Alex's Oscar Column #05

January 13, 2000

Happy New Year, everyone. As of this writing, virtually all of the key film critics groups (and a substanial number of the smaller critics' organizations) have weighed in with their year-end selections, and the various guilds are preparing to announce their finalists. And back to the Oscar commentary ...

Broadcast Film Critics Association Award Reactions

The Broadcast Film Critics Association, comprised of television, radio and online film critics, touts itself as the largest film critics' group in North America -- their membership numbered 130 as of last year; I'm not sure how many are on the roster this year -- and have been issuing awards for five years. While they are in no way as significant or influential as the National Society of Film Critics, they're among the most visible national critics' organizations (the other top critics' groups are localized). Los Angeles-based film critic-turned-filmmaker Rod Lurie (the upcoming political thriller Deterrence) was their president in 1996 and 1997, and they're currently being led Joey Berlin (whom I'm unfamiliar with). Aside from issuing their year-end awards, their most significant accomplishment over the past year has been a commendable one: they joined in the chorus of criticism over the rating system being employed by the Motion Picture Association of America, which they deemed "a de facto censorship board". Endorsing Roger Ebert's much-publicized motion for an "A" (Adults Only) rating, the Broadcast Film Critics Association also urged the MPAA to add a film historian to their 12-member rating board, presumably to lend an informed voice to the proceedings. (The BFCA's own historian is Joe Leydon of MSNBC.)

The BFCA is unlike most other established film critics groups in that they drag their process out a bit by revealing a set of ten nominees in the Best Picture category, with a winner set to be unveiled slightly a month later. In the rest of their categories, the BFCA has announced their selections for the year's best.

Their acting winners include The Insider's Russell Crowe, Hilary Swank for Boys Don't Cry, gentle giant Michael Clarke Duncan of The Green Mile, and wild child Angelina Jolie of Girl, Interrupted. At this point, all of these BFCA selections seem on track for Oscar nominations, with perhaps Duncan being in the most tenuous position among the quartet primarily due to the competitive nature of his Supporting Actor category.

The BFCA Director prize went to Sam Mendes' feature directorial debut on American Beauty, while the Foreign-Language Film winner was All About My Mother and the Feature Documentary prize went to Wim Wenders' performance / interview film Buena Vista Social Club. Again, these all appear to be likely Academy Award nominees. The Original and Adapted Screenplay awards were designated to Alan Ball for his American Beauty script and Frank Darabont's adaptation of the Stephen King work The Green Mile, respectively. While Ball is an obvious lock for an Oscar nomination, I'm not nearly as certain about Darabont's prospects in the strong Adapted Screenplay category. He's certainly in the running, but probably couldn't be considered to be among the top two or three candidates vying for nominations here.

In an especially strong year for animated features, the Broadcast Film Critics Association awarded their Best Animated Feature prize to Toy Story 2. Disney needs to promote this film much more aggressively if they seek to legitimize it as a viable contender in the Best Picture category; at this point, this doesn't appear to be likely. Spike Jonze was recognized as the BFCA's Breakthrough Performer of 1999 for his direction of Being John Malkovich and his acting stint as hillbilly Private Vig in Three Kings. Needless to say, he's unlikely to attain any significant consideration in the Supporting Actor category, but remains a distinct possibility in the Director category for an Oscar nomination.

Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense received the BFCA's Best Child Performance prize, and continues to appear en route to a Supporting Actor nomination. Joe Johnston's gentle drama October Sky, based on the autobiography of NASA engineer Homer Hickam Jr., was tapped as Best Family Film. While the film was well-received by critics upon its initial release (I personally found it distractingly hokey and sentimental), its modest performance in the marketplace and subsequent low profile do not bode promisingly for future Academy recognition. Gabriel Yared's score for The Talented Mr. Ripley was recognized by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, as was the Diane Warren-penned ballad "Music Of My Heart" from the Wes Craven film Music Of The Heart; Yared's work is certainly a strong contender for an Oscar nomination, and despite my misgivings about both the song (and the film it's in), Ms. Warren's prodiguous track record is such that "Music Of The Heart" must be considered a possibility for one of the five Best Song nominations.

