It is now January 22, 2004, five days before the official announcement of the nominees for the 76th Annual Academy Awards.
Can you smell the gold plating in the air?

Oscar season is always a deliriously fun time for me, but also an odd moment of self-reflection, because I'm never sure why I care so much about these awards. Especially given that most of the contemporary movies that I love never came within a stone's throw of ever being considered for Oscars, not to mention all of the beloved classics that didn't make the grade. And the economic mania that clearly drives Oscar season within the industry leads to middle-bourgeois studios like Miramax stealing the garment of High Art and deluding mass audiences for years and years that stuff like Cold Mountain is nutritious cinema, while The Company and To Be and To Have and the recent reissue of The Battle of Algiers try to scrape together whatever audience they can find. It should be enough to make me crazy, angry, and indifferent.

But instead, I'm only crazy. I think about Oscar all the time, wondering what will win, and wondering why it will win—not just in terms of voter logic, but in terms of the interesting cultural questions that surround Oscar. Why do so many voting actors seem to think that playing a desperately homicidal or suicidal person is inherently better acting than navigating a comedy? Why are so many young women nominated for playing hookers? Why is there no ensemble category? Why do the Sound and Editing nominees seem to mirror the Best Picture lineup more closely every year, as though the voting filmmakers themselves don't recognize sound mixing or film editing as specific, distinctive crafts? And how does savvy awards marketing, especially all those glossy For Your Consideration ads, manage to persuade even trained craftspeople in the industry that Forrest Gump or Braveheart or Gladiator is expert filmmaking, even when the passing of just a few years is enough to wipe these movies from most memories, and prompt the voters to reward whatever overlooked actor or overdue technician should have been recognized in those years of silly, disposable juggernauts?

So, blah blah blah. If you're already here, you already share my sickness and preoccupations, so I don't need to explain them to you. After a baldly premature attempt to suss out the winners in September and a wider array of predictions in mid-autumn, I've stayed out of the prediction game until now, just days before Oscar unveils his list. I'm sure I say this every year, but this seems like an especially unpredictable year, what with the teetering status of so many would-be frontrunners (Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai), the lack of many genuine popular favorites from the entire year, and the still-uncertain effects of the brief ban on screeners and the moved-up awards date. Frankly, I'm too wimpy this year to venture straightforward predictions—almost everything seems like it's in some kind of flux. Plus, who wants to read a bunch of text: you want pictures, right? Here, then, is your key for the prognostications which follow:
The current front-runner, eyes on the prize
Locks, with nothing to worry about for now
Not quite a lock, but the next best thing
Hope is alive; this could really come through
Former front-runners, no longer fair weather
These candidates need more than luck, they need a miracle
The Crackpipe: i.e., only if the voters are using it


Picture     Director     Actress     Actor     Supporting Actress     Supporting Actor     Cinematography

Original Screenplay     Adapted Screenplay     Foreign Film     List of All Predix



