Ah, how everything changes in retrospect. Last year's race was widely described as wide open, but looking back, can anyone imagine the American Beauty juggernaut going any differently? The task at hand always seems like the hardest, and yet this year's Oscars really are the most unpredictable in years. All five critics' groups anointed different Best Pictures, two of them in languages other than English; no film earned more than two trophies at the Golden Globes, including the fact that the Picture, Director, and Screenplay awards were evenly split amongst even contenders. What's going on??

Below, anyway, are my brave/foolish best guesses, but feel free to write me with your own picks, second guessings, etc. The Oscars, as we know, are silly. What makes this time of year is arguing, pontificating, and obsessively chatting (worrying?) with like-minded enthusiasts. So, why not? Join the conversation, especially in the sound-off boards below! Happy voting. . . .

** Successful Predictions Denoted By Red Asterisks **


Billy Elliot
**Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon**
**Erin Brockovich**

Almost Famous

Dark Horses
Chicken Run
Wonder Boys
Cast Away

After revitalizing a genre, winning the Golden Globe, and earning the better part of $200 million, Gladiator is in the position Dances With Wolves, The Silence of the Lambs, and Unforgiven were in at the beginning of the last decade: whatever concerns once existed about its "genre" appeal have diminished in the face of a) across the board success with critics and audiences, and b) no real competition. Traffic seems to be well-positioned to challenge, especially if business keeps up, but all the technical wings of the Academy will be likely to go for the loud, flashy epic. Traffic will rely on the Actors Branch for its strongest support, as will Erin Brockovich (likely too light for the eventual win) and Billy Elliot (inexplicably perceived as Art because of British origin). Crouching Tiger, speaking of limited genre appeal, could well prove a real dark horse, the biggest probably since Chariots of Fire (or at least Braveheart) if it won . . . though as it opens wider and wider, a lot more people are expressing their bewilderment at its rep. Most of the challengers fell afoul either of the box office (Almost Famous, Wonder Boys, Quills, You Can Count on Me) or seem a bit feather-weight (Chocolat, Cast Away)...which is why, speaking of feathers, Chicken Run could squawk in on sheer consensus appeal – who doesn't like clever fowl?
Early Winner Prediction: Gladiator


Cameron Crowe, Almost Famous
**Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon**
**Ridley Scott, Gladiator**
**Steven Soderbergh, Erin Brockovich**
**Steven Soderbergh, Traffic**

Curtis Hanson, Wonder Boys
**Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot**

Dark Horses
Philip Kaufman, Quills
Lasse Hallström, Chocolat
Lars von Trier, Dancer in the Dark
Robert Zemeckis, Cast Away
Terence Davies, The House of Mirth
It always feels a bit craven and impoverished to wind up with the same list as an existing group, as I have here reproduced the Directors Guild line-up—but, as Cole Porter once asked, "If not you . . . who?" Hanson and Kaufman can only get in if Crowe is dropped out (I consider the other four locks), and Almost Famous has way more momentum than either Wonder Boys or Quills. Von Trier has a shot if the directors, who are presumably more adventurous than the general membership, admire the experiments of Dancer in the Dark. The other possibilities require for inclusion a sudden groundswell of support for their films, or, in Daldry's case, a renewed belief that Billy Elliot is the creation of its director, not that of its script writer nor, indeed, the immaculate conception of the Human Spirit itself. By all those criteria, the DGA five seem like a safe bet, with Lee, Scott, and Soderbergh (for Traffic, probably, rather than Erin Brockovich) ultimately eligible for the win.
Early Winner Prediction: Ridley Scott, Gladiator

**Joan Allen, The Contender**
Björk, Dancer in the Dark
**Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream**
**Laura Linney, You Can Count on Me**
**Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich**

Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
**Juliette Binoche, Chocolat**

Dark Horses
Gillian Anderson, The House of Mirth
Renée Zellweger, Nurse Betty
Cate Blanchett, The Gift
A carbon copy of the Golden Globes' roster for Best Actress (Drama), with Roberts, Linney, and Burstyn very unlikely to budge. Still, somehow in yet another weak year for women's roles, this category has more worthy aspirants than any other. Allen is a little vulnerable since her picture underperformed and underimpressed, but her personal popularity is high. That, by contrast, leaves a bevy of actresses with credibility problems fighting it out for the fifth slot. Björk would seem cursed by the same anti-musician stigma that disqualified Madonna and Courtney Love, while Gillian Anderson has only to think of Lisa Kudrow's omission in 1998 to realize the entrenched bias against TV stars; plus, both women are preceded by "difficult" reputations. Yeoh has to ensure that voters will endorse a foreign-language performance (not unheard of, but not common), and that her acting is valued over her high kicks. I'm giving the edge to Björk since she's blocked Yeoh and Anderson from most early rosters, but any woman could score. Odds go out on Binoche, for smiles over substance; Zellweger, whose Globe win helps a smidge but is still probably too unproven a talent; and Blanchett, if no one actually watches The Gift (a movie so bad it drags her down).
Early Winner Prediction: Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich


**Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls
Sean Connery, Finding Forrester**
**Russell Crowe, Gladiator**
Michael Douglas, Wonder Boys
**Tom Hanks, Cast Away**

**Geoffrey Rush, Quills**
Jamie Bell, Billy Elliot

Dark Horses
Mark Ruffalo, You Can Count on Me
George Clooney, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
**Ed Harris, Pollock**
Colin Farrell, Tigerland
Ralph Fiennes, Sunshine
The three leading contenders here have to be Crowe, Douglas, and Hanks, but there's a compelling reason not to vote for any of them (at least not for the award): Crowe's in a popcorn flick, Douglas already has an Oscar (and no SAG nod), Hanks already has two Oscars. Still, I assume they're all locks for nods, and one will probably cop the trophy. Several newcomers, though, have fiery advocates who want to see them on this list. Javier Bardem's won the NBR and NSFC prizes, plus a Globe nod, so I'm hoping for a Fernanda Montenegro thing where critics awards (and a good performance!) can actually get a foreign star on the list. I once considered Ruffalo, with great personal prejudice, a likely bet if enough people watch the movie; like Laurence Fishburne in '93, I'm hopeful that he could (and should!) eventually catch up with his female co-star's hype, for they truly are an acting duet. Meanwhile, Harris is an overdue vet who gets points for directing himself. Everyone except me loves Connery, whose role is being described as a stretch and will appeal to older voters. Rush, though I found him agonizing, has made most preliminary lists. Clooney has Globe momentum, and if Sean Penn can get nominated for bizarre comic mannerisms, maybe he can, too. Jamie Bell and Ralph Fiennes have only novelty in their favor, that of being a preteen and that of playing three roles at once. (Bell, as of Jan. 30, also has a SAG nomination—please, God, no!)
Early Winner Prediction: Michael Douglas, Wonder Boys


**Judi Dench, Chocolat**
**Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock**
**Kate Hudson, Almost Famous**
**Frances McDormand, Almost Famous**
**Julie Walters, Billy Elliot**

Elaine May, Small Time Crooks
Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Dark Horses
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Traffic
Kate Winslet, Quills
Jennifer Ehle/Rosemary Harris, Sunshine
Catherine Deneuve, Dancer in the Dark
An almost grotesquely weak category, surely its lowest level since 1994, when Rosemary Harris copped a nod for about three scenes in Tom & Viv, as did Helen Mirren for speaking in a French accent when she felt like it. Then again, 1998 was no great shakes either, with Brenda Blethyn and Lynn Redgrave announcing their readiness for a Baby Jane remake. (Wait, Redgrave's already done that—whoa.) Anyway, the Almost Famous duo is holding down the lead somewhere between them. Julie Walters has become one of those momentum nominees, like Kate Winslet was for Titanic—she'll be on this list because she's been on all the others. Judi Dench will be on it because everyone knows it's compulsory to admire her. Harden may score sympathy votes (people feeling bad for her character's trials), but I'm pulling for Zhang Ziyi to score an even bigger upset, given that she's a refreshing, galvanizing newcomer, unlike anyone else on the list. As for the rest: May? If the Woody Magic kicks in. Zeta-Jones? If people aren't jealous. Winslet? If sadism and a thin role don't scare everyone off. (Actually, looking at this group, "thin roles" don't seem to be scaring anyone off.) Letting daughter Ehle and mother Harris (yes, her again!) run together seems like such an obvious sentiment ploy, but it might work. And Deneuve? I would love it—not just because she was fantastic, but for being such a good sport while Iceland's Pixie Lunatic terrorized the shooting schedule. (Thank you, Dan Savage.)
Early Winner Prediction: Kate Hudson, Almost Famous


**Willem Dafoe, Shadow of the Vampire**
**Benicio Del Toro, Traffic**
**Albert Finney, Erin Brockovich**
Bruce Greenwood, Thirteen Days
**Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator**

**Jeff Bridges, The Contender**
Gary Lewis, Billy Elliot

Dark Horses
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Almost Famous
Oliver Reed, Gladiator
Morgan Freeman, Nurse Betty
Tobey Maguire, Wonder Boys
Robert Downey Jr., Wonder Boys
Five months ago, I had decided that Morgan Freeman was certain to win his Oscar this year for Nurse Betty; it only remained to be seen in which category. Given the weakness of the acting races, and the widespread belief that he's the most overdue actor on the planet, a tough marketing push from USA Films could have made his day. Now I think he's a long shot at best—keep plugging away, Morgan, one day! In the meantime, Del Toro, Dafoe, and Finney have things squared away (unless Del Toro gets bumped to the lead race, as he was by the Screen Actors Guild). Greenwood seems like an extremely strong candidate, if Thirteen Days is widely enough seen. I'd call the race a four-way between those candidates. I'll throw in Joaquin Phoenix based on Gladiator's popularity (and less morbid than a nod to Oliver Reed). Then again, Jeff Bridges is probably #2 in Freeman's Most Overdue Race (Male Division), and if Billy Elliot, aka Bilious Lie, sways enough dreamers out there, Gary Lewis gives the film's best performance (if that's a compliment).
Early Winner Prediction: Benicio Del Toro, Traffic


**Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe**
**Billy Elliot, Lee Hall**
**Erin Brockovich, Susannah Grant**
O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Coens
**You Can Count on Me, Kenneth Lonergan**

Best in Show, Christopher Guest & Eugene Levy
State and Main, David Mamet

Dark Horses
Chicken Run, Peter Lord & Nick Park
Nurse Betty, John C. Richards & James Flamberg
The Contender, Rod Lurie
Shadow of the Vampire, Steven Katz
An extremely small field of aspirants; if only Being John Malkovich had come out this year!! Cameron Crowe and Kenneth Lonergan are the shoo-ins, and the feel-goodness of Billy Elliot and Erin Brockovich will be hard to ignore, particularly since I expect both films to score well across the board. State and Main is helped no end by Mamet's rep. Beyond those five clear front-runners, Chicken Run is helped by the Writers' anti-snobbery (they went for Toy Story), and Nurse Betty has a Cannes trophy (but, admittedly, not much buzz). O Brother, Where Art Thou? might get votes since it practically owns the word "original"—except for those traces of Homer. The Contender can only sneak in if the Writers think it's "hard-hitting" and "relevant," i.e., if they see a different print than I did. Best in Show's chances were greatly improved by its Guild nomination, but similar auguries for scrappy films like The Opposite of Sex still didn't payoff in Oscar recognition.
Early Winner Prediction: Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe


**Chocolat, Robert Nelson Jacobs**
High Fidelity, S.Pink/J.Cusack/etc./etc.
Quills, Doug Wright
**Traffic, Stephen Gaghan**
**Wonder Boys, Steve Kloves**

The House of Mirth, Terence Davies
**Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Wang Hui Ling, etc.**

Dark Horses
Thirteen Days, David Self
Before Night Falls, Cunningham O'Keefe, etc.
Requiem for a Dream, D.Aronofsky/H.Selby
Traffic, with its portmanteau structure and challenging ideas, has its best shot at a win here. Quills and Wonder Boys get extra points for being about frustrated writers—the same people doing the nominations. Chocolat does not strike me as a coup of dramaturgy, but, as last year's win for The Cider House Rules proved yet again, quality and depth are not the reigning criteria here. More optimistically, I'm rooting for The House of Mirth to be this year's Topsy-Turvy, coming out of nowhere to bag multiple nods; the class of the source material should help, though its ho-hum promotion materials certainly won't, which is why the insanely hollower High Fidelity will likely claim its spot. EW called Thirteen Days an Original Screenplay—dunno why, the adaptation credit is clear—but if voters are confused, the nod's a no go. I'd be more enthusiastic about Crouching Tiger's chances if it were in English—even when the Writers go abroad, it's usually for more talky, philosophical dialogue (Red, Last Year at Marienbad).
Early Winner Prediction: Traffic, Stephen Gaghan


**Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Peter Pau**
**Gladiator, John Mathieson**
The Legend of Bagger Vance, Michael Ballhaus
**The Patriot, Caleb Deschanel**
Traffic, "Peter Andrews"

The House of Mirth, Remi Adefarasin
**O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Roger Deakins**

Dark Horses
Quills, Rogier Stoffers
Cast Away, Don Burgess
The Perfect Storm, John Seale
Almost Famous, John Toll
Wonder Boys, Dante Spinotti
Unbreakable, Eduardo Serra
Mission: Impossible 2, Jeffrey L. Kimball
I Dreamed of Africa, Bernard Lutic
With Peter Pau's Crouching Tiger work leading the pack—he might have won the Oscar at the exact moment Zhang and Chow took off into the bamboo—the other spots are up for grabs among, as per usual, big-budget Hollywood sheen, moody period pieces, and crafty, careful images from high-profile films. Gladiator seems unstoppable in most categories, and Steven Soderbergh, under the "Peter Andrews" pseudonym, could score a nod if the other DPs aren't jealous of Traffic's multiple textures. After that, I'm banking on Deschanel, a nominee for everything from The Right Stuff to Fly Away Home, and the hollow gloss of Bagger Vance to pull the wool (or, as it happens, the tweed) over everyone's eyes. Elizabeth nominee Remi Adefarasin composed some painterly shots in Mirth, so don't count him out; ditto John Toll, who won for both Legends of the Fall and Braveheart. I pray no one would actually be so soulless as to vote for Africa.
Early Winner Prediction: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Peter Pau

Click here for my (more hesitant!) predictions in the other major categories...


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