Alex's Oscar Column #01

By ALEX FUNG
Last updated: 99/12/10


Introduction

Hi. I'm Alex.

Preamble

This is the first (or technically the second, if one includes my post-Toronto International Film Fest/Oscar Watch wrap-up) of what I hope to be a series of essays in my annual coverage of the Oscar race.

This year certainly has to be the widest (and by definition, most exciting) Oscar race in recent memory, with no clear consensus regarding the leading candidates in most categories. While there are some fields which are probably already sewn up -- Best Song, for one -- and a few pictures are clearly set to score multiple nominations (Sam Mendes' American Beauty fits this bill nicely) come February, it's rather unusual to reach this point of the year with most of the available nominations slots still up for grabs. Since it's still too competitive and too early in the race to declare certain films and achievements as definitive frontrunners -- the critics awards and various campaigns will probably play a huge influential factor this year -- for now, I'll just split the leading candidates into two groups and sort them alphabetically. As in previous years, I'm basing these early assessments on my own reactions, buzz and other reports (most of which have been contradictory -- what an unpredictable race this will be!), and miscellaneous other factors (political and otherwise).

(I'd actually started a [far too] comprehensive version of this piece about a week ago, but have scaled it down dramatically due to impending deadlines -- the National Board Of Review is set to announce their year-end prizes this week -- so if you're wondering why the commentary in some categories are terribly verbose and others are sparse [or incomplete] in their insight, now you know.)

Merci

Mucho gratitude to JMSTREEP, Academy Awards scholar and historian, for invaluable assistance in category classifications, as well as various regular denizens on the film newsgroup, particularly Mr. Ken Rudolph, for antecdotal information.


Best Picture Of The Year

Top Contenders:
American Beauty
The Cider House Rules
The Green Mile
The Hurricane
The Insider
The Sixth Sense

In The Hunt:
All About My Mother
Being John Malkovich
Boys Don't Cry
Cradle Will Rock
The End Of The Affair
Magnolia
Man On The Moon
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Three Kings
Topsy-Turvy

At this point, Sam Mendes' breakthrough feature film directorial debut American Beauty is an obvious lock, and a probable frontrunner. I can only envision two films challenging it for the Oscar come March, both unreleased as of this writing -- Frank Darabont's much-awaited follow-up to his after-the-fact sleeper hit The Shawshank Redemption, the Tom Hanks-starrer The Green Mile, and Norman Jewison's docudrama on wrongly-imprisoned boxer Ruben Carter, The Hurricane.

A work-in-progress print of The Hurricane played at the Toronto film festival in September 1999 to a rapturous reception, and I can imagine why -- this is a tremendous story, inherently cinematic in a way few untweaked biopics are. Carter's tale is an epic, fascinating saga, filled with unexpected twists and turns. (It also follows the three-act structure to a remarkable degree.) I'm expecting great things from this picture; unless Jewison and company have screwed it up -- and I wouldn't think that's the case -- this should be the sort of powerful and emotionally moving experience which will play tremendously well with audiences and the Academy alike.

Expectations are also high on The Green Mile, given the phenomenal success of Darabont's 1994 picture The Shawshank Redemption, which was shunned by audiences during its theatrical release but became a much-beloved hit on video and cable -- a popular renaissance akin to It's A Wonderful Life. As well-liked as Darabont's previous picture was, word on The Green Mile, which opens this Friday, is decidedly mixed -- with a few exceptions, the consensus is that the film doesn't match up well in a comparison to Shawshank. Still, given the pedigree involved and the generally favourable (if undeniably soft) assessments, this seems on track for a Best Picture nomination.

The surprise smash The Sixth Sense also appears likely to score an audience-pleasing Best Picture nomination; exceeding all expectations, it's gone on to become something of a phenomenon in 1999 as the year's top word-of-mouth picture, hanging around in the weekend top 10 box office standings for nearly four months.

While The Insider has underperformed at the box office -- although I think it was sadly unreasonable to expect such a topical, serious picture to be any sort of popular hit -- this is exactly the sort of film which the Academy traditional rewards with recognition; it's an extremely well-made and well-acted "important" movie that addresses weighty themes while remaining engaging. (It also skews to an older demographic, which should also help its chances.) My immediate reaction after screening Michael Mann's film was that this was an Best Picture-type piece, and given the studio's intentions to run an aggressive Academy Award campaign, I don't expect its box office shortcomings to be a major obstacle in its quest for a nomination.

Oscar-watchers' eyes tend to gravitate towards Miramax at the end of the year to see what sort of Oscar campaign they're going to come up with this time, and their slate for 1999 appears to be uncharacteristically conventional and rather soft. It would seem that they're gearing at Lasse Hallström's film version of the John Irving novel The Cider House Rules as their primary Best Picture candidate. I really liked this picture -- the sentimentality worked on me, and I found it sweet and effectively engaging -- but it feels like such a quaint and old-fashioned movie, particularly in a year where studios dared to release edgier mainstream pictures, that it may seem like an out-of-place throwback. Still, one can't underestimate the Miramax marketing machine, and this picture will play well to an older audience.