BEST PICTURE
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - People were fully justified for a long time in wondering, how is the Academy ever going to give its biggest prize to a fantasy epic beloved by fanboys the Internet over? The question is still worth asking; the best answer is that none of the potential competitors have held up very well. (Plus, the movie's really quite good.)
Mystic River - Rushed to the head of the pack by rapturous critical write-ups, but not all audiences saw what the fuss was about. A likely nominee, almost certain not to win (à la last year's The Hours).
Seabiscuit - I thought I was finished with this gimpy horse once the summer buzz died down (à la last year's Road to Perdition). But when so many fall fillies stumbled, and with the DVD release reminding its fans of their earlier affection, it's become something of an unexpected force. Temptation to mirror the film's own plot with an unexpected nomination, even a win, could be strong (and revolting! yuck!).
Lost in Translation - An even more unlikely success story than Seabiscuit: this delicate, moony mood piece was always destined to charm the Independent Spirit voters, but Oscar? As one of the year's few beloved movies, it's got a real shot.
Cold Mountain - Miramax's expensive epic is by now bound to lose money; they'll be durned if they're going to lose Oscar nods to boot. Otherwise, what was all that Romanian location shooting for, anyway? Because of the kind of movie it is (expensive, ostentatious), CM could be a leader in the overall nomination tally, but even if that happens, I wouldn't look for many trophies. Harvey paid as much and pushed as hard for Gangs of New York last year; he got his 10 nominations, and the picture went home from the ceremony empty-handed.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World - The reviews were there, but the box office wasn't, and nor was real popular enthusiasm. The film was more admired than enjoyed; if it splits the auteurist vote with Mystic River and the war/adventure vote with LOTR and Cold Mountain, it could easily be (duh) sunk.
Big Fish - If enough voters see it, they should jive with the whole father/son, gentle fantasy, ahistorical nostalgia vibe going on here...but, weirdly, after much advance buzz, the film has opened to virtual silence. If Oscar is baited and no one hears, was Oscar really baited?
Finding Nemo - Yet another movie, this one a genuine blockbuster, that's had the good fortune to remain better-liked than almost every movie that's opened since. With the Animated Film Oscar likely swimming its way, there's little incentive to give it props here. But it's cuddly where other films are stern and cold, and that's gotta help.
In America - The audience I saw this was rhapsodic, and the ads are ubiquitous. So why has this film utterly failed to ignite?
The Station Agent - Placed third on the National Board's list early in the season, and swept the SAG nominations at the 11th hour: I've always believed this film could surprise.
The Last Samurai - Surely, surely, if Return of the King's got the swordplay derring-do covered, and Lost in Translation has the Japan feather in its cap, and both Master and Commander and Cold Mountain are right there waiting for the 19th-century buffs...surely, then, we can just forget this silliness?
SO MY PICKS GO LIKE THIS:         Cold Mountain,   LOTR: The Return of the King,   Lost in Translation,   Mystic River,   Seabiscuit
BUT THE ACADEMY SAID THIS:   LOTR: The Return of the King,   Lost in Translation,   Master and Commander,   Mystic River,   Seabiscuit



BEST DIRECTOR
Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - For all the reasons you've heard: he pulled off the Vision thing. He pulled off the Pleasing the Fans thing. He pulled off the Financial Gamble thing. He sat politely while Ron Howard (Ron Howard) won the Best Director Oscar in 2001, and he didn't squeak when he was passed over entirely in 2002. It's Jackson's time to be recognized for his unprecedented critical and commercial phenomenon. (Plus, the movie's really good.)
Clint Eastwood, Mystic River - Even if the movie gets passed over in the main race (and it would be kind of entertaining to read all the laments and apocalyptic prophecies in Film Comment should that happen), Eastwood himself is in no danger.
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation - Same deal as Eastwood: she's royalty, she's a critical darling, and she's been firmly in the public eye for months since her film debuted. No assurances on the Best Picture nomination, but Sofia should now be invited to join Lina Wertmüller and Jane Campion's club. (Hey, that means it should only take 25 more years or so, and you'll be able to fill an entire basketball team with female nominees for Best Director! If no one gets hurt, that is.)
Peter Weir, Master and Commander - The Directors' Branch was there supporting Weir in '98 when the rest of the Academy woke up on the wrong side of the bed and decided The Truman Show totally sucked. No reason to think they'll jump ship on Weir now, especially after DGA, Globe, and BAFTA nods.
Anthony Minghella, Cold Mountain - The film has too few real friends for Minghella to take this nomination for granted. And multiple nominations aren't a guarantor, either: just ask Steven Spielberg how he felt when The Color Purple scored 11 nods, but not one for him. Minghella's actually in a very similar position: adapting a highly-regarded, perhaps overpraised novel of the American South, but administering a scrubbed, revisionist layer of pictorial gloss that's rubbing lots of folks the wrong way. Or maybe they're not miffed, just bored. Will Minghella be chastised?
Gus Van Sant, Elephant - When he and his movie both triumphed at Cannes, hopes were high that his poetic inquiry into high-school violence would galvanize Americans as it had the Croisette crowd. Turned out almost no one turned up, but you can bet the other Directors Branch members have seen it. A real shot for Van Sant to get in with one of those Artiste passports that got Kieslowski, Lynch, and Almodóvar into recent races.
Tim Burton, Big Fish - Seemed like the project that would acquire a "mature" reputation for Burton. However, totally within reason, the world seems to have decided we liked the crazy, scissorhands version of Tim better. Though I wouldn't hold my breath for that Lifetime Achievement award, Tim.
Edward Zwick, The Last Samurai - After astonishing everyone with the first critics award of the season (the NBR), Zwick has been rightly ignored since. But a movie this vastly scaled with this star at this time of year isn't out of the race until the white samurai sings.
Gary Ross, Seabiscuit - Even in July, when Seabiscuit was everyone's new favorite movie, book, animal, vegetable, and mineral, you never heard anyone say, "My, that Gary Ross sure can direct!" Is he a late bloomer in voters' minds, or a total non-bloomer? Seems like the kind of Pic nominee that coughs up its director slot to an edgier rival.
Jim Sheridan, In America - If voters had time to discover In America before the balloting was closed, he could get in, though he doesn't have the name recognition of many of these nominees, and his film doesn't feel like the kind of "director's project" the Academy tends to have in mind. The intimate emotion that makes it so lovely to watch won't help it snatch attention away from sailors, samurai, and Saruman. Plus, he probably has a screenplay nod coming as consolation.
Robert Altman, The Company - Another genius who apparently, in 2001, was deemed a lesser director than Ron Howard. The man is 70 years old; if the Academy doesn't want egg on their face forever, it would be a great time to nominate him. But, the film is tiny, an extremely late and limited release, and the Academy's got plenty of egg on its face already. It seems well used to that sensation by now.
SO MY PICKS GO LIKE THIS:         Coppola,   Eastwood,   Jackson,   Minghella,   Weir
BUT THE ACADEMY SAID THIS:   Coppola,   Eastwood,   Jackson,   Meirelles,   Weir



