The Academy Awards looks to ''WALL-E'' and Heath Ledger in ''The Dark Knight''

It came at the last minute, but the first half of 2008 finally produced a bona fide Oscar hopeful. With a bigger opening weekend ($63.1 million) than last year’s critical and commercial smash Ratatouille, Pixar’s lovably lyrical robot fantasy WALL·E is already generating talk that it should be considered for a slot in next year’s Best Picture race, even though no cartoon, digital or otherwise, has been invited to the big dance since the Best Animated Feature category debuted in 2002.

Increasingly, studios release most of their Oscar bait later in the year. But until WALL·E, 2008 stood in bleak contrast to ’07, when eventual Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men and Best Director nominee Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly premiered at Cannes in May. And the two Best Actress front-runners — eventual victor Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose and Away From Her‘s Julie Christie — were already in theaters by early June. Apart from a couple of dark-horse acting contenders (Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, Cynthia Nixon in Sex and the City), there hasn’t been much to chatter about this year. Thankfully for awards buffs, that should soon change: The remainder of the summer brings two-time Oscar champ Emma Thompson in the period piece Brideshead Revisited, Melissa Leo in the Sundance prizewinner Frozen River, and Penélope Cruz in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona — all said to be strong performances. Perhaps the warm-weather season’s best shot at Oscar belongs to The Dark Knight‘s late Heath Ledger (a past nominee for Brokeback Mountain), who delivers a riveting supporting turn as the Joker that could result in the first posthumous acting nomination since 1996, when Il Postino‘s Massimo Troisi landed in the Best Actor race. But even if none of these pans out, it looks like we do have — thanks to a pair of cute, thought-provoking robots — a presumptive Best Animated Feature winner.

The Dark Knight
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