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  THE MOVIES ARE AN AFTERTHOUGHT.  
   
 

Movie critics and pundits always wait until the end of the year to make their Oscar predictions.

But there's no fun in that. It's fairly easy to make reasonable assessments by then. The critics' awards have been handed out, the audiences and the reviewers have spoken and the studios have tipped their hats about what movies they want to push. It's far more difficult -- and far more entertaining -- to try to handicap the race before it's clear who's in the lead. Sportswriters have to make pre-season predictions, why shouldn't movie writers?

With that in mind, I've taken a good long look at the slate of Oscar season fare and proffer my best guesses about which movies will join the ranks of the On the Waterfront and Schindler's List -- and whichmovies will join the ranks of Beloved and Heaven's Gate. The good news is: I can easily spot at least five of the movies slated for release between now and year end that look like classic American movies. But the bad news, as always: There are some serious turkeys, too.

Now, full disclosure. I haven't seen *any* of these movies yet. (OK, I've seen two: 'Lost in Translation' and 'Intolerable Cruelty.') I'm guessing, based my forecasts on a few early reviews, the combination of talents assembled on each picture, the online buzz and the trailers. Chances are, I could be wrong on one or two of the eventual Oscar winners, but the movies are so secondary these days that it really doesn't matter.

Before I we get into most of the movies that factor into this year's Oscar race, it's worth noting two general points about this season's slate.

One: Grief, revenge and the inevitable complications of exacting retribution appear to be the overarching themes this year -- perhaps because of Sept. 11, perhaps a coincidence. About half a dozen films -- Kill Bill, Mystic River, The Missing, 21 Grams, Dogville, The Statement -- play out as tales of remorse and revenge.

And Two: I just wanna say two words to you. Just two words. Are you listening? "Sean Penn."

 


   
 

 

AND NOW, A BLIND LOOK THE MOVIES...

Lost in Translation (released): Critics in full pre-Oscar mode have heaped praise on Sofia Coppola's sophomore effort, which centers on the chance relationship between aging Hollywood movie star Bill Murray and young bride Scarlett Johannson one week in Tokyo. But I found it less impressive than her debut, The Virgin Suicides. Lost a good film that lingers lovingly on the one note it plays -- like a piece of minimalist Japanese music. However, it suffers a bit from being too enamored by its two main characters and immersing them with a world of only bare-bones stereotypes -- the vapid Hollywood starlet, the absently self-centered husband, the entire nation of Japan. No wonder Murray and Johannson felt all alone. The two deliver strong, affecting performances; they stand a better chance of being nominated than the movie does -- especially Murray.

Kill Bill (Oct. 10): If video-store clerks were members of the Academy, Quentin Tarantino's endlessly awaited return would be a shoo-in. As it stands, many of the real Academy members don't like excessive violence, don't share Tarantino's love of martial arts flicks and probably still have some pent-up Schadenfreude to expend on the aging wunderkind. Early online viewers have said the movie dazzles, something many moviegoers haven't felt since they were blown away by Reservoir Dogs back in 1992. However, the New Yorker's David Denby -- the best critic in the business, hands down -- eloquently tore it to shreds, essentially asking: What good is a nihilist like Tarantino when in the end he makes you feel nothing? Kill Bill Part I -- Kill Bill, Part II gets released in 2004 -- most likely won't be remembered by Oscar voters, but Tarantino's devotees will surely love it.

Mystic River (Oct. 10): Oscar chum. Clint Eastwood returns to top behind-the-camera form of this murky revenge tragedy starring Tim Robbins, the under-appreciated Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn as three former friends from Irish Catholic Boston whose childhood

 
 

wounds are reopened by the murder of one of their children. Penn's only competition for Best Actor may be Sean Penn in 21 Grams -- it's hard to believe this won't be the year this giant actor wins the Oscar. The film, based on Dennis Lehane's novel, looks to be another modern crime classic along the lines of L.A. Confidential -- it even shares the same screenwriter, Brian Helgeland -- and should be similarly compensated come Oscar nomination time.

Intolerable Cruelty (Oct. 10): The critics didn't seem to notice, but Intolerable Cruelty is the Oscar season's first turkey. The talent behind this movie constitutes an embarrassment of riches -- make-all-audiences-

 
 

happy producer Brian Grazer, miscreant writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen, matinee idols George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones and a supporting cast including Geoffrey Rush, Billy Bob Thornton and Cedric the Entertainer -- but this "comedy" is more embarrassing than rich. Clooney gamely plays a divorce attorney pitted against serial divorcee Zeta-Jones, but there is little chemistry generated between the two leads. In fact, Zeta-Jones hasn't generated much heat with any co-star since Zorro's Antonio Banderas. Most distressingly, the movie raises the question: If the Coen Bros. are vaunted for the intelligence and brio, why is this film so vacuous, stupid and lazy? Somehow, the critics have compared the film to classic screwball comedies from the likes of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. Wilder and Sturges would've have done a better job from their current posts.

