Alex's Oscar Column #06

January 21, 2000

Independent Spirit Award Nominee Reactions

The Independent Spirit Awards aren't a precursor to the Academy Awards so much as they're a lower-budgeted parallel, with a focus on smaller films and those made outside of the studio system. While it would be inaccurate to say that they share no resemblance with the Oscars -- last year saw a number of Spirit nominees go on to nab Academy Award nominations (Gods And Monsters' Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave, Affliction's Nick Nolte), and, in one case, the Oscar itself (James Coburn of Affliction); it's inevitable that some from this year's crop of Spirit nominees will similarly be marching to the Shrine Auditorium come March 26th -- one could only consider the small group of higher-profile Independent Spirit nominees to detectably benefit from their IFP/West recognition in terms of their Oscar campaigns.

The most significant change in this year's Independent Spirit Awards is the splitting of the Best First Feature category into two divisions: one for films budgeted at over $500,000, and the other for genuine low-budget fare. This was an inevitable step due to the increasing economic disparity between 'independent' films placed in competition against each other -- while some films were made for five figures (or fewer), there were others which have been classified as 'independent' whose budgets easily exceeded $10 million (the argument was made that last year's Shakespeare In Love, a $42 million production, could be considered 'independent'). Despite IFP/West executive director Dawn Hudson's statement that this change is being conducted as a trial run for this year only, it's something which will likely remain for the future, and realistically should've been implemented several years ago upon the advent of 'indie chic' and the influx of well-funded prodcos into the independent film scene. As Peter Howell of The Toronto Star wrote, "'Independent film' has become as meaningless a phrase as 'alternative rock' became to pop music."

A current IFP/West rule forbids first features to compete directly against pictures from established directors for the Best Feature category, which leads to an interesting paradigm in this year's crop -- one could make the arguable assertion that the Independent Spirit Best First Feature (over $500,000) category, which includes films like Boys Don't Cry, Being John Malkovich, Three Seasons, Twin Falls Idaho, and Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl is actually stronger than the Best Feature category, which consists of Election, The Limey, The Straight Story, Sugar Town and Cookie's Fortune. While I don't think this is the case -- although I've yet to see the Anders and Voss collaboration (which is apparently scheduled to hit Toronto in early spring) -- it's remarkable and potentially promising to note that there isn't a considerable discrepancy between the two categories; one could optimistically view this as indicative of the emergence of a strong group of new voices in filmmaking.

The highest-grossing of all the films in competition -- indeed, off the top of my head, I believe it's grossed more than all other pictures represented by Independent Spirit nominations combined -- is improbably a first feature in the under $500,000 category: the fabled The Blair Witch Project, from Florida-based filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. It'll be interesting to see if it actually wins this category; despite some enthusiasm voiced by critics for Myrick and Sanchez's work, and by some film buffs for Heather Donahue's performance, the film hasn't been acknowledged with any other Independent Spirit nominations for its cast or directors, and a backlash against the film (and the blatant corporate sales blitz of Blair Witch paraphernalia) may strongly factor in on its chances. (I must add that I felt the compilation CD tie-in was brazenly tacky -- "we didn't play any of this music in the film, but, err, this is what Josh was listening to when he disappeared": oh please.)

The most glaring omission in the list of Independent Spirit Award nominees, in my opinion, was Sarah Polley's work in Guinevere; I felt that she'd have a very good shot at a Best Actress nomination. The nominees in the category are very solid -- Diane Lane, Janet McTeer, Hilary Swank, and Reese Witherspoon all received many kudos for their performances in their respective pictures, and while I've yet to see Valerie Flake, I really like what I've seen of Susan Traylor to date (she was memorably hilarious in Broken Vessels) -- but I wish Polley could've somehow been squeezed into the list.

It's a little interesting to note that although Being John Malkovich was recognized with three Independent Spirit award nominations -- Best First Feature (Over $500,000), Best Actor, and Best Screenplay -- none of the performers considered as potential Oscar nominees (Malkovich, Catherine Keener, or Cameron Diaz) were cited for Spirit nominations. (John Cusack, who was nominated by the IFP, will almost certainly fail to receive an Oscar nomination.)

Also noteworthy was the omission of Chris Smith's documentary on struggling Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt, American Movie, in the Truer Than Life category. Widely acclaimed and residing on several key film critics' year-end Top 10 lists, I would've thought that this documenting of the tribulations of a quintessential independent filmmaker would've been warmly embraced by the IFP Nominating Committee; perhaps they felt, as I did, that while American Movie was an affectionate and sometimes touching picture, it was often uncomfortably patronizing to its subjects -- it's so successful in getting the viewer to root for Borchardt that the abundant humour at his expense often has to be choked down.

Steve Zahn has been getting the lion's share of attention for his physical performance in Sundance sensation Happy, Texas (which landed with a sickening thud when it hit the domestic market after a much-publicized Park City bidding war) -- he even took home a Special Jury Prize for Comedic Performance -- but for my money, the best performance in the picture was easily that of William H. Macy, who mined remarkable pathos for his sadsack sheriff character out of the sitcomish screenplay's tiny kernels; he would've been deserving of a Supporting Actor nomination in the Independent Spirit Awards.

Among the achievements recognized, I was most pleased with the nomination of Election's Jessica Campbell in the Best Debut Performance category. As a late fill-in for actress Thora Birch (who went on to her own significant career boost in Oscar heavyweight American Beauty), Campbell played Tammy Metzler, the as-yet-undeclared lesbian who joined the election fray as the third candidate. Her debut work in the film was engaging, fresh, and very sly; it's among my favourite supporting performances of the year, and I'm glad that the budding St. Louis-based actress received some well-deserved recognition for her work here.

Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award Reactions

I admit to being taken aback when notified of the results of this year's Kansas City Film Critics Circle awards. I'd heard rumblings that such a group had existed, but this was the first year I'd actually seen an announcement of their award winners, and what startled me most was not their award selections, all of which were fairly pedestrian, but that the notice indicated this was the 34th annual edition of their prizes. This purported longevity immediately rates the group as one of the oldest in North America; while younger than the National Board of Review and the storied New York Film Critics Circle, it's older than the significant Los Angeles Film Critics Association and at a par with the National Society of Film Critics. I look at their claimed age with incredulity and some skepticism -- it strikes me as a little curious that Kansas City, undeniably a pleasant city but hardly a hotbed of breaking cinema, would have an organized, operating film critics group dating back to the mid-1960s -- but then again, they're hardly a venerated group: the KCFCC remains fairly obscure and of modest stature. (I appreciated the candidness of their announcement, which revealed voting took place in the home of one of the participating film critics.)

The winners of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle awards were American Beauty for Best Picture, with helmer Sam Mendes picking up the Best Director prize and Kevin Spacey cited for Best Actor; Reese Witherspoon awarded as Best Actress for Election; Haley Joel Osment named Best Supporting Actor for The Sixth Sense, and Being John Malkovich's Catherine Keener recognized as their Best Supporting Actress winner. Foreign-language film honours went to Tom Tywker's Run Lola Run, with Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club declared Best Documentary and Toy Story 2 deemed Best Animated Film.