Paul Thomas Anderson's highly-anticipated Boogie Nights follow-up, the intriguing Magnolia, is a real wild-card and could figure into the race, although I'm maintaining a healthy wait-and-see attitude on it. Given the involvement of people like Milos Forman, the Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski writing team, and Jim Carrey, Man On The Moon could also be a factor (although the only assessment I've read on this one which I give any weight was negative). The pedigree involved with The Talented Mr. Ripley also makes it an immediate possibility at this early stage of the race. Sony is giving the Neil Jordan romance picture The End Of The Affair a heavy push. Being John Malkovich has been praised for its dazzling originality and weirdness, but its offbeat sensibility may be a serious problem among traditionalists in the Academy. (Then again, I expect that the Actors branch, the largest voting bloc, will greatly admire this picture.)

I'm having difficulty envision a foreign language picture like Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother cracking the top five, given the general sentiment that this was an exceptionally strong year in terms of studio releases; still, Hollywood's fascination with Almodóvar and the amount of acclaim his picture has received makes it difficult to exclude him from consideration. Three Kings was very well-received as an unusually intelligent adventure picture, but I can't see it being anything other than a longshot (at best) for a Best Picture nomination. I was shocked when Kimberly Peirce's little indie flick Boys Don't Cry (distributed by Fox Searchlight) was named one of the European Film Academy's candidates for Best Non-European Film of the Year alongside such major pictures as American Beauty, and wondered whether it would continue to build momentum and, against all odds, become a genuine multi-category Oscar threat. Despite rave reviews, the film never really did catch fire with a wide audience, and I'd be quite surprised if it managed to snare a Picture nomination. Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock has a terrific ensemble cast and the leftist political view espoused may click with the generally-liberal Academy, but I'm dubious about its Oscar potential. While Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies grabbed a Picture nomination in 1996, that was the so-called "Year Of The Independents"; in a year like 1999 when the studios came roaring back with a vengeance, I'm strongly dubious that his Topsy-Turvy can make a comparable breakthrough, although the raves in support of the film have me intrigued.

Incidentally, I see no reason why Disney should not tout Toy Story 2 as a genuine candidate for Best Picture, and why AMPAS members should not give it legitimate consideration. It's an entirely credible alternative, and wholly worthy of a nomination.


In a few cases, I am uncertain as to whether or not noted performances are being promoted in the leading or supporting category; in such instances, I have made my best educated guess. (As always, note that designations in studio's promotional material are merely suggested guidelines, and are in no way binding.) Many of the performances under consideration are in films which have yet to be theatrically released and/or yet to be screened by yours truly as of this writing.


Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Top Contenders:
Russell Crowe, The Insider
Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story
Tom Hanks, The Green Mile
Anthony Hopkins, Titus
Al Pacino, The Insider
Sean Penn, Sweet And Lowdown
Kevin Spacey, American Beauty
Denzel Washington, The Hurricane

In The Hunt:
Jim Carrey, Man On The Moon
Matt Damon, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Kirk Douglas, Diamonds
Ralph Fiennes, The End Of The Affair
Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Flawless
Bob Hoskins, Felicia's Journey
Edward Norton, Fight Club
Brad Pitt, Fight Club
Terence Stamp, The Limey

Kevin Spacey would appear to be a lock for his performance in American Beauty, and stands as the man to beat. I've rewatched this picture on multiple occasions, and my opinion of Spacey's work grows each time -- the rewards of his theatrical training are plainly in evidence throughout Beauty. He's one of the best physical actors working in American cinema today -- look at the way he slumps when collecting his fallen material from his briefcase, or the body language when smoking pot with Ricky, or his retrieval of the plate of asparagus. My only complaint is that his Lester seems a little too self-aware during the opening half of the picture, which lends an overly smug tone to the proceedings.

As solid as Spacey is, I expect that Denzel Washington will be an equally strong contender upon the release of The Hurricane, which gives him a fiesty and charismatic character to work with. Richard Farnsworth is purportedly splendid in The Straight Story (which I embarassingly have yet to screen), and has received raves since the picture's unfurling at Cannes. Perennial Oscar-bait Anthony Hopkins has received assessments of astonishment for his work in Julie Taymor's Titus -- this was the film which so anguished him that he famously threatened to quit acting (only to retract his statement after clearing his head); he strangely hasn't been listed on many prognosticators lists, but I feel he's a very strong candidate. Tom Hanks is always an Oscar threat; word on him ranges from excellent to out-of-place, but given his track record, it's probably not a good idea to discount him from the race. Sean Penn's work as a jazz musician in Sweet And Lowdown has been heavily lauded; he's a great actor and well-respected by his peers. The two The Insider actors, Russell Crowe and Al Pacino may wind up cancelling each other out, but they're both very fine -- Crowe, I think, has the more challenging character and does a more impressive job -- and merit consideration.

