Another year begins, and while other people are still working on their New Year's resolutions, a sizable minority of the populace is obsessing about potential Oscar contenders.
Inevitably, accompanying this process is the annual chorus that this was the worst year ever for movies. (It seems that every decade, there are at least nine "worst years ever for movies.")
The year 2000 was actually an excellent year for films -- it just wasn't a good year for what Hollywood had to offer. If you were lucky enough to live where they were being shown and then smart enough to seek them out, films from Iran ("The Wind Will Carry Us," "The Color of Paradise," "A Time for Drunken Horses"), France ("L'Humanité," "Human Resources," "Alice et Martin"), Asia ("Yi Yi," "Suzhou River") and that subculture known as independent American cinema ("Ghost Dog," "George Washington"), you found yourself richly rewarded at the movies in 2000.
Of course, these movies are not going to be on anyone's shortlist of potential Oscar nominees. And let's face it, any time that a bloated blockbuster like "Gladiator" is given serious consideration for major Oscars, then you know it's been a weak year for mainstream movies. Sadly, it seems as if each year the Hollywood studios lose more and more of whatever little pretense toward artistic integrity they have had. Increasingly, the priority is to keep the corporate conglomerates that own the studios happy.
This strategy -- because it emphasizes the financial to the exclusion of the artistic -- inevitably results in the utter mediocrity of most releases. Hell, if "Pay It Forward" is Hollywood's idea of a serious movie, then the executives who are making creative decisions have no right to expect to be taken seriously on Oscar night. (Though, admittedly, as Kevin Spacey pictures go, "Pay It Forward" was no more bogus than "American Beauty.")
Oscar night, incidentally, is March 25. Nomination ballots are mailed out this month; the nominations themselves are announced in early February. With the majority of critics awards having been voted upon and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Golden Globe nominations announced, one can start to get a fix on the potential matchups for the Oscars. I give mine below.
A caveat though -- it is still too early to tell how the year-end releases will pan out. Last year, for example, one big Christmas release, "Magnolia," Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights" follow-up, was passionately admired by some critics, but most moviegoers found it a very long and tedious one-note rant; within weeks of the film's release, Oscar prognosticators knew its less-than-kind word-of-mouth and poor showing at the box office meant "Magnolia" wouldn't be a major player at the awards.
Also last year, Neil Jordan's adaptation of Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair" did well with Golden Globe nominations, but interest in it had petered out by the time the Oscar nominations were released. Similarly, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" seemed to have alienated audiences who weren't ready for a not-nice Matt Damon. Its failure to gain a best picture nomination last year certainly wasn't anticipated in the first couple of weeks of its release.
In this context, this year's wild card is Steven Soderbergh's new "Traffic," which has earned some ecstatic reviews. But since it only opens wide Friday, we don't know yet how audiences will respond to it.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when trying to predict how the Oscar nominations will fall is that, even though people voting for Oscars are -- or have been -- involved in making movies, their take on things is much more akin to that of general audiences than to film critics. They vote with their hearts much more than their heads.
As strange as it sounds, there is not a single movie that, at this point, can be called a definite best picture nominee. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the winner of the Los Angeles Film Critics award, seems like a good bet -- its epic nature and pictorial beauty are typically strong Oscar selling points. But since almost all academy members work in the American (or, to a much lesser extent, British) film industry and tend to be self-protective, the fact that "Crouching Tiger" is from Taiwan might adversely affect its chances.
"Il Postino" and "Life Is Beautiful" made the cut despite subtitles, but those two films had the genius of the Miramax Oscar campaign apparatus behind them. Sony Classics is a relative neophyte in the rough-and-tumble world of Oscar politics, and we'll just have to wait and see if it's up to the challenge.
One further worry for "Crouching Tiger": Academy members who opt for the convenience of watching the movie on video or DVD at home rather than on the big screen will be less susceptible to its visual sumptuousness.
In a more logical world, "Gladiator," Ridley Scott's Roman epic, which received five Golden Globe nominations, would be too silly to merit serious attention. But as was the case with "Elizabeth" two years ago, the members of the academy's technical branches, impressed by size and scope, might rally behind "Gladiator" and provide it a with a best picture nomination, even as it is ignored in the more cerebral categories of writing and directing. (In 1997, the writers branch had the good sense to ignore James Cameron's preposterous "Titanic" script, and it's likely to do the same with "Gladiator.")
Then again, the action sequences in "Gladiator" were so incoherently shot and edited, and the computer graphics so sloppy, that there is an outside chance that the experts in the academy's technical branches might also give it short shrift.
Soderbergh's "Traffic" likewise received five nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and unless it completely tanks with audiences, it does look like a strong best picture contender as an impressive piece of bravura, multistory filmmaking.