All of these performances and achievements have been recently cited by other critics' groups -- indeed, the Kansas City awards feel like a consolidation of the past three or four critics' awards -- and there's little upon which to remark here. I don't think I've ever seen the KC group cited by a publicist in a trade advertisement -- I'd be curious to see whether or not DreamWorks includes their awards in their American Beauty promotion.

AMPAS Documentary Feature Semi-Finalists

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has been under intense scrutiny in the Documentary Feature category over the past decade, which has seen an astonishing percentage of the most acclaimed of recent documentaries go unnominated. Errol Morris has been repeatedly passed over, with neither The Thin Blue Line or Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control scoring a mention. Similarly snubbed were Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, Steve James' Hoop Dreams, and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills. Indeed, so outraged were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert at the omission of Hoop Dreams (which topped both of their year-end lists) from the Oscar Documentary nominees in early 1995 that they led a prominent crusade to have the AMPAS regulations in the category overhauled. (Pre-Hoop Dreams, AMPAS documentary screenings were subjected to the notorious Red Light Rule, equivalent to the proverbial gong: committee members were equipped with pen lights they could enable to indicate they'd seen enough of a picture; if after twenty minutes a majority of the group turned on their pen lights, the film would be stopped.)

Problems still abounded after the abolition of this unique regulation. Until this year, any AMPAS member from any branch of the Academy could help to select the five nominees in the Documentary Feature category providing that the member attended a high percentage of the screenings. Given the volume of documentaries submitted for consideration, the time involvement required to participate was such that the consequent make-up of the Documentary Awards Screening Committee tended to lean towards an older demographic, with many of the participants approaching retirement and consequently able to free up the time required to take in the various docs. This tended to skew the types of documentaries recognized with nominations away from more eclectic and cerebral fare (such as Errol Morris' pictures) and toward the more conventional and heartwarming. There also appeared to be a tendency to neglect films which had achieved some degree of critical or popular acclaim in favour of more obscure documentaries, presumably under the guise that they would more greatly benefit from the recognition.

The selection process overhaul implemented this year saw a hand-picked group of documentarians select twelve documentaries as semi-finalists in the category, weeding down from an initial total of fifty-five submissions. Screenings of these dozen pictures will be held in Beverly Hills, New York and San Francisco, and AMPAS members who attend most of these screenings can then vote for the five nominees in the category. (Another major change was that the select screening committee viewed submissions via videotape instead of theatrical screenings.)

The initial results of this new procedure appear to be promising. The dozen feature documentary semifinalists were: Todd Robinson's Amargosa, Chris Smith's American Movie, Barry Blaustein's Beyond The Mat, Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club, Roko Belic's Genghis Blues, Errol Morris' Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen's On The Ropes, Kevin Macdonald's One Day In September Chris Roe's Pop & Me, Torrie Rosenzweig's Smoke And Mirrors: A History Of Denial, Chuck Workman's The Source, and Paolo di Florio's Speaking In Strings.

Immediately noteworthy was the fact that a number of either popular or highly-acclaimed (or both) features survived the first cut -- notably American Movie, Buena Vista Social Club, and Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.. I was also intrigued by the glaring omission of the Frieda Lee Mock and Terry Sanders' Vietnam POW picture Return With Honor, which would've normally been a surefire finalist. Was this ineligible for consideration? I don't think that it was screened in time for last year's awards, but I could be wrong. Unlike previous years, there seems to be a distinct lack of documentaries bearing a weighty sociopolitical message -- while in the past the category seemed to be dominated by Holocaust pictures and other similarly lofty-minded films (The Farm: Angola, U.S.A. denounced the prison state, The Rules Of Engagement cast a wary eye upon the FBI, etc.), this year's crop of semi-finalists are surprisingly spirited. (One of the features, Amargosa, addresses an 87-year-old belly dancer.)

In fact, it's rather remarkable how many (relatively) high-profile documentaries survived the first purge -- while The Source has been receiving divisive assessments, Chuck Workman's one of the most highly-regarded documentarians working. The poignant wrestling exposé Beyond The Mat has received strongly favourable assessments, as has the Tuvan throat-singing picture Genghis Blues and the Hoop Dream-esque boxing doc On The Ropes. Smoke And Mirrors: A History Of Denial, which focuses on the tobacco industry, may benefit from The Insider's timely release, and the documentary on violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Speaking In Strings was well-received upon its theatrical release in October (not coincidentally alongside the Miramax roll-out of Music Of The Heart).

Given that this is the first year under the new set of rules, there's no precedent which one can use to aid them in terms of forecasting the five nominees to be selected from the dozen semi-finalists. I'm basically flailing in the dark here, but if I were pressed to guess on five, as of this writing I'd go with Buena Vista Social Club, American Movie, Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., On The Ropes and The Source.

AMPAS Sound Effects Editing Semi-Finalists

Unlike the documentary feature category, the Academy has released the list of semi-finalists in the Sound Effects Editing category for several years, allowing the curious an advance peek as to which achievements might make the mid-February nominee list.

The Sound Effects Editing category allows up to three nominations, but there is no requirement for three achievements to be cited -- indeed, if the Sound Effects Editing Award committee feels that no picture features award-calibre work, the category can actually be scrapped for the year. This hasn't occurred in recent memory, and it's extremely unlikely to take place for the 72nd Oscars.

The seven films whose sound effects editing have made the category semi-finals are Any Given Sunday, Fight Club, The Green Mile, The Matrix, The Mummy, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, and Three Kings. Among these noisy pictures, the one which immediately would seem to be out of place would be the solemn The Green Mile, but its recognition here is likely due to the sound effects editing in the execution sequences, and particularly The Execution Scene. (Those who've seen the picture will undoubtedly be familiar with the segment being referred to here.)

All of these pictures feature fine work -- I was particularly pleased by the recognition of Any Given Sunday (whose sound effects editing primarily consisted of vicious tackle recreations) and Fight Club -- and any random three selections would make for solid nominees. I've done very badly with this category in the past; while I successfully picked two of three each of the past two years, I'm still smarting from 1997 when I quickly wrote off all three achievements which went on to nab Oscar nominations. At this point, I'd be leaning towards The Matrix, The Mummy and Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace as this year's three finalists, but don't hold me to this -- I may change my mind.

AMPAS Visual Effects Semi-Finalists

As with the Sound Effects Editing category, up to three of the recently-announced semi-finalists may be bestowed with Oscar nominations. Unsurprisingly, since most of the films here are special-effects extravaganzas with both eye-popping visuals and eardrum-blasting sound, there's a good deal of commonality between the list of Visual Effects and Sound Effects Editing semi-finalists.

(Incidentally, I'm not sure why both the Visual Effects and Sound Effects Editing categories are restricted to a cap of maximum three nominations, unlike most of the other technical categories which allow for five spots -- while it certainly makes the achievement of receive a nomination even more of a feat and honour, there are years such as this where some very fine work will be regrettably left on the sidelines.)

The films with Visual Effects achievements that have made the semi-final round with the Academy are The Matrix, The Mummy, Sleepy Hollow, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, Stuart Little, Wild Wild West, and The World Is Not Enough.

Right off the bat I'm going to excise Wild Wild West and The World Is Not Enough from the list on the grounds that the Kenneth Branagh digital tarantula will not sufficiently impress Visual Effects Award committee members to blot out (frightful) memories of the film itself, and that the achievements in The World Is Not Enough will be seen as simply more Bond gadgetry and stunts. (Variety reports that its inclusion among the seven semi-finalists was considered a minor surprise within the industry, which makes sense.)