Given the softness of Miramax's slate this year, I expect that they'll be spreading their attention across a number of their films rather than focusing on scoring multiple nominations from one or two films. Consequently, I can't see them focusing on getting Tobey Maguire an Actor nomination for The Cider House Rules (though I certainly wouldn't mind seeing it), and expect they'll probably make a strong appeal for Kirk Douglas in Diamonds. Given various factors -- his veteran status in the industry, his Oscar-less career (excluding his Lifetime Achievement prize), and his stroke -- sentiment (and perhaps the quality of his work in the film; I haven't seen it yet) will work strongly in his favour. Unlike many, I'm not especially confident about Jim Carrey as a Best Actor prospect for his Andy Kaufman performance in Man On The Moon -- while some cite his nomination omission last year for The Truman Show as working in his favour, I wonder whether or not a performance based mostly on mimicry will necessarily be sufficiently well-received. And there's also the matter of all of these public Kaufman-esque stunts and gags, which are so transparently attention-getting that they are, to me, pretty offputting. Matt Damon is an unknown quantity for The Talented Mr. Ripley, although he clearly has a juicy role to play with. Ralph Fiennes has the lead in two late-year pictures -- The End Of The Affair and Onegin; I presume it'll be the former for which he draws the bulk of his attention. While the film was somewhat of a financial disappointment, the performances by Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in David Fincher's Fight Club were very strong, and neither of them should be discounted (particularly Norton). While Joel Schumacher has guided performers to Oscar nominations in the past -- Susan Sarandon in The Client, for one -- I admit to being a little dubious about Philip Seymour Hoffman's chances as the drag queen in Flawless, although his performance was reportedly extremely well-received during an Academy screening. Artisan is touting both Bob Hoskins for Felicia's Journey and Terence Stamp for The Limey in the Actor category, although I expect they'll revert to focusing on Hoskins in the near future. I appreciated both performances -- the early scene in The Limey where Stamp dusts himself off and confronts his attackers is The Coolest Scene of the year -- but I don't expect that either will muster the amount of support required for a nomination.

I swear to God, if Robin Williams gets nominated for Bicentennial Man, I will never write about the Oscars again.


Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Top Contenders:
Annette Bening, American Beauty
Julianne Moore, The End Of The Affair
Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
Cecilia Roth, All About My Mother
Winona Ryder, Girl, Interrupted
Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
Sigourney Weaver, A Map Of The World

In The Hunt:
Jodie Foster, Anna And The King
Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut
Natalie Portman, Anywhere But Here
Meryl Streep, Music Of The Heart
Emily Watson, Angela's Ashes
Kate Winslet, Holy Smoke

Among the leading candidates, Hilary Swank of Boys Don't Cry and Annette Bening from American Beauty seem to be the most likely to make the February list of Actress nominees. I was quite impressed with Swank's work -- when I initially caught the film, I had thought she had a chance for Academy attention should her work be noticed, which it most certainly has -- but much less so with Bening's; I don't feel her performance is award-calibre. While her character isn't one-dimensional, as some of have claimed -- indeed, she's actually very empathetic -- Bening played the role with an easy glassy zeal which I found distracting and ineffective; I can't help but unfavourably compare one of her two big Oscar Moments -- her breakdown after failing to sell the house -- with Philip Seymour Hoffman's teary "I'm a fucking idiot" sequence in Boogie Nights.

Janet McTeer is getting great assessments for her performance as the zany mom in Tumbleweeds and appears to be a strong candidate in the Actress race. (Fine Line ought to really abandon their hopes with the star-powered dud Simpatico and focus their energies on getting the AMPAS attention for their Tumbleweeds team.) Cecilia Roth has a great role in the Ode To All That Is Woman, All About My Mother, and seems to be a genuine possibility to snare a Best Actress nomination despite the presence of some serious star power vying for spots on the list -- Julianne Moore in her first major studio lead role (unless one counts Nine Months, I suppose), in The End Of The Affair; Winona Ryder, who's purportedly solid in Girl, Interrupted (although I would've never guessed from the horrible trailers); Sigourney Weaver, currently receiving great reviews for her work in the limited-release A Map Of The World (it'll be interesting to seek if little First Look can mount an effective Oscar campaign on her behalf).

I'm unsure whether Miramax is planning to throw their support in the Actress race behind Kate Winslet for Holy Smoke or Oscar-magnet Meryl Streep in the dud Music Of The Heart. I loathed the treacle of the Wes Craven drama and didn't find Streep's performance remotely noteable, but given her spectacular track record, one should never count her out. Similarly, when considering the Oscars, one must pay a certain amount of attention any time Jodie Foster makes a new picture. The lavish costume piece Anna And The King appears to be a promising crowdpleaser and positions her as a possible contender.

Although I maintain an extremely high position of Natalie Portman -- I remain convinced that we're watching a screen legend in the making -- I was disappointed with Anywhere But Here and underwhelmed with her performance, which, while far more effective than her counterpart, the esteemed Susan Sarandon, was unimpressive by the standards set by her previous works. This, I'm sure, will be a a minor footnote in an impressive career; she may score enough support to grab a nomination, but I doubt it.

Some may feel that Portman should be classified as a supporting actress -- I disagree, although I can understand the argument [LATE NOTE: Jack Mathews has reported that Fox is indeed touting Natalie Portman in the Supporting Actress category, which is sound from a strategical perspective if somewhat misleading in terms of her importance in the film] -- and to that ends, some thought by the Warner and Paramount Oscar teams should be given to moving Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut) and Emily Watson (Angela's Ashes) from the lead actress category into the supporting one. In both cases, their roles are relatively small, and given the lesser competition in the secondary category, each would stand a better chance of making the final list.

I don't mean to sound catty, but one of the weirdest mentions in a published Oscar column I've seen yet was the suggestion by Jonathan Foreman and Lou Luminek in the New York Post of Ashley Judd as a viable Best Actress candidate for Double Jeopardy. I mean, I like Judd as an actress quite a bit, and yes, the Beresford film was a hit, but is it just me, or does this sound nutty?


Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Top Contenders:
Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules
Tom Cruise, Magnolia
Michael Clark Duncan, The Green Mile
John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich
Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense
Christopher Plummer, The Insider

In The Hunt:
Wes Bentley, American Beauty
Robert Carlyle, Angela's Ashes
Chris Cooper, American Beauty or October Sky
Charles S. Dutton, Cookie's Fortune
Jude Law, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Bill Murray, Cradle Will Rock
Jeremy Northam, The Winslow Boy
Jeffrey Wright, Ride With The Devil

Among the four acting categories, the Supporting Actor division appears to be the most competitive by a fairly large margin. Nonetheless, one performance sticks out to me as being a bonafide lock for a nomination -- Haley Joel Osment's turn in The Sixth Sense. His performance was wholly convincing and remarkably assured, and deserves the lion's share of the credit for the picture's unexpected popular and financial winfall. (Some may point to the thrilling surprise twist as being the key to its success, but I'd note that had Osment not been as effective as he was -- imagine some bratty sitcom youth actor in the part -- the impact of Shyalaman's conclusion would be horribly diluted; in truth, it'd be hard to really care.) With nary a lapse during his screentime, Osment's performance is probably the best I've seen yet from a male actor in this year's crop of movies.

Aside from Osment, there are a handful of supporting performances which stand above the heap as especially strong contenders for Oscar nominations. Word has been terrific on Tom Cruise for his work in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, Magnolia; what was originally planned to be an unbilled supporting role -- originally, New Line was even contractually obligated to refrain from using him in their marketing campaign -- has become a much-ballyhooed turn which many expect to net Cruise his first Academy Award. Among the large and talented ensemble cast in the film, Cruise's performance has been the one to generate the most discussion and bandying of generous adjectives; although some of this can likely be attributed to his playing against type -- he portrays a sleazy hustler -- all indicators point to him grabbing a nomination in this tough category come February.

Michael Clark Duncan has also been pegged as a likely nominee for his work in The Green Mile, and it's not difficult to see why. As the hulking, sweet-hearted convicted child murderer John Coffey, Duncan has by far the best part in the film, with many choice sentimental moments which makes his performance a memorable one. His chances are a function of the nature of his role and his screen presence, as opposed to directly related to his actual performance.

Michael Caine will warrant serious consideration for his portrayal of a saintly, ether-addled orphanage doctor in The Cider House Rules; it's a gentle, affecting piece of acting. Whether or not it reflects his actual behaviour during the Wigand episode, I can't really blame Mike Wallace with being unhappy with his depiction in Michael Mann's The Insider -- he may have been pragmatic, but it certainly doesn't play endearingly on the screen -- but he'd be hardpressed to come up with many complaints of Christopher Plummer's renditon of his distinct mannerisms. Plummer has a small but searing role in the picture, with a couple of Big Moments which lend themselves nicely for Oscar attention.

The buzz has been strong on John Malkovich for playing himself, or, in fact, a version of himself (he's billed in the film's credits under the role "John Horatio Malkovich", which is actually not his name) in Spike Jonze's decidedly eccentric Being John Malkovich. While I can see the kooky appeal of an actor getting a nomination for playing "himself" in a film titled after him, I do wonder if this is to some degree a bit of wishful thinking -- as proficient an actor as he is, I didn't think he was especially attention-grabbing in the film. (I did really like the insistent escalation in his voice when he implored John Cusack's character to shut down the portal "for the love of God", charging "I've seen things that no man should see!") Still, the temptation for voters may be too irresistable to refrain; heck, one could make the argument that he should get a nomination for his hilarious visit to the World O' Malkovich alone.

No actor has personified amiability as successfully this year as Charles S. Dutton as the roly-poly caretaker Willis in Robert Altman's lighthearted Cookie's Fortune. He has a wonderful presence in the film, relaxedly ambling his way through scenes in a most ingratiating manner -- it's hard not to be charmed by his graceful work. Should voters' memories extend back to the first third of the calendar year -- Cookie's Fortune was released early, and is now already available on video -- the veteran actor may stand a fair chance, although I wonder if October Films' absorption into the USA Films fold may prove to be an obstacle from a campaigning perspective. Jude Law is a terrific young actor who's been very solid in his previous films -- among them, Gattaca, eXistenZ, and Wilde. Still, given the relative underperformance of each of these three pictures, he's a bit of an unknown in North America; I expect that The Talented Mr. Ripley should be his breakthrough picture in terms of exposure, and that he'll make a considerable impact in his limited screentime in the Minghella film. Bill Murray, who impressed with his performance in last winter's Rushmore, returns with another Oscar-bait turn in the Tim Robbins ensemble picture, Cradle Will Rock -- his dummy-sporting ventriloquist character is a quirky and memorable part which should draw attention from voters.

I was clearly too generous with my initial assessments of Ride With The Devil's Academy Awards prospects in my initial Oscar column in September -- then again, who was to know that this fall's slate was going to be as strong as it was? Due to its indifferent reception upon its recent theatrical release, I think it's pretty safe to write off the film as a viable candidate in most of the higher-profile category, but many still tout Jeffrey Wright as a strong candidate in the Supporting Actor category. I still don't see this praise being warranted; I thought he was adequate but entirely unexceptional in his performance as a former slave fighting for the Confederacy, and the role's nobility is overly transparent. I certainly wouldn't advocate voting for him, but he does seem to have his backers and hence can't be crossed off the list just yet. Robert Carlyle has also received acclaim for his work as an alcoholic wastrel of a father in the prestige pic Angela's Ashes, and may warrant consideration. Until the flimsy Happy, Texas, Jeremy Northam was on quite a roll with fine performances in The Winslow Boy and An Ideal Husband; I've come to realize that I've liked Northam in all of his period pieces and none of his contemporary films, which makes me dread suggestions of him as a successor to Pierce Brosnan in the Bond franchise. (He'd admittedly be a great pick from a physical-type perspective.) Northam was especially good as the righteous attorney in The Winslow Boy -- his initial interrogation of said child was nicely observed -- and could merit some consideration. I frankly think he's an extreme longshot, but worth mentioning.

