Keira Knightley, Joaquin Phoenix, Coen Brothers Hoping To Ambush The Oscars

Commercially underhyped films like 'Atonement,' 'No Country for Old Men' and more often sneak in for the win.

It happens every year, and not just to Steven Spielberg.

People spend all winter, spring and summer talking about “The Terminal,” “Munich,” “Gangs of New York” or other high-profile, Oscar-baiting flicks, only to have an unexpected gem spring up at the last minute and shove them out of the spotlight. From “Million Dollar Baby” to “Shakespeare in Love” to “American Beauty,” some movies make up for the lack of buzz with one scale-tipping feature: They’re freakin’ good.

Determined to not be fooled again, the MTV Movies team is looking beyond front-runners “American Gangster,” “Lions for Lambs” and “Charlie Wilson’s War” and keeping our bleary eyes open for this year’s fast-rising gem. In most cases, you probably haven’t heard of these Oscar sleepers just yet — but now that we’re entering awards season, don’t be surprised if one of these movies comes out of nowhere to “Crash” the party.

Movie: “The Kite Runner”

Release Date: November 2

Awards-Season Pedigree: Director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “Monster’s Ball”)

Why It Could Win: Based on one of the most beloved, heart-tugging, best-selling novels of the last decade, “Runner” tells the timely tale of two boys from Kabul and the drama that erupts when one betrays the other, leaves Afghanistan and returns decades later to his Taliban-controlled homeland to make things right. Bring Kleenex.

Why It Might Not: Although Oscar voters seem to nominate an Adriana Barraza, Ken Watanabe or Shohreh Aghdashloo every year, you’d have a better chance of finding a famous name in your local phone book than the “Kite” end credits.

Movie: “We Own the Night”

Release Date: October 12

Awards-Season Pedigree: Joaquin Phoenix (“Walk the Line”), Mark Wahlberg (“The Departed”), Robert Duvall (six Oscar nominations, one win)

Why It Could Win: As opposed to the speculation we’re forced to offer with a film like “Runner,” we have indeed seen “Night” and can confirm that it’s one of the best films of this — or any other — year. Passion-filled writer/director James Gray (“The Yards”) spent years assembling this tale of two New York brothers torn between their law-enforcement roots and the nightclub element that truly runs the city, and it shows in every frame. Expect Oscar talk for Duvall and Gray, as this film is the closest thing you’ll see this year to “The Departed.” In the eyes of some, it might even be better.

Why It Might Not: So shortly after “Departed,” will voters want to get behind another Wahlberg-starring flick about two young men working on different sides of the law?

Movie: “Atonement”

Release Date: December 7

Awards-Season Pedigree: Keira Knightley (“Pride & Prejudice”), James McAvoy (“The Last King of Scotland”), Brenda Blethyn (“Little Voice,” “Secrets & Lies”), Vanessa Redgrave (six Oscar noms, one win), director Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice”), writer Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”)

Why It Could Win: Bit by bit, everyone in Hollywood is beginning to call this film the one to beat. Beginning in 1935, the drama spans several decades while following a 13-year-old’s life-altering accusation and the fallout that ensues. It’s based on another acclaimed novel, Ian McEwan’s volume of the same name, and Oscar buzz is already attaching itself not only to a Best Picture nom, but also to Knightley, McAvoy, Redgrave and young actress Saoirse Ronan.

Why It Might Not: The title is so unremarkable that we need to keep typing Knightley’s name into IMDb to remember what this thing is called. McAvoy is best remembered as the guy in “Scotland” who no one considered Oscar-worthy, and we’re not convinced that voters can look at Keira anymore without imagining CGI ghosts and a pirate hat.

Movie: “Reservation Road”

Release Date: October 19

Awards-Season Pedigree: Joaquin Phoenix (“Walk the Line”), Mark Ruffalo (“You Can Count on Me”), Jennifer Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind”), writer/director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda,” “In the Name of the Father”) and — gasp! — Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”)

Why It Could Win: Sorry, all you punch-drunk “Million Dollar Baby” lovers, but “Rwanda” was the best movie of 2004. In “Road,” Terry George tells the tale of two families forever haunted by a fatal car crash, and his heavy-duty actors are at their best. When Phoenix gets an Oscar nomination, remember you heard it here first.