Among the remaining five, it's difficult to bet against Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace and Stuart Little for the same reason -- their fully digital characters. Love him or hate him (the vast majority sanely holds the latter view), ILM's Jar Jar Binks was a milestone achievement in the history of visual effects, and seems like a lock for a nomination. Similarly, Stuart Little's digitally animated title character broke new ground and would be an obvious choice for Academy recognition. (In a sense, it almost makes me a little sad to see the day where children being exposed to such advanced and convincing visual effects are so young that they can take it for granted, not having known a world without such technology. I can remember when Superman: The Movie was being marketed with the slogan "You will believe a man can fly!", and was treated with footage of Christopher Reeve clad in Superman gear soaring through the skies; such material now seems positively primitive when viewed with modern eyes. The sense of awe that greeted such groundbreaking creations as the Jurassic Park dinosaurs or Stuart Little et al probably won't be replicated by the next generation of filmgoers when presented with digitally-created characters; it'll be such a commonplace occurrence that reactions will likely be practically blasé.)

While my dislike for surprise hit The Mummy is well known and may be colouring my perspective, it's hard for me to get very enthusiastic about the visual effects work in the film. I grant that they were technically sound, but the picture's manifestations of the effects struck me as increasingly absurd -- I mean, a villain spitting out a swarm of bugs? Our heroes being chased by an army of flesh-eating scarabs? The would-be ominous faces in the sand? One of the most ludicrous moments in the movie for me was when the villain took the form of a sandstorm and Brendan Fraser and his motley crew of adventurers were being pursued by a menacing wall of sand with a giant gaping mouth. (Bonus points for idiocy were registered when our heroes made the clearly boneheaded move of firing bullets at the sandstorm -- "Hello, it's sand".)

Industrial Light & Magic were the chief effects house behind four of the seven semi-finalists, including the aforementioned The Mummy and Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. I liked their work in Sleepy Hollow, but suspect that the third nomination will be slated for the razzle-dazzle work in The Matrix. The use of "bullet-time" visual technology alone has received so much attention from the mainstream media that it scores highly on the "creative use of existing technology" criterion.

American Cinema Editor Nominees

For their fiftieth anniversary Eddie Awards, this year saw the American Cinema Editors guild quietly split the fictional feature film category into two divisions -- dramatic and comedy or musical. I'm unsure as to the rationale behind this decision -- it wasn't touched upon in their press release -- and question its necessity.

In the Dramatic Feature Film category, Tariq Anwar and Christopher Greenbury's work on American Beauty received an Eddie nomination, as did William Goldenberg, Paul Roubell and David Rosenbloom for The Insider. Oscar-winner Walter Murch was cited for The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Andrew Mondshein's work in The Sixth Sense was also acknowledged. The only action picture in the group to be recognized with an Eddie nomination was Zach Staenberg for his work on the sci-fi thriller The Matrix.

Over in the Comedy or Musical category, Analyze This' Christopher Tellefsen received a nomination, and Eric Zumbrunnen was likewise cited for Being John Malkovich. Kevin Tent was recognized for his work on Election, and the Man On The Moon contingent of Christopher Tellefsen, Lynzee Klingman and Adam Boome were acknowledged. The final Eddie nomination went to Mathilde Bonnefoy for Run Lola Run.

Three documentaries were also cited with nominations: Buena Vista Social Club (Brian Johnson and Monica Anderson), Dial "H" for Hitchcock (Arnold Glassman), and Old Man River (Allan Holzman). I suspect that none of the trio will have an impact in the Editing Oscar race.

The slate of Dramatic Feature Film nominees strikes me as clearly stronger than its counterpart Comedy or Musical category. Tariq Anwar (yes, father of actress Gabrielle), who should've received a nomination for his work on The Wings Of The Dove, is a shoo-in along with Christopher Greenbury for one of many upcoming American Beauty nominations, and Walter Murch should nab another nomination in his taut The English Patient follow-up (excluding the masterful Touch Of Evil reissue), The Talented Mr. Ripley. The editing team of The Insider may also receive recognition, and Andrew Mondshein of The Sixth Sense remains a distinct possibility. On the other hand, I'm almost prepared to dismiss the entire list of ACE Comedy or Musical Feature Film nominees as serious contenders, save for Mathilde Bonnefoy's work in Run Lola Run. (Incidentally, why is this considered a comedy? It has funny moments, to be sure -- I liked the Casino Scream -- but it doesn't leap to mind as a yuk-fest.) The sole foreign-language film representative in the group, Bonnefoy could be a wildcard in the race, though an admittedly unlikely one.

[Bonehead Alert]: Only a few columns prior to this, I'd pointed out that Run Lola Run was ineligible for consideration in any Oscar categories due to its failed attempt at a Foreign Language Film category last year, and then I write stuff like this above? Argh. Obviously, disregard those Lola comments above. Thanks to the ever-watchful Joshua Kreitzer for slapping the sense back into me.

Golden Satellite Award Winners

The winners of the Golden Satellite Awards were announced this week, with some rather unexpected results strewn together with the obvious -- it should come as no surprise to see Being John Malkovich win the Best Comedy or Musical prize, or critical favourites Hilary Swank of Boys Don't Cry and Janet McTeer of Tumbleweeds take their respective Best Actress categories, or, for that matter, Catherine Keener of Being John Malkovich and Chloë Sevigny of Boys Don't Cry score in the Supporting Actress categories. But who would've expected The Limey's Terence Stamp to beat out Spacey, Washington, Farnsworth et al for the Best Actor in a Dramatic Motion Picture prize? Or the ubiquitous Philip Seymour Hoffman take the Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical over the likes of Man On The Moon's Jim Carrey and Sweet And Lowdown's Sean Penn?

There were other eyebrow-raisers as well -- Titus villain Harry J. Lennix receiving more support than high-profile performances by Tom Cruise in Magnolia, The Insider's Christopher Plummer, and Michael Caine's work in The Cider House Rules to capture the Best Supporting Actor in a Drama award. And while The Insider and its director, Michael Mann, are considered shoo-ins for Oscar nominations, there aren't a lot who feel that they'll wind up actually winning the golden statuettes -- the Golden Satellite victories in each of these categories have to be considered minor upsets.

What does this ultimately mean in terms of the Oscar race? I'd imagine very little -- despite their victories with the International Foreign Press Academy, I'm not really expecting Happy, Texas' William H. Macy to make a bonafide run for a Supporting Actor nomination (although, as previously mentioned, he was quite good -- better than that film deserved) or that you can start putting money down on a dead-heat race between Hoffman and Stamp for the Best Actor Oscar. For the expected winners, I'm guessing that their victory here reinforces the strength of their respective Academy Award campaigns, while the more offbeat selections will not find their chances suddenly revitalized.

One of the more interesting aspects of the list of Golden Satellite winners was the very strong showing of Sleepy Hollow in the technical categories. It scooped up the Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design and Original Score prizes, and I can't really take issue with any of these selections; the achievements in these four categories (save perhaps the Original Score category -- Danny Elfman's work is nice though; I particularly like the film's main theme) should and will likely grab Oscar nominations.

Producers Guild Of America Nominees

The Producers Guild of America awards are generally considered one of the best indicators both for the ultimate Best Picture Oscar winner and its list of five nominees, demonstrating a very solid correlation in both categories during its ten-year lifespan. I was rather surprised when I saw the list of this year's Producers Guild of America nominees, somewhat for the exclusion of one film -- Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley -- but mostly for the inclusion of Miramax's The Cider House Rules.

As I've mentioned in previous columns, I quite enjoyed this picture when I caught it back in September and listed it as a top contender in my first Oscar column (particularly given it was Miramax's big gun for this year's awards season), but as the weeks passed, I'd gotten the impression that its prospects were beginning to dwindle -- there really hasn't been any swell of vocal enthusiasts over the Hallström movie -- and felt that the usually rapid Miramax publicists were noticeably reticent this time around, perhaps sensing that this just wasn't going to be their year. (The Weinsteins' company has an unbroken string of at least one Best Picture Oscar nominee going back several years now.) While Michael Caine has been doing the publicity circuit and the parties in order to drum up support for his Supporting Actor bid, the hype level on the film has been conspicuously low and audiences haven't been exactly packing them in during its limited theatrical release (probably due in part to the bland one-sheet -- Tobey Maguire seems to cursed to star in pictures with sub-par posters: Ride With The Devil's was unenticing, and Pleasantville's could've been much better). I was little bemused by a recent press release which attempted to validate the film by cheerfully suggesting that The Cider House Rules "could easily go on to break $70 million in theatrical grosses". (I find this pretty unlikely, but it is a pretty successful crowdpleaser.)

Does its PGA nomination signify a likely Oscar nomination? I'm not sure about that, but I was about ready to downgrade it to a longshot candidate before the announcement; now, while I'm hardly considering it a leading contender, its prospects suddenly seem a little more sunny.

The other notable inclusion is that of the Spike Jonze film Being John Malkovich. Its PGA nomination is an extremely good sign that it may ascend from dark horse status to nab the fifth Best Picture Oscar nomination. I think it's probable that it'll get substantial support from the Acting branch of the Academy; if the PGA nomination implies that other AMPAS divisions feel similarly positive about the film, it may wind up with the nomination.

The other PGA nominees didn't include any surprises -- American Beauty, an Oscar nomination lock; The Insider, likewise; and Norman Jewison's The Hurricane. Allow me to interject for a moment to state how monumentally disappointed I was with this picture's retelling of the Ruben Carter story. In an interesting year in North American cinema that was nevertheless dotted with many disappointments (online film critic and semi-regular correspondent Jeff Huston, who regularly dispels comparisons between 1939 and 1999, I suspect will espouse this view on the year in film with little protest), this was one of the biggest. Where to begin -- the clumsy flashback structure of the film's screenplay robbed the story of its narrative momentum (while I can see why the writers pursued this route -- Lesra and the Canadians wouldn't enter the film until the final half otherwise -- if any tale should be told in chronological order, it'd be this one); virtually all of the legal maneuvering -- some fascinating stuff -- was excised or only referred in passing; the corrupt nature of the System was uncompellingly reduced to a single hateful, Javert-like villain, a decision which diminishes the story's impact and frankly trivializes Carter's unjust fate. Personally, I would not vote for The Hurricane in the Best Picture category. A crushing letdown.

Oscar Presenter Contest

This section is another personal indulgence; as in the past, I'm once again participating in a rather unusual contest this year. While at this time of year most are dwelling over who might be nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category or whether American Beauty genuinely has the wherewithal to take the Best Picture Oscar, a small number of people are (also) deep in thought over more offbeat matters: who might appear in this year's Oscar ceremony.

As far as I know -- if anyone knows otherwise, please write -- there's no real science to the prognostication of Academy Award celebrity presenters; other than the well-known precedent of having the previous year's Best Actor winner present the Best Actress trophy (and vice-versa) and last year's Best Supporting Actor winner dish out the Best Supporting Actress prize (again, and vice-versa), on initial glance, there doesn't seem to be any set pattern regarding who gets invited to present and in which category. This, for me is part of the appeal of the contest -- it's a complete crapshoot. While some choices are just common sense -- it probably wouldn't be a good idea to have, say, a comic actor like Chris Tucker presenting the solemn tribute to recently deceased celebrities -- it all appears rather fuzzy.

However, after watching my share of Academy Awards ceremonies, I've devised a few rules-of-thumb which I'll list below. (I'm revealing my secret strategy to the competition! Oh no!) I can't state with any authority if this holds from year-to-year with any reliability, but it's been reasonably effective for me.

(Hey, if you can think of any useful rules-of-thumb, let me know. It's too late for this year, but I'd sure like to be ready for 2001.)

While one can undoubtedly find examples which refute every single one of the aforementioned guidelines, they've sufficed for my purposes. I've never won the contest outright during my years of participation, but had my strongest showing last year when I placed in a solid tie for third place. I'm unreasonably proud about this, particularly considering my flailing-in-the-dark selection technique -- my biggest source of pride is that I edged out some well-respected participants, including the likes of Nell "The Movie Mom" Minow. (I actually have nothing against Ms. Minow, even though I wish that her book [on shelves now] would've mentioned Sick: The Life And Death Of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist as a heartwarming picture for the whole family.)

In this year's group of participants, the most-selected celebrities were, predictably, the biggest stars in Hollywood: the previous four acting winners (Benigni, Paltrow, Dench, Coburn), plus the likes of Kevin Spacey, Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. There were also some less obvious, but perhaps prescient guesses -- Ann Blyth (whom I have a crush on for her work in Mildred Pierce; go Veda!), Ry Cooder, Olivia De Havilland, Diana Ross. (I'm kicking myself for not considering Verne Troyer. You never know.)

Unlike last year, I'm not going to post a "For Your Consideration" notice for the benefit of the Zanucks, and instead, in the spirit of the Oscar ceremony, will psychically implore them to invite my picks (as per Richard Gere's infamous suggestion). If my recollection of reading that Winona Ryder has been invited to present is correct, I'm not off to a good start.

Election, redux

Several people have written over the past month suggesting that I've been seriously underrating Reese Witherspoon's Oscar prospects for her performance in Election, and after the film's exceptionally successful faring recently with the National Society of Film Critics (where Ms. Witherspoon nabbed the Best Actress award and the picture placed in the runner-up position), I conceded that her chances were much better than I'd initially anticipated. Her NSFC prize, I suggested, would prompt many to check out Election for the first time to see what all the commotion over her performance was all about, and that leap in exposure would undoubtedly help her chances.

So I was gratified to see an article a few days later by Lou Lumenick of The New York Post (yeah, I know) which described this very scenario -- he watched Election for the first time recently on videotape and was "blown away" and described it as "the Little Movie That Could". While Lumenick is getting a little carried away with his enthusiasm -- he's suggesting the film as a dark-horse Best Picture candidate, which is too optimistic for my taste -- and his article is not without errors (he bemoans Election's February theatrical release -- it actually hit theaters in April), it does seem to validate the supposition that many are now starting to make a point of belatedly checking out the picture. A good sign for Witherspoon.

Golden Globe Predictions

As I write this, I've partially completed two more sections for this column, and hope to be able to wrap them up and append them shortly, but given the time-sensitive nature of the Golden Globe Awards (which are due to be presented Sunday), I figured I'd better fire off some winner predictions.

