTIGE OCT. 20
COULD BE A CONTENDER...with its combination of rising director (Christopher Nolan), respected cast (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine), and period setting.
UNLESS...its feuding-magicians plotline feels gimmicky.
BABEL OCT. 27
COULD BE A CONTENDER...thanks to its timely themes and buzzed-about performances from actors both world-famous (Brad Pitt) and anonymous (breakout Rinko Kikuchi).
UNLESS...filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu's intersecting-plotlines device seems too similar to his 21 Grams.
CATCH A FIRE OCT. 27
COULD BE A CONTENDER...since the apartheid-era drama, featuring Tim Robbins and Derek Luke, has that necessary based-on-a-true-story heft.
UNLESS...it's dwarfed by the season's other political entries.
STRANGER THAN FICTION NOV. 10
COULD BE A CONTENDER...if the trippy comedy, directed by Marc Forster and starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, and Dustin Hoffman, reminds voters why they loved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
UNLESS...it's viewed instead as Sunshine lite.
THE HOAX NOV. 17
COULD BE A CONTENDER...if director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat) mines gold from the story of an author (Richard Gere) who peddled a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes.
UNLESS...it succumbs to the sentimentality that plagues some of Hallström's work.