And, as in all categories, there's the American Beauty contingent -- here, represented by Wes Bentley and Chris Cooper. I've been slow to warm to Bentley's work in the picture, but I now look on his performance as Ricky Fitts with admiration. It's a pivotal role, and Bentley soundly acquits himself as the film's serene voice of reason. His piercing stare and offkilter behaviour register effectively in a manner that's both unsettling and mesmerizing; I can't think of another young actor of repute who could lend the same sort of sensibility to the character as Bentley. He'll certainly get attention and may wind up grabbing a nomination for his first major studio role.

While my initial reaction to Bentley was quizzical, I was immediately wowed by Chris Cooper's work in the film, and subsequent rewatchings have not dulled my enthusiasm. Cooper subtly imbues his strict disciplinarian with elements of quiet desperation which manifest themself in every one of his vivid scenes; it's a terrific piece of work, and I strongly encourage Academy members to give Cooper their consideration. (His work in the last third of the movie is tremendous.) And while I resisted the fuzzy October Sky, he was also excellent there as another father with a certain brand of tough love. These two performances may work against each other by splitting his support, but I'm hoping that his superior performance in the more widely-seen picture will win him his first, long-deserved, Oscar nomination.

I'd also like to mention that by far the most entertainingly energetic performance I've seen from a supporting actor this year is from Srdan Todorovic as the manic coke-snorting disco fiend in Emir Kusturica's Black Cat, White Cat. He stands no chance for a nomination, of course, but his is a truly memorable performance.


Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Top Contenders:
Thora Birch, American Beauty
Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense
Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted
Jessica Lange, Titus
Julianne Moore, Magnolia
Samantha Morton, Sweet And Lowdown
Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don't Cry

In The Hunt:
Helena Bonham Carter, Fight Club
Kimberly J. Brown, Tumbleweeds
Joan Cusack, Cradle Will Rock
Cameron Diaz, Being John Malkovich
Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich
Patricia Neal, Cookie's Fortune
Gwyneth Paltrow, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Marisa Paredes, All About My Mother

While the Supporting Actor category is remarkably strong, its counterpart Supporting Actress category is equally weak; this is all a matter of perception, of course, but such is the state of the field that any well-acted performance in a suitable role would seem to immediately vault the actress into contention for a nomination.

The apparent leader in this flimsy category would appear to be British actress Samantha Morton for her work as a deaf-mute waif in the Woody Allen picture Sweet And Lowdown. There's the obvious temptation to presume that this relates to the uncanny Academy Award success of supporting female players in Allen films -- consider Oscar winners Dianne Wiest and Mira Sorvino -- but Morton is purportedly very good indeed in the picture, which I can certainly buy. I've only seen her in one film to date -- Alison Maclean's upcoming Jesus' Son -- but I can't quite remember when I've last been as excited about a new actress as I am with Morton; she's going to be a good one.

There's been much talk about Toni Collette as a probable nominee for her performance in The Sixth Sense. I personally don't see anything noteworthy in her work -- indeed, I've been distinctly underwhelmed with all of her performances after her breakthrough Muriel's Wedding splash (among them Emma and Velvet Goldmine) -- but such is the success and popularity of the Shyalaman picture that I can certainly envision her riding to a coattail nomination.

One of the decade's top American actresses, Julianne Moore appears set to score another nomination in a P.T. Anderson picture for Magnolia, in which she plays the much-younger wife to Jason Robards' character. With The End Of The Affair, this makes Moore a genuine double-threat, which hasn't occured in the acting categories in several years.

Rising star Angelina Jolie has been getting great buzz for her work in James Mangold's Girl, Interrupted as the wildest of the patients in the mental institution, and seems like a viable candidate. Perennial Oscar bait Jessica Lange should register strongly in Titus -- she's been overlooked by most others in Oscar prognostication pieces, which I feel is a mistake. Thora Birch (I still can't believe this is the same girl that was in Alaska) had a somewhat uneven performance as the sullen Jane Burnham in American Beauty, but she nailed a number of the key scenes -- given the weakness of this category, that may be enough to get her a nomination. (On the Beauty front, who was that young actress who responds to Mena Suvari's character's sexual exploit braggadocio by blurting "You are a total prostitute!"? It was a bit part -- she only had two lines -- but she really made the most of them.)

And I would be remiss to fail to tout Chloë Sevigny's splendid turn in Boys Don't Cry; while Hilary Swank has been getting the lion's share of the press and attention, I felt that Sevigny's performance was even better -- her skilfull work in the film has been shamefully neglected. Given the tricky duet of their respective characters, it goes without saying that Swank wouldn't be nearly as effective as she was without the able support of Sevigny; it's an award-worthy turn.