Why It Might Not: Thematically, it’s similar to both the 1995 drama “The Crossing Guard” and the 2004 drama “The Door in the Floor.” Both were solid films with big stars and great directors positioned as Oscar fodder — and both went absolutely nowhere.

Movie: “The Bucket List”

Release Date: December 28

Awards-Season Pedigree: As the trailer reads — Academy Award winner Jack Nicholson, Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman

Why It Could Win: The last time Nicholson escaped from hospital confinement, we got “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Not too shabby! Now this under-the-radar film has finally released its first trailer, and things are looking good for the inspirational drama about two cancer patients who sneak off to fulfill their wildest dreams before they die. You might remember Jack’s shaven head from last year’s Oscar ceremony — not a bad way to put “Bucket” on the Academy radar.

Why It Might Not: The trailer has some silly-looking moments with the two old geezers skydiving and racing sports cars, and Rob Reiner hasn’t directed a good film in more than a decade. Oscar noms for Freeman and Nicholson are likely, but unless your last name is Hanks, Oscar voters are traditionally hesitant about giving the gold to someone with a fairly recent win.

Movie: “The Savages”

Release Date: December 26

Awards-Season Pedigree: Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”), Laura Linney (“Kinsey,” “You Can Count on Me”)

Why It Could Win: Another movie we’ve actually seen, “Savages” is a tender, surprisingly funny, heartbreaking little flick that debuted at Sundance this year. The film follows a long-separated brother and sister forced to work together when the health of their father (Philip Bosco) begins to deteriorate rapidly. Hoffman and Linney create characters every bit as complex as you’d expect, and Bosco might also get a nomination thanks to the same voter mindset that rewarded Alan Arkin’s crazy-old-man role last year.

Why It Might Not: If you’ve ever experienced the illness of a loved one, “Savages” will make you cry like Britney Spears during a Matt Lauer interview. Those who haven’t, however, might not become as emotionally attached.

Movie: “There Will Be Blood”

Release Date: December 28

Awards-Season Pedigree: Daniel Day-Lewis (“My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father,” “Gangs of New York”), Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia”)

Why It Could Win: Much like Will Smith with Fourth of July weekend, P.T. Anderson seems to have staked out a certain time of the year — late December — for the release of his latest awards-worthy flick. This time around, the breathtakingly talented filmmaker dusts off an 80-year-old Upton Sinclair novel (“Oil!”) to tell the story of a greedy, smooth-talking Texas prospector (Day-Lewis) who uses a town’s black gold to turn everyone green with envy. If there’s any justice in the world, “Blood” will earn Anderson the Oscar wins his thrice-nominated breakout flick, “Boogie Nights,” weren’t able to clinch.

Why It Might Not: If it were anybody else but Anderson, we’d be skeptical that the subject matter would make for a movie worth seeing. Also, the title might make voters think it’s another “Saw” sequel.

Movie: “No Country for Old Men”

Release Date: November 9

Awards-Season Pedigree: Tommy Lee Jones (“The Fugitive,” “JFK”), Javier Bardem (“Before Night Falls”), Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”)

Why It Could Win: Speaking of the Brothers Coen, their first drama in a half-decade follows a jaded Texas sheriff (Jones) determined to stop a homicidal madman (Bardem) who’ll kill anybody who gets in the way of his search for a missing stash of money and heroin. The movie has already rocked the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, the red-band trailer looks amazing, a no-brainer Oscar is being predicted for the Bardem character Roger Ebert is comparing to Hannibal Lecter. Oh, and Tommy Lee Jones has gone on record saying this is the best Coens film ever.

Why It Might Not: It’s been a few years since the brothers have been better than mediocre. And didn’t TLJ also promise us that “Men in Black II” was gonna be good?

Check out everything we’ve got on “We Own the Night,” “Atonement,” “Reservation Road,” “The Bucket List,” “The Savages” and “No Country for Old Men.”

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