Though it would be easy, and is in fact quite tempting, to bemoan the judgment of people who consider Gladiator and, for God's sakes!, Chocolat among the five best movies they saw in the past year—do these voters actually go to the movies??—the Oscar roster this year features virtually no jaw-dropping insults comparable to last year's bending over backwards for The Green Mile. Even the Chocolat glut is easier to take than the surprise Cider House Rules juggernaut, because no one considers the newer film a major contender.

In all honesty, though, except in truly exceptional cases, I've grown a little tired of people complaining about the Oscar nominations, because I don't think any rational moviegoer can expect that a consensus voting process among thousands of people is ever going to match a single person's conception of "quality." The Academy does not pretend to disguise its populist and commercial leanings, or at least critics should not pretend it does, and if the nods convince even a few people to watch Before Night Falls or You Can Count on Me who might otherwise have stayed away, more power to Oscar. What follows is a list of the nominations in the eight "key" categories, plus early impressions of who's in the lead and—since I can't help it—a few minor grumblings about blatant oversights. (Björk and Mark Ruffalo, you are missed!)



Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Erin Brockovich



For all the people who insist that Chocolat's surprise appearance is due to marketing alone, I stress: the Weinsteins, for all their huckstering hubris, cannot make people vote for their movies. I don't understand the appeal of Chocolat, but clearly there are people out there who like it—thankfully not enough of them, though, to push the film over the top. With no director nomination, it's dead in the water. I'm also willing to count out the Soderbergh pictures, which are both infinitely better: Erin Brockovich focuses too narrowly on one performance (or at least will be viewed that way), and Traffic, like Quiz Show or The Insider, is a film everyone feels good about nominating but is somewhat less than enthusiastic about voting for. Look for Gladiator to ride an unwarranted but formidable wave of Tiger backlash and good old xenophobia to the crown.


Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot

Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Ridley Scott, Gladiator

Steven Soderbergh, Erin Brockovich

Steven Soderbergh, Traffic

Essentially a three-way race amongst Lee, Scott, and Soderbergh's Traffic nod (generally considered a grander feat of direction than Erin Brockovich). I think Lee has a better shot here than his film does for Best Picture, since even Crouching Tiger's detractors seem willing to admit that he has accomplished a unique alchemy in the film. Still, I'd say Scott is the man to beat. And for those of you who have patiently waited for me to say one halfway-nice thing about Billy Elliot, here we go: I suppose there is some craft in turning a dog-eared, mawkish, cliché-ridden, and offensive slab of hash into a product that so many people have enjoyed and believed in. That's alchemy of its own sort, turning swill into fool's gold.


Joan Allen, The Contender

Juliette Binoche, Chocolat

Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream

Laura Linney, You Can Count on Me

Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich

Julia Roberts, as has been widely printed, is the closest thing to a shoo-in we have in this year's derbies, and by golly she deserves it: I'm not sure we've seen such a perfect fusion of star, role, and acting chops since Bette Davis in All About Eve. (Okay, that might not be true—but, in the words of Sleepless in Seattle, it sure feels true.) Still, Binoche excepted, it's nice to see all of these extremely creditable, highly deserving actresses rewarded with nominations, even if only You Can Count on Me lives up to it's star's performance . . . and even if, in a more controversial claim, I thought Ellen Burstyn overacted as though her life depended on it. I'm hoping that the attention she's received here will attract directors back to her abilities, so we can see more of the controlled neurosis of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and The Exorcist.


Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls

Russell Crowe, Gladiator

Tom Hanks, Cast Away

Ed Harris, Pollock

Geoffrey Rush, Quills

A genuinely tight derby, though unfortunately the reasons have more to do with the plenitude of demerits than an abundance of virtues. Bardem's chances are compromised by the rarefied nature of his film and the limits of his renown on American soil. Crowe, who is clearly owed for both L.A. Confidential and The Insider, is starring in a picture that doesn't scream "acting vehicle." In a competition that likes to spread the wealth, Rush has already won a trophy for Shine and Hanks has two for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump—ironic, isn't it, how three undeserved Oscars can come back to haunt you, though in my opinion, Chuck Noland and the Marquis de Sade were hardly exquisite feats. That leaves Harris, who I'm sure many in Hollywood would like to reward—a real journeyman actor, who fought long and hard to bring Pollock to the screen—so the real test is how many people see the film. Given the fate of Duvall's nod for The Apostle in 1997, I'm sadly turning my eyes toward Hanks for a hat trick.


