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Oscar Watch: The Beginning

As the summer ends, people return to work from their sun-filled vacations, kids go back to school and, once again, attention turns to the upcoming Academy Awards races.

What, already?

Yes, it’s true. You may think I’m a little obsessive discussing the Oscars this early, but you may also recall that this time last year, we already had the Oscar-winning Gladiator and Erin Brockovich as contenders. So, it’s really not that far of a stretch.

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However, in looking back at the crop of the films released thus far this year, this could be a very short conversation. Up to this point, there has been a serious lack of any Oscar-worthy candidates.

Take, for example, Pearl Harbor. Maybe the World War II romance will receive a few technical nods, but any kind of major nomination is completely out of the question-unless you count pretty faces as a category.

Or there’s Hannibal, the sequel to the stunning Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, with Anthony Hopkins once again reprising his Academy Award-winning performance as Hannibal Lecter. Sorry, Tony, but I don’t think forcing someone to eat his own brain is really Oscar material. And even though Tom Green wanted to get on the top of the Oscar list with his truly heartfelt performance in Freddy Got Fingered, I’m not sure the Academy would feel the same way.

Regardless, there are a few contenders, including the animated comedy Shrek, the surprisingly endearing Bridget Jones’s Diary and the twisted Memento.

And, of course, the real Oscar race is just beginning. The slate of upcoming fall and holiday releases looks fairly promising (in hopes to make up for what’s been lacking so far). So, let’s take a look and make some incredibly early predictions in my first 2001 Oscar preview.

The Films

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At this time, only one film stands out as a possible shoo-in for an Oscar: DreamWorks computer-animated smash hit Shrek. It will most likely take home the award in the brand new Academy Award category for Best Animated Feature. Shrek could receive a run for its money from Monsters, Inc., a Disney/Pixar November release about the corporate world of monsters who operate behind children’s closets. I also think the highest grossing film this summer might get a Best Picture nomination. Sure, I may be going out on a limb, but, like the 1995 Oscar-nominated Babe, Shrek has many Oscar-quality elements, including a great script, touching as well as hilarious voice performances, and some eye-popping visuals. Let’s just say Shrek has a chance.

Other than Shrek, no other major studio film released so far has any real hope of being the of 2001. There are plenty of possible nominees in the technical area. It’ll be a tough year trying to pick three nominees for Best Visual Effects (they may want to expand that category). I also can guarantee Planet of the Apes is going to get the Best Makeup award (500 apes? Please…) and, most likely, Moulin Rouge will snag at least a nomination in art direction and costumes.

Bridget Jones’s Diary, based on the novel by Helen Fielding, has a promising chance, more for Renee Zellweger’s performance than anything else (see below). The intriguing independent Memento should get a nod for screenwriting for its incredible originality. In the same vein as The Usual Suspects and Being John Malkovich, the story revolves around a guy trying to find his wife’s killer but who has no short-term memory, with the film starting with the end and working backwards. It’s just too damn clever not to get noticed.

Director John Boorman’s Tailor of Panama, a film about a tailor who reluctantly becomes a British spy, could also creep into the race. It was supposed to be released last year, to be eligible for Oscars this year but didn’t quite make it. And co-stars Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush stand a good chance of getting a nod.


What to look out for:

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This could be the year of the movies based on books. There’s the dueling fantasy films–Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Nov. 16) and The Fellowship of the Ring (Dec. 19)–based on books of monumental popularity. If either or both are done properly, we could be looking at a very colorful and fanciful Oscar ceremony. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Director Lasse Hallstrom’s Oscar touch will be tested once again with the big screen adaptation of Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News (Dec. 25) with Kevin Spacey. Hallstrom directed the Oscar-nominated The Cider House Rules and Chocolat, both adapted from books.

Director Frank Darabont is another book freak. A Stephen King book freak. He received Oscar nominations for adapting King’s The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. He has chosen an original work this time, The Majestic (Dec. 21), a Frank Capra-esque tale starring Jim Carrey.

We have the next Coen brothers’ movie, the black-and-white The Man Who Wasn’t There (Nov. 2), starring Billy Bob Thornton and James Gandolfini; Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (Dec. 21), starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis (all three have been conspicuously absent from the movie business lately–glad to see them back); and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (Dec. 21), a 1930s old-fashioned murder mystery with a cast of thousands, including Jeremy Northam and Emily Watson.

And finally, there’s one film that intrigues me: The Royal Tenenbaums, from the director of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, about a dysfunctional New York family and starring Anjelica Huston, Gene Hackman and Gwyneth Paltrow. In reading about the film, it reminded me a little of Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth. Tenenbaums could sneak into the Oscar race and be that quirky Fargo-like movie.

