Nov. 3 2010 12:00 AM

Race for Academy Awards begins now!

The calendar may say November to you and I, but to film publicists, studio executives, moviemakers and actors it might as well say “Oscar Season, Part One.” Already, the drums are starting to beat, the buzz is beginning to rise and the names of various Academy Award contenders are being mentioned.

If you want to get in on the ground floor of this year’s race, I’ll share a few tips, based on some of the high-profile pictures screened so far. Some are already in theaters and others won’t be here until after the holiday season, but keep your eyes open for these potential nominees.

Best Picture: Danny Boyle took the best director and best picture awards home two years ago for “Slumdog Millionaire.” He’s back in the arena again with “127 Hours” (tentatively scheduled to open in Lansing Nov. 24), based on the harrowing true story of adventurer Aron Ralston (all-but-certain best actor nominee James Franco), who had to make a grisly choice when he was trapped in a remote canyon in Utah’s Blue John Canyon in 2003. If you remember the media coverage of Ralston’s ordeal, you know you’re in for a difficult viewing experience — at a screening during the Toronto International Film Festival in September, there was more squealing, squirming and screaming than you’d find in an understaffed day-care center — but, almost miraculously, the movie manages to be as exhilarating as it is agonizing. Boyle’s exceptional eye for imagery and Franco’s superb performance will keep you watching even when you wish you could look away.

Best Actress: In addition to Carey Mulligan’s outstanding work in “Never Let Me Go,” let’s add to the list Anne Hathaway in “Love and Other Drugs” (opening Nov. 24) and Natalie Portman in “Black Swan” (opening sometime in December). Reteamed with “Brokeback Mountain” costar Jake Gyllenhaal, Hathaway turns in a stunning performance as a feisty artist fighting both her attraction to a charming pharmaceutical salesman (Gyllenhaal) and the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Although “Drugs” includes a number of truly steamy scenes (“The Princess Diaries,” it ain’t), the nudity and eroticism does not overshadow the raw emotion and desperation in Hathaway’s toughest moments.

As for Portman, she climbs to terrifying new heights in “Black Swan” as a dedicated but unexceptional ballerina whose professional paranoia plunges her into a complete nervous breakdown, full of gruesome hallucinations, sordid sexual encounters and the kind of demented daydreams only director Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream”) could envision. It’s a film that goes to electrifying extremes, and Portman thoroughly commits herself to the material, making what might have been merely a frenetic freak show into a powerhouse showcase.

Nicole Kidman already has a best actress Oscar (for “The Hours”), but she might be up for another one after audiences get a look at “Rabbit Hole” (opening in late December or early January), director John Cameron Mitchell’s beautifully handled adaptation of the David Lindsay- Abaire play about a couple recovering from the sudden loss of their 3-year-old son. Becca, Kidman’s character, is grieving, but the actress refuses to go for sympathy or cuddliness: Instead, she finds a fascinating middle ground between hard honesty and trying to play nice with the sometimes clueless folk who try to comfort her. When Becca shoots down the sentimental slogans and comforting catchphrases being tossed around in a bereaved parents’ support group, it’s startling and secretly thrilling: She has the courage to say what most of us would be too “kind” to comment on. Cynthia Nixon won a Tony for playing Becca on Broadway; if anything, the role is even deeper and more compelling in Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay.