Imagine the scandal. It's Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, it's Oscar night, and working the red carpet, the media and eventually the awards podium itself are not the usual plethora of A-listers and glamour kings. Instead, there are Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Mr Potato Head and the entire cast and crew of Toy Story 3. As late as September, this was a real possibility for the major forthcoming awards ceremonies - most notably the Golden Globes (which take place on Sunday), the Baftas (February 13) and even the Oscars (February 27).
Thanks to a year that had been notably thin on awards-calibre products, only Pixar's inventive return to its most successful series had consistently stood above the crowd. That movie, about a group of wisecracking yet loveable playthings who escape from a sinister daycare centre, somehow managed to speak to the child in critics, filmmakers and connoisseurs across the globe, and quickly dominated all "best of" lists, including the year-end top 10 of one Quentin Tarantino.
Naturally, there is an acknowledged rhythm to the distribution of Hollywood cinema throughout the year - there the summer is filled with commercial blockbuster fluff, while the heavyweight trophy contenders are reserved until the end of the year, in order to remain fresh in the minds of voters (specifically the 5,783 members who decide the Academy Awards). And yet in most years, even as recently as 2009, the entire 12 months of distribution have been evenly peppered with surprising movies that eventually become Oscar front-runners - The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds and District 9 were all awards season champs, yet early openers. However, by last September several commentators, including the Los Angeles Times and Entertainment Weekly, were bemoaning the lack of viable Oscar candidates that weren't Toy Story 3.
Tinseltown analysts were hoping for something, anything, to cling to - a film or films around which could be built a credible awards narrative, such as, say, the little-movie-done-good triumph of Slumdog Millionaire, or the David and Goliath battle of The Hurt Locker vs Avatar.
Happily, over the space of two weeks, beginning on September 9 (the opening night of the Toronto Film Festival, traditionally the "launch pad" of Oscar-friendly movies), all prayers were answered. For there it was that bona fide contenders such as The King's Speech, and 127 Hours made their debuts. More importantly, within weeks the Facebook drama The Social Network was also released, and it was instantly coupled with The King's Speech as the cinematic pair to beat this season. These two films are joint leaders, with seven nominations each for the Golden Globes, and they represent nothing less than the perfect awards season drama. For they are the definitive conflict of opposites.
The first, The King's Speech, represents tradition, age, reticence and England. It stars Colin Firth as the stammering and sensitive George VI in a 1930s drama that pitches the uptight English king against a louche Australian speech therapist called Lionel Logue (a scintillating Geoffrey Rush), while his perky and affectionate wife Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) provides able support in the background. The film is a triumph of quiet emotionalism and high drama for the director Tom Hooper (The Damned United), and yet its concerns are the past and the old debates about nationhood and duty and loyalty that mattered so much between two world wars.
The Social Network, on the other hand, couldn't be more contemporary if it tried. It's concerns are modernity, technology, youth, excess and America. Whereas The King's Speech is about vocal inability, The Social Network is about verbal dexterity. This film, which describes the tricky founding moment of Facebook, and the Harvard whizz-kids who made it possible, stars a bunch of twentysomething hotshots, including Jesse Eisenberg (as the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) and Justin Timberlake (as Napster's Sean Parker). These men face each other in relentless scenes that crackle with the kind of rapid-fire dialogue from the writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) that hasn't been seen since the heyday of Hollywood's screwball comedies.
There is something mesmerising about the sheer verbal pace of the movie, the amount of information and character work packed into every exchange, something that seems to mock the very essence of The King's Speech, with its tortuous set pieces of Firth's King hovering nervously over, and clicking helplessly into, a naked microphone.
The rivalry between these two movies is, of course, the overriding awards season event. With every new results list (beginning on December 2, with America's National Board of Review - a clean sweep for The Social Network), the plot thickens, and questions are asked about what exactly the choice of one film over the other says about the current culture. In the latter case, the big debate is whether the Oscars' flood of new "younger" voters (848 new members have been invited to join the academy over the past seven years) will push a win towards The Social Network rather than The King's Speech.
There are other hefty candidates out there, too. These are films that may not trouble The Social Network or The King's Speech for the major awards through the season, but that might well upset the front-runners in their chosen categories. Thus, in the Boston-based boxing movie The Fighter, we have a mesmerising Christian Bale giving the kind of jittery emaciated turn, as a crack-addicted fight trainer, that will almost certainly result in a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (over Rush's Lionel Logue).
And while Darren Aronofsky's ballet-set psychodrama Black Swan will not dominate any of the major ceremonies (too dark, too flashy) it is likely to snag a Best Actress trophy for Natalie Portman (giving the performance of her career) wherever she's nominated. Similarly, the pint-sized 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld might possibly win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (over Bonham Carter) for her role as the dogged daughter out to avenge her father in the Coen Brothers' True Grit, yet the film itself is far from a sure thing (too droll, too emotionally uninvolving).
Elsewhere, Danny Boyle's 127 Hours is a fascinating testament to Boyle's technique as a director, and his ability to turn the story of a solo climber trapped in a desert crack for nearly five days into something close to propulsive cinema (just turn away at the end, when the penknife comes out). But its presence in the awards season party is due more, one suspects, to the lingering aftershock of Boyle's Slumdog triumph than to any conspicuous genius evident in the movie itself.
Ultimately, though, perhaps the greatest irony in all this is that the one film that should dominate the podium come Oscar Night is, in fact, Toy Story 3. For beneath all the hype about The King's Speech's battle with The Social Network, and irrespective of anything that happened in the film world in 2010, Toy Story 3 remains arguably the greatest dramatic achievement to grace the mainstream movie calendar. As a profound film about children putting away childish things made by an industry ensconced in shallow juvenilia, it is both a moving statement of the way things are and an exciting hint of the way they could be. And that, surely, is worth an Oscar or two.