Batman, Slumdog Millionaire hot favourites in Oscar race

Nominees for the 81st Academy Awards (Oscars) will be unveiled in Beverly Hill on Thursday. Batman sequel The Dark Night is most bookmakers' pick, closely followed by the Golden Globe-winning Slumdog Millionnaire.


AFP - The race for the Oscars intensifies here Thursday as nominees for the 81st Academy Awards are revealed at a pre-dawn announcement in Beverly Hills.

The identities of the contenders for the movie industry's most coveted awards will be released to hundreds of media shortly after 5:30 am (1330 GMT) at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker will help announce the nominees for what pundits believe could be one of the tightest Oscar races in history, with a string of hit films and star names vying for honors.

All eyes are on "The Dark Knight" to see if the Batman blockbuster can buck convention by earning a nomination in the best picture category.

Oscar voters have traditionally shied away from honoring big-budget superhero movies, but director Christopher Nolan's brooding masterpiece has won widespread acclaim both from critics and from within the film industry.

Tom O'Neil, a pundit with the Los Angeles Times', said the critically acclaimed Batman sequel, the second-highest grossing film in US box-office history, could easily come into contention.

"'The Dark Knight' really is the big dark mystery hanging over the Oscars this year," O'Neil said. "It was the movie of 2008. It was the most talked about, it was the most important, it was the most seen.

"The problem it faces at the Oscars is that no superhero movie has ever landed in that top category" of best picture.

"But those barriers have been broken before if you think of horror movies -- and then ("The Silence of the Lambs") got in. There were barriers against fantasy films, and then 'Lord of the Rings' won everything.

"So if there's any superhero movie that can come swooping into the Oscars big time, it's this movie."

Regardless of whether "The Dark Knight" muscles its way into the best picture category, the film's undisputed scene-stealer -- late Australian actor Heath Ledger -- is almost certain to receive a poignant posthumous nod, exactly one year to the day after his tragic death from an accidental overdose.

The front-runner in the Oscars best picture race remains the Bollywood-influenced rags-to-riches drama "Slumdog Millionaire."

After sweeping a series of recent awards, including four Golden Globes, the Mumbai-set "Slumdog Millionaire" is seen as a sure bet to earn nominations in the best picture and best director categories.

The film has already been installed as favorite for the best picture statuette at the February 22 awards show at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.

Oscar-watchers believe "Slumdog Millionaire" will be joined in the best picture race by "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Frost/Nixon" and "Milk," with "The Dark Knight" battling against Clint Eastwood drama "Gran Torino" and "The Reader" for the fifth slot.

Beyond the best picture race, all eyes are likely to focus on the acting awards, where Briton Kate Winslet, a double-winner at the Golden Globes earlier this month, could pick up twin nominations for her performances in "The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road."

Among Winslet's likely rivals in the best actress stakes are Meryl Streep, superb in the religious drama "Doubt," Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married" and Angelina Jolie in "Changeling."

In the best actor race, Sean Penn is expected to earn a nod for his portrayal of gay politician Harvey Milk in "Milk," while Mickey Rourke, a popular Golden Globe winner, could earn a nomination for "The Wrestler."

Other possible nominees include Brad Pitt ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), Frank Langella ("Frost/Nixon") and Clint Eastwood ("Gran Torino.")

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