Without comment (for now), I'm guessing: American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, Kevin Spacey, Hilary Swank, Jim Carrey, Janet McTeer, Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Sam Mendes, Charlie Kaufman, All About My Mother, Thomas Newman's score, and "When She Loved Me".

Incidentally, over the next few weeks (starting January 22), I'll be even more pressed for time than usual as I'll be attending Cinematheque Ontario's Best Of The Nineties program, which should hopefully prove to be an enriching and fulfilling experience. (And I'm really looking forward to the seven-and-a-half-hour screening of Bela Tarr's Sátántangó -- I've never taken in a film remotely approaching this sort of running time, so it'll certainly be interesting.) There's a special 120-page issue of CinemaScope Magazine (edited by Mark Peranson) focusing on this program, which features intelligent articles from leading film critics (including Godfrey Cheshire, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Richard T. Jameson, Ray Pride, David Sterritt, Gerald Peary, Kent Jones, Geoff Andrew, etc.) on the decade in film. (I was also terribly pleased to see several gifted and respected online colleagues -- Steve Erickson, Don Marks, Theo Panayides [they're all on my links page; do check 'em out] -- with articles in the magazine.) For list junkies out there, the issue also includes over 150 of Top 10 of the 1990s lists from various film critics, filmmakers, and programmers. I encourage serious cinephiles to check it out and consider ordering a copy. [My 1990s list is on page 54.]


Apologies for the delay in getting to the letters over the past few columns -- some of these letters are consequently fairly dated; if the comments from the originators seem out-of-whack now, rest assured that the fault is mine for unearthing and addressing them at such a late date. After all, my comment on Titanic's Oscar prospects during my 1998 coverage ("Appears to be a legitimately viable contender for nomination") now seems like a colossal understatement, although it didn't when I wrote it weeks before the film's theatrical release when most were expecting a bloated dud and likening it to Waterworld due its budget overruns.

Q: "It's interesting to see what all these critics think. It looks like no one is in agreement on anything (with the possible exception of Hilary Swank for best actress and Charlie Kaufman for best original screenplay). And looking at the Golden Satellites, I'm amazed at how many less visible films made the cut (Felicia's Journey, The Red Violin, The Emperor And The Assassin). And Snow Falling On Cedars appears to have done very well for itself, considering the reviews I've heard about it. Mind you, there are six nominees for every category, not to mention breaking down all the acting and film categories into comedy and drama. I'm in total agreement with the Special Effects category though. If I were to whittle it down to the three I think the Academy will pick, it would be The Matrix, Phantom Menace, and Stuart Little (although I think Sleepy Hollow is very close behind).

What happened to Michael Clarke Duncan?

I'm wondering about Any Given Sunday? I'm assuming that the film is being released after the cutoff point for nominations, because it certainly looks like it could garner at least a few acting nominations, based on the trailers I've seen for it (Cameron Diaz, I dare say, looks excellent from what I've seen. She certainly is beginning to impress me with a talent I didn't think she had).

What do you think? Will Kimberly Pierce become the first American female director nominated for an Oscar this year.

I have to say, I can't wait to see what films Billy Crystal is going to send up at this year's Oscars. There certainly were enough memorable films this year for him to satirize (Blair Witch? Sixth Sense? The Matrix?)."

- Alan Wong

A: I think we can count on Crystal to spoof The Blair Witch Project in some form; its intriguing basic premise is so ripe for satire that it would be wholly unexpected if that were left untouched by Crystal and lead writer Bruce Vilanch. (As many may know, a number of Blair Witch spoofs have arisen in the wake of the smash success of the Artisan film. Among them include The Blair Warner Project [referring to The Facts Of Life character], The Blair Underwood Project, The Linda Blair Project, and -- brace yourself -- The Bogus Witch Project starring Pauly Shore. The one-sheet for this one sends up the famous Heather confession shot.)

As it turns out, Any Given Sunday was released in time for Oscar consideration as it hit theaters before year-end. I'm pretty dubious about the prospects of any acting nominations for the film (although Jamie Foxx fared very well in the Best Supporting Actor category with the National Society of Film Critics); most of the performances consisted of screaming bouts and excessive gesticulation -- James Woods (the master of the Dialed-To-Eleven performance) fit this movie like a glove.

I originally didn't think that Kimberly Peirce would stand much of a chance with a Direction nomination, and still don't consider her to be a leading contender, but she's managed to hang in the race much longer than I'd anticipated. Working against her, of course, is that she's a first-time director -- the directors' branch is notoriously cliquish, which won't work against newcomers like Sam Mendes (American Beauty) but may against the likes of Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and Peirce (Boys Don't Cry). I'd consider her a longshot at this point, but still within the realm of reasonable possibility.

I'm with you on the Visual Effects category down to the letter. As for the omission of Michael Clarke Duncan with the Satellites (in favour of evil guard Doug Hutchison, yet), I'm personally all for it and can only hope (in vain) that the Academy will think likewise. I felt Duncan didn't give a performance so much as lend his significant physical presence and a beatific expression to The Green Mile; I was much more impressed with Hutchison's work.

Q: "I'm rooting for Reese Witherspoon for an Oscar. As unlikely as that is for her even to get a nom, I'm pulling anyway. Have not seen Boys Don't Cry, so that could change. One quick question, I'd like to put in a vote of support for edTV. I thought it was really well done and the acting and screenplay was excellent. I didn't expect it to get much Academy attention after its disappointing box office, but I could've hoped for a few GG noms. Anyway, didn't see anyone plugging that on your site so I figured I'd weigh in."

- Kevin Dennis

A: I never did get around to seeing edTV -- the film upon which it was based, Louis XIX: Roi Des Ondes, never appealed to me -- so I gave it a pass. I've heard some kind words for the Howard film after-the-fact, though, and probably should give it a peek at some point. Suffice it to say that its Oscar prospects are virtually nil, and its financial failings were so well-publicized that I'm not especially surprised that the image-conscious Hollywood Foreign Press Association didn't single it out for Globe nominations.

Q: "ur putting way too much trust into the hurricane. i think after its released its gonna fall flat just like The boxer from a couple years ago (which, if one recalls, had numerous golden globe noms and then was completely forgotten). i think the hurricane looks like crap and will probably be. also - was it just me or was owen's (as in gieberlman my fav. critic) picks this year nutty nutty nutty. i cant wait to see man on the moon though.

well anyways i think your chloe sevigny is a major lock in the best supporting actress race despite your feel (i think you just dont wanna believe the wonderful truth). hopefully she'll be winning the award and hopefully that damn joey halley osmond (or whatever) wont for his annoying performance!!"

- Pat

A: Well, you're right that my faith in Norman Jewison's The Hurricane was misguided -- it turned out to be a much lesser film than I'd expected (and that the story deserved), but I don't really see the justification for the comparison between it and Jim Sheridan's The Boxer, other than that both only ostensibly touch upon pugilism. Although both films feature segments with their respective stars -- Daniel Day-Lewis and Denzel Washington, respectively -- in the ring, neither of them really deal with boxing in a meaningful manner: The Boxer is really an(other) IRA tale, while The Hurricane is a fusion of a wrongly-imprisoned story and a heartwarming surrogate son tale.