Judi Dench, Chocolat

Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock

Kate Hudson, Almost Famous

Frances McDormand, Almost Famous

Julie Walters, Billy Elliot

The derby here, Zhang-less and Deneuve-less though it sadly is, boils down to a race between the Almost Famous starlet, Hudson, and her Oscar-winning costar, McDormand, who is more accomplished by far in terms of both experience and ability. I'm hopeful that after seeing Harden's work, I won't be able to make this statement, but none of these candidates seem truly up to prize-winning standards. McDormand is the clear pick of the litter, I think, but even she contributes a performance that doesn't match her personal best. Frankly, I don't think we've seen an unconditionally deserving triumph in this category since Dianne Wiest's victory in 1994, so an underwhelming result—even if Judi Dench scores a Walter Brennan-style Old Timer's Upset—will be pretty much par for the course.


Jeff Bridges, The Contender

Willem Dafoe, Shadow of the Vampire

Benicio Del Toro, Traffic

Albert Finney, Erin Brockovich

Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator

Strike Phoenix, and after that you have a race that any of the candidates could win. Bridges, who many critics hold as one of modern Hollywood's great underappreciated actors, has a lot of sympathy in his corner, though I must admit I don't understand the cult following he's accrued, and certainly not in relation to this hambone, on-the-sleeve performance. Speaking of hambone, Dafoe shows some scenery-chewing tendencies in Shadow of the Vampire, and it's hard to feel like a vote his way isn't a retread of the whole Martin Landau/Bela Lugosi thing from '94. Even Albert Finney, though certainly an institution of four decades of filmmaking, doesn't have a juicy enough part or wide enough LA fan base to make his chances sure-fire. In a daring move, I'm going to predict a win for the candidate who actually most deserves the trophy: Del Toro, who finally convinced me of the hype that's surrounded him for years with his mournful, exciting turn in Traffic.


Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe

Billy Elliot, Lee Hall

Erin Brockovich, Susannah Grant

Gladiator, David Franzoni, John Logan & William Nicholson

You Can Count on Me, Kenneth Lonergan

Strangely, the three "prestige" nominees—Billy Elliot, with its Best Director nomination, and Erin Brockovich and Gladiator, both contenders for the top prize—seem to be well behind in the race for this trophy. If the Academy voters have any genuine appreciation for writing, and I admit there's ample reason to suspect they don't (ahem, Cider House), then Almost Famous and You Can Count on Me have to be considered the front-runners. If voters shared my tastes in writing, Lonegran would win in a cakewalk, but he's far less of a name than Cameron Crowe, and for that reason, I think Almost Famous will score the prize.


Chocolat, Robert Nelson Jacobs

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Wang Hui-Ling, James Schamus & Tsai Kuo-Jung

O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Joel
and Ethan Coen

Traffic, Stephen Gaghan

Wonder Boys, Steve Kloves

This category, particularly given its weak-ish and idiosyncratic list of competitors, offers Traffic its best chance at a trophy—as with L.A. Confidential, I suspect that the stylistic, political, and aesthetic daring of this film will be chalked up with false singularity to a feat of screenwriting, by which I mean to take away nothing from the script. My preference in this category would be Steve Kloves' loopy and affecting translation of Wonder Boys, and indeed he isn't out of the running, especially with Chocolat (too soft) and O Brother (too strange) to compete with. Plus, for all of Crouching Tiger's crossover appeal, I doubt that its coattails will be long enough to haul in a screenwriting trophy. And in fairness, it is the cinematography of Lee's film more than the script that lends its distinctive, magical flavor—which, speaking of . . .

Click here for rosters and reflections for the other categories....

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