Pete Hammond

It’s an unusual year with lots of first class lead performances from women, including Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, Diane Lane, Tilda Swinton, Lesley Manville, Michelle Williams, Noomi Rapace, Sally Hawkins, Jennifer Lawrence, and Anne Hathaway. I think there is none better than Nicole Kidman making a major artistic comeback after a string of disappointments that include Australia, Nine, Margot At The Wedding, The Invasion, Fur, and Human Stain. She turns in a brilliant performance in Rabbit Hole, which had its gala world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival Monday night. (I saw it at a private screening in L.A. a few weeks ago.) As a mother dealing with the sudden death of her 4-year-old son, Kidman gets it all heartbreakingly right. She is matched by costars Aaron Eckhart as her husband and Dianne Wiest as her mother. This is easily her best work since winning an Oscar for 2002’s The Hours, and probably her most assured screen work, even though I confess to being a major To Die For groupie.

One thing the actress has always done is take creative leaps with scripts that aren’t obviously commercial (Dogville, anyone?).  Based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play, the role Kidman plays won a Best Actress Tony for Cynthia Nixon. The film version, written by Lindsay-Abaire and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, is up for grabs at Toronto. Reps for the film tell me they not only hope to land a deal but want to get the film out in time for this year’s awards race. Problem is, the small character-driven film might be perceived as a real downer. Parents-grieving-over-dead-kid flicks don’t exactly get them lined up at the multiplex, so stellar reviews and awards attention are  crucial. Should it find a distributor this week and get an end-of-year berth, past winners Kidman and Wiest both become bonafide Oscar contenders again. Particularly since it’s the actors branch doing the voting, and this kind of material is a thespian dream. I’m reminded of a couple of years ago when The Wrestler made a deal with Fox Searchlight hot off its success in Venice and Toronto. It became a major awards player by December. A savvy distrib would need to coordinate all this in a hurry for Rabbit Hole, and Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Weinstein Co, all seem to have their dance cards full with lots of other Best Actress candidates already. Tough business, this Oscar thing.

Robert Redford’s The Conspirator is in the same boat. I hear today a deal is very, very close for this one and we can expect an announcement soon. I saw this film a few weeks ago at the CAA screening room before it had its Toronto  premiere  over the weekend. It is also angling for the right distributor presumably to put it in this year’s race as well. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom. Around the time I saw it, I heard it had interest from at least one mini-major (Focus has been mentioned) which wanted to hold it for a late 2011 release and skip the awards game this year. Don’t know if that is still the thinking now that it is crunch time in Toronto, but this is the type of movie that could play very well with the Academy whenever it’s released, particularly for older members. It’s the kind of classy project you would expect from Redford, a compelling courtroom drama with fine performances  from James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline and the criminally underrated Robin Wright in a role that could be either lead actress or supporting. I would go for the latter.

Naysayers are pidgeonholing this as History Channel fodder, but the story of a wide-ranging conspiracy behind the Lincoln assassination is eye-opening stuff, it has contemporary relevance and serves as a nice counterpoint to most of the films around today, certainly those in Toronto this week. Holding the film for 2011 and hoping to still be viable for next year’s awards race is risky business after a splashy Toronto unveiling. But you have to do what’s in the movie’s best interest marketing and distribution-wise. As one exec close to the film told me, it didn’t hurt Crash or The Hurt Locker, both of which went on to Best Picture Oscar glory a full 18 months after their Toronto debuts. My guess: look for The Conspirator to show up sometime in 2011.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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