BEST ACTRESS
Charlize Theron, Monster - The performance has been open to accusations of gimmickry, the film is far from adored, and it'll be a tough piece for a lot of staid Academy members to sit through. But you could say the same things about several of Theron's competitors (Watts, Wood, Thurman), none of whom can match the epochal raves she's received from those who like her. She's got that whole Salma Hayek "I also produced it!" credit to her name, and for better or worse, the Swank/Berry/Kidman "I 'deglammed' and got jiggy with the makeup artist" thing. A pretty forceful recipe for success.
Naomi Watts, 21 Grams - In a year of dark, divisive performances by women, hers was the second most lauded after Theron's—and since she isn't nominated for the Golden Globe, a Theron win on Sunday night still doesn't count her out. Of course, missing a Globe nod is not itself a great thing, but she's still got great momentum (and that Academy debt from Mulholland Drive to cash in).
Diane Keaton, Something's Gotta Give - In the middle of December, this little bubble happened where suddenly the coolest, most sophisticated thing you could possibly do was publicly state what a genius you have always found Diane Keaton to be, nowhere more so than in Something's Gotta Give. After Monster opened, and the vacuum of possible winners was filled, Keaton has faded a little, but she's still a 50+ woman carrying a $100 million hit with an NBR prize to boot, and people do love her, so you do the math.
Nicole Kidman, Cold Mountain - The counts against her are notable: three-peat nominees are rare, she's courting overexposure already, and this particular performance was frostily received. But in a race this tight, the overall visibility of the films matters a lot, and CM looms large over a lot of these (even if its own momentum is also failing). Her omission wouldn't be a surprise, but I still expect she'll be one of those obligatory nominees that everyone gripes shouldn't be here.
Scarlett Johansson, Girl with a Pearl Earring - Two well-reviewed performances in 2003 in two beautifully received movies. The pearly Girl is in some ways the cozier Oscar vehicle, and it's been drawing awards attention that no one except me saw coming (pat pat). It won't help that Lost in Translation will eat into her votes, even with her absurd derogation to "supporting" in that film, but I think Girl is peaking at the right time.
Jennifer Connelly, House of Sand and Fog - An expected contender who has fizzled like a cake in the rain all through the season. Still, the Academy sees something in her that the rest of us don't necessarily see (viz. her inevitable but still puzzling win for A Beautiful Mind), and we know they'll be renting the tape to see Kingsley and Aghdashloo.
Cate Blanchett, Veronica Guerin - An actress that Hollywood clearly wants to succeed, and who always does good work that somehow goes unnoticed here. She was an early frontrunner when Veronica Guerin and The Missing were still looming as an impressive one-two punch. Both were instantly paralyzed at the box office, but the Globe nod for VG shows that some people remember.
Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen - Is she the little girl that could? Wood has nods from the Globes and from SAG, which would normally move her up on this list, but she'd be the youngest nominee ever in this category. I go back and forth between expecting an upset and discounting the possibility.
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill, Vol. 1 - Another surprise Globe nominee, though she's in a film the Oscar voters are even less likely to warm to. Though she does come to mind when one tries to recall the 2003 movies an actress had to carry solo.
Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation - If it happens, she need not thank her studio, who have insensibly campaigned for her as a supporting presence. Probably not Scarlett's fault, but such bald maneuvers are rarely condoned.
Patricia Clarkson, The Station Agent - Yeah, she got a SAG nod, but SAG can be flaky, and they're also fonder of quiet, playlet-type movies than AMPAS ever is. Look for Patty in the Supporting race.
SO MY PICKS GO LIKE THIS:         Johansson,   Keaton,   Kidman,   Theron,   Watts
BUT THE ACADEMY SAID THIS:   Castle-Hughes,   Keaton,   Morton,   Theron,   Watts