Among others, defending Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow appears in the eagerly-anticipated Anthony Minghella thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley and is a possible candidate; Marisa Paredes is a longshot but could surprise as the troubled stage actress in the well-received All About My Mother; as the fiesty matriarch in Cookie's Fortune, veteran actress Patricia Neal could be a sentimental favourite (although, as per Charles S. Dutton, the film's early release may be a problem -- it needs a strong Oscar campaign); and Kimberly J. Brown has been scoring favourable attention for her work opposite Janet McTeer in Fine Line's Sundance favourite, Tumbleweeds.

Helena Bonham Carter's against-type work as a sharp-tongued, dark-edged "tourist" in David Fincher's Fight Club might snare some consideration. While Joan Cusack will likely get attention for her Cradle Will Rock performance, I'm hoping that Disney will consider running a (competing) campaign for her voice work in Toy Story 2 as Jessie the cowgirl; I think it's her finest hour, far moreso than the performances which netted her previous two Academy Award nominations (Working Girl and the execrable In & Out). I'm pleased that Catherine Keener has steadily increased her profile over the past few years to the point where she's a recognizable "name" supporting actress in major studio features (like Out Of Sight, for one), and while she's been getting a lot of attention for her portrayal of the manipulative Maxine in Being John Malkovich, just as good is Cameron Diaz as the frumpled, animal-loving housewife. Stripped of all glamour (to say the least), she demonstrates here that she's a genuine talent with yet another solid performance.

She can't be considered anything other than an extreme longshot, but I really hope that Academy members make the effort to check out Tim Roth's directorial debut The War Zone, where newcomer Lara Belmont makes an extraordinary impact in the pivotal role of Jessie; based on merit, she would certainly be worthy of a Supporting Actress nomination.


Best Achievement In Direction

Top Contenders:
Frank Darabont, The Green Mile
Norman Jewison, The Hurricane
Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut
Sam Mendes, American Beauty
Michael Mann, The Insider
M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense

In The Hunt:
Pedro Almodóvar, All About My Mother
Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia
Milos Forman, Man On The Moon
Neil Jordan, The End Of The Affair
David Lynch, The Straight Story
Anthony Minghella, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Alan Parker, Angela's Ashes
David O. Russell, Three Kings
Julie Taymor, Titus

Among the various directors competing for Academy recognition, acclaimed stage director Sam Mendes appears to be a lock for his feature film directorial debut, American Beauty. I thought the praise for his helming of the picture was overly excessive -- it's a solid, capable job -- but my appreciation of his work grew after poking through Alan Ball's original script; American Beauty plays much better as a film than as a read. Mendes probably deserves an Oscar just for restraining from shooting the scene where Lester flies around the neighbourhood like Superman.

Depending upon the reception of The Green Mile and The Hurricane, Frank Darabont and Norman Jewison, respectively, may be in line for corresponding attention from the finicky Directors' branch of the Academy. Much like my lukewarm reaction to the film itself, I can't get overly excited about the prospects of an M. Night Shyamalan nomination for The Sixth Sense -- it's not a movie that's distinguished by its helming -- but the hot young director (who's getting $10 million from Disney for his next film) appears to be a strong prospect for a nomination. (I'm intrigued by how Shyamalan's blatantly positioning himself as the next Spielberg, even declaring that he "figured out what [Spielberg] was doing .. and implemented it on The Sixth Sense, although I won't tell anybody what it is. But it seems to have worked."

Michael Mann should receive heavy support for his proficient direction in The Insider (although some consider the film bloated and overly self-important). And although Eyes Wide Shut was received a mixed reception after much anticipation, I think it would be a big mistake to dismiss the Oscar prospects of the late Stanley Kubrick. Given the degree of reverence he's held by his fellow filmmakers (as well as the fact that this is their last opportunity to honour him), it would certainly be easy to see how the Directors' branch would gladly throw their support at Kubrick to receive a nomination for his final stint behind the camera -- there's also the matter that his work was very good indeed. (One of the most maddening criticisms voiced by the tabloid media upon the film's release was that Eyes Wide Shut "wasn't sexy enough", as if they truly expected the film to be an erotic thriller of some sort. Come on, you take a filmmaker whose pictures have regularly been criticised as cold and remote, and you honestly expect a Gregory Hippolyte picture?)

Paul Thomas Anderson made a big splash in the U.S. film industry in 1997 with his one-two punch of Hard Eight (née Sydney) and Boogie Nights, and his attention-grabbing flamboyancy will likely be present in his much-anticipated Magnolia (whose mere trailers are drawing raves, incidentally). Visual stylist Pedro Almodóvar has won directing prizes at Cannes and the European Film Awards for his latest, All About My Mother, and may draw some attention with the Academy. Milos Forman is a perennial Oscar magnet (The People Vs. Larry Flynt, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus); his Andy Kaufman picture, Man On The Moon, may add to his list of nominations. Anthony Minghella is coming off his Oscar win for The English Patient with the star-ladened The Talented Mr. Ripley, which will undoubtedly be watched closely by industry observers. David Lynch has been getting some of the best reviews in his career for his first foray into G-rated filmmaking with The Straight Story and could sneak into the final five. There's also the well-respected Neil Jordan with the Ralph Fiennes-Julianne Moore romance picture The End Of The Affair, as well as Alan Parker with the film version of the Frank McCourt's critically acclaimed bestselling memoir, Angela's Ashes.