But then again, Robert Altman's impressive 1990s pieces of bravura, multicharacter filmmaking, "The Player" and "Short Cuts," were not best picture nominees. And it's anybody's guess whether downbeat will be in fashion at the academy this year. One thing to keep in mind: By honoring "Traffic," the academy could go on record as opposing drugs.
Soderbergh is competing with himself at the Golden Globes, having made both "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich" this year. A March release, "Erin Brockovich" -- essentially a TV movie with dirty words -- wouldn't have much of a chance in a stronger year. But never underestimate the appeal of movies about spirited underdogs bucking the system (a theme with antecedents in such best picture nominees from 60 years ago as "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"). And the fact that "Erin Brockovich" has such a strong, feisty heroine means the film will likely strike a particular chord with female academy members.
Another movie about a scrappy overachiever, "Billy Elliot," had rapturous advance word, but enthusiasm for it may have waned somewhat after it opened, for the simple reason that audiences didn't flock to it the way they did to, say, "The Full Monty." "Billy Elliot" is extremely well-liked by the people who have seen it, however, and it is playing extremely well at academy screenings. Plus, it does deserve a nod for being that rarity, a tough-minded feel-good movie. (Remember a critical fact: The academy votes emotionally rather than intellectually.)
"Almost Famous," rapturously reviewed, also had Oscar patina when it opened, but audiences proved unresponsive to Cameron Crowe's coming-of-age '70s rock saga; the film's budget of at least $60 million (against a $30 million box-office gross) prompted a nasty, anonymously sourced story in the Los Angeles Times blaming writer-director Crowe for the debacle. Crowe will most likely have to content himself with a screenplay nomination.
That Miramax would be a major player at the Oscars this year seemed as much of a given as George W. Bush's appointing a fox to guard the henhouse of the Interior Department. A decade of raucous Oscar campaigning finally produced a best picture award for Miramax capo Harvey Weinstein in 1998, when "Shakespeare in Love" edged out "Saving Private Ryan" for the statuette.
But as of this writing, things aren't looking too good for the Weinstein factory. "Chocolat" -- directed by Lasse Hallström, whose "The Cider House Rules," with seven nominations and two wins, was last year's campaign success story -- was poised to be the studio's main contender. So far, at least, the film has been met with indifference. Then again, history indicates that the film's sweet nature means that academy members will probably like it more than critics. The presence of Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp elevates its cool quotient, but "Chocolat" is probably a wee bit too precious for younger academy members.
Michael Almereyda's "Hamlet" was Miramax's most adventurous piece of filmmaking, and the New York Times' Elvis Mitchell recently upped its profile by citing it as the best film of the year (as did Salon's Stephanie Zacharek). But it's not just the movie's lack of success at the box office -- or more accurately, Miramax's halfhearted distribution -- that will prevent it from being the first Shakespeare adaptation nominated for best picture since 1968's "Romeo and Juliet." Let's face it, a sullen, contemporary Hamlet in a highly stylized New York City setting is just too audacious to appeal to academy members. (Another thing to remember about members of the academy -- they may tend to be politically liberal, but aesthetically they're pretty conservative.) As for the other Miramax releases this year -- "All the Pretty Horses," "Bounce," "Vatel" -- none of these are going to do it for the Weinsteins.
Definite nominees: None
Likely nominees: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Billy Elliot"
Possible nominees: "Traffic," "Gladiator," "Erin Brockovich," "Chocolat," "Cast Away"
Dark horses: "Wonder Boys," "Sunshine," "Quills"
There are seven people who have a very good shot at being nominated for best actor this year. At the same time, each of them has mitigating factors working against his actually taking home the Oscar.
Michael Douglas won the Los Angeles Film Critics award for his wonderful turn as a dissolute professor in "Wonder Boys." For just about the first time since his Oscar-winning performance in "Wall Street," he seemed actually to be exercising his acting chops and not just coasting on his slightly unctuous charm. But, despite a fairly rapturous reception from critics, "Wonder Boys" was DOA at the box office -- this was blamed on a terrible ad campaign -- and a current rerelease hasn't done much to increase its visibility. Douglas is a definite nominee, though.
The New York Film Critics were surprisingly unhip in choosing Tom Hanks for "Cast Away." (This is the same group that two years ago tried to prove its cutting-edge credentials by giving its best actress award to Cameron Diaz for "There's Something About Mary," only to end up looking foolish in the process.) Hanks is still the most popular actor in America, but more and more of us are growing tired of his sanctimony, his seeming belief that all those holier-than-thou roles he plays are who he is in real life.