San Diego Film Critics Society Award Reactions

Despite American Beauty's position as the most prominent Oscar heavyweight picture of 1999, the San Diego Film Critics Society Awards are actually the first set of accolades which saw the DreamWorks film achieve any semblance of a mini-sweep. Winning the Best Picture prize as well as three acting prizes (Kevin Spacey for Best Actor, Annette Bening for Best Actress, and Thora Birch for Supporting Actress), while placing in the runner-up position for the Director and Original Screenplay category, the Sam Mendes film was clearly the most dominant force in the polling of San Diego scribes this year.

The San Diego Film Critics Society, despite its relative proximity to Hollywood, is fairly low-profile and it's often extremely difficult to get much information on the group -- I actually haven't seen anything this year about their prizes in the media and was fortunate enough to receive their 1999 award winners though a member of the group. Consequently, one can't allot the same degree of significance their prize designations would have on the Oscar race as one would with, say, the New York Film Critics Circle or the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Nevetheless, they're certainly interesting to look at.

American Beauty is clearly en route to a Best Picture nominee, and Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening seem destined for acting Oscar nominations (Spacey's a surer bet than Bening). While San Diego recognized Flawless' Philip Seymour Hoffman with their Supporting Actor prize, he's actually being touted by MGM as a lead actor candidate, and is probably a longshot in that category despite a reportedly rapturous Academy screening reception. American Beauty's Thora Birch improves her chances with her San Diego victory, as does director David Lynch, already a strong contender for a Directing nomination for his eloquent work in The Straight Story. Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich won the San Diego Film Critics Society Original Screenplay prize, while Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's script for Election took the Adapted Screenplay prize -- the former is a lock for Oscar recognition, while the latter is clearly emerging as a strong candidate for a nomination. Carlos Saura's Tango won the Foreign-Language Film prize, but given that it had already been tapped with an Oscar nomination last year, it obviously won't be a factor this time around.

Among the San Diego runner-ups, Being John Malkovich remains a dark-horse candidate for the Best Picture category; The Insider's Russell Crowe is a likely Oscar nominee; Reese Witherspoon continues to build a strong case for her Academy Award nominee prospects for her work in Election; The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment will probably be a finalist in the Supporting Actor category, as will Angelina Jolie in the counterpart supporting category for Girl, Interrupted; American Beauty director and screenwriter Sam Mendes and Alan Ball, respectively, are Oscar locks; The Cider House Rules author / screenwriter John Irving is more likely than not to pick up a nomination; Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run is ineligible for consideration in the Foreign Language Film category.

Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association Award Reactions

I'm unsure as to how long the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association has been in existence; presumably they sprung up sometime after the dissolution of the Society of Texas Film Critics back in early 1998, but I've been unable to pinpoint their date of inception; this is the first year for which I've received award results from this group. In the grand scheme of things, their prize designatees wouldn't appear to carry a lot of influence in the awards race, but it certainly doesn't hurt the various studios to be able to proclaim that their pictures and accomplishments were recognized by another film critics' group.

The Dallas-Fort Worth group honoured American Beauty as their Best Picture winner, with the film's director, Sam Mendes, picked up the Best Director prize. Both are certain Oscar nominees. Among their four acting prize winners, three of them -- American Beauty's Kevin Spacey (Actor), Boys Don't Cry's Hilary Swank (Actress), and Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense (Supporting Actor) -- are familiar names and probable upcoming Academy Award nominees, but one of their selections is a little bit unusual; they cited Julianne Moore's work in Cookie's Fortune for their Supporting Actress prize. As I mentioned in Oscar Column #2 for this year, I really enjoyed her work in this picture (moreso than the two actresses being pushed for the Robert Altman picture -- Glenn Close and veteran Patricia Neal; incidentally, I'm a little surprised that USA Films didn't put in a halfhearted attempt to tout Liv Tyler's work in the picture -- it's probably her best performance to date, and would help foster a relationship with the actress), but despite the Dallas-Fort Worth honor, I strongly doubt that Moore will be recognized in the Supporting Actress category for Cookie's Fortune; her best chance is likely for her tormented performance Magnolia, with A Map Of The World in a trailing position. (Her substantial film output in 1999 will likely prove to be a problematic factor by splitting her support, but she may still manage to score a nomination in this category.)