Veronica Guerin (Oct. 17): Cate Blanchett plays an ill-fated Irish journalist who reports on the drug underworld of the mean Dublin streets -- Erin Brockovich with a sad ending. Director Joel Schumacher and producer Jerry Bruckheimer don't exactly reek Oscar, but Blanchett is a great actress who turns in award-worthy performances in her sleep. Still, voters don't always seem to wake up and notice.

Sylvia (Oct. 17): Gwyneth Paltrow does Sylvia Plath. Perhaps I should recuse myself from commenting on this film. With the exception of Shakespeare in Love, Paltrow has been milquetoast and boring in most of her films. The subject matter -- suicidal, self-absorbed poet's relationship with cad hubby Ted Hughes -- isn't helping generate enthusiasm. This should get blanked at Oscar time, unless Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein bullies everyone into nominating his favorite actress again.

Pieces of April (Oct. 17): Black sheep Katie Holmes cooks Thanksgiving dinner for her family. Polish the Oscars! Actually, this was a crowd pleaser at Sundance, but that's not what intrigues me about the movie -- some turkeys like Blair Witch Project were "Sundance crowd pleasers," too. What does intrigue me: Peter Hedges wrote What's Eating Gilbert Grape and co-wrote About a Boy, two great modern movies about family. Plus, Patricia Clarkson -- icy and sinister in last year's Far From Heaven -- plays Holmes' mom. And Holmes has turned in solid work in Wonder Boys, Go and the Gift. This one may surprise audiences.

In the Cut (Oct. 24): Professor Meg Ryan (professor? riiiiight) gets entangled in nasty sexual relationship with cop Mark Ruffalo investigating a local murder. Directed by the Piano's Jane Campion. The buzz about this movie involves graphic sex scenes, which actors usually engage in when they're young and need the money or when they're old and need to revive their careers. No Oscars here -- maybe inadvertent yuks and Razzies, though. Ruffalo has fallen since his great performance in You Can Count on Me, and he won't get up with this one -- the Seventies porn star 'stache isn't helping, either.

The Singing Detective (Oct. 24): A novelist embarks on a fever

 
 

dream while hospitalized, replete with musical numbers and plot lines from his pulpy detective novel. An Americanization of Dennis Potter's legendary British TV series directed by Keith Gordon and staring Robert Downey Jr., Mel Gibson, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody and more. Downey is an occasionally brilliant actor always seems to pour all his creative energy into half-successful or out-and-out lousy films, while we all wait for a bona fide great movie that never seems to materialize. Will this be it? Only the Magic 8 Ball knows, but I'm guessing no.

The Human Stain (Oct. 31): Professor Anthony Hopkins (does he know Prof. Meg Ryan?) suffers as his affair with Nicole

 
 

Kidman gets exposed (Jude Law, Lenny Kravitz -- who isn't having an affair with Nicole Kidman?) along with other darker secrets in Kramer vs. Kramer helmer Robert Benton's adaptation of Philip Roth's book. This is a Miramax-backed Oscar effort, but I fret that Hollywood won't get Roth right. Plus, let's face it, Sir Anthony has been running the risk of losing his title since his halcyon days of Lambs and Remains of the Day. Maybe it will deliver, but I'm not betting on it. Kidman has two other chances for Oscar bids, and Miramax always finds something else to push if its early hopefuls fall flat.

Matrix Revolutions (Nov. 7): Neo matches wits against the machines in the final installment of the trilogy, which lost much of its momentum after the mind-bending brilliance of the original film. The technical folks will surely throw a few nominations this movie's way -- actually, do they nominate this one or Matrix Reloaded? -- and that's about it.

Elephant (Nov. 7): Gus Van Sant's 81-minute treatise on Columbine has been dividing film-festival audiences. Starring a cast of unknowns, Elephant appears to be a serious meditation and

 
 

gruesome portrayal on teen violence that doesn't offer easy explanations -- just like real life. However, Hollywood tends to prefer easy answers to real life. No nominations here, but lots of post-screening arguments.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Nov. 14): Russell Crowe and Beautiful Mind figment Paul Bettany play captain and ship surgeon in this seafaring epic set during the Napoleonic Wars. Peter Weir directs and co-wrote the script, based on Patrick O'Brien's beloved Aubrey-Maturin novels. Fox rejiggered its schedule to put Master and Commander in the thick of the Oscar race. Weir, director of Truman Show and Witness, is one of the best

 
 

moviemakers we have, the preview looks impressive and Crowe and Bettany make a formidable pair. This may be a strong contender for awards, especially if it makes big money.