Hollywood still loves the guy, though, and has pretty much elevated him to sainthood status along with Steven Spielberg. A nomination is fairly certain, but it's not certain that the academy wants to make a relatively young man the first person to win three best actor Oscars. (One of Jack Nicholson's three Oscars -- for "Terms of Endearment" -- was a supporting actor award.)
Ed Harris is well-liked and well-respected -- and who can forget the look on his face when stool pigeon Elia Kazan accepted his honorary Oscar two years back? (Harris' stern countenance resembled nothing so much as a retributive Old Testament God.) But "Pollock," which so far has only had one-week qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles, may be too intense and downbeat for your average academy member.
"Billy Elliot" is just the opposite of "Pollock" in terms of likability, but the actor playing this title role has a big problem -- Jamie Bell is a kid. Young actors usually get shunted off to the supporting categories, but to do so with Bell would be even more bogus than when Timothy Hutton was declared a supporting player in "Ordinary People" in 1980. Bell is in nearly every scene, and is so likable and dynamic that he may actually be the first child nominated for a lead Oscar since Jackie Cooper in 1931.
"Quills" caused a small stir when it opened at Thanksgiving time, but despite its potential for controversy, it never achieved the status of a "must-see" movie. And many people have been put off by the film's curious mixture of high-mindedness and out-and-out prurience. Geoffrey Rush's scenery chewing as the Marquis de Sade, though, was certainly ostentatious enough to catch the attention of Oscar nominators.
On the other hand, voting for Rush might encourage the actor to do more nude scenes, and nobody wants that.
There's no denying that Javier Bardem's performance in "Before Night Falls" is Oscar-worthy. But although the Spanish actor has appeared in some two dozen films in his homeland (the titles of which include "Between Your Legs" and "The Tit and the Moon"), he is unknown in this country. And playing a queer Cuban poet isn't exactly the type of career move to raise one's visibility in the multiplexes. Bardem may have to pull a Roberto Benigni and act like a horse's ass on American talk shows and at Hollywood parties, or else be watching from home on Oscar night, his award from the National Board of Review notwithstanding.
Russell Crowe should have been nominated for his breakthrough role in "L.A. Confidential." That he is even being mentioned for his stolid, one-dimensional performance in "Gladiator" is a testimony to A) his recent high profile thanks to the tabloids and B) his undeniable charisma, surly though it may be.
Two other possibilities:
Sean Connery in "Finding Forrester." Connery is a truly beloved icon, but to many people this Gus Van Sant film seems like a redux of "Good Will Hunting." And Robin Williams already has an Oscar for playing the mentor character.
Mark Ruffalo in "You Can Count on Me." Even though this movie has a thoroughly banal script and is so uncinematic that it looks like something you might have seen on PBS's "American Playhouse" circa 1981, it has proven inexplicably popular with film critics. (Perhaps they saw it immediately after "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and its sheer quietude made it seem positively profound by comparison.) If "You Can Count on Me" is similarly popular with the academy's acting branch, Ruffalo could sneak in, although it is Laura Linney's performance and Kenneth Lonergan's screenplay that have garnered the most attention, not Ruffalo's rather whiney work.
Definite nominees: Michael Douglas in "Wonder Boys"; Tom Hanks in "Cast Away"
Likely nominees: Geoffrey Rush in "Quills"; Ed Harris in "Pollock"
Possible nominees: Javier Bardem in "Before Night Falls"; Jamie Bell in "Billy Elliot"; Russell Crowe in "Gladiator"; Sean Connery in "Finding Forester"; Mark Ruffalo in "You Can Count on Me"
Dark horses: Ralph Fiennes in "Sunshine"; Chow Yun Fat in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"; Colin Ferrell in "Tigerland"; Christian Bale in "American Psycho"
This is the one you can bet the farm on. If Julia Roberts does not win best actress for "Erin Brockovich," it will be one of the top half-dozen major upsets in Oscar history. (Of course, I would have said the same thing four years ago regarding Lauren Bacall's performance in "The Mirror Has Two Faces," and if you had listened to me you'd now be farmless: Juliette Binoche won for "The English Patient.")
For years, Roberts was tagged as a movie star who excelled in comedy, but tended to flounder in dramas ("Dying Young," "Michael Collins," "Mary Reilly"). After "Erin Brockovich," her range and her ability to carry a drama cannot be denied, and she has already been acknowledged by the National Board of Review and the L.A. Film Critics. Plus, "Erin Brockovich" was the best kind of starring vehicle for her -- a (generally) critically praised film made by a certifiably cool director with a serious subject matter that is nevertheless entertaining enough to have grossed $125 million.