In the remaining categories, the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association recognized Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run as 1999's Best Foreign Language Film; this is ineligible for Oscar consideration this year after being submitted for consideration (and failing to nab a nomination) last year. Errol Morris' documentary on execution specialist and Holocaust denier Fred A. Leuchter, Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., won the Best Documentary prize, and ace d.p. Robert Richardson was cited for Best Cinematography for his work in Scott Hicks' Snow Falling On Cedars. Both of the latter two are strong contenders for nominations in their respective categories. (Richardson could conceivably split his support between his work in the Ethan Hawke-starrer and Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out The Dead, but that seems unlikely.)

Las Vegas Film Critics Society Nominee Reactions

The Las Vegas Film Critics Society has been issuing their Sierra Awards since the group's inception in early 1998. The group has a roster numbering six, and, like the Broadcast Film Critics Association, they are utilising a two-tier process with the announcement of their nominees, followed by the declaration of their award winners at a later date. (Unlike the BFCA, which only employs this suspense-building technique for their Best Picture category, the LVFC extends this to all of their categories.)

Aside from their small numbers ("Six members?" someone wrote incredulously), I must confess that a quirky aberration in this year's selections hasn't exactly inspired a great deal of confidence in the burgeoning group. While poking through their list of nominees, most of which are entirely reasonable and often interesting, I noticed that the Boys Don't Cry script penned by Kimberly Peirce and Andy Bienen was listed as an Adapted Screenplay nominee, which I found unusual since the piece was actually an original script (and has been touted as such by Fox Searchlight); it was not based on either Aphrodite Jones' book "All She Wanted" nor Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir documentary The Brandon Teena Story. While the error was innocent enough -- I thought there might have been some reasonable justification for this classification -- after posing an inquiry about this, the response I received back was "How can something be 'original' if it's based on true facts or events" [sic].

And screenwriters wept. Yikes.

Whether or not the subject matter of a film is original or not is irrelevant to whether the screenplay is adapted -- Scott Alexander & Larry Karasewski's Man On The Moon script, based on the late (yes, really) comedian Andy Kaufman, is an Original Screenplay; their Golden Globe-winning The People Vs. Larry Flynt piece, based on the Hustler czar, is an Original Screenplay; Oscar-nominated Randall Wallace's Braveheart script, loosely based on the adventures of Scottish hero William Wallace, is an Original Screenplay; Nixon, which addressed Tricky Dick in Oliver Stone's inimitable fashion, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. A screenplay is classified as adapted when (unsurprisingly) it's adapted from another source, regardless of the story's basis in fact or not. A Civil Action, Donnie Brasco, The Hurricane, Apollo 13 -- these are all adapted screenplays based on actual events. (And the source material doesn't have to be a book; The Insider and the fictional Pushing Tin were based on magazine articles, Sling Blade, also a work of fiction, was based on a short film, etc.) I think that most screenwriters will agree that the difference between generating an original screenplay and adapting an existing piece of work is not trivial; the existing framework of the source material makes the task of a screenplay adaptation a significantly different animal than penning a script from scratch.

I wouldn't expect that the distinction between the two is something which everybody would be familiar with, but I was rather hoping that most working film critics might know this, and would definitely expect a group actually issuing, err, awards in an adapted screenplay category would be familiar with the very definition of the classification.

In any case, the LVFC nominees are an interesting lot, with some unusual selections (undoubtedly the group's small roster is condusive to offbeat picks, as one or two mentions among the six members might be enough to tip the balance). Among their Best Picture nominees, American Beauty is an Oscar nominee sure-shot, with The Talented Mr. Ripley likely to join the Sam Mendes film in the final five. The remaining three LVFC selections -- Being John Malkovich, Boys Don't Cry, and Magnolia -- are all good films which can't be considered frontrunners but are very much in the running for an Academy Award Best Picture nomination.

The LVFC Best Actor category is made up with familiar names -- The Insider's Russell Crowe, Matt Damon of The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Straight Story's Richard Farnsworth, and Kevin Spacey of American Beauty are all Golden Globe nominees and probable Oscar nominees. Terence Stamp of The Limey nabbed the final spot in the LVFC picks; he remains unlikely to do so with the Academy.

