LOS ANGELES - It promises to be a colorful Academy Awards season when films featuring Richard Nixon and Batman could go toe-to-toe for best picture.
Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon," featuring Frank Langella as the bad boy of American politics, might end up in a showdown with Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," which offers Heath Ledger as the Joker in a new standard for bad boys in the comic-book world.
When it arrived last summer as Hollywood's biggest blockbuster in years, "The Dark Knight" was viewed as a likely Oscar contender for Ledger and for technical categories. A supporting-actor slot at the Oscar nominations Jan. 22 would come on the one-year anniversary of Ledger's death.
Awards watchers figured a Batman movie probably would not find much favor with snooty Oscar voters when it came to the top category, but the best-picture buzz has gotten stronger for "The Dark Knight" as studios unveiled their late-year prestige films.
Having "The Dark Knight" in the mix certainly could help the Oscar ceremony's TV ratings, which have slumped in recent years as smaller films such as "No Country for Old Men" and "Crash" dominated.
"We know that the most successful Oscars tend to be the ones that include the big, popular blockbusters like `Lord of the Rings,' `Titanic,' in terms of just people in America caring about the show," said Tom O'Neil, a columnist for the awards Web site TheEnvelope.com. "You could argue whether or not `The Dark Knight' is the best movie of the year, but you can't argue the fact that it was THE movie of the year, the most talked-about movie."
Others among the potentially lively lineup for Hollywood's big party: a racist war vet (Clint Eastwood, "Gran Torino"); a slain gay-rights politico (Sean Penn, "Milk"); an old-school nun (Meryl Streep, "Doubt"); an addict upstaging her sister's wedding (Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married"); a has-been wrestler (Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"); a mom with an impostor son (Angelina Jolie, "Changeling"); and a guy born old who ages backward toward infancy (Jolie's man, Brad Pitt, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button").
Some critics are calling "Frost/Nixon" the best work yet from Howard, who already has delivered best-picture and director Oscars for "A Beautiful Mind." Reprising the role he created on stage, Langella is a marvel of awkward hubris and tragic grandeur as Nixon, squaring off against TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) in a series of pivotal 1977 interviews.
Langella could be the second person nominated as best actor for playing the fallen president, following Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's 1995 film biography "Nixon."
"Nixon's a fascinating paradox. He was a great intellect with a lot of important ideas and made some real political inroads on a sort of global level. And yet he's a classically tragic figure," Howard said. "Some people who worked with him closely said he always felt like he was the kid on the outside looking into the toy store, nose pressed to the glass. He was so uncomfortable in his own skin, and yet brilliant and biting and tough."
Stone's 2008 presidential picture, the George W. Bush saga "W.", looks like a longshot for major nominations, though it could sneak in for some of the performances.
The prolific Eastwood released two films within a couple of months that are grabbing major Oscar attention, "Changeling" and "Gran Torino."
Kate Winslet also has two films in the mix: the domestic drama "Revolutionary Road," her reunion with "Titanic" co-star Leonardo DiCaprio; and the Holocaust-themed story "The Reader." "Revolutionary Road" was directed by Winslet's husband, Sam Mendes, an Oscar winner for "American Beauty."
One of the season's unusual competitors is Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire," featuring a cast of unknowns in the alternately buoyant and horrifying tale of a boy from the slums of Mumbai whose appearance on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" may finally reunite him with a lost childhood sweetheart.
As always, Pixar Animation, makers of "Ratatouille," "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story," is in the running for the animated-feature Oscar with "WALL-E." Yet the story of the adorably plucky robot was so well-received that the film stands an outside chance at a best-picture nomination, too.
For a TV ratings boost, the best thing that could happen to the Oscars would be best-picture nominations for both "WALL-E" and "The Dark Knight." The two blockbusters would give viewers much more of a vested interest in the awards outcome than they have had in years.
Director Nolan raised the comic-book genre to a new high with "The Dark Knight," and he's tickled at the thought that his film is getting serious consideration from Oscar voters who typically do not lean toward superhero flicks.
"I'm sure when you interview people, they're talking about their movies at the end of the year, I'm sure the line you hear a lot is, `Well, that's not why we do this,'" Nolan said. "Mercifully, in the case of doing a superhero movie, I really can say that's not why we're doing this. It's not the obvious Oscar prospect. ...
"Just the fact that you'd even ask that question in relation to a populist film in a populist genre, that certainly is an exciting thing, and it's really fun."
A rundown of front-runners and some longshots that could turn up in the Oscar mix:
BEST PICTURE: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Dark Knight," "Defiance," "Doubt," "Frost/Nixon," "Gran Torino," "Milk," "The Reader," "Revolutionary Road," "Slumdog Millionaire," "WALL-E," "The Wrestler."
BEST DIRECTOR: Darren Aronofsky, "The Wrestler"; Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"; Stephen Daldry, "The Reader"; Clint Eastwood, "Changeling," "Gran Torino"; David Fincher, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; Ron Howard, "Frost/Nixon"; Sam Mendes, "Revolutionary Road"; Christopher Nolan, "The Dark Knight"; John Patrick Shanley, "Doubt"; Steven Soderbergh, "Che"; Andrew Stanton, "WALL-E"; Gus Van Sant, "Milk"; Edward Zwick, "Defiance."
BEST ACTOR: Christian Bale, "The Dark Knight"; Josh Brolin, "W."; Daniel Craig, "Defiance"; Benicio Del Toro, "Che"; Leonardo DiCaprio, "Revolutionary Road"; Clint Eastwood, "Gran Torino"; Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor; Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixon"; Sean Penn, "Milk"; Brad Pitt, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"; Will Smith, "Seven Pounds."
BEST ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married"; Sally Hawkins, "Happy-Go-Lucky"; Angelina Jolie, "Changeling"; Keira Knightley, "The Duchess"; Melissa Leo, "Frozen River"; Kristin Scott Thomas, "I've Loved You So Long"; Meryl Streep, "Doubt"; Michelle Williams, "Wendy and Lucy"; Kate Winslet, "The Reader," "Revolutionary Road."
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Josh Brolin, "Milk"; James Cromwell, "W."; Robert Downey Jr., "Tropic Thunder"; Richard Dreyfuss, "W."; Ralph Fiennes, "The Duchess," "The Reader"; James Franco, "Milk"; Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Doubt"; David Kross, "The Reader"; Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"; John Malkovich, "Changeling"; Eddie Marsan, "Happy-Go-Lucky"; Dev Patel, "Slumdog Millionaire"; Michael Shannon, "Revolutionary Road"; Michael Sheen, "Frost/Nixon."
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Amy Adams, "Doubt"; Elizabeth Banks, "W."; Kathy Bates, "Revolutionary Road"; Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"; Viola Davis, "Doubt"; Rosemarie DeWitt, "Rachel Getting Married"; Taraji P. Henson, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; Tilda Swinton, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; Marisa Tomei, "The Wrestler"; Misty Upham, "Frozen River"; Evan Rachel Wood, "The Wrestler"; Debra Winger, "Rachel Getting Married."