The Dark Knight is the box-office behemoth with the deceased acting front-runner whose name everyone knows. Slumdog Millionaire is the out-of-nowhere surprise with a cast no one ever heard of before. Thursday's Academy Awards nominations could set up a duel between those two rarities: One a superhero saga so esteemed that it has lifted the comic-book genre into best-picture territory, the other a tiny tale whose rags-to-riches theme mirrors the film's rise to success.
On the one-year anniversary of Heath Ledger's death, he is expected to earn a supporting-actor nomination for his feverish performance as Batman's archenemy, the Joker, in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.
Ledger has been the solid favorite throughout awards season. The film had been considered a longshot in other top categories, but it has gained momentum for best picture, director and screenplay as it grabbed across-the-board nominations for awards from one Hollywood guild after another.
Slumdog Millionaire leaped onto the awards radar as it premiered at film festivals late last summer, while The Dark Knight was soaring beyond the half-billion mark at the domestic box office.
Directed by Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire became a darling of critics, and the film has climbed to nearly $50 million at the box office playing in narrow release compared to the theater blitz of The Dark Knight and other studio blockbusters. It swept its four categories at the Golden Globes, including the prize for best drama.
The Dark Knight continues the story Nolan started with Batman Begins, starring a top-name cast that includes Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman. Slumdog Millionaire features a cast of unknowns in the story of a youth rising to fame and fortune in a television game show after terrible hardships on the streets of Mumbai, the heart of India's Bollywood film industry.
Other best-picture contenders could include two films about fallen political figures: the Richard Nixon drama Frost/Nixon and the Harvey Milk tale Milk". Also in the running are the Roman Catholic drama Doubt, the marital tragedy Revolutionary Road and the romantic fantasy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Frank Langella as Nixon in Frost/Nixon and Sean Penn as the slain gay-rights pioneer in Milk are likely best-actor nominees. Kate Winslet has a shot at two nominations, best actress for Revolutionary Road and supporting actress for the Holocaust-themed drama The Reader. Winslet won both prizes at the Golden Globes.
Among other acting prospects are Winslet's Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio for Revolutionary Road, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett for Benjamin Button, Anne Hathaway for the family drama Rachel Getting Married and Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams for Doubt.
The Oscars also might offer a classic Hollywood comeback story. A pariah for years because of bad-boy behavior that wrecked his career, Mickey Rourke has returned to grace with the sports drama The Wrestler, which earned him the Globe for best dramatic actor.
Oscar nominees are chosen in most categories by specific branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, such as actors, directors and writers. The academy's full membership of about 6,000 was eligible to vote for best-picture nominations and can cast ballots for the winners in all categories at the Oscar ceremony itself.
The 81st Oscars will be presented Feb. 22 in a ceremony airing on ABC from Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.
This year's Oscars already present a departure from previous shows. Rather than a comedian, such as past hosts Billy Crystal, Chris Rock or Jon Stewart, the emcee this time is Hugh Jackman, star of the X-Men films and a Tony Award winner for best actor in a musical.