The Directors' branch generallly skews to older, established and director nominees (which is the main reason why I've refrained from considering Spike Jonze [Being John Malkovich] or David Fincher [Fight Club] as strong candidates in spite of the strengths of their respective pictures -- their filmmaking styles may be too radical for the entrenched voting members), but two filmmakers may break through: David O. Russell, who kept Three Kings briskly paced and energetic while giving it a distinct bleached-out look, and Tony-winning director Julie Taymor, who predictably lends Titus her signature heavily-stylized look which had producers buzzing after a 20-minute sneak at Cannes. Both are longshots -- Russell probably moreso than Taymor -- but not impossible.


Best Achievement In Documentary Features

The process for determining the Academy Award nominees in the feature-length documentary category has been completely revamped this year due to continuing criticism from both external and interal parties, with the existing executive committee essentially disbanded and reconfigured to consist solely of active documentary filmmakers. An additional step has also been added, with a hand-picked group of documentarians choosing a dozen semifinalists before a wider slice of the membership settles on five nominees.

In terms of the calibre of documentaries constituting the eventual nominees, this change can only be a good thing. However, a resultant effect is that one is unable to use historical precedence when projecting nominees in this category -- we're starting completely from scratch.

That being said, my expectation is that Frieda Lee Mock's and Terry Sanders' Vietnam POW piece Return With Honor would be an obvious selection for a nomination, and probably leads the pack. (Mock also has Bird By Bird With Annie, which examines writer Annie Lamott, and seems unlikely to secure a spot.) Other top contenders include Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen's boxing documentary On The Ropes, Bobby Houston AIDS sailing adventure Rock The Boat, Emiko Omori's film on the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, Rabbit In The Moon, and the Wim Wenders homage to Cuban music, Buena Vista Social Club.

Also in the running would seem to be Nettie Wild's partisan piece on the Zapatista revolution in southern Mexico, A Place Called Chiapas, Rory Kennedy's examination of a dirt-poor Kentucky clan in American Hollow, Nonny de la Peña's documentary about a father and son accused of child molestation, The Jaundiced Eye, and Roko Belic's film on Tuvan throat singing, Genghis Blues.

(Note: I believe all of these have had their requisite one-week theatrical run in Los Angeles, but I may be mistaken.)

One of the more interesting things to watch for this year in light of the changes to the documentary category will be whether or not this will assist Errol Morris in securing his first Oscar nomination. Due to his decidedly unorthodox approach to the feature documentary format -- Morris' films are anything but straightforward talking-head pieces and usuallly operate on multiple levels -- he's failed to net a single nomination during his lengthy career in spite of churning out such wildly acclaimed pieces as The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control. His film, Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., which studies a typically unusual subject -- a self-described execution technologist and Holocaust denier -- has been described by some as his most accessible film to date (an arguable claim, I'd say), but under the old system, would've faced an uphill battle to get attention. We'll see how he does this year.

The other interesting dilemma is posed by Chris Smith's comic documentary American Movie, a Sundance hit focusing on the often hilarious travails of low-budget Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt. Documentaries that have been traditionally rewarded tend to be on the somber and weighty side, so whether or not a film which is so unabashedly entertaining and goofy will merit much consideration under the new system is unknown. (That the documentary deals with filmmaking is, I suppose, a boost.)


Best Foreign Language Film Of The Year

Among the record forty-seven films submitted for consideration in the Foreign Language Film category this year, I've seen but eight as of this writing.

Pedro Almodóvar's popular All About My Mother received raves at Cannes from audiences and critics alike, and there was much disappointment when it went home with merely the Best Director prize -- it had been pegged as the favourite for the Palme D'Or. Having hit theaters Stateside via Sony Pictures Classics, the film has been receiving much acclaim from Stateside critics (Time Magazine's Richard Corliss declared it as the year's best picture), and it has just won the European Film Award for Best Picture. The film appears to be a certain nominee and probably the frontrunner to win the category at this point (though one can never be too sure; I must confess that I'm still confounded by the selections of the Foreign Language Film Commitee from past few years). Frankly, I would've never guessed that it would be so wildly acclaimed -- I liked the picture, but only mildly, and I do wonder if Almodóvar's signature kitsch will be problematic for voters here (acknowledging that he has been nominated in the past with Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown).

The David Cronenberg-led jury at Cannes gave this year's Palme D'Or to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Rosetta, an unsparing glimpse of a impoverished young woman striving to hold down a job. Emilie Dequenne, the first-time performer who plays the title character, also took the Best Actress prize at the festival. Despite the acclaim it's received to date (and the assist in exposure through USA Films' late-year domestic release), I'm rather dubious about its Oscar prospects; it's a distinctly unsentimental picture -- the heroine's behaviour often deliberately appalls the audience -- and the cinema verité filmmaking style may be a turn-off for committee members.

On the other hand, Iran seems to have the preferences of the AMPAS foreign language film commitee pegged pretty well, submitting Majid Majidi's sentimental, tyke-heavy The Children Of Heaven last year and coming up with their first Oscar nomination. This year's Iranian submission is another Majidi film -- The Color Of Paradise (formerly The Color Of God, then The Color Of Heaven) -- and again centers around a cute little boy; in this case, a blind child whom his father wishes to be rid of. Based on the committee's past affinity for this sort of material, this looks like a solid bet for a nomination.

