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January 10, 2003 2:00 AM
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Oscar Meets Indecision: A Look at The Academy's Tough Choices for the Best of 2002

Oscar Meets Indecision: A Look at The Academy's Tough Choices for the Best of 2002

by Charles Lyons











Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in "The Pianist.

© Focus Features




It's the year of indecision. Oscar ballots were sent out to voters on January 10 but still no front runner has emerged, despite even Harvey Weinstein's best-laid plans.

There has not been a year in recent memory that has divided critics so greatly. Critics' awards are supposed to serve as prognosticators for the Oscars. However, the New York Critics Circle hailed Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" as best picture, Los Angeles critics selected Alexander Payne's "About Schmidt," the National Board of Review picked <>"The Hours," and both the Boston Critics and the National Society of Film Critics crowned "The Pianist."

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Golden Globes, which have come to be known for some truly odd selections, nominated for best picture "About Schmidt," "Gangs of New York," "The Hours," "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," and "The Pianist." So there is still much doubt about who the actual nominees will be when they are announced on February 11, and even more doubt about who the winners will be on March 23.

Some of the films that got early attention may not survive the onslaught of newer movies that are just beginning to find popular and critical support. One insider suggested that "Far From Heaven" and "About Schmidt" might fade come Oscar voting time while movies such as Rob Marshall's "Chicago" and Spike Lee's "The 25th Hour," which initially received lukewarm critical responses, may already be making up ground.

Nearly all of the films likely to win an Oscar nomination come either from studios or the classics companies associated with them. The good news for the trade papers and ad divisions at major newspapers and TV stations is that nearly every studio has a film or two on which they will continue to spend liberally, regardless of what the critics have said.

The cost of supporting a major Oscar campaign is so prohibitive for the true indie that even were there a film this year with a legitimate chance to win a best picture Oscar the company behind it might not have money to launch a significant campaign.

Moreover, Academy members tend to be attracted toward a certain type of glossy film that has practically become a genre unto itself. The Oscar winners of the past decade have had name American or British actors in them and a grandiosity and scope reminiscent of old Hollywood. I'm thinking of Oscar winners like "Braveheart" and "Titanic" and "Gladiator" and even Miramax's "The English Patient."

But the indie sensibility has made its mark on Oscar voters, particularly in lead and supporting actor categories; such awards have not consistently gone to the actors in the films that win best picture.

"The critics will have no bearing this year," said an Academy member. He noted that many members of the academy are just now getting to watch the films, and "they're finding that many which won critical attention are really not worthy of it. This will be one of those years when most of the voting will be done at the last minute." He added. "Ballots certainly won't be sent back right away. It will be a word-of-mouth situation."

Mark Urman, who heads distribution for ThinkFILM and has been involved in many an Oscar campaign, says Academy members take their cues from what the public accepts. But many of the films that may go up for the top awards, including "The Pianist" and "Chicago," are just beginning their platform releases; it's too early to say how they will fare nationwide.

"I can't remember a year where there was such an absence of trend," said Urman. "I don't think anyone at this point will say, 'I know what the best films will be.'"

My own taste differs from Academy voters, but having seen nearly all the likely contenders for Oscars, I have some sense of how things might play out.

Best Picture

There are at least eight pictures with legitimate chances for the five best-picture nominations. Here are the films I predict will make the cut.

I think "The Pianist" is the best picture of the year, but I'm not certain whether the Academy will get behind it (Polanski is always a controversial figure). The subject matter might work against the movie though this is a very different type of Holocaust film than Steven Spielberg's "Schindlers List," which won best picture in 1993. Roman Polanski is at the height of his powers. I forgot I was watching a film. Nothing was forced or staged. It felt more like a documentary, and what a gripping one.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," directed by Peter Jackson, may also face an uphill battle: the film is part of a franchise and some Academy members may not be enthralled by Middle Earth and its intense, long-haired inhabitants. Still, the film's divergent stories are tightly interwoven, the cinematography stunning and the epic battle at the film's conclusion one of the most ornate and well-orchestrated scenes in cinema history. I liked this installment even better than the first. It's tighter and stunningly filmed.

"The Hours" has Oscar written all over it: literary subject matter, superb acting and a smart, nuanced adaptation by playwright David Hare. But I was left thinking that something was missing. How do you do cinematic justice to the lyrical language that works on the mind in Michael Cunningham's novel?

"Chicago" is of course a musical and, with the exception of Baz Luhrman's "Moulin Rouge," the Academy has tended to pay less attention to musicals and comedies. Over the past decade, the best picture Oscar has gone to films with more gravitas. But "Chicago" is lush and cleverly directed by Rob Marshall, who retains much of the theatricality of the stage piece while using close-ups and Bob Fosse-like editing to convey the sense of fun in both lyric and story.

"Gangs of New York" is Martin Scorsese's and Harvey's passion project, and Miramax (fearing a disaster?) has spared little to publicize it. No one would deny that Scorsese is one of the best directors working today, but is this an Oscar-worthy film? Its violence and at times tension-lacking story may leave some Academy voters non-plussed. But Daniel-Day Lewis gives the performance of the year and the film's set design, cinematography, and editing are of the highest order.

Outsiders

Were it up to me, I would give Lee's "The 25th Hour" and Phillip Noyce's "Rabbit-Proof Fence" best picture nominations. "The 25th Hour" is the best film Lee has ever made; like "Y Tu Mama Tambien," it manages to tell a dramatic story about characters undergoing life changes while also portraying a city and a country whose own drama is of equal or greater magnitude.