The Acting

Now we can finally talk. Even if the film is too small to get any notice, a performance in them can certainly catch the Academy’s attention. Remember Oscar-nominated Laura Linney in You Can Count on Me and Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream? And at this point, we do have some worthy notables.

The Men: From Memento, Australian Guy Pearce (also so good in L.A. Confidential) gave a tense performance as the unlucky chap who can’t remember what happened 20 minutes ago. He’s also starring in an upcoming remake of the H.G. Wells sci-fi classic The Time Machine, which may give him some leverage.

Haley Joel Osment also might get a nomination for his incredibly poignant portrayal as the boy-robot in Steven Spielberg’s troubled A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The kid has an amazing gift, and is most likely going to reap those awards in years to come, starting this year.

Then there’s Hedwig. John Cameron Mitchell’s tour-de-force performance as the transsexual with a chip (and an inch) on his shoulder in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, based on his own off-Broadway play, has been getting nothing but critical praise. The actor/writer/director is in all the magazines as the new “it” guy, so don’t be surprised if the Academy jumps on the bandwagon. And for playing an ape so eerily well, Tim Roth may get a supporting nod playing the evil General Thade in Planet of the Apes. I mean, I believed he was an evolved chimp.


Who to look out for: Well, it could be another Kevin Spacey kind of year. Not only does his role as a recently dumped single father who starts over in a small town in Newfoundland in The Shipping News have Oscar written all over it, but he’ll also be seen in K-Pax (Oct. 26). He plays a mental patient who quietly insists he’s an alien from another planet. I just like the sound of that one.

Jim Carrey may have another chance for an Oscar nomination for his role in The Majestic, playing a blacklisted screenwriter in the 1950s who gets amnesia and winds up in a small town where they think he is someone else. At least, Carrey hopes so-he really wants a golden guy of his own, you know. There’s also Day-Lewis and DiCaprio, who could very well turn into great performances as 1860s Manhattanites in Gangs of New York.

Watch out for Will Smith as the great Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s Ali (Dec. 7). Smith has never really been tested like this before, but I remember how well he did in Six Degrees of Separation, so I have faith he’ll pull out something we haven’t seen before. And last year’s Oscar winner Russell Crowe is back, playing the real-life John Forbes Nash Jr., a schizophrenic Nobel-Prize winning mathematician in A Beautiful Mind (Dec. 25). Oh yeah, I’d say that’s an Academy special. We even have Tom Cruise in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (Dec. 14), shooting for another Jerry Maguire tour de force.

The Women: This could be a good year for the women. Usually it’s completely dry until the bitter end, but already we have Renee Zellweger’s sweet performance as Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones’s Diary. They all said she couldn’t do it-a native Texan adopting a British accent and gaining weight to play the slightly frumpy Jones-but she did, and did it well.

There are also two indie performances that may get some notice. First, Oscar-nominated Janet McTeer plays a musicologist who becomes enchanted by the Appalachian people and the music that they hand down from generation to generation in the delightful film Songcatcher (which should get more notice by the Academy but probably won’t). And second, the intense portrayal by Tilda Swinton (The Beach) of a mother trying to protect her son but spiraling out of control in The Deep End. Does anyone remember the hauntingly good 1992 Orlando, in which Swinton played both men and women through a span of time? She’s a fascinating actress who needs good material. The Deep End may be it.

Who to look out for: Oscar-winning Hilary Swank is in a French period piece called The Affair of the Necklace (bad title). She plays an 18th-century scorned noblewoman who fixates on a precious necklace and plans to steal it to avenge her family name. Thank goodness she gets to play a woman this time around (Oct. 19).

Oscar-winners Anjelica Huston as the matriarch and Gwyneth Paltrow as the disillusioned daughter in The Royal Tenenbaums will probably be on the list come Oscar time, especially Huston, who hasn’t had a really juicy part in awhile and deserves one. And Julianne Moore, who stars as Spacey’s somewhat eccentric love interest in The Shipping News, may join her colleague as a potential nominee.

And, don’t laugh, but I think Drew Barrymore may get a shot at the golden guy with her performance in Penny Marshall’s Riding in Cars with Boys (Oct. 19). She plays a young woman who gets pregnant as a teen-ager and is now trying to raise her child and make a life for herself. Barrymore has been turning in endearing performances in broad comedies, so seeing her in a drama may just surprise people.

Well, that’s my preview for now, but you can be sure there’s going to be a lot more to come.

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