Things start to get interesting with the Las Vegas Actress selections, which feature expected nominees Annette Bening from American Beauty and much-recognized Hilary Swank of Boys Don't Cry, but also cites Reese Witherspoon of Election -- I continue to receive a lot of e-mail from readers espousing her chances -- and some as-of-yet un(der)mentioned names: Diane Lane of A Walk On The Moon, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio for Limbo. In my second Oscar column for this year, Michael Solomon wrote in suggesting Lane as a possibility, and Miramax, perhaps sensing that Kate Winslet in Holy Smoke isn't going to crack the final five, has been stepping up Lane's promotion, but I remain extremely doubtful about her chances; I think it's too late to revive her prospects, especially for this underseen, modest picture. I'm even more dubious about Mastrantonio as an Oscar nominee for her work as a itinerant club singer, although it's certainly a solid performance and an inspired LVFC pick.

In the Supporting Actor category, Christopher Plummer (The Insider), Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) and John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich) have often been mentioned, by myself and others, as top Oscar contenders. The Las Vegas film critics also chose to cite Delroy Lindo for his imposing work in The Cider House Rules and Alec Baldwin for Outside Providence. Lindo's a fine actor and was typically solid in the Hallström picture, but Michael Caine is being pushed with more vigor by Miramax and the film is unlikely to secure two Supporting Actor Oscar nominations; Lindo will be left in the cold. Back in late August, there was substantial buzz about Alec Baldwin's work in the coming-of-age flick being en route to serious award consideration (then again, the same could be said about Eddie Murphy's dual role in Bowfinger), but the disastrous commericial performance of Outside Providence appears to have ensured that few will have seen the picture (and few AMPAS voters will catch it on video); he won't get an Oscar nomination here. (Incidentally, Baldwin's a very underrated actor.)

There's an unusual collection in the LVFC Supporting Actress category, with both Being John Malkovich actresses -- Catherine Keener and Cameron Diaz -- being cited, along with Patricia Neal of Cookie's Fortune (her first recognition to date, if I'm not mistaken), Chloë Sevigny of Boys Don't Cry, and Sissy Spacek for The Straight Story. Spacek should be taken seriously as a candidate for an Oscar nomination -- I've been negligent about her chances in my previous columns, espcially considering her respected status and the simple nature of her character Rose -- and given the amount of critical attention she's received over the past month, Sevigny appears on target for a nomination. I'm unsure as to whether or not both Malkovich actresses will be able to score Oscar nominations -- I'd tend to think not, although the soft nature of the category will help matters; while if pressed to choose between the two of them, I'd go for Diaz's work, at this point Keener seems more likely to score a nomination particularly given the recognition she's received from critics' groups recently. In the early stages of the Oscar race, Neal apepared to be a possible contender but has built up little in the way of momentum and would have to be considered a dark horse at best.

The Las Vegas Director selections mirror their Picture picks save for one discrepancy -- instead of nominating Paul Thomas Anderson for Magnolia, they instead went for David Lynch's work in The Straight Story. Again, Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley) appear to be likely Oscar nominees, but Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) and Lynch are all genuine contenders and any of them may nab spots in the final five come February.

In the Original Screenplay category, Alan Ball (American Beauty), Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) will all receive Oscar nominations for their respective scripts. It's nice to see Larry and Andy Wachowski recognized for The Matrix; while the film has received a lot of attention for its dazzling visuals, I also thought that the story was surprisingly imaginative, far moreso than the typical Hollywood sci-fi thriller. I'm dubious about its Oscar prospects -- science-fiction and mass entertainment thrillers are typically underrepresented in the Academy Awards, but it's a unique choice by the Las Vegas scribes. Unlike most of my colleagues, I'm not a Kevin Smith basher -- while he admittedly has no visual style as a director, his ebullient, hyperverbose dialogue is often very engaging (I liked Ben Affleck's description of his writing as "a verbal trampoline") -- but have no hesitation in declaring that his LVFCS-nominated Dogma script has no chance for an Oscar nomination; the subject matter and controversy surrounding it smites its already-meager prospects. (Boy, coming off Chasing Amy, was this ever a disappointment -- nice idea, crummy execution.)

Among the Adapted Screenplays, well, it's a certainty that the Boys Don't Cry screenplay won't be nominated for an Oscar here for reasons described earlier. Other than that, the remaining four screenplays -- The Insider, Election, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Titus -- are all possibilities, with Titus perhaps being the biggest longshot of the quartet.

None of the Las Vegas Foreign Language Film nominees are actually eligible for Oscar consideration this year, so we can skip those quickly. In the Best Documentary category, only Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club has made it past the first cut in the screening process for the Feature Documentary Academy Award; it's a near-certain nominee.

