We are getting close to the official launching of awards season. The Gotham Awards are nice and all but they are very much like pre-season sports. You can choose to look if you want, but the results are not going to factor much of anything once the real games begin. Such is the danger in declaring any of the major Oscar races over at such an early date. Though many of the categories will come into focus by the end of December, the next 6-8 weeks are going to be filled with excitement over the myriad of choices fighting it out for the few spots not already taken.

At this point, one thing all the guess makers can all agree on is that Colin Firth is on the fast track for a Best Actor nomination for 'The King's Speech' and may just be the frontrunner to win it all. The deserved buzz for James Franco's one-man show as trapped hiker, Aron Ralston, in Danny Boyle's amazing '127 Hours' will also be hard to escape once it opens in a few weeks. These two performances mean that Robert Duvall's turn as the funeral-throwing hermit in 'Get Low' has lost a bit of its luster as a lock. Aside from Leonardo DiCaprio's double-billed work in 'Shutter Island' and 'Inception,' there are few individual achievements worth remembering from the first two-thirds of 2010. Provided that voters do indeed remember. Get those screeners out there, Sony Classics. And don't forget the critics groups either.

Firth, Franco and Duvall certainly make for a solid list of locks, but it is always what makes up the final two where the excitement begins. There are, give or take, nine actors likely battling it out for those spots. Pulling up the rear on that exclusive list is Sean Penn in 'Fair Game' who is fine in the film, but playing Sean Penn more than Joe Wilson. Stephen Dorff's work in Sofia Coppola's 'Somewhere' was expected in some circles to be the breakthrough comeback of the season, but a lukewarm response to the film itself thus far may have lessened his chances as fest critics have not given him the love fest that Firth and Franco have received. Another performance in waiting is Mark Wahlberg as boxer Mickey Ward in David O. Russell's 'The Fighter'. Will we get the Wahlberg we loved in 'Boogie Nights', the tough guy routine from his Oscar-nominated role in 'The Departed' or the sleepy Wahlberg from films like 'Invincible' and 'The Happening'? It certainly looks like a film right in his element, but anyone who has seen the trailers knows the focus is going to be on Christian Bale. More on that in a moment.

Leonardo DiCaprio deserves every consideration for his stellar work this year. And if either his films had received a post-October launch, we might have four locks on the list. He may still be ahead of Jim Broadbent as the everyday husband of Mike Leigh's 'Another Year', who may also be walking in the shadow of co-star Lesley Manville. But it may be opening right in the heat of things and give him an edge. Except there are still four more actors to consider.

If you follow some Oscar columns, you may have read that the Coen Bros' 'True Grit' has already won the Best Picture Oscar. Considering that nobody has seen it yet, that is quite a boastful read into the future. The speculation is hard to avoid though, especially when it has been going on since it was confirmed that Joel & Ethan were prepping the remake of the film that won John Wayne his Oscar. Jeff Bridges won his for 'Crazy Heart' last year. Too soon? He beat Colin Firth last year and the roles may just be reversed this time. But if anyone is capable (and deserving) to pull off the back-to-back wins, it would be Bridges. One step at a time though. It is easy to see him getting nominated again.

And then there were three. A lot of prognosticators see Javier Bardem as a serious threat in Alejandro González Iñárritu's 'Biutiful'. That is if voters can make it through its exhaustively depressing two-and-a-half hours and not find it more maddening than 'Babel.' Bardem's work is likely the only chip to fall on Oscar's table this year from 'Biutiful,' so here is hoping that Roadside Attractions will concentrate more on making sure Jennifer Lawrence and 'Winter's Bone' get its due. Another film being labeled with the depressing caution flag is Derek Cianfrance's 'Blue Valentine'; a label that has the aura of truth but is also very misleading. Especially when it comes to Ryan Gosling's fantastic work as the working class husband watching the dream marriage of his youth crumble before his very eyes. It's a performance that is also laced with a lot of humor making him a likable and charming fellow ensnared into every couple's battle of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

The Weinsteins could actually have two of their own competing, leading them to the strategy of casting one aside to campaign heavily for the other, increasing their odds. Not a great position for Gosling, but in this year a nomination against Firth, Franco and even Duvall is already a victory. Especially if you are Jesse Eisenberg who could be this year's Jeremy Renner; the outsider on the verge of becoming a known name. If being an "asshole" is any currency in this year's race, then Eisenberg's portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 'The Social Network' is worth a few billion dollars. And that final spot could just be his for the taking. Unless...

Christian Bale is campaigned for Lead Actor.

Breaking down the barriers of what constitutes a co-lead as opposed to being the second male or female supporting the first is one for me to fight with my colleagues about. Bale begins narrating the first trailer for 'The Fighter', which then gives way to securing Wahlberg as the film's focus. In the "exclusive" TV spot that played during the season finale of 'Mad Men,' Paramount gave us more Bale, practically equaling his screen time as the troubled brother and ringman to his brother. If the studio positions him as a lead, it is possible the whole race can be shaken up. Not just knocking out another potential nominee but perhaps even challenging Firth for the win.

If Bale is moved into the more likely Supporting slot though, he could be facing competition with Geoffrey Rush ('The King's Speech'), Mark Ruffalo ('The Kids Are All Right'), Andrew Garfield ('The Social Network'), Bill Murray ('Get Low'), Sam Rockwell ('Conviction'), Matt Damon ('True Grit') and maybe even Michael Douglas ('Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps'), if Fox sees the opportunity not to be restrained by top billing and a presumption that Gordon Gekko is the film's primary character. With Bale overdue for his first nomination, a juicy, showy character and yet another massive shift in weight for the role, he should be sharing equal speculation with Jeff Bridges for a nod on a film nobody has seen more than a few minutes of to date. Bale could even be the winner.
CATEGORIES Oscars, Cinematical