'King's Speech,' 'Social Network' Aim For Oscar Glory; Firth, Portman May Lead Acting Races

Two dramas unfolding in a new world of global communications could emerge as front-runners at the Academy Awards.

Director David Fincher’s “The Social Network” is set in modern times as the founders of the Web site Facebook battle over their creation. Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” takes place in the 1920s and ‘30s as Queen Elizabeth II’s dad struggles with his speech impediment at a time when the royal family is counted on to voice reassurance through the new medium of radio.

“The Social Network” has almost universal acclaim, a hip subject and impressive box-office results since it opened Oct. 1. “The King’s Speech” does not open until late November, but it’s an old-fashioned awards contender, a classy period piece that has been an audience favorite at film festivals for its heart and humor.

“We didn’t realize it was a comedy as well as a drama. We had no idea people enjoyed it on so many levels,” said Colin Firth, who stars as the stammering King George VI, reluctantly taking the throne after his brother abdicates and finding unexpected kinship with a wily Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush).

“It ticks a lot of boxes that are notorious for being supposed nomination bait, you know — monarchs and disabilities and that sort of thing. But it has very little to do with that as far as I’m concerned. The substance of this is to do with this friendship.”

“The Social Network” also deals with friendship — the unraveling kind. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Facebook mastermind Mark Zuckerberg, playing him as an abrasive, socially inept genius who ends up in ferocious legal feuds with his former best buddy (Andrew Garfield) and others claiming he stiffed them on the site’s proceeds.

Fincher said he’s hopeful but that Oscar talk is premature. “Social Network” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is even more tightlipped about awards.

“I just won’t talk about it,” Sorkin said. “I can tell you that right now, what means something to me is that people who have seen the movie seem very moved by it. It’s everything we could have hoped for when we began the project.”

Nominations come out Jan. 25, with the Oscars presented on Feb. 27.

Here’s a look at more possibilities for best picture as well as for other top Oscar categories:

BEST PICTURE:

Assuming “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network” make the cut, eight other films will compete for the remaining slots as the Oscars go with 10 best-picture nominees again, continuing an experiment started last year that broadened the field to include mainstream hits such as “The Blind Side” and smaller productions such as “The Hurt Locker,” which won for best picture.

The category was expanded partly because of “The Dark Knight,” the 2008 Batman blockbuster that earned Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar but missed out on a best-picture nomination, despite rave reviews. This bodes well for “The Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan’s followup, last summer’s sci-fi smash “Inception,” one of Hollywood’s smartest action thrillers in years.

It also elevates the prospects for the year’s top-grossing hit, Lee Unkrich’s animated comedy “Toy Story 3,” along with Ben Affleck’s heist drama “The Town” and perhaps David Yates’ “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” the next-to-last film in the fantasy franchise.

Smaller releases could slip into the field of 10, including Ozark thriller and top Sundance winner “Winter’s Bone,” the family comic drama “The Kids Are All Right,” the survival story “127 hours,” and “Never Let Me Go,” a tragic tale set in an alternate reality.

Two-time best picture and director winner Clint Eastwood cannot be counted out for his afterlife drama “Hereafter,” and several upcoming films have Oscar buzz after becoming favorites on the festival circuit, including the ensemble drama “Another Year,” the father-daughter tale “Somewhere”; the curmudgeon chronicle “Barney’s Version,” and the dance drama “Black Swan.”

Two films from Oscar-winning directors are on the awards radar, though they do not come out until year’s end and have not been seen by Oscar watchers: Joel and Ethan Coen’s new take on the Western “True Grit” and James L. Brooks’ comic drama “How Do You Know.”

BEST DIRECTOR:

With 10 best-picture selections, it seems like five directing slots just aren’t enough to go around.

Tom Hooper for “The King’s Speech,” David Fincher for “The Social Network” and Christopher Nolan for “Inception” look like solid bets.

Past winners Danny Boyle for “127 Hours” and Clint Eastwood for “Hereafter” have fresh prospects, as does Darren Aronofsky for “Black Swan,” Ben Affleck for “The Town” and Mike Leigh for “Another Year.”

Animation continues to gain in critical esteem, so Lee Unkrich might have a shot for “Toy Story 3.”

The question marks remain the filmmakers behind December’s latecomers: past winners Joel and Ethan Coen for “True Grit” and James L. Brooks for “How Do You Know.”

And a year after the first woman won the directing Oscar, Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker,” past nominee Sofia Coppola could be back in the running for “Somewhere,” along with indie longshots Lisa Cholodenko for “The Kids Are All Right” and Debra Granik for “Winter’s Bone.”