Love Actually (Nov. 14): Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson, Rowan Atkinson, Laura Linney and others star in what the preview calls "the ultimate romantic comedy." Uh oh. The preview looks like it might work, actually, with Four Weddings and Bridget Jones screenwriter Richard Curtis going behind the camera for the first time. Grant, fresh from his outstanding work in About a Boy and phoning in his turn in the embarrassing Two Weeks Notice, stars as the new prime minister falling for a lowly assistant -- but it's really a round robin of rom-com situations. Looks like a big date movie, but not major Oscar fodder.

21 Grams (Nov. 14): How much does a human's soul weigh? Twenty-one grams, apparently, which is the weight humans shed when they die -- making this one of the best movie titles ever. Three lives collide after a car crash: transplant patient/mathematician Sean Penn, grieving mother Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro as an

 
 

ex-con who got religion. Overseeing the proceedings in a non-linear narrative way is Amores Perros director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. This one promises to be an extraordinary confluence of artists. Inarritu's first English language film after the brilliant Amores Perros. It goes unsaid how commanding Penn and del Toro can be -- and anyone who witnessed Watts' devastating and tricky performance in Mulholland Dr. knows she's a better actress than her pal, Ms. Kidman.

Gothika (Nov. 21): Halle Berry plays a criminal psychologist who ends up a patient in they psychological horror ghost story co-starring Robert Downey Jr. and Penelope Cruz. Matthieu

 
 

Kassovitz directs. Jumping headlong into Bond girl roles, X-Men sequels and gothic horror flicks isn't the best way for Berry to land another Oscar, but it will probably make her a bigger star -- and this flick looks like scary fun, if the preview counts for anything.

The Missing (Nov. 19): Cate Blanchett and estranged, hirsute dad Tommy Lee Jones have to team up to find Blanchett's kidnapped daughter in 19th century New Mexico. Ron Howard directs, but the preview really doesn't look like a Ron Howard movie -- it looks dark and somber. Reportedly Columbia Pictures moved up the release date for Missing to qualify for Oscar nominations, so that says something, I suppose. Blanchett is a great actress; she'll get nominated this year for one of her two starring roles.

Last Samurai (Dec.5): Civil War vet Tom Cruise goes to Japan to train the emperor's troops as they take on samurais, but goes native for the Japanese swordsmen-warriors instead. Ed Zwick of the god-awful Legends of the Fall directs, which isn't a good sign. Cruise apparently wants this to be his Dances With Wolves, but he is up against the box-office titan paradox: the broader your appeal, the more narrow the range of acceptable roles for big audiences. Besides, Cruise hasn't shown great range as an actor. I have a nagging suspicion Samurai will one day be sold in a "Cruise DVD Discount 3Pack" along with Legend and Far and Away -- two other period-piece failures.

Big Fish (Dec. 12): Weirdmeister Tim Burton directs this fable about Billy Crudup's efforts to learn more about dying dad Albert Finney, in part by recreating the legends of the father's youth -- dad is played in flashbacks by Ewan McGregor. It will be interesting to see what Burton does with a semi-adult fable. The premise is interesting, and McGregor always shines.

Girl With a Pearl Earring (Dec. 12): Scarlett Johannson is the girl in the painting and Colin Firth is Vermeer in Peter Webber's adaptation of the Tracy Chevalier novel. Firth sets hearts aflutter in Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones -- both he and Johannson seem to convey a good deal by simply staring. I haven't read the book, but I have a vague hunch this one will fall between the cracks.

The Statement (Dec. 12): Michael Caine plays a Nazi hiding in the south of France from pursuers -- first among them Tilda Swinton -- in this Norman Jewison movie written by Ronald Harwood, the Oscar winner for the Pianist. Oscar has a soft spot for anything Holocaust-related, and Caine ably proved in last year's Quiet American that he's still got game. Swinton, meanwhile, always seems on the cusp of greater recognition. This may be interesting --

 
 

although Jewison hasn't been consistent for at least the past two decades.

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Dec. 19): The big finish. Elijah Wood, Viggo Morgenstern and Ian McKellen are back for wizard Peter Jackson's final installment. It will be great. It will make more than $350 million. It will be nominated for double-digit awards, including Best Picture. The only question is: Will it win the big prize? It has very tough competition in Mystic River and 21 Grams, among others.

Mona Lisa Smile (Dec. 19): A female Dead Poets Society: It's shocking, in retrospect, that Hollywood didn't think of this

 
 

sooner. Julia Roberts stars as the new professor at 1950s Wellesly and Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal are the students in this Mike Newell flick. The preview looks a bit syrupy, and I'm not the hugest Julia Roberts fan, but there's almost always one syrupy movie that makes its way into the Oscar slate -- and Mona Lisa Smile has to be better than Chocolat and Cider House Rules, two profoundly shitty movies that made the Best Picture cut.

