It's Soderbergh vs. Soderbergh

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Hollywood, 2000 was a good year to wield a sword. Or to be Steven Soderbergh.

"Gladiator," starring Russell Crowe and a rebuilt Colosseum in an epic about Roman gladiators and the power of home, leads this year's Oscars pack with 12 nominations. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Taiwanese director Ang Lee's gravity-defying ode to the Chinese warrior tradition, was a close second with 10.

But the biggest winner in the nominations announced yesterday may have been director Soderbergh, who not only saw two of his films nominated for best picture - "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic" - but also will be competing against himself for best director. Soderbergh was cited for both films, the first time a director's been nominated twice since 1938.

The fifth film vying for best picture is Miramax's lighter-than-air "Chocolat," something of a surprise nomination, given its lukewarm critical response and so-so box office.

Among actors, Crowe will be up against early favorite Tom Hanks for "Cast Away," Geoffrey Rush for over-emoting in "Quills," Ed Harris as tormented artist Jackson Pollock in his self-produced "Pollock" and long shot Javier Bardem for "Before Night Falls."

Julia Roberts earned her second best-actress nomination, for "Erin Brockovich," and her win is widely seen as the closest thing to a lock in the major categories. Potential spoilers are Joan Allen as a vice presidential nominee tainted by a sex scandal in "The Contender," Ellen Burstyn as a pitiable abuser of weight-loss drugs in "Requiem for a Dream," Juliette Binoche as a devilish purveyor of sweets in "Chocolat" and Laura Linney as a harried single mother in "You Can Count On Me."

Directing nominees besides Soderbergh and Soderbergh are Stephen Daldry for "Billy Elliott," Lee for "Crouching Tiger" and Ridley Scott for "Gladiator."

Robert Rehme, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, praised this year's crop of Oscar contenders for its range. "This is a great selection of films, very diverse," he said.

But outside of a few surprises (including the captivating Bardem, largely unknown outside his native Spain), the academy stuck largely with the tried-and-true this year, ignoring such non-mainstream fare as Darren Aronofsky's category-defying "Requiem for a Dream" (which, outside of Burstyn's nomination, was ignored) and Lars von Trier's 21st-century musical "Dancer in the Dark," which was recognized only in the best song category (for Bjork's "I've Seen It All").

Nowhere was this more evident than in the support for "Gladiator," the kind of big-screen epic Hollywood has always loved, and "Chocolat," a gooey confection that benefited from Miramax's now-legendary ability to get out the vote. Last year's strong showing for the studio's "The Cider House Rules" also caught many handicappers by surprise.

"Gladiator" and "Brockovich" were surprises in one sense, however. Both were released in the first half of the year, which goes against the rule-of-thumb that academy voters forget about any film released before September.

"We had concerns people might write it off as a blockbuster or might not remember it," said "Gladiator" producer David Franzoni. "But they remembered it, and that's a testimony to the brilliant direction" by Scott.

Lee, whose "Crouching Tiger" has proved a favorite among critics, sounded relieved that a film spoken entirely in Mandarin Chinese is finding acceptance in his adopted homeland.

"This was supposed to be my homecoming project," he said. "I'm really taking to heart how this film is performing in America."

"Traffic" producer Marshall Herskovitz, whose film earned five nominations, said he's not worried that his film's chances to win best picture will be hurt by Soderbergh's twofer.

"I think that's a real possibility in the director's category," he said. "I don't think that's going to spill over into anything else."

As frequently happens, the most interesting races promise to be those in the supporting categories, with their mix of rising stars, established workhorses and sentimental favorites.

Among actresses, the choices are Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand, both for "Almost Famous," Judi Dench for "Chocolat," Marcia Gay Harden for "Pollack" and Julie Walters for "Billy Elliott." McDormand and Dench are previous Oscar winners, while Walters is back on Oscar's radar screen 17 year's after being nominated as best actress for "Educating Rita."

Supporting actor nominations went to Jeff Bridges for "The Contender," Willem Dafoe for "Shadow of the Vampire," Benicio Del Toro for "Traffic," Albert Finney for "Erin Brockovich" and Joaquin Phoenix for "Gladiator." Finney has never won an Oscar, in a career spanning more than four decades.

As usual, Baltimore audiences have not yet had the opportunity to see several of the Oscar-nominated films. "Before Night Falls," director Julian Schnabel's lovingly crafted look at exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, has yet to play Charm City; it's tentatively set for later this month at the Charles.

And of the five films nominated in the foreign-language category, only one - "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" - has opened here. The other nominees are "Amores Perros" (Mexico), "Divided We Fall" (Czech Republic), "Everybody Famous" (Belgium) and "The Taste of Others" (France).

Regrettable omissions from the nominations list include Michelle Pfeiffer, whose performance in "What Lies Beneath" was the year's overlooked gem; Bruce Greenwood, utterly convincing (and commanding) as JFK in "Thirteen Days"; Michael Rispoli, a pillar of unexpected dignity in "Two Family House"; and "Almost Famous," a truly wonderful film whose box-office failure should not have doomed its chances for a best picture nod, but apparently did.

Oscars will be given March 25.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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