BEST ACTOR:

Colin Firth earned his first Oscar nomination for last year’s “A Single Man,” and some who have seen him as George VI in “The King’s Speech” think Oscar voters should just hand him the best-actor prize. Often playing glibly sardonic characters in the past, Firth is mesmerizing as the stammering king, striking a wonderful balance between imperious and wretched.

There’s plenty of glibness to be had among other contenders, including Jesse Eisenberg’s savagely biting Facebook founder in “The Social Network”; James Franco as a one-man force of nature, playing a climber trapped alone in a canyon in “127 Hours”; and Paul Giamatti in the life story of a crusty producer of schlock TV in “Barney’s Version.”

Other possibilities: Ben Affleck, “The Town”; Javier Bardem, “Biutiful”; Jim Broadbent, “Another Year”; Matt Damon, “Hereafter”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “Inception”; Stephen Dorff, “Somewhere”; Michael Douglas, “Solitary Man” or “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”; Robert Duvall, “Get Low”; Aaron Eckhart, “Rabbit Hole”; Ryan Gosling, “Blue Valentine”; Sean Penn, “Fair Game.”

Still unseen is last year’s winner, Jeff Bridges, in “True Grit,” and the male cast of “How Do You Know,” Jack Nicholson, Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson.

BEST ACTRESS:

Natalie Portman is an unholy terror in “Black Swan,” which takes the give-your-all-for-dance commitment of “The Red Shoes” to deeply disturbing places. A past supporting-actress nominee for “Closer,” Portman gives herself over completely to her role as a goody two-shoes ballerina whose menacing dark side emerges as she prepares for her dream role in “Swan Lake.”

Annette Bening dominates “The Kids Are All Right” as the acerbic authoritarian in a family of lesbian parents, whose household unravels after they meet the sperm donor who fathered their children. Julianne Moore as Bening’s spouse also has Oscar prospects, though she could end up in the supporting category.

Other possibilities: Anne Hathaway, “Love & Other Drugs”; Sally Hawkins,“Made in Dagenham”; Nicole Kidman, “Rabbit Hole”; Diane Lane, “Secretariat”; Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”; Helen Mirren, “The Tempest”; Carey Mulligan, “Never Let Me Go”; Ruth Sheen, “Another Year”; Hilary Swank, “Conviction”; Naomi Watts, “Fair Game”; Michelle Williams, “Blue Valentine.”

Still unseen are past winners Gwyneth Paltrow in “Country Strong” and Reese Witherspoon in “How Do You Know.”

SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Andrew Garfield is just starting his blockbuster career in the title role of the next “Spider-Man.” After acclaim and honors for the British drama “Boy A,” Garfield also may be getting his first taste of awards season, Hollywood style, with excellent supporting roles as the betrayed co-founder of Facebook in “The Social Network” and a boarding school youth with a grim destiny in “Never Let Me Go.”

“The Social Network” co-star Justin Timberlake also has prospects, playing the Napster creator who comes between the two best friends behind Facebook.

Other possibilities: Pierce Brosnan, “The Ghost Writer”; Vincent Cassel, “Black Swan”; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Inception”; John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”; Bob Hoskins, “Made in Dagenham”; Dustin Hoffman, “Barney’s Version”; Tommy Lee Jones, “The Company Men”; Bill Murray, “Get Low”; Sam Rockwell, “Conviction”; Mark Ruffalo, “The Kids Are All Right”; Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech.”

SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

British actress Lesley Manville is a veteran of such Mike Leigh films as “Vera Drake” and “All or Nothing,” but she is little known in Hollywood.

That’s changing with Leigh’s “Another Year,” in which Manville is the mirror reverse of Sally Hawkins’ eternal optimist in the director’s 2008 film “Happy-Go-Lucky.” Manville is heartbreaking as a lovelorn woman who sees everyone around her getting at least some of what they want, while she perpetually holds an empty glass.

While reviews are mixed at best for Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls,” the ensemble drama does offer some excellent performances, with Loretta Devine and Kimberly Elise among the standouts.

Other possibilities: Helena Bonham Carter, “The King’s Speech”; Marion Cotillard, “Inception”; Minnie Driver, “Conviction”; Cecile de France, “Hereafter”; Greta Gerwig, “Greenberg”; Gemma Jones, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”; Keira Knightley, “Never Let Me Go”; Mila Kunis, “Black Swan”; Ellen Page, “Inception”; Rosamund Pike, “Barney’s Version”; Sissy Spacek, “Get Low”; Olivia Williams, “The Ghost Writer.”

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