The selections in the Best Cinematography category -- Freddie Francis (The Straight Story), Conrad L. Hall (American Beauty), Emmanuel Lubezki (Sleepy Hollow), Robert Richardson (Snow Falling On Cedars), and John Seale (The Talented Mr. Ripley) -- are very sound; it wouldn't surprise me if these were also the final five Oscar nominees. (I would be completely shocked if a majority of these names failed to be announced on February 15th.)

While I don't think that the costumes in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me or The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc will snare Oscar nominations, the other three picks by the LVFCS -- Colleen Atwood's work in Sleepy Hollow, Milena Canonerom's Titus wear, and the elaborate work of Trisha Biggar in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace are probably destined for Oscar nominations. Note that, as per usual, all nominees in this category are derived from period pieces.

In the Editing category, Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels can probably be eliminated from serious consideration as an Oscar contender, but an argument can be made about the remaining four LVFCS nominees -- American Beauty, for one, is a cinch for a nomination. On the other hand, the production design in that film seems unlikely to mirror the Sierra awards and snare an Academy Award nomination for Art Direction; the sets looked nice and they made good thematic use of windows and mirrors, but it'd be a minor surprise to see it listed as an Oscar nominee. (Given its disasterous commercial reception, anything related to The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc can probably be crossed off the list, too.) The LVFCS selection of the production design in The Matrix is unconventional, but not an undeserved pick. It goes without saying that Rick Heinrich's work on Sleepy Hollow has an ironclad lock for an Oscar nomination and could walk away with the prize.

The Las Vegas Film Critics Society nominees in the two music categories -- Best Song and Best Score -- are all very sound and probable Oscar nominees; in particular, Thomas Newman's American Beauty score, "When She Loved Me" from Toy Story 2, "Save Me" from Magnolia, and "You'll Be In My Heart" from Tarzan all appear to be sure-things. AMPAS only recognizes up to three nominees in the Visual Effects category -- if I had to drop two of the Las Vegas picks, I'd shed Deep Blue Sea (whose charming sharks were often unconvincing) and perhaps GalaxyQuest.

Southeastern Film Critics Association Award Reactions

Unlike most film critics' groups, the Southeastern Film Critics Association disclosed detailed information about their year-end award polling results in 1999, listing point totals and number of first-place votes received. While I can certainly understand why other groups choose to restrict circulation of this type of information, lest overzealous studio publicists use the data in an unscrupulous manner -- it wasn't that long ago when some would place advertisements touting their films with screaming headlines of the form "NYFC WINNER!"; only the sharpest-eyed would notice the "(Third Place)" disclaimer in microscopic type underneath the proclamation -- I'm glad about this development, if only to get a better picture of the group's voting patterns.

For example, the figures clearly demonstrate that American Beauty ran away with the Best Picture prize with the Southeastern Film Critics Association, almost doubling its closest rival, Being John Malkovich. Also faring strongly were Election, Three Kings, Toy Story 2 and The Straight Story; none of them are surefire Best Picture nominees, but they're all in the running for possible consideration.

American Beauty lead Kevin Spacey also trumped his competition in the SFCA Best Actor category, easily outdistancing runners-up Richard Farnsworth of The Straight Story and Russell Crowe of The Insider. All three are odds-on favourites for Academy Award nominations.

Boys Don't Cry star Hilary Swank has been routing the field in the Best Actress category with other critics' groups, so her margin of victory with the SECA was revealing; she was closely followed by Annette Bening of American Beauty and, interestingly enough, Reese Witherspoon of Election, both of whom scored 35 points apiece with seven first-place votes.

Meanwhile, in the supporting categories, Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense outpointed Being John Malkovich to take the Supporting Actor prize, while Catherine Keener from the Malkovich picture knocked off Boys Don't Cry's Chloë Sevigny. The low point total accumulated by Keener -- a mere 26 points, the lowest winning total in the poll -- suggests that no clear consensus was achieved in the Supporting Actress category, and that votes were spread across a number of different candidates. This would seem to confirm the assessment that among all of the acting categories, the Supporting Actress division of the Academy Awards is the one which is up in the air to the highest degree.