Also appearing to be a pretty strong candidate would be India's submission, Earth, directed by Canadian director Deepa Mehta. It's an interesting and accessible picture which addresses the 1947 partioning of post-independence India, prompting divisions between the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs which persist to this day. While a little heavy-handed (I could've definitely lived without the overly symbolic shot of shattering dishes), it's engaging and generally well-acted; I particularly liked solemn-eyed Maia Sethna, who plays the young girl Lenny through whose eyes the film is seen.

I'm rather iffy on Arturo Ripstein's El Coronel No Tiene Quien Le Escriba (No One Writes To The Colonel); I was rather cool on the film, although I liked the performances by the majestic Fernando Lujan and Marisa Paredes (who also appears in All About My Mother), but the international acclaim received by this picture (particularly at Cannes) suggests it can't be discounted. Still, the slow pacing of this mournful and downbeat picture will be a hurdle to overcome.

I rather liked Canada's entry in this year's foreign-language film sweepstakes, Léa Pool's coming-of-age tale Set Me Free (Emporte-Moi), which features a wonderful performance by young Karine Vanasse as the emerging artist. I suspect that the film's lack of narrative momentum and sense of gravity will hamper its prospects for a nomination, but I hope committee members give it ample consideration.

There's also Tony Bui's feature directorial debut, Three Seasons, the first American film to be shot in Vietnam since the end of the war; it's now Vietnam's submission for this year's contest. Winner of both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and released early in the calendar year by the former October Films, the stories are mostly clichéd (although there is some emotional resonance in the wholly predictable love story between the rickshaw driver and the beautiful prostitute) but the film is beautifully shot and filled with sumptuous visuals. I'd imagine that this has a decent shot at a nomination.

However, I'm not nearly as optomistic about Taiwan's submission, the Lin Cheng-Sheng picture March Of Happiness. Some pretty songs, but the picture mostly meanders and is far too slight and ineffective to warrant an Academy Award nomination.

Amongst the other pictures under consideration, Bhutan's submission, Khyentse Norbu's comedy The Cup has stirred up much attention and has won over audiences both at Cannes and at the Toronto International Film Festival (where it trailed only American Beauty in audience ballotting). The picture, which deals with soccer-obsessed Tibetan monks who are desperate to watch the 1998 World Cup between France and Brazil, was picked up by Fine Line for release in early 2000; by all accounts, it's a real charmer and hence must be considered a very strong candidate for an Oscar nomination. Brazil's Orfeu, an updated remake of the 1958 Oscar-winning Black Orpheus, could also be a possibility. While Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's Mifune has been deemed by some as the best Dogma 95 film to date (which I highly doubt, given the masterful accomplishment of Thomas Vinterberg in last year's The Celebration -- what they probably mean is most mainstream) and has been well-received internationally (including the Silver Bear at Berlin and some nice assessments at Telluride), I'm dubious about its Oscar chances given the committee's apparent aversion to gritty, handheld camerawork (see: The Dreamlife Of Angels, The Celebration, Show Me Love). Germany's submission, Aimée & Jaguar, is reportedly a strong candidate for an Academy Award nomination, especially given its Holocaust underpinnings. Based on the true story of the German housewife who falls in love with a Jewish journalist amidst the backdrop of Third Reich and starring Maria Schrader and Juliane Köehler as the doomed lovers, I'm rooting for this to get a nomination so that some North American distributor might deign to pick this up; I've been looking forward to seeing it since its debut at the Berlin festival in February 1999.


Best Achievement In Music (Original Song)

Barring the emergence of, say, some groovy jailhouse tune in The Green Mile (I'm being facetious here, folks), it's probably not too early to concede not only a nomination but the Academy Award itself to the Randy Newman-penned "When She Loved Me", Jessie's ballad in Toy Story 2 as sung by Sarah McLachlan. It seems to be as sure a thing as any candidate in recent years. To my recollection, there haven't been very many notable Oscar-type songs in 1999 -- Phil Collins' anthemic "You'll Be In My Heart" from Tarzan seems like a mighty safe bet, but I'm hardpressed to think of any others which fit the established AC-friendly tastes of the Musicians branch of the Academy; boy, I sure hope the schlocky title track from Music Of The Heart doesn't get consideration. (I suppose that the new Jewel track, "What's Simple Is True", whose inclusion in Ride With The Devil prompted derisive titters amongst trailer-watching audiences is a possibility.)

As unlikely as this may be, I'd like to strongly suggest that the music branch of the Academy give serious consideration to the hilarious songs in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. (Yes, I'm serious.) Profanity-ladened as they may be, this isn't necessarily an insurmountable obstacle -- consider Blazing Saddles, which received a Song nomination -- and not only are the tunes really rather clever in their satirical content, but they're also irresistably catchy: bucking all expectations, the South Park movie is easily the best musical Hollywood has produced in ages. Sadly, "Kyle's Mom Is A Bitch" isn't an original song and thus is ineligible for consideration -- it was previously used in the notorious Mr. Hankey Xmas episode in Season One (although I liked the addition of the international lyrics sequence in the film) -- so I'd offer "Uncle Fucka", "Mountain Town" (probably the most palatable due to the lack of vulgarity), the Les Miserables spoof "La Resistance", and peppy "What Would Brian Boitano Do?" as potential candidates. Seriously.


Reactions to the National Board of Review and Los Angeles Film Critics awards in the next column, as well as responses to feedback, questions and suggestions. Any additional feedback or inquiries are welcome -- e-mail me. (Please indicate if you wouldn't mind my inclusion of your name in the column.)


Alex Fung (aw220@freenet.carleton.ca)

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