Cold Mountain (Dec. 26): Injured Civil War vet Jude Law makes his way back home to North Carolina and his intended Nicole Kidman in this adaptation of Charles Frazier's Odyssey-inspired novel. Anthony Minghella of English Patient infamy directs; the great supporting cast includes Renee Zellweger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman and Sexy Beast's Ray Winstone. Tight-fisted Miramax shouldered the $85 million budget alone -- they have an interest, as they say in Barton Fink. Thus, it will be nominated for plenty of awards -- hopefully, it will also be good. With his astonishing good looks and serious acting chops, Jude Law should be at the top of A-list actors -- this may well be the movie that puts him there.

House of Sand and Fog (Dec. 26): Jennifer Connelly plays an alcoholic struggling to keep her house from falling into Iranian émigré Ben Kingsley's hands in a public auction. Adapted from the Oprah Book Club downer by newcomer writer-director Vadim Perelman. Looks like a real downer, but also a serious acting fest as well.

The Company (Dec. 26): Another Robert Altman ensemble piece, this time about a group of ballet dancers and the young woman slated to become principal dancer, Neve Campbell. Campbell, a trained dancer, also co-wrote and produced the movie. Altman's ensemble pieces sometimes put me to sleep, so I'm not the best judge. However, I don't think this is a major Oscar contender.

Dogville (Dec. 26): Danish director Lars von Trier's bleak parable about Nicole Kidman's treatment in a fictitious town in Depression-era America, co-starring Paul Bettany, Stellan Skargaard, Lauren Bacall and others. If the Cannes crowd opted not to award this movie -- a punishing three hours of hateful characters, hand-held cameras and heavy narration -- it seems highly unlikely that Hollywood will. There's a market right now for a good movie that questions American mores, but Dogville appears too tedious and cruel to be such a film.

 
 

 

AND THE NOMINEES ARE...

What will make the final Oscar ballots? Here are my shot-in-the-dark guesses. The asterisk signifies who I think will win.

Best Actor Nominations

 

 
 

Russell Crowe, Master and Commander: The Far End of the World
Robert Downey, Jr., The Singing Detective
Jude Law, Cold Mountain
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation
*Sean Penn, Mystic River

 

 
 

Penn may also get nominated and win for 21 Grams. Tom Cruise may surprise me and return to Jerry Maguire form and land a nomination, but I don't think anyone will beat Penn this year.

Best Actress Nominations

 

 
 

Cate Blanchett, The Missing
Jamie Lee Curtis, Freaky Friday
Nicole Kidman, Cold Mountain
Julia Roberts, Mona Lisa Smile
*Naomi Watts, 21 Grams

 

 
 

This is a very competitive field. Kill Bill's Uma Thurman, Translation's Scarlett Johannon, Statement's Tilda Swinton, Sylvia's Paltrow, among others, could land nominations -- as could Blanchett and Kidman for other roles.

Best Supporting Actor Nominations

 
 

Benicio del Toro, 21 Grams
*Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Tommy Lee Jones, The Missing
Ewan McGregor, Big Fish
Tim Robbins, Mystic River

 

 
 

This is a great category, and plenty of other folks could fill slots: Gary Sinise and Ed Harris in Human Stain, Kevin Bacon in Mystic River, Ian McKellen for Lord of the Rings.

Best Supporting Actress Nominations

 

 
 

Patricia Clarkson, Pieces of April or Station Agent
Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River
Holly Hunter, Thirteen
*Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain
Laura Linney, Mystic River

 

 
 

Once again, there are scores of others who might nab nominations in this category. Kirsten Dunst in Mona Lisa Smile, one of the female leads in Calendar Girls, this year's would-be Full Monty. It's too early to say how it all shakes out, but I'm guessing Miramax will launch a successful campaign to compensate Zellweger for not winning for Chicago.

Best Director Nominations

 
 

*Clint Eastwood, Mystic River
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 21 Grams
Peter Jackson, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Anthony Minghella, Cold Mountain
Peter Weir, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

 

 
 

Typically, not all five best pictures match the five best director slots. Among the directors who might squeak in this category without their pictures scoring Oscar nods are Dogville's Lars von Trier, Kill Bill's Quentin Tarantino, Elephant's Gus Van Sant and Lost in Translation's Sofia Coppola.

Best Picture Nominations

 

 
 

21 Grams
Cold Mountain
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
*Mystic River

 

 
 

It's hard to bet against Lord of the Rings here, but Hollywood seems too fickle to remember that this is the greatest movie trilogy of all time (sorry, Godfather III ruined that trilogy.) Other big movies that may make the cut include The Missing, Mona Lisa Smile and Lost in Translation. Who knows, maybe Last Samurai will actually be great and sweep the major categories!

 

*BT*