The Southeastern Film Critics groups clearly favoured American Beauty -- Sam Mendes handily won the Best Director prize, nearly quadrupling the point total of closest runner-up Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), while screenwriter Alan Ball edged out Malkovich writer Charlie Kaufman for the Original Screenplay accolade. Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor took the Adapted Screenplay prize for their reworking of Tom Perrotta's novel. The hyperkinetic (and Oscar-ineligible) Run Lola Run easily won the SECA Best Foreign Language Film prize.

National Society Of Film Critics Award Reactions

The National Society Of Film Critics, consisting of most of the top North American film critics, is typically the last of the major critics' organizations to weigh in, and as per usual, they once again provided some idiosyncratic victors.

USA Films must've been immensely pleased by the NSFC's first Best Film tie in their 34-year history, seeing that the deadlocked films were their Being John Malkovich and the newest Mike Leigh picture, Topsy-Turvy. Both find their Academy Award chances vastly improved by this high-profile acknowledgement from the respected National Society of Film Critics; Being John Malkovich is probably clawing away at the fifth slot in the category, while Topsy-Turvy, with its Best Pic wins both here and with the New York Film Critics Circle, cannot be taken lightly.

It may be worth noting that the largest branch of the Academy by far is the acting branch, and an affinity has been demonstrated over history for pictures which revolve around showmanship and the craft of acting. (This has been one of the explanations bantered around about last year's Shakespeare In Love coup over Saving Private Ryan.) This trend, then, might suggest that Topsy-Turvy, which focuses on the artistic partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan, may be well-liked by the Academy. Similarly, Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock, which the story of the Depression-era production of Marc Blitzstein's musical "The Cradle Will Rock", may also click with a substantial bloc of AMPAS voters. (It has indeed been reported that Academy screenings for both of these pictures were received with great enthusiasm.) Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich also falls into this category, not because it's -- as described by Jay Carr -- a "contemporary Alice in Wonderland take on celebrity culture", but because its key plot device -- literally disappearing into another person's identity -- should be strongly resonant with many actors. A remarkable number of thesps cite the seductiveness of assuming a disparate persona -- transforming into and exploring the niches of someone they're not -- as a primary motivator for pursuing their profession, and a film like Malkovich which unblinkingly addresses this (in wonderfully bizarre fashion) would seem likely to curry favor with the actors' branch of AMPAS.

Russell Crowe of The Insider won the Best Actor category, beating out Topsy-Turvy's Jim Broadbent and Kevin Spacey of American Beauty. While Crowe and Spacey appear to be locks for Oscar nominations, it's difficult what to make of Broadbent; his attention from critics groups' can't be ignored, yet the competition for the five Academy Award nominations is so hotly contested that it's difficult to derive a scenario in which he'd be able to out-vote a Matt Damon or a Jim Carrey or a Denzel Washington in order to make the final cut.

Reese Witherspoon's Best Actress prize from the National Society of Film Critics has finally prompted me to reassess her Academy Award prospects for Election. As I'd wrote in my second Oscar column, I wasn't very optimistic about her chances at the time -- I wrote:

"The film wasn't widely seen and, as a black comedy, will have a tough time finding its way to the top of Academy members' video piles. The perception that the picture is merely a teen comedy certainly won't help matters much ... This is not to dismiss Witherspoon's work in the film ... I wouldn't mind seeing [her] get an Oscar nomination, but I don't see it happening."
While this may have been the case at the time, her subsequent recognition from various critics groups, and especially this noteworthy accolade from the National Society of Film Critics should prompt voters to (re-)examine her work in the film; the resultant exposure from this award victory improves Witherspoon's chances manifold. The Best Actress category appears to have at least one spot which can be wrenched free, and I now believe that she has a fighting chance for a nomination.

The NSFC Best Supporting Actor polling ended up in a dead heat, with Christopher Plummer of The Insider deadlocked with Philip Seymour Hoffman for his work in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Magnolia in terms of total points; Plummer was named the winner by virtue of being named on more ballots. I thought that Hoffman was absolutely terrific in both of pictures, embodying generosity and compassion as the caregiver in Magnolia while providing a delicious turn in Ripley as the worldly swinger (which prompted a hilarious e-mailed comment from David Perry: "It's just too hard for me to see Scotty from Boogie Nights grow into that"). Over the past year, several people have described Hoffman as a future Oscar-winner, which struck me as unexpected at the time; after these two performances, I'm starting to buy into this. It won't happen this year, though -- Hoffman will likely find his support split between both of these films, ultimately subverting his chances.