As for Owen Gleiberman's year-end list, I liked most, but not all, of his Top 10 films, but his selections don't appear to be terribly unique -- all of his picks have been chosen by others. The only one I vehemently disagree with is his #10 pick, Dogma; as I wrote in a previous column, nice idea, crummy execution.

I hope you're right about Chloë Sevigny; I'd pay money to see Joan Rivers trying to handle Harmony Korine.

Q: "While I know you're relatively cool on Mena Suvariís work in American Beauty, her absence from your list of Best Supporting Actress candidates seems rather conspicuous (especially given some of the other names there -- Marisa Paredes?!?). Suvariís a long shot for sure, but Iíd say she has a better chance of being swept up in the inevitable landslide of Beauty noms than co-star Birch, who had the less showy role.

Incidentally, does the “up-for-grabs” buzz surrounding the Best Picture category not strike you as unwarranted? It seems to me that this is as much of a no-brainer year as any: American Beauty will win Best Picture. (Of course, I thought last year was a no-brainer year too...)"

- Skander Halim

A: I've appreciated Suvari's work a little more after rewatching it, but I know I don't share the same degree of enthusiasm you have for it. While she was fine in the role, I didn't find her always convincing from moment-to-moment in the role of lusty nymphet (which sort of makes sense, after-the-fact; it really felt like she was making it all up as she went along), and I honestly initially couldn't help but feel that Reese Witherspoon, who did this sort of character beautifully in Pleasantville as saucy naughty girl Jennifer, could've brought more to the role than Suvari. There's also a fairly significant stretch in the middle section of American Beauty where her Angela character conspicuously disappears from the action, which typically isn't a good sign. I actually felt that Birch's sullen work was more showy than Suvari's in the sense that she portrayed a complicated and troubled character, while Angela was played as rather one-note and only revealed an underlying complexity late in the game; I feel confident that, memorable imagery aside, Birch stands a better chance than Suvari. (She's also a more established actress than Mena, relatively speaking.) For what it's worth, while some of Suvari's line readings were stiff (she seemed awfully uncomfortable managing out her fear about being found in a dumpster), I thought she nailed the positively Dan Watersian "Cunt!" holler in the schoolyard banter scene. (Incidentally, I've always been distracted by the odd lighting in the Suvari headshot during the parking lot sequence where Spacey's character (over)enthusiastically introduces himself -- has anybody noticed this?)

As for the Best Picture category, I do think the category is competitive in terms of the nominee makeup, but I don't think that the Best Picture Oscar is exactly up for grabs; it's American Beauty's to lose, and I don't see anything at this point to knock it off.

After I wrote in Oscar Column #4 that I hadn't heard the R.E.M. song which was being promoted for Best Original Song for its use in Man On The Moon, a number of people wrote in to advise that the single was "The Great Beyond":

Q: "The new R.E.M. song is THE GREAT BEYOND and I would be thrilled to see it nominated in the Best Original Song category. Indeed, it was written for the movie (Man On The Moon) and it deserves recognition. Great tune!"

- Matt Lauer

"The song being touted for Man On The Moon is called "The Great Beyond" and I've heard it about 17 times already today (and it's not even 9:00 a.m. yet). MOTM is getting a big morning media push today, so I've been inundated with it."

- RJ

"Do you think the new REM song from Man On The Moon, "The Great Beyond" has any chance of scoring a nomination. Surely it's better than any possible candidates (which is probably why it won't get one)."

- Jesse

"The song is called "The Great Beyond," and is the only piece on the soundtrack with Michael Stipe vocals. Therefore, a nomination would ensure it a full-fledged R.E.M. performance on the Oscar telecast, helping to boost the ratings Ms. Zanuck has already begun to focus on by eliminating the horrific dance numbers. So while I do not predict a nomination for Best Original Score for R.E.M., I think you can count on "The Great Beyond" being a strong contender for Original Song."

- Zach Ralston

""The Great Beyond", the other R.E.M. song in the movie, might not qualify as per the Academy's rules of it being heard significantly long enough in the movie... at least as far as I can remember."

- Josef Elias Ruiz

A: While "The Great Beyond" wasn't featured in Man On The Moon especially prominently, the song is eligible for consideration for the Best Song Oscar. I'm really uncertain as to whether or not it'll wind up making the cut -- if one operates under the assumption that "When She Loved Me" from Toy Story 2, "You'll Be In My Heart" from Tarzan, and "Save Me" from Magnolia will receive nominations, this only leaves two available spots, one of which I suspect may go to "Beautiful Stranger" (which would get Madonna on the show again). "The Great Beyond" certainly is a possibility, but given the AC-sensibility of the Music Branch, I suspect that schlocky fare like "Music Of My Heart" (Music Of The Heart) and "How Can I Not Love You" (Anna And The King) have an edge. (Sadly, I've just about given up hope for any of the South Park songs to make the list. And I recently heard the song reuniting Celine Dion with composer James Horner and lyricist Will Jennings, "Then You Look At Me" from Bicentennial Man, which was everything I'd feared and more.)

(You know, if they really wanted to get Michael Stipe on the show, they should've nominated the title track from Happiness last year. It'd be interesting if R.E.M. is nominated and Being John Malkovich made the final five in the Best Picture category -- I'm guessing it'd be the first time a nominated producer doubled as musical performer.)

Q: "I thought about the Best Supporting Actress category as a whole and how it will turn up come Oscar time. I think Warner Bros. would do themselves a great favor if they campaigned--hard--for Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut. Even non-fans of the film concede that it was a virtuoso turn, (especially her rapturous monologue) and with hubby Tom pretty much a sure-thing in the opposing category, (for Magnolia, that is) there would possibly be a "nominate Tom & Nicole" mentality that it oh so Hollywood. This is just a theory, and is slightly biased due to my fondness for Kidman, (she was robbed for To Die For) but it might work(?) If Miramax were behind EWS, they'd probably be publicizing the hell out of her."

- Steve Taratula

"Okay, I can't keep quiet any longer! After being informed of the zillion awards given out over the past few weeks, I find it distressing to see that Nicole Kidman's work in Eyes Wide Shut has been completely ignored. Look out everybody, when the Oscar contenders are announced, look for kubrick's final masterpiece to rank up there with the best of 'em........."

- AbsoluteWHM

A: I do think that Nicole Kidman should have been classified as a supporting actress for her work in Eyes Wide Shut, as Mr. Taratula alludes to above. While many have mentioned that the Best Actress category isn't especially impressive this year, the Supporting Actress field is probably less competitive and a spot would be more easily freed up for Kidman there. Given that she seems to have been cemented in the Best Actress category, I don't think she's going to make the cut.

Warner Bros. has been rather quiet with their publicity for Eyes Wide Shut for reasons unknown -- I agree that Miramax would be pushing much more aggressively for Kidman were they behind the film; after all, they're strongly pushing Kate Winslet for Holy Smoke in said category, which is both a less Oscar-friendly film and performance.

While I think Kidman is a good actress (my appreciation of her work in To Die For grows upon every viewing, and she would've deserved a nomination there -- then again, one could've also made a case for Annette Bening (The American President), Julianne Moore (Safe), Kathy Bates (Dolores Claiborne) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Georgia); 1995 was a terrific year for the category), I must express the minority opinion (I've only seen F.X. Feeney share this view) that Tom Cruise was excellent in Eyes Wide Shut and, I felt, even outshone Kidman.