Through an Oscar, Hollywood will not simply be honoring Roberts for her performance in "Erin Brockovich," it will also be thanking her for being -- along with Tom Hanks -- the most dependable box-office attraction over the last several years. (Anyone who can get people to see as dire a movie as "The Runaway Bride" is the very definition of a movie star.)
Linney ("You Can Count on Me") is a definite nominee and a very talented actress, but she doesn't possess Roberts' larger-than-life aura, and her little movie doesn't have anything near the visibility of "Erin Brockovich." Ellen Burstyn's performance in "Requiem for a Dream" is also a certain nominee, and she's certainly the comeback player of the year, but "Requiem" is not your average academy member's idea of a fun night at the movies.
Other possibilities include Joan Allen, although "The Contender" isn't exactly a film that's been on everybody's mind. Moreover, Allen wasn't nominated in past years for the more high-profile "Pleasantville" and "The Ice Storm"; it may just be that the acting branch is taking this wonderful actress for granted after two unsuccessful middecade supporting-actress nominations. Binoche, the star of "Chocolat," has proven appeal to the academy, having knocked off Bacall in 1996. Plus her old-fashioned movie-star elegance, style and beauty might prove irresistible.
Many critics have been ecstatic about Gillian Anderson's striking change of pace from "The X-Files" in "The House of Mirth" -- she won the Village Voice critics' poll for performance of the year. The challenge for Sony Classics is to ensure that academy members see the low-profile period piece. "Nurse Betty" garnered some attention when it opened in September, but the mordant comedy never really caught on, making Renée Zellweger's chances at a nomination very iffy.
Björk in "Dancer in the Dark"? I could be mistaken, but somehow I can't see the kewpie-doll-faced ex-Sugarcube finding favor with Oscar voters for singing and dancing her way to death row. But "Dancer in the Dark" certainly polarized audiences -- it is the year's love it or hate it release -- and perhaps it does have enough support among younger academy members for Björk to sneak in with a nomination. Older members, however, probably don't want their musical numbers to be anything darker than Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire's "Girl Hunt Ballet" in "The Band Wagon."
Definite nominees: Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich"; Laura Linney in "You Can Count On Me"; Ellen Burstyn in "Requiem for a Dream"
Likely nominees: Juliette Binoche in "Chocolat"
Possible nominees: Gillian Anderson in "The House of Mirth"; Joan Allen in "The Contender"; Björk in "Dancer in the Dark"; Renée Zellweger in "Nurse Betty"
Dark horses: Michelle Yeoh in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"; Cate Blanchett in "The Gift"
As for the other major nominations, here's a quick rundown of the contenders:
Definite nominees: Albert Finney in "Erin Brockovich"; Willem Dafoe in "Shadow of the Vampire"
Likely nominees: Benicio Del Toro in "Traffic"; Joaquin Phoenix in "Gladiator" (more likely than for his role in "Quills," which is also a possibility)
Possible nominees: Jeff Bridges in "The Contender"; Tobey Maguire in "Wonder Boys"; Rob Brown in "Finding Forrester"; Don Cheadle in "Traffic"; Bruce Greenwood in "Thirteen Days"; Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Almost Famous"
Dark horses: Gary Lewis in "Billy Elliot"; Robert Downey Jr. in "Wonder Boys"; Oliver Reed in "Gladiator"; Jeffrey Wright in "Shaft"; Fred Willard in "Best in Show"
Definite nominees: Frances McDormand in "Almost Famous" (more likely than for "Wonder Boys," also a possibility)
Likely nominees: Julie Walters in "Billy Elliot"; Kate Hudson in "Almost Famous"
Possible nominees: Marcia Gay Harden in "Pollock"; Elaine May in "Small Time Crooks"; Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Traffic"; Judi Dench in "Chocolat"; Rosemary Harris in "Sunshine"; Kate Winslet in "Quills"
Dark horses: Jennifer Connelly in "Requiem for a Dream"; Zhang Ziyi in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"; Amy Madigan in "Pollock"; Lupe Ontiveros in "Chuck & Buck"; Catherine O'Hara in "Best in Show"
Definite nominees: Ang Lee for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"; Steven Soderbergh for "Traffic" (more likely than for "Erin Brockovich," also a possibility)
Likely nominees: Stephen Daldry for "Billy Elliot"
Possible nominees: Curtis Hanson for "Wonder Boys"; Lasse Hallström for "Chocolat"; Ridley Scott for "Gladiator"; Robert Zemeckis for "Cast Away"; Philip Kaufman for "Quills"; Cameron Crowe for "Almost Famous"
Dark horses: István Szabó for "Sunshine"; Lars von Trier for "Dancer in the Dark"; Edward Yang for "Yi Yi"