400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.

This year we've got at least three biopics jockeying for space in the year-end awards, just like every year. Biopics continue alternately to fascinate and disappoint me. I've already written at length about how these movies tend to be roughly the same, following much the same format and formula (and brilliantly spoofed in last year's Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). And I've written about how they're instant award-magnets, causing nearly every artist in Hollywood to scour every last barrel bottom for any famous person's life story that hasn't yet been filmed. So for them, here's a handy dandy field guide to getting awards.

Best Bet: War heroes or political figures. In 1970, was any other movie going to beat Patton for a bunch of Oscars? Robert Altman's M*A*S*H may have been more popular and more artistic, but it didn't have Patton. In 1982, Gandhi beat out the infinitely superior Blade Runner. Schindler's List (1993) counts too. So does Erin Brockovich (2000). And this year, though I'm not ready to bet the farm just yet, it looks like Milk (309 screens) could be the big winner. Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon (205 screens) will probably get some nominations this year, but it's hard for old Tricky Dick to stack up against Harvey. Exceptions to the rule: you have to clearly define your character as either a hero or a villain. Sorry Oliver Stone, no Nixon or W. Malcolm X (1992) came close, but it was a bit too subversive for voters. Forest Whitaker's award-winning Idi Amin was actually the villain of that film, so his purpose was clear. This year Steven Soderbergh's Che (2 screens) is worthy, but a bit too complex for voters, failing to explain whether or not they should actually like Che.

categories Columns, Cinematical