Q: "I really enjoyed Felicia's Journey (saw it twice as a matter of fact) and thought Bob Hoskins was outstanding in his performance. Many others could have played out his creepiness but very few actors could have evoked the degree of empathy he did. Any idea why he is being overlooked for a nomination?

I also loved the score in The Straight Story and thought the 5-minute bar scene in that movie eclipsed Saving Private Ryan and rendered it unnecessary."

- Kevin McCarthy

A: In terms of the Oscar race, Felicia's Journey sadly has turned out to be a non-factor; I believe that Artisan has even prudently refocused its attention back to the more-viable The Limey and star Terence Stamp as their lead Academy Award candidates away from the Egoyan film and its star Bob Hoskins. A small, low-key film of this sort really needs strong critical support to make an impact during Awards Season, and unlike The Sweet Hereafter, which received rapturous, near-unanimous praise, the much-anticipated follow-up Felicia's Journey netted mostly tepid reviews. (I wasn't very positive on the picture either, although I did like Hoskins' work.) Neither of the film or star Hoskins received any critics' awards (the Toronto Film Critics Association even named another picture, Léa Pool's Emporte-Moi, as Best Canadian Film -- unusual in an Egoyan year) and the movie received scant Top 10 list mentions, condemning it to obscurity; it grossed a disappointing three-quarters of a million domestic. Too few people saw the film for Bob Hoskins to be a viable nominee candidate.

I agree that Angelo Badalamenti's score in The Straight Story was wonderful, as was much of the film. (My heart sagged a bit during the first vignette and the hitchhiker, but that was thankfully only a momentary lapse.)

Q: "I am actually concerned about Julianne Moore's nomination possibilities. I don't think End of the Affair really has very much positive momentum, and she will not be nominated for Ideal Husband. That leaves Magnolia, and she has not been getting nominations for that, even as Tom Cruise has. What a pity it would be for her to be completely ignored?

In a year like this one where there are so many strong films, the Oscars can go with the tried and true and not be crucified for doing so. That means Christopher Plummer and Richard Farnsworth will not be forgotten and that Being John Malkovich and South Park may be in trouble. And "Up There" is a really weak song, even as a parody. "Mountain Town" should be pushed, along with "Blame Canada."

As for Hurricane...Well, the NYTimes ran a story yesterday detailing all the liberties the film has taken, and the paper had a lot to write about, including some errors and changes too large to be ignored under the guise of dramatic license. And the review today raved about Denzel but was lukewarm on the rest. This kind of publicity will hurt the Pic's chances. Denzel is a lock, but the rest seems mighty suspect now.

As for Best Actor...Matt Damon should be wringing his hands. That category is a killer, and he was mostly underwhelming in the role. (One NYC critic recently suggested that Jude Law should have played Ripley, with Damon playing Dickie...and I agree.) The Globe nominees are solid, but Jim Carrey and Sean Penn are knocking at the door, and Jim Broadbent may be able to ride a Topsy-Turvy momentum."

- Randall Cook

A: I agree that The End Of The Affair, as a film, doesn't have much momentum, but I remain fairly confident about Moore's performance in the film receiving a nomination. Her Magnolia chances probably remain up in the air given the softness of the supporting actress category, although I confess that even with her generous Oscar Moments, I was underwhelmed by her work there. Curiously, I like Julianne Moore, and I've enjoyed P.T. Anderson's films, but neither her Amber Waves or her Linda Partridge wowed me in the ways that some of her earlier work did (such as her performance as Carol White in Safe). While discussing the Supporting Actress category, I'd also like to mention that I may have underrated the chances for The Talented Mr. Ripley's Gwyneth Paltrow or Cate Blanchett to grab a slot.

The "Up There" sequence in South Park was mildly effective as a send-up of the modern Disney animated film ballad -- gotta love that crane-shot -- but as a song, I agree that it's pretty weak. I would love to see "Mountain Town" get a nomination.

I don't mind when liberties are taken with a docudrama -- it's pretty much par for the course, and one should never interpret a film as 100% factually correct even if the subject matter is grounded in reality -- but what irks me about The Hurricane is that its real story is far more cinematic than the reworked version for the film. Unlike, say, Boys Don't Cry, dramatic license shot itself in the foot here.

As for Matt Damon and Jude Law, I've got to take a contrary opinion; I thought Damon was fine as Tom Ripley, and while Law was solid in the gregarious role of Dickie, I don't really see what all the fuss is about his performance in The Talented Mr. Ripley; he's done far more impressive work in the past. I'd take his performance in Gattaca (where Ethan Hawke assumes his identity; is this a trend here? -- eXistenZ even blurs the line between identities real and virtual) over his Ripley turn any day. After reading many recent articles about Law, I've detected that those who tended to be most enthusiastic about his performance in Ripley also were those who were unfamiliar with his prior work, which makes me wonder if other factors are in play. (I guess I shouldn't be complaining: I did write back in Oscar Column #1 that "The Talented Mr. Ripley should be his breakthrough picture in terms of exposure, and that he'[d] make a considerable impact in his limited screentime in the Minghella film".) He's a very good young actor, and yes, he's also quite good-looking, but after seeing his performance in Ripley, I wouldn't have guessed it would be the subject of so much Oscar talk.

Q: "Apparently much of the criticism of Jim Carrey's peformance in Man On The Moon concerns the degree to which the performance is "mimicry" rather than "acting." But I think this is a case where mimicry rises to the level of acting. To portray a familiar celebrity so well that the viewer forgets he or she is watching an actor, and not the celebrity himself, is an acting feat, whether or not the portrayal is based in mimicry. And to the extent the role is a gimmick role, so are many other Oscar-nominated or Oscar-winning roles (e.g., actors portraying alcoholics, blind persons, mentally-challenged persons). The question is whether the actor, who is not an alcoholic, a blind person, a mentally-challenged person (or, in the case of Man on the Moon, Andy Kaufman) convinces the audience that he or she is that person over the course of the film. I think Jim Carrey achieved that, and I don't see why the fact that the role involved mimicry diminishes this achievement."

- Harriet

A: I can't disagree with any of this, and yet the effectiveness of Carrey's performance fluctuates so greatly when he's reproducing one of Andy Kaufman's famous routines as opposed to the handful of intimate moments when he's portraying Andy Kaufman himself that it's a bit unsettling -- he's utterly convincing in the former; much less so in the latter. I did think that Carrey did as good a job as anyone could've possibly expected in re-enacting the Andy Segments, but after seeing Man On The Moon, I was immediately curious as to what Edward Norton (who auditioned for the role but was eventually passed over) might've been able to do with the scenes of Andy as Andy, particularly given his dramatic aptitude. (But would he have been able to pull off the comic routines?)

I caught Man On The Moon on opening day, and following the screening I engaged a colleague in a discussion about Carrey's Oscar prospects. "Do you think he'll win [the Best Actor Oscar]?" he inquired, to which I responded (apparently much to his surprise) that I wasn't sure if Carrey was even going to get nominated, mostly for the aforementioned reasons. "But he gets to die," he pointed out. Even so, I was still conservative about his chances without writing him off outright.

