For despite, or perhaps because of, this being an especially weak year for the kinds of films Oscar voters favor, it is easier than usual to discern what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is likely to do when it announces its nominees on Feb. 12. An informal survey of veteran Oscar watchers revealed surprising near-unanimity as to what those choices might be.
This category, always the object of intense interest, seems especially clear. Two films are destined to be nominated and, more than that, likely to fight it out for the actual award.
One is "A Beautiful Mind," a Ron Howard-directed look at what happens when a genius goes mad; and the other is Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," whose co-front-runner status was enhanced by a victory in the recent American Film Institute awards.
Two other quite different films also seem likely for nominations. "In the Bedroom," the kind of intense, adult dramas the studios seem to have lost the knack for, would have been a long shot in any other year, but not this one.
Similarly, "Black Hawk Down," despite its violence, benefits not only from Ridley Scott's panoramic direction, but from a national mood that is as pro-military as it's been in quite some time.
As for the fifth slot, one of two films seems likely to fill it.
"Moulin Rouge" certainly has its passionate advocates, but it has no lack of detractors either, although 20th Century Fox has been trying to bolster its chances among older voters by prominently displaying quotes from such venerable industry figures as Robert Wise and Stanley Donen. Also on the rise is Robert Altman's amusing "Gosford Park," which has been gradually gaining adherents.
More remotely possible are Michael Mann's "Ali" and "Shrek," the little cartoon that could, which would have been highly likely in another year, but the existence of a first-time feature animation Oscar may crimp its chances. As for David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," its numerous critics' awards will likely not go far enough toward making it palatable to the academy membership.
The other categories should break down as follows:
The voters seem poised to follow the best picture pattern, but only up to a point. Scott's skill in "Black Hawk Down" will be difficult to resist, as should the scope of what Jackson accomplished with the J.R.R. Tolkien novel. Also likely are industry veteran Howard and the even more veteran Altman. The fifth slot will be an all-out tussle among three respected directors whose films might not be in the best picture mix: Mann for "Ali," Baz Luhrmann for "Moulin Rouge" and Lynch for "Mulholland Drive."
This may be the first year with two African American best actor nominees, Denzel Washington for "Training Day" and the well-liked Will Smith for his anti-charismatic performance in "Ali." Two other slots will likely go to non-American actors, Tom Wilkinson for "In the Bedroom" and Russell Crowe, West Virginia accent and all, for "A Beautiful Mind."
The fifth slot could be Gene Hackman for "The Royal Tenenbaums" or Billy Bob Thornton in "Monster's Ball," with acting branch favorite Sean Penn in "I Am Sam" a more distant possibility.
The same names come up again and again in this category: Sissy Spacek for "In the Bedroom," Nicole Kidman for "The Others" (not "Moulin Rouge"), Judi Dench for "Iris," Halle Berry for "Monster's Ball" and, should enough people manage to see the film, the remarkable Tilda Swinton for "The Deep End." If Swinton doesn't get enough votes, Renée Zellweger has a shot for "Bridget Jones's Diary." Naomi Watts has won a number of critics' awards for "Mulholland Drive" and she could break through here as well.
This is where things get a little tricky. The only sure bets seem to be Ben Kingsley as the anti-Gandhi in "Sexy Beast" and Jim Broadbent as Dench's partner in "Iris."
There will likely be some nominations for "Lord of the Rings," with Ian McKellen's wizardly Gandalf and Viggo Mortensen's magnetic Aragon the strongest contenders.
Similarly, a nomination should come out of "Ali," either Jamie Foxx's exuberant Bundini Brown or Jon Voight's grave Howard Cosell. And, if the films get seen, Brian Cox could be up for "L.I.E.," Steve Buscemi for "Ghost World," or Tony Shalhoub for "The Man Who Wasn't There."
As usual, a lot of British faces will be visible, led by Maggie Smith, irresistible in "Gosford Park." Helen Mirren might also get a nod for that film, although she had a better role in the regrettably little seen "Last Orders." Kate Winslet is possible as the younger Murdoch in "Iris," as is Australian Cate Blanchett, who was hard to miss in "The Shipping News." The two likely American contenders are Jennifer Connelly for "A Beautiful Mind" and Marisa Tomei reinventing herself for "In the Bedroom."
A category with considerable riches this time around, extending from "In the Bedroom," taken from a short story, to the children's book-based "Shrek," the comic book-based "Ghost World" and the play-based "Lantana." Other potential nominees include "Lord of the Rings," "Iris," "Black Hawk Down" (although the film doesn't have a "written" feel), "Bridget Jones's Diary," "The Shipping News" and "A Beautiful Mind" (although the film veered considerably from the book's nonfiction story.) Also worthy but perhaps too little seen is "The Deep End," a film whose core novel, "The Blank Wall," was previously made into the Max Ophuls-directed "The Reckless Moment" half a century ago.
The possibilities here are certainly varied and mostly extend to scripts written for or by auteur directors: Julian Fellowes for Altman's "Gosford Park," David Mamet for his "Heist," Joel and Ethan Coen for their "The Man Who Wasn't There" and director Wes Anderson and actor Owen Wilson for "The Royal Tenenbaums." "Memento" is another viable candidate for director-writer Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan (who wrote the story). Also possible is the downbeat "Monster's Ball," and, if the writers feel like venturing onto foreign shores, the Bosnian "No Man's Land," which took home best screenplay honors at Cannes and the recent European film awardsand deserved them.