Chloë Sevigny was named the Best Supporting Actress by the National Society of Film Critics; she now appears to be a very likely Oscar nominee (although again I reiterate that this category is so volatile that nothing is certain here). Julianne Moore was voted runner-up for a collection of four of her performances in 1999 films -- Cookie's Fortune, An Ideal Husband (where Miramax is actually touting her as a lead), A Map Of The World and Magnolia. I must confess that I wasn't overly impressed by her much-touted work in the Paul Thomas Anderson film -- it's a typically solid turn, and Anderson gives her a Big Scene (indeed, much like Boogie Nights gave every member of the ensemble a flashy character introduction, Magnolia sees virtually all of its primary cast get an Oscar-type Scene), but it didn't strike me as particularly distinguishable. (On the other hand, I did appreciate Melora Walters' work in Magnolia, whom I also liked in Boogie Nights seemingly more than anyone else did; in the latest Anderson film, she pulled off another great turn in a more showy role, displaying the sort of emotional volatility and hysterical vulnerability that typically impresses me.)

The National Society of Film Critics spread their awards around this year; both Being John Malkovich and Topsy-Turvy, which tied for the Best Picture Award, only picked up one other prize -- Mike Leigh was named as the Best Director, while Charlie Kaufman's script took the Best Screenplay category. It's a foregone conclusion that Being John Malkovich's screenplay will be nomianted for an Academy Award in the Original Screenplay category, but the Leigh victory makes the Director category all the more muddled. Having been nominated before (for Secrets & Lies in the 69th annual Oscars) may be advantageous amongst the cliquish director's branch of AMPAS over young upstarts like David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, and Kimberly Peirce, but the volume of competition here is so great that it's inevitable that many top contenders will ultimately be dropped off the final list.

Eric Rohmer's final chapter in his Tales of the Four Seasons series, Autumn Tale, edged out Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife Of Angels for the NSFC Best Foreign Film citation. (Incidentally, I remain incredulous that Rohmer's A Summer's Tale, featuring a lovely turn by Amanda Langlet -- Pauline from Pauline À La Plage -- seems to have never found a U.S. distributor.) While my support is (obviously) with the Zonca picture, Autumn Tale is a charming picture and deserving of this unexpected recognition. Neither Autumn Tale or The Dreamlife Of Angels are eligible for Academy Award consideration this year, but both are superior to Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother, which placed third with the NSFC and is the odds-on favourite to win the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.

I was mildly surprised that Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club beat out Errol Morris' Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. for the Best Non-Fiction Film NSFC prize; I'd expected Morris' eclectic, cerebral style to evoke a greater response from the critics in the NSFC than Wenders' more straightforward documentary. Both pictures appear likely to score Oscar nominations in the Best Feature Documentary category. American Beauty's sole NSFC prize was for eight-time Oscar nominee Conrad L. Hall's cinematography. He's a lock for a ninth nomination, and runner-ups Emmanuel Lubezki (Sleepy Hollow) and Freddie Francis (The Straight Story) may join him in the category come February.

Florida Film Critics Circle Award Reactions

The Florida Film Critics Circle announced their 1999 award winners on January 9th, 2000, mostly echoing the previous selections of other groups (typically an inevitability when positioned late in the season). This 11-member group cited Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia as Best Picture, also honouring its players as the year's Best Ensemble Cast. I couldn't agree more with the recognition of Magnolia's ensemble; while some threads and characters were more effective than others (I, for one, could've done without the William H. Macy subplot, although it did serve as the requisite parallel to the Jeremy Blackman story and gave Henry Gibson an opportunity to do a James Whale impression), all of the leads were solid at worst and terrific at best. (I also enjoyed Luis Guzman playing himself; is Alfred Molina ever going to get more than five minutes in a P.T. Anderson film?) On the other hand, as much as I appreciated Magnolia, I'm skeptical about its chances for a Best Picture Oscar nomination; it's probably too dark, depressing and divisive to score sufficient support for a final five placement in the category.