"Rabbit-Proof"'s focus on three young "half-white" Aborigines in 1931 might not be the most topical of subjects for American audiences, but it's made with such patience, confidence, and lyricism that I am surprised Miramax isn't doing more to promote the film. Noyce's "The Quiet American" is also well wrought but not of the same order. Its best achievement may well be the screenplay adaptation of Graham Greene's novel, written by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan. Michael Caine puts in a strong performance but even an actor of his caliber, who can do no wrong, may be outclassed this year by Day-Lewis.

Miramax is faced with an embarrassment of riches; it must be tough to run so many campaigns at once, not knowing yet which movies and stars will click with audiences.

Although I liked "About Schmidt" and loved the director's previous film, "Election," I don't think it makes the cut in this competitive year. Nor do I think Alexander Payne deserves the best director nod, which the Hollywood Foreign Press has already given him. I think a more seasoned director would have diminished the voice-over and not pushed the humor as much in the family scenes. "Far From Heaven" is another big question mark. In a less competitive year, the film and its director might have had a better chance. But Julianne Moore and composer Elmer Bernstein will certainly give this painterly homage to Douglas Sirk's films some deserved Oscar attention.

Best Director

It's practically an existential question: how do you separate a film from the person who directs it? But the Academy has managed to do just that over the past several years. In 2000, "Gladiator" won best film but Steven Soderbergh nabbed best director for "Traffic." In 1996, "Shakespeare in Love" took best picture but Spielberg got best director for "Saving Private Ryan."

Bestowing a best director award on someone whose film didn't win best picture is a means by which the Academy can acknowledge a broader range of meritorious work and, in essence, communicate just how difficult it is to select any one picture in a year when several were award-worthy. [The splitting happens because each vote is separate]. Because this year there are so many potential best pictures, I would think the chances for another picture/director split are greater. For example, "Lord" could win best picture while Polanski or Scorsese take best director.

My favorites: Polanski, Jackson, Scorsese, Lee, and Marshall. It's a pity there are not enough nominations to acknowledge excellent work by George Clooney ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"), Joe Carnahan ("NARC"), Steven Spielberg ("Catch Me If You Can"), and Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien").

Best Actress

Actresses had an outstanding year in 2002. Were they not all in the same year, at least five performers might legitimately have won separate Oscars.

In a weird sense of zeitgeist, Academy members this year will be choosing among different repressed and conflicted women. Each of the five women likely to receive an Oscar nomination -- Diane Lane in "Unfaithful," Julianne Moore in "Far From Heaven," Salma Hayek in "Frida," Nicole Kidman in "The Hours," and Meryl Streep in "The Hours" (or "Adaptation"?) -- are women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Each embodies a struggle against personal and societal demons; in each, the performer fights back tears to hide the shame of feeling too much and too deeply in worlds where female feelings are considered best kept bottled up.

Lane and Moore show themselves to be two of the best American actresses working today. Feeling guilty about her affair, Lane rides a train while thinking about her love-making with a virtual stranger. Tears trickle down her cheeks but there's a glimpse of a smile. She did this freely. She enjoyed herself. In what kind of world should such pleasure be verboten? Lane's work is Chekhovian: it gives us text and subtext. And so does Moore's performance in "Far From Heaven." She is a docile 1950s housewife but she says one thing and means quite another. It is only when things boil over that we see a woman not frightened to stick up for her own affections for a black man, no matter what the neighbors might think. The roles are perfect for actresses as subtle as Moore and Lane and it will be thrilling to see who takes home the Oscar.

The wild card is Kidman, who has never been as on the mark as she is in her portrayal of Virginia Woolf, a woman (like Frida Kahlo), who dares to be the impulsive artist capable of unearthing her demons while all the male world would reign her in.

It could be that the Academy vote is split between Lane and Moore and Kidman walks off with the statuette. Like Kidman, Renee Zellweger seems to get better every year. She's working in a league of her own when it comes to comedy. Her performance in "Chicago" deserves recognition but it's hard to see the Academy dropping Streep or any of the other four actresses, including Hayek, who also gives the performance of her career in "Frida."

Best Actor

I have already said Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in "Gangs" is the best of the year. But not to be taken lightly are the following: Adrien Brody for "The Pianist"; Oscar-favorite Jack Nicholson for "About Schmidt"; Sam Rockwell for "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"; Michael Caine for "The Quiet American"; and Christopher Plummer for "Nicholas Nickleby." In a perfect world, Jason Patrick ("Narc"), Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Love Liza") and Ed Norton ("25th Hour") would also be recognized for their work.

Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay

Expect Nia Vardalos ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") or Burr Steers ("Igby Goes Down") or Mike White ("The Good Girl") to receive an original screenplay Nomination, but the adapted category is more competitive. That will include Francis Walsh, Peter Jackson (et.al.) for "Lord of the Rings," Ronald Harwood for "The Pianist," David Hare for "The Hours" and possibly Hampton/Schenkkan for "The Quiet American," David Benioff (from his own novel) for "The 25th Hour" and Payne/Jim Taylor for "About Schmidt." I'm not sure whether Charlie and Donald Kaufman's "Adaptation" will be viewed an original screenplay or an adaptated screenplay from the Susan Orlean book.

Best Foreign Film

Another competitive category. I loved Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her," but that surprisingly was snubbed as Spain's entry this year. And "Y Tu Mama Tambien" was great, but that was Mexico's entry last year. Expect "The Crime of Father Amaro," "The Fast Runner," and "City of God" to be competitive. Germany's "Nowhere in Africa" is also generating attention.

Best Original Score

Elmer Bernstein's score for "Far From Heaven" is a lock for a nomination. Also watch for Peter Gabriel's score for "Rabbit-Proof Fence," Philip Glass' "The Hours" (though there was too much of it), and Rachel Portman's "Nicholas Nickleby." The Academy would also do well to consider nominating Cliff Martinez's brilliant score for Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris."

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