Best Picture, 2002
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of those movies.)



The dual accolades as the year's best from the Directors Guild and the Producers Guild, plus the Golden Globes sweep, plus the pack-leading 13 nominations, plus the boffo box office (how fun to say "boffo"!), plus the mutual appeal to actors and technicians, plus the millions of media outlets proclaiming Chicago the front-runner...all of these things do in fact make Chicago the front-runner.

The Fellowship of the Ring proved last year that earning the most nods does not guarantee a victory. More pressingly, Chicago looks awfully fun and lightweight next to The Pianist or The Hours; last year's triumph of A Beautiful Mind over more artistically auspicious pictures repeated a longstanding rule of this category: the importance of being Earnest.
Gangs of New York

Scorsese's front-runner status in the Director race may actually encourage some votes here—the Academy likes its Picture and Director victors to correspond. But then again... 1998, voters recognized a major auteur in the Director race (Steven Spielberg) but saved their Picture votes for a jazzier entertainment (Shakespeare in Love). A Chicago/Scorsese split seems equally likely, especially since Gangs has nowhere near the ardent support that '98 loser Saving Private Ryan enjoyed.
The Hours

Like A Beautiful Mind, this picture has the pedigreed acting, the middlebrow-artsy script, and the atmosphere of gravitas that could endear it to voters uncomfortable with Chicago's razzle dazzle. The Golden Globe (Drama) award for Best Picture is hardly to be scoffed at, and the Oscars could afford to show support for a film propelled by female characters and actors.
The film has not crossed over much beyond its core audience of urban aesthetes and fans of the novel. "Endear" seems like a strange word indeed to apply to this somber, even dour film, and rewarding its script or its actors may be easier than laureling the film as a whole. If gravitas is what voters are after, The Pianist has even this film beat.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

(Sound of crickets chirping...)
If Fellowship couldn't win last year, even as the nomination leader, and The Return of the King is still waiting in the wings for 2003, there is no reason to recognize this picture. Abandonment by the writers, directors, and actors who threw nods last year to Fellowship seals the case against it.
The Pianist

The British Oscars (aka the BAFTAs) recently anointed The Pianist over the exact same field of competitors it faces here. Buzz has been building for a while, and the film certainly gratifies the appetites for historical drama, indictments of cruelty, and individual resilience that have so classically been associated with the Best Picture award.
Polanski is still a divisive figure, which will harm the prospects for his film to at least some degree (though perhaps a small one). The film was passed over by the Globes, the DGA, and the PGA, and the Writers Guild didn't even nominate the script. As with The Hours, recognition of individual contributions may be a tempting way to acknowledge the picture without opposing the Chicago juggernaut in the main race.

Last year, even as a backlash mounted against A Beautiful Mind, its rivals were thwarted by the damning fact of splitting the same contingency of voters—the arthousy, spectacle-oriented types to whom Moulin Rouge, and Gosford Park, and The Fellowship of the Ring were all aimed. Similarly this year, even if Chicago seems on final estimation like a superficial pleasure, the fans of sober drama will be divided between The Hours and The Pianist. Unless there's a Polanski groundswell, Chicago has this in the bag.

The technical precision and beautifully calibrated emotion of The Pianist easily exceeds those of its competitors: Chicago looks formally and tonally slapdash on second viewing, and even The Hours, a good film, swoops too often between extremes of staidness and floridity. Polanski's is the only movie that finds its proper register early and maintains its footing even as it expands in scope and feeling.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: It is terrific that the Directors and Writers Branches often make room for foreign artists that the wider membership neglects. But, at risk of sounding greedy, Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her is too accomplished to be left out of the main race. Close behind it is Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven, the best American movie of the year, but likely too academic a project ever to have had a prayer here.

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