Meanwhile, American Beauty's Kevin Spacey was named Best Actor and Hilary Swank of Boys Don't Cry picked up yet another Best Actress accolade. Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense was cited as Best Supporting Actor, while Catherine Keener of Being John Malkovich was selected as Best Supporting Actress. All have been previously cited by other critics' groups, and appear likely to be named as Oscar nominees. (Among the four, only Spacey has been nominated in the past.)

Sam Mendes picked up another Best Director prize for his feature film debut helming of American Beauty. I was fascinated by his recent Sight & Sound interview, where he mentioned that he only found the film's transcendent conclusion during post-production -- in Alan Ball's (overrated, in my opinion) original screenplay, the film's finalé (and bracketing introduction) featured a courtoom sequence that immediately struck me as so staggeringly misguided that I was startled to learn that Mendes hadn't excised it before the shoot.

Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor were cited for their Election screenplay; assuming that they'll be recognized with a WGA nomination (which would seem to be likely, especially given the Writers Guild's track record for acknowledging offbeat fare), the duo will probably score their first Oscar nomination. (Their previous script for the underseen Citizen Ruth was also very good.)

The Oscar-ineligible Run Lola Run won the FFCC Best Foreign Film prize, while Robert Richardson was cited for Best Cinemtography for his work in Snow Falling On Cedars and Bringing Out The Dead. Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club, clearly the critics' favourite documentary of 1999, received another accolade, while the wonderful The Iron Giant was named Best Animated Film and Spike Jonze was selected as Newcomer Of The Year.

The Florida Film Critics Circle curiously also cited the makers of The Blair Witch Project for "outstanding contribution to film". While it's easy to understand the rationale -- the quintet are all Florida-based, with Haxan Films originally based out of Orlando -- I can imagine quite a few film festival programmers besieged with piles of crummy shot-in-the-backwoods-with-a-few-friends video submissions who'd dispute the designation of The Blair Witch Project constituting an oustanding contribution to film. (Armond White, too.)

Sharon Stone's Display Of Generosity

In my previous Oscar Column (number four), when commenting on Sharon Stone's sole Golden Globe nomination this year (for her lead performance in The Muse), I glibly remarked "Apparently she didn't run a letter-writing campaign this year."

It came, then, as no surprise when it was revealed shortly thereafter that Stone courted the 82 roster members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association with Coach watches that normally retail for $395 U.S., an attached note reading "Sharon Stone dropped by and wanted you to have this." While her, err, generosity, was to be expected, I was somewhat surprised that the HFPA membership chose to make a big stink out of it and discuss Stone's gift-giving habits to the media, prompting many red faces in the Stone camp. (Her publicist, Cheryl Maisel, has dutifully tried to distance her client from the affair by suggesting Stone had little to do with it.) "It was an outrageous attempt at bribery," an anonymous HFPA member thundered. "Sharon Stone and her advisors should have known better."

(Frankly, I suspect that the HFPA has chosen to shine a spotlight on this incident in a calculated attempt to convince the world that they've rescinded their disreputable ways -- David Poland's description of the Globes as "a freakin' slut fest" comes to mind -- but that may just be cynicism rearing its head.)

To be fair to Stone, she's hardly the only person issuing gifts to journalists, members of critics' groups, and reviewers in order to induce, err, remind people about various films and performances. A splendid article by John Hiscock of The National Post reports the following promotional gifts being issued by various studios as part of their respective Oscar campaigns this year:

I can't quite imagine what Fox Searchlight might send as a gift to promote Boys Don't Cry, or the sort of gift which might best represent Angela's Ashes (a lump of coal?), but I'm sure their respective marketing divisions have something in mind. While I trust that most film writers look at all the weird and often tacky odds-n-ends arriving in the office with a sense of bemusement, it's demoralizing to consider the greedy and weak-minded few whose opinions and preferences can be molded by the reception of these incoming trinkets.


I was hoping to get to the Mailbag section in this column, but rather than delay this column any further, I'm going to postpone it to Oscar Column #6.

Reactions to the dozen AMPAS Feature Documentary finalists, the AMPAS Visual Effects semi-finalists, the Independent Spirit award nominees, and various guild and critics' awards in the next column, as well as commentary on the studio campaigns and other miscellaneous musings. Also, responses to feedback, questions and suggestions. Feedback? -- e-mail me. (Oscar-related correspondence received may be used in future columns with the originator identified, unless indicated otherwise.)

Alex Fung (

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