Best Picture, 2000
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of those movies.)



Only the Miramax marketing machine, which managed to push Shakespeare in Love to its unforeseen victory in 1998; then again, Gwyneth & Co. had 13 nominations and strong backing from nearly every Academy branch heading into the voting period.

A weak nominee, with support centered only among actors and writers, who have plenty to be excited about among the other four competing pictures. Without a Director nomination, Chocolat hasn't a hope, and that's as it should be.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Out of the four Best Picture nominees to crack (or, so far, approach) the $100 million mark at the box office, Crouching Tiger is surely the most unanticipated blockbuster: a martial-arts saga in Mandarin Chinese that plays equally well as an Austen-derived dramedy of manners. While the other nominees seem "good" in some abstract way—"good" because they seem epic or pleasant or important on the surface—Crouching Tiger has more passionate advocates than its competitors do, and the number of its supporters increases all the time. If Hollywood is willing to admit its past year of deficient work, an honor to a successful foreign product would constitute a fitting tribute. The Los Angeles Film Critics already beat them to that punch with their Best Picture prize.
Much more likely, since Hollywood is rarely as noble a place as they (or we) would like to imagine, Crouching Tiger will be misunderstood or underestimated by voters who flinch at subtitles, fables, walks over water, and pithy prophecies. It may be more comfortable to honor Ang Lee for the ambitions of his project and the crossover success it has experienced than to admit that the film is better than anything produced on this side of the Pacific. Besides, fairly inevitably, as the picture's bandwagon attracts more and more audiences, more of them seem to be responding incredulously, wondering what all the hype was about.
Erin Brockovich

Strong, smart-talking, shit-starting character piece that raises Important Issues about public health and gender double-standards even as it shows Hollywood's biggest star at her vavoomiest and teaches us all how to intimidate a panel of corporate settlement contractors. Redeems the idea that people-driven stories culled from real life and minus special effects can still be carefully shaped, satisfying entertainments, and is therefore very easy to like.
Somewhat more difficult to love, and on the level of craft—which most voters still believe the Best Picture recipient should reflect, at least in some form—Gladiator is bigger, Traffic is more ambitious, and Crouching Tiger is both, as well as a more inventive feminist tract. The Best Actress race is the venue to recognize this picture; more awards than that might seem to overstate the case.

Size always matters in this category. The English Patient, Titanic, and Schindler's List, for all of their other virtues, seemed monumental in terms of size and scope. Even Braveheart, Gandhi, and Out of Africa, whose other virtues were limited at best, got by on size alone. Gladiator looks more epic than its competitors, has enough clangs and clashes to excite the technicians, enough slumming talent to persuade the actors, and enough smart-sounding screeds against gratuitous violence to satisfy liberal and conservative types alike. And no one runs across roofs and waterfalls, so the stingiest voters won't feel overchallenged.
The Morning After Syndrome: When are we going to collectively wake up and notice the deep problems and blemishes in a film everyone seems so eager to get into bed with? No one thought Gladiator was Best Picture material when it premiered in May; to anoint it as such now seems like a blatant concession to the fact that little else of prepossessing quality materialized in the year's latter half. Then again, change the word Gladiator to Braveheart and you have an exact replica of 1995's bizarre success story. There is seldom any hope of convincing people that a film is mediocre when they so want to believe it is great.

A technically adept, socially conscious enterprise that was a heaven to scores of actors and reinvigorates the drug trade as the viable subject for a profitable and critically acclaimed feature. Traffic is actually and overtly about something, and on a scale grander than the other Soderbergh-directed nominee, so people who prefer their politics to be explicitly stated shouldn't have a hard time making their pick. As I've written often, the constant word-of-mouth that this year's Oscars are irrelevant would be easier to silence by voting for a socially constructive, politically risky picture, rather than a swords 'n' sandals adventure or a film made outside the U.S.
Somehow, all the admiration for Traffic, including the New York Film Critics prize, and even its $100 million gross at the box office, hasn't parlayed into a groundswell of Academy support. Somehow the picture got a little bogged down in all the Douglas/Zeta-Jones hype, and somehow a strong ensemble of performers saw all of their plaudits directed toward Benicio Del Toro alone. Is it really the case that Traffic's insistence that the U.S. perpetuates the drug "problem" even as it combats it offends people, or turns them off, or upsets them too much? That would be further sad evidence that Americans are uncomfortable with genuine civic debate—but it's a harder and harder hypothesis to disprove. Then again, we may have a simple problem of extraordinary expectations that weren't fully met.

WHO WILL WIN: A two-horse race unless Traffic suddenly galvanizes unforeseen support. I'm inclined to think that Gladiator, which recently scored the Producers Guild prize, has an easier road to victory than the generically groundbreaking Crouching Tiger, whose victory a a foreign film in the top category would be literally unprecedented.

WHO SHOULD WIN: I'm a fan of both Soderbergh pictures, but Crouching Tiger outpaced even the combination of both of them in terms of narrative daring, technical enterprise, and tonal variety. I'm still not certain that every ingredient of Crouching Tiger achieves equal success, but the parts that work easily work better than the best scenes of any of the rival pictures.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: I realize what a waste of time it is, almost an act of bad faith, to plead for such renegade works as The Cell or Dancer in the Dark to have been contenders for a prize that honors not cinematic worth so much as universal cinematic appeal. The point of the Oscars, it seems to me, are to call recognition to films just far enough from the beaten path to increase those pictures' audience, while also citing the excellence of films already programmed for broadly-based popularity. By that scale, something like The Cell has no business showing up, but a picture as perceptive and wryly involving as Wonder Boys had no reason to be excluded. There's something in that picture for everybody, and more people would have found that out if the Academy Award nominations had prompted them to seek it out.

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