don’t know about you, but I just love the awards derby! There’s nothing like quality taking a back seat to promotion! I’m still breathless over Lionsgate’s brilliant end-run around the lockstep support (in certain, very influential quarters) for Brokeback Mountain in 2006, and I celebrate every V-E Day by replaying the 1999 Academy Awards broadcast just to watch the color drain out of Steven Spielberg’s face when he realizes the Weinsteins’ and Shakespeare in Love have swiped the top trophy. This is why I fell in love with film.

Actually, it isn’t, but there are several sick bastards in this town who do care more about the actual awards than the movies (note: this isn’t a shot at all Oscar bloggers; I love Awards Daily‘s Sasha Stone, and, somehow, enjoy good relations with both David Poland and Jeffrey Wells). Their m.o. used to be gauging influence; now, they’d rather peddle it. And since the Academy is essentially a microcosm of the American public, one’s personal opinion is far less important than what seems to be popular. "Gee, I really liked Zodiac, but The Envelope‘s Tom O’Neil says voters prefer less complex fare. Personally, I like a movie that makes me think a little, but O’Neil’s been covering this beat for two decades; he’d know. In the Valley of Elah it is!"

Though there have been a few early candidates popping up here and there (Once has its fervent defenders, as does, inexplicably, Hairspray, and everyone figures La Vie en Rose‘s Marion Cotillard as shoo-in nom for Best Actress), the season officially began on Wednesday when Variety published Derek Elley’s rapturous review for Atonement, the sophomore effort from Pride and Prejudice ’05 director, Joe Wright, which just debuted at the Venice Film Festival. As prose orgasms go, it’s no Kael-on-Brando-circa-Last-Tango, but Elley still works up quite the lustful lather. To wit:

"Rarely has a book sprung so vividly to life, but also worked so enthrallingly in pure movie terms, as with Atonement, Brit helmer Joe Wright’s smart, dazzlingly upholstered adaptation of Ian McEwan’s celebrated 2001 novel. Period yarn, largely set in 1930s and ‘40s England, about an adolescent outburst of spite that destroys two lives and crumples a third, preserves much of the tome’s metaphysical depth and all of its emotional power. And as in Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, Keira Knightley — echoed by co-thesp James McAvoy –proves every bit as magnetic as the divas of those classic mellers pic consciously references."

Somewhere, Neil Labute’s staring at a dog-eared copy of Possession and screaming, "Where did I go wrong!!! Oh, right!!! Laura Jones!!!"

One rave generally isn’t sufficient to vault a film to frontrunner status, but it squares with all the wonderful things long-lead journalists have been saying for the past month. This movie stinks of Oscar; comparisons are already being made to The English Patient (partially because Anthony Minghella has a small role in Wright’s picture).

Less was known about Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, but the fact that his last film, Brokeback Mountain, is widely believed to have been screwed out of a Best Picture Oscar by the emotionally impressionable actors bloc, it seemed feasible that a little getback was in order. Derek Elley?

"Too much caution and too little lust squeeze much of the dramatic juice out of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, a 2½–hour period drama that’s a long haul for relatively few returns. Adapted from a short story by the late Eileen Chang, tale of a patriotic student — who’s willing bait in a plot to assassinate a high-up Chinese collaborator in Japanese-held WWII Shanghai — is an immaculately played but largely bloodless melodrama which takes an hour-and-a-half to even start revving up its motor."

That ain’t no good. But chin up, Ang. Here’s Variety‘s Robert Koehler on In the Land of Elah, the latest from your nemesis, Paul Haggis:

"The Iraq war has proven as nettlesome to Hollywood moviemakers as it has to Washington policymakers, and In the Valley of Elah continues the trend. Working overtime to be an important statement on domestic dissatisfaction with the war and the special price paid by vets and their families, Paul Haggis’ follow-up to Crash is too self-serious to work as a straight-ahead whodunit and too lacking in imagination to realize its art-film aspirations. Lightning probably won’t strike twice for Haggis, with prestigious fall festival premieres unlikely to translate into strong domestic cash flow for Warner Independent, though foreign returns could be brighter."

I guess the whole point of this is "Why bother with Oscar prognosticators when you can base your voting on the opening paragraph of Variety‘s reviews?" So let’s conclude on this thought:

"An ordinary family man makes enemies with the wrong gang — and vice versa — in the blood-soaked revenge thriller Death Sentence. This well-made, often intensely gripping genre piece packs some bizarre tonal extremities and a few moments of self-critique into its tale of a grieving father seeking his own brand of justice, but action buffs won’t get too hung up on ethical considerations amid all the rousing gunplay and arterial splatter. A confident lead turn by Kevin Bacon and lack of heavyweight competition could enable a minor B.O. killing, with likely superb execution in ancillary. Oscars out the wazoo for this bitch!  See you at the Kodak, Mr. Bacon!"