Over the past month since the film's release, the public apathy welcoming the film and its consequent poor domestic performance (which bodes most unpromisingly for overseas -- I sort of doubt this'll translate well abroad) has prompted many to scratch off Carrey as a candidate, and now I must take the opposite position and opine that he's not nearly as much of an underdog as many now seem to make him out. The box office underperformance of Man On The Moon (which has actually done better than I'd expected; while I suspected this wouldn't be a popular film, I'd initially guessed this would pull in $25-30 million) has not quashed his chances to the degree that many pundits claim. At this point, I'd think that if any of the five leading candidates -- Spacey, Washington, Crowe, Farnsworth or Damon -- slip, it'll be Jim Carrey who fills the breach.

Q: "Personally, I didn't care much for Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley. That said, I'd be very surprised if it didn't land a Best Picture nomination. Check out the pedigree - in the past three years, three of the film's major contributors (Minghella, Paltrow & Damon) have all made trips to the podium, and Cate Blanchett and Jude Lude seem to be on everybody's hot list right now. Then there's the critical reception, which has been overwhelmingly positive - it keeps popping up on ten best lists everywhere.

You seem to be feel that the film's subject matter be a deterrent to Academy acceptance. Well, I guess it would be the first film about a gay serial killer to be nominated for best picture since.....The Silence of the Lambs (and even that didn't even draw comparrisons to Hitchcock). But then, Ripley is essentially a glorified period piece with sumptuous European settings and gorgeous cinematography, and we know how the Academy feels about stuff like that.

And you consider this a longshot?"

- Josh Rozett

A: Hmm, I'm a little hardpressed to find where I called The Talented Mr. Ripley a longshot in any of my previous Oscar columns; the most pessimistic view I seemed to have was to classify it as "In The Hunt" prior to its theatrical release in my Oscar Column #1, where I also alluded, as you did, to its pedigree: "The pedigree involved with The Talented Mr. Ripley also makes it an immediate possibility at this early stage of the race."

On the topic of subject matter, I'd first like to point out that there is a difference between homosexuality and sexual identity dysfunction with regards to The Silence Of The Lambs. That said, I think one would be hardpressed to argue that the picture's subject matter is immaterial and has no effect on its chances -- while it isn't necessarily an insurmountable obstacle, as success of the Demme picture and others have demonstrated, it probably can't be classified as a beneficial trait; it doesn't necessarily have to be prohibitive to be a deterrence.

Having seen The Talented Mr. Ripley in late December, I'm now actually fairly confident that the film will get a Best Picture nomination, due mostly to the wonderfully elegant direction by Anthony Minghella, the fine work by the ensemble cast (I'd particularly single out the delightful Cate Blanchett and Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the surprisingly penetrating screenplay. (Obviously, I liked the film, and don't feel that it's a glorified period piece.) While I don't consider it a lock like American Beauty and The Insider, I too would be surprised if it didn't receive an Oscar nomination in the Best Picture category.

Q: "Hey, Alex, you seem dead on this year. Actor is locked with only a Damon-Broadbent showdown for the fifth spot. Nice if Reese can lock up a Best Actress, but her youth (like Winslet) could work against her. Swank is a win all the way, and Farnsworth is the one to beat. Crowe deserves it, but there you are. The Sixth Sense pleased everyone - it was critically successful, and turned into one of the twelve biggest films of all time financially, and they have to give it something - the supporting categories. Collette and Osment own the win.

Directors- Lynch, Jewison, Mendes, Minghella, and probably Leigh."

- Steve Barnard

A: Really like the director picks; Mike Leigh has to be considered a factor due to the great reception which has greeted Topsy-Turvy, deemed by many to be his best yet. Not sure if I agree with your Farnsworth and Collette picks -- I'm actually wondering if Toni Collette will be able to siphon a nomination -- but no major quibbles.

Q: "What are your thoughts of Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother snagging the fifth spot in the Best Picture race? I have seen many of the best-reviewed films from 1999, but this one was easily the best. It was touching, funny, and true to life with excellent direction and beautiful performances. Given that everyone votes on best picture, and there are a lot of women in the Academy, for a film that celebrates women, I think this movie deserves a real shot."

- Brian Gugliuzza

A: All About Mother is in the running for the fifth spot (and Sony Pictures Classics is going the Red / Il Postino route with its trade advertisements in aggressively reminding voters that the film is eligible for consideration in all categories including Best Picture), but at this point I'm not very optimistic about its chances. While it's been scoring very positive critical reviews, including several "Best Of The Year" assessments from key critics, it doesn't seem to have captured the imagination and fancy of voters the way that you'd like from a Best Picture contender, and it doesn't seem to have gained any momentum over the past month. (It can't help but make me wonder what Miramax might've done with this picture.) It's true that everyone votes on Best Picture and that the substantial number of female voters could help it to the fifth spot should the other candidates split the vote, but I think it's pretty unlikely. It's probably a cinch for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, but I would be mildly surprised if the film received a Best Picture nomination. (Granted, my own lukewarm reaction to the film may be colouring my perspective.)

Some very disparate views on The Sixth Sense:

Q: "I am sick and tired of all this Sixth Sense business. People, give it up already! We all know it did make a little money, but that does not mean it will get a Best Picture nomination; because trust me, it wonít. The Academy might be naive, but not that naive. What is it anyways? A story about a boy who, essentially, sees dead people. Thatís it. The whole movie is entirely based on the secret at the end. The purpose of the film is the turning point at the end. I mean, I enjoyed the movie when I saw it in August; but once the talk started about Oscars, my appreciation in the film started diminishing. So stop it already. And whatís all this talk about Haley Joel Osment? This is ludicrous. Do you seriously think that the Academy will nominate him; in what is the most crowded categories in recent memory. Weíre talking Cruise, Caine, Duncan, Plummer, Malkovich, Bentley, maybe even Law. With all these strong candidates, do you think that the Academy will go out of itís way to nominate an 11 year old in a movie about ghosts? Get off it. I promise you, promise, that The Sixth Sense will not be nominated in neither Best Picture or Best Sup Actor. You can hold it over my head forever if Iím wrong; but trust me, I wonít be."

Anonymous Discourager of Sixth Sense Talk

"While I think, at best, only two of Green Mile, Hurricane, and Sixth Sense will make it, I urge you stick to your guns on The Sixth Sense.

People (god knows why) seem to genuinely love the new age implications of the picture, and it's definitely a respectable blockbuster -- "adult" enough to grab the "Ghost slot." Furthermore, the Academy definitely has a new age-y vibe; witness the success of Good Will Hunting, for example. So if you're right and Hurricane has locked down a spot, then I'm guessing that Green Mile and Sixth Sense will be duking it out for the final spot (with Topsy-Turvy, The Straight Story, End Of The Affair and perhaps dark horse Being John Malkovich looming in the wings).

- MuseMalade

"in regards to your most recent oscar article, in particular, the golden globe predictions, i must say that i am convinced that haley joel osment has the oscar sewn up. the last time a child performance received this much universal positive attention was six years ago, with anna paquin. and he's already won more critics' awards than she did. even if he doesn't win the golden globe (i like your choice of cruise simply because the foreign press loves awarding glamorous hollywood stars), the fact that there is no supporting actor front-runner will give him the edge he needs, as an abnormally-gifted young actor who performed a leading role in a