BEST ACTOR
Sean Penn, Mystic River - A stalwart nominee even if (it's possible) he ultimately loses the trophy. Slowly but surely, the Academy is still catching up to itself from the miraculous 1999 race, when Kevin Spacey won over equally deserving turns by Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, Richard Farnsworth, and Penn. Farnsworth has since passed away, but subsequent awards have found their way to all the others. Why mess with a good pattern?
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation - Sure, some of his colleagues think he's grouchy, but it's still the most-honored performance from the past awards season, and it probably deserves credit for making Translation the overall contender it's become: Murray's so good, you simply can't forget the movie.
Ben Kingsley, House of Sand and Fog - I would have thought Kingsley would have louder buzz by now, but then again, that's probably not his style. The reviews were impeccable, and so is the Globe nomination, even though the HFPA clearly showed indifference to the film (à la Nixon in 1995).
Jude Law, Cold Mountain - Like Blanchett, an actor that Hollywood rushes to cast and loves to praise, just not at Oscar time. Eventually that tide has to turn, and I'm sure Harvey is on the phone right now. Quiet work by Oscar standards, but the florid film makes up for it.
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl - In a better year, Depp would have been ousted by now as "fun, but not Oscary." With no great distractions, he's remained one of the year's most-buzzed performers, and even SAG seems to have caught the bug.
Peter Dinklage, The Station Agent - By far the closest threat to the above front-runners, as I've been proclaiming since October. This is simply a question of the film's availability: Oscar types will love it, and they'll love it on video, and Dinklage is both a charismatic and an unusual performer to recognize, which is like catnip to these people.
William H. Macy, The Cooler - With Baldwin and Bello racking up the critics' citations, can it only be a matter of time before Macy's lovable loser rides their coattails? It's rare for supporting actors to help out the leads this way (the reverse is quite common), but it is an advantage in a field where everyone needs one.
Paul Giammati, American Splendor
Russell Crowe, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Paddy Considine, In America - Three totally different movies that could have been strong platforms to their leads if they had performed at a commensurate level to expectations and to critical rapture. Any of them could still happen, but that's a shaky, shaky "could."
Tom Cruise, The Last Samurai - Have a good time on Globes night, Tom. It is a pleasure just to be nominated, sometime, somewhere. In the weeks since those nominations, the world has put down the sake and smelled the roses: and your performance isn't particularly smelling like one of those, if you know what I mean.
SO MY PICKS GO LIKE THIS:         Depp,   Kingsley,   Law,   Murray,   Penn
AND THE ACADEMY SAID THIS!:   Depp,   Kingsley,   Law,   Murray,   Penn



BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Renée Zellweger, Cold Mountain - ...which is just an awful, horrible notion, v.v.bad, because this is an incredibly coarse and misguided performance. There are about two flashes of mean, fleeting pain when Ruby is asked about her father in this movie that are quite electrifying; who knew Zellweger could look this sour. But those are far-flung islands of interest in a sea of hokeyness. Which probably means, she's a sure thing.
Patricia Clarkson, Pieces of April - This really is the winter of my discontent. Clarkson has been bonafide brilliant at least twice in the last two years, and neither AMPAS, SAG, or the HFPA cared at all. Now she's gamely saving face in a shaggy dog of a movie about turkey and mascara, and everyone is cooing. Whoever thought I'd be angry the day Patty Clarkson seemed bound for a seat at the Oscars?
Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog - With two big precursors to her name (NYFC and LAFC) and nearly ubiquitous presence in the media despite being a totally new name, Aghdashloo is looking good. Yeah, the Globes dissed her, but voters will adore this performance, and they probably think they're doing something socially constructive by nominating an Iranian woman.
Holly Hunter, Thirteen - I really thought people were being optimistic for months in heralding the chances of this nomination: I loved the work but doubted the movie would catch on widely enough. Now she's on every list, and some people are whispering about wins. I still must admit I won't be shocked if she misses entirely, but it's become impossible to deny her chances.
Laura Linney, Mystic River - In the early days, I thought she and co-star Marcia Gay Harden were double-trouble shoo ins. Since then, memories of the film have faded a little, and their work hasn't been murmured about anywhere. Still, I suspect voters will return to Mystic River while balloting. Even those who forgot a lot about the movie are not likely to forget her scenes. Crowded field of hopefuls, but I'm giving her the edge.
Hope Davis, American Splendor - You go girl, with your NYFC Lead Actress win and your "surprise" Globe nomination. Nerds of the world named Davis, unite! (Well, Hope's probably not a nerd, but her character is, and an indelibly played one at that.)
Emma Thompson, Love Actually - Emma had one of the year's best supporting scenes, pristinely differentiating herself from a fun ensemble when she hides in the bedroom for a thirty-second secret sob. I'm sure Hollywood's been missing her, and with Angels in America tearing it up on TV, it feels lately like she never left.
Maria Bello, The Cooler - This little indie is either enjoying the 11th hour of a great awards run or it's just getting started. If the latter, Bello has a short hop and skip from her Globe and SAG nods to a slot in the real derby. After all, she is playing a kindly hooker. Somebody else should try that sometime!
Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation - As stated above, I don't think this category fraud will work, but given the fond feelings for the film, who knows.
Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River - With this and Casa de los Babys, she should have had a banner year; instead, her work was variously received as shrewd or shrill, and her onetime frontrunner status is a distant memory.
Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider - Speaking of category fraud, Castle-Hughes is the whale rider in the film about the whale rider, and she's in nearly every scene. She's only campaigning here because the lead category is hostile to pre-teens. Would her character condone this kind of docility? Pshaw.
Natalie Portman, Cold Mountain - Even detractors of this film are often overheard raving about Portman's sequence. I have a hard time getting whatever's to be gotten here, but she could surprise. Then again, Cate Blanchett gave an exquisite semi-cameo in Minghella's Ripley, and that came to naught.
SO MY PICKS GO LIKE THIS:         Aghdashloo,   Clarkson,   Hunter,   Linney,   Zellweger
BUT THE ACADEMY SAID THIS:   Aghdashloo,   Clarkson,   Harden,   Hunter,   Zellweger



BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Tim Robbins, Mystic River - Like Zellweger's, a honey-baked ham performance that has still touched all the right chords to make a victory a likelihood, a nomination a certainty. Maybe in his speech he can explain that whole "vampires and werewolves" monologue to us. Or maybe he and Sean can split an eight-minute rant against Bush's policies in Iraq into convenient, Conti-friendly, four-minute installments.
Peter Sarsgaard, Shattered Glass - The film may be tough for voters to track down, and he isn't the kind of performer who has an easy time making himself known in Hollywood: too subtle, too internalized. He's got the Indie Spirit award coming to him, but he deserves more.
Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai - All the precursors are in place, but I still have a hard time believing that the Academy will smile fondly on an unknown actor from a foreign country who steals a movie from Tom Cruise that barely squeaks $100 million at the box office anyway. If Last Samurai's momentum collapses, Watanabe isn't invulnerable.
Albert Finney, Big Fish - It was looking dicey for awhile until the Globe nod came in. And the film's doing okay at the box office even though the critics never really got behind it, so his sentimental role as a dying papa with a mischievous gleam in his eye should cast a spell.
Alec Baldwin, The Cooler - Baldwin scored with the NBR in the first awards voting of the season, and The Cooler has made a fine little name for itself out there on the market. His acting has always seemed better-regarded by other actors than by the general public, so this would be a good moment to seize. If he wins the Globe, fuhgeddaboutit.
Benicio Del Toro, 21 Grams - If this splintered spiritual drama had struck more of a chord with critics or moviegoers, Del Toro's chances would be better. But despite passionate enthusiasts, the film world seems ready for this movie to just go away (which I'm all for - maybe personal biases are affecting me here).
Bill Nighy, Love Actually - With Emma Thompson, the other performer from Love Actually's jovial ensemble who tightened the film whenever he was onscreen, and who sold most of the best lines with considerable panache. LAFC helps; they usually have a good temperature read on Hollywood.
Sean Astin, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Like McKellen in the first movie, Astin is the performer who has drawn the most attention in the third. I still say the inherent pathos of Sam's role here is a better explanation for audience response than Astin's actual performance, but I'm wrong about these things all the time. Maybe Sean Astin is John Gielgud.
William H. Macy, Seabiscuit - That sixth Globe nomination is weird. I suspect Macy is drawing a little gravity from The Cooler, where people like his work but have a tough time shelving it alongside Penn, Murray, and Kingsley. This nod would sorta be rewarding two underdog movies with one stone.
Paul Bettany, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World - If the film triumphs over its box-office and becomes a huge nominee, Bettany could easily be in - but I'm still doubtful.
SO MY PICKS GO LIKE THIS:         Baldwin,   Finney,   Robbins,   Sarsgaard,   Watanabe
BUT THE ACADEMY SAID THIS:   Baldwin,   Del Toro,   Hounsou,   Robbins,   Watanabe



BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Eduardo Serra, Girl with a Pearl Earring - I'm not sure he's the most likely candidate to win, but Lesnie, Toll, Boyd, Seale, and Schwartzman all need to make sure they don't cancel each other out at the nomination level before they can really get their hopes up. Serra's work is not only breathtaking, it is totally distinct within this field, so I think he's even money.
Russell Boyd, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Andrew Lesnie, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Of the many swashbuckling and cannon-firing epics competing for this prize, these two are probably the preferred films, which will make a big difference. I feel hesitant about calling them locks, but let's say their absence would certainly be noted.
John Toll, The Last Samurai
John Schwartzman, Seabiscuit
John Seale, Cold Mountain - The three Johns who are duking it out hard for the remaining two spots in this category. Toll is such an institution at this kind of thing, even with a relatively short career history, that he may be hard to ignore on that grounds alone. And Seabiscuit had all those tricky HoofCam shots to pull off, so I'm thinking Seale is the most at risk, just as he was booted for (the much more deserving) Ripley in 1999 amidst a similarly tight field.
Lance Acord, Lost in Translation - Okay, so maybe this year you had to either photograph soldiers, men on horses, or Scarlett Johansson. Lots of the soldiers were on horses, of course, as once was Scarlett Johansson. Never mind: I'm sure that Acord is hoping the epicmakers split their vote six ways to Sunday so that his gossamer evocation of Tokyo can claim a seat at the table.
Roger Deakins, House of Sand and Fog
Tom Stern, Mystic River
Declan Quinn, In America - Three more well-lensed pictures pitched right to Academy tastes, though the films themselves will need more traction than they currently have to penetrate even this far into the technical races. Deakins has an advantage for all that showy mist.
SO MY PICKS GO LIKE THIS:         Girl with...,   The Last Samurai,   LOTR: Return of the King,   Master and Commander,   Seabiscuit
BUT THE ACADEMY SAID THIS:   City of God,   Cold Mountain,   Girl with...,   Master and Commander,   Seabiscuit



BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation - One of the weaker aspects of the film, in my opinion, but Original Screenplay is kind of Academy code for "interesting, small-budgeted film that we'd like to reward for trying." It's also code for "It's not like we're going to let a woman win Best Director, so if we reward her here, we're good to go, right?" And occasionally, as with last year's Talk to Her win, it's code for really excellent screenwriting, which many people think Lost in Translation is. By all three counts, Coppola should write that speech.
Jim, Naomi, and Kirsten Sheridan, In America
Thomas McCarthy, The Station Agent - Writerly movies in exactly the way the Academy likes them: appealing characters, piquant situations, vividly brought to life by impressive performers. Both films may narrowly miss recognition elsewhere, but they shouldn't here. If the Guild nominates them tomorrow, I say they're home free.
Stanton/Peterson/Reynolds, Finding Nemo
Richard Curtis, Love Actually - Animation has done well before in this category (Toy Story and Shrek both scored nominations), and Richard Curtis had a modest and fairly high-profile success with Love Actually, though boffo box-office would have helped. Neither of these is a sure thing, but they seem closer to the hearts of viewers than the other contenders, which may be equally true for voters.
Gurinder Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges, and Guljit Bindra, Bend It Like Beckham - The one nominee from early 2003 that has always had a shot, recently restored to memory by its Golden Globe nod for Best Picture. I guess it's going for the same British comedy vote as Love Actually, also a Globe nominee; it'll need some extra kick to pull it off, but the movie teaches us this isn't impossible!
Guillermo Arriaga, 21 Grams - It sounded good on paper, but many viewers were embarrassed by the stunning similarities to Arriaga's Amores perros script and by the borderline incoherence of the fractured narrative. If the WGA passes, I think his 21 grams of life are gone.
Wayne Kramer, The Cooler - In thin years, a well-reviewed performance can haul in a screenplay nod on its own accord: Passion Fish and Lorenzo's Oil both showed up here in 1992. If Baldwin and Bello keep drawing lightning, the script could be a surprise entry.
Denys Arcand, The Barbarian Invasions - If Canadian liberal guilt and elitist nattering is more Oscar's cup of tea than I guessed.
Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed, Thirteen - Even people who didn't see the movie know the script's famous origins.
Steve Knight, Dirty Pretty Things - To me, another case of the emperor's new clothes, but it was the runner-up with LAFC, the most Oscar-attuned of the critics groups.
Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, A Mighty Wind - Would be the first mockumentary to place.
Nancy Meyers, Something's Gotta Give - If box office determines the outcome, she's in.
Requa/Ficarra/Marx/Zwigoff, Bad Santa - I'd be stunned, but it's worth considering in a weak race.
SO MY PICKS GO LIKE THIS:         Finding Nemo,   In America,   Lost in Translation,   Love Actually,   The Station Agent
BUT THE ACADEMY SAID THIS:   The Barbarian Invasions,   Dirty Pretty Things,   Finding Nemo,   In America,   Lost in Translation



BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Gary Ross, Seabiscuit - Maybe the Academy is un-snobbish enough these days to vote a fantasy epic as its Best Picture, but to vote the screenplay awards to said fantasy epic? I'm thinking this race will be a chance to recognize one of the also-rans, and since Mystic River has acting chances, I think Seabiscuit could surprise here. Plus, the book is like a national cause among its avid readers, which reflects well on Ross' taste in reading.
Brian Helgeland, Mystic River - Much more uneven than Helgeland's winning script for L.A. Confidential, but he's a well-known name adapating a revered novel into a highly regarded film. Aces.
Walsh/Boyens/Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - No love for this crew last year, but in Two Towers, everyone was just walking around. This time there are tearful speeches and heady climaxes, so I think the wind will be favorable again.
Anthony Minghella, Cold Mountain - Minghella must have thought this award was his when The English Patient swept in '96, but Billy Bob cut him off at the knees. This time, he's got even bigger problems: overcoming the script's reputation as overwritten (if the novel itself wasn't already so), and convincing readers one more time that he needed to tinker with the entire structure and sequence.
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor - In many ways the critical darling of the year, and no one's going to love it more than other writers. Extra points for formal innovation and for saving the graphic-novel genre from itself.
John August, Big Fish - When the film seemed like a sensation waiting to happen, August was a formidable competitor. Now, buzz has quieted, and what remains is mostly for the design team and some elder-statesmen actors. Can the Charlie's Angels scribe still get promoted to the big boys' table?
John Collee and Peter Weir, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World - Fans of the novels seemed reasonably contented, despite a few gripes with casting and national identity theft. The bigger problem is that not much happens, nor is much said, and since voters still think screenplays are only about story and dialogue, that's probably a bad-weather combo.
Vadim Perelman and Shawn Lawrence Otto, House of Sand and Fog - A strange story about a combustible situation: some people see it as small potatoes, others as microcosmic tragedy. Filmgoers saw a third option: no comment. Will Oscar voters remember?
SO MY PICKS GO LIKE THIS:         American Splendor,   Cold Mountain,   LOTR: Return of the King,   Mystic River,   Seabiscuit
BUT THE ACADEMY SAID THIS:   American Splendor,   City of God,   LOTR: Return of the King,   Mystic River,   Seabiscuit



BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM
Goodbye, Lenin! (Germany) - A situational comedy with political overtones and a rather blithe perspective on 20th-century cultural history, this should be right up Oscar's alley: "smart" without having to really think anything. Or maybe the film, which I haven't seen, really is smart. When a foreign movie wins dozens of festival awards and becomes a hot Oscar prospect, that's either a very good sign (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) or a very bad one (Life Is Beautiful).
Osama (Afghanistan) - Soon to debut on American shores, this based-on-fact tale of a young girl who must cross-dress as a boy to receive an education in Taliban-era Afghanistan is timely, well-awarded, and visually impressive.
Twin Sisters (The Netherlands) - The Academy has a soft spot for the Lowland countries, especially when the mood is more up (Antonia's Line, Zus & Zo) than down (The Celebration). Any movie with two Dutch sisters trying to make their way in the world, seriocomically, is probably following the right stars.
The Barbarian Invasions (Canada) - I'm a little less sanguine about this movie's chances than some. The conversations are pretty dense stuff, and the tone is not to everyone's taste. Plus, "sure things" have missed before: Ma vie en rose, etc. Still, the original Decline of the American Empire scored a nod, as did Jesus of Montreal, so Arcand is doing some`thing right.
Valentin (Argentina) - A little advantage over the other possible contenders because the star, Carmen Maura, will be recognizable to this voting contingency, and there's the whole small boy/wise lady dichotomy thing going on, which is the Foreign Film Committee's sweet ambrosia.
Kitchen Stories (Norway) - Another Norwegian flight of fancy, like Elling a couple years back. Norway also got a nod recently for The Other Side of Sunday, and the preview for Kitchen Stories looks bemusing in an Academy-friendly way, without seeming like a total sellout.
The Twilight Samurai (Japan) - No, not a Tom Cruise movie, though wouldn't it be humiliating if his film tanks and this one scores a nod? In a year that's been all Japan all the time (The Last Samurai, Lost in Translation, Japanese Story), the zeitgeist says this one has a great shot, though Asian films don't fare as well as you'd think in this race.
Distant (Turkey) - Perhaps a little heavy and minimalist for standard Academy favor, but they've been a little adventurous lately, and Distant sure got Soderbergh and Ryan's Cannes committee all fired up.

Falcon (The Czech Republic)
Bon Voyage (France)
The Return (Russia)
Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong)
The Story of the Weeping Camel (Mongolia) - I can only go here on festival journalism, FilmBitch write-ups, and plot descriptions, plus the highly legible patterns of the Academy's past voting. Don't take it from me, but these are the other candidates who at least seem to be pitching their tents in the right tonal and thematic terrain.
Divine Intervention (Palestine) - I'm betting that this movie, which is the only other official submission I have seen, is just way too weird for Oscar: airborne anti-Israeli ninja women, slain Santa Clauses, stick-shift foreplay, etc. I'm not even sure I enjoyed it, though I do remember it well twelve months later. The Academy will need to overcome aesthetic prudery and political controversy to push this through, and I'm not sure they'll see a good enough reason.
SO MY PICKS GO LIKE THIS:         The Barbarian Invasions,   Goodbye, Lenin!,   Osama,   Twin Sisters,   Valentin
BUT THE ACADEMY SAID THIS:   The Barbarian Invasions,   Evil,   Falcon,   The Twilight Samurai,   Twin Sisters


Click here for my predictions in all categories...


CORRECT MAJOR-CATEGORY PREDICTIONS:
(Defined by me as the ten categories on this page)
35 / 50 (70%)

(Past success rates with the top 10 categories: 78% in 2002, 78% in 2001, 70% in 2000, 74% in 1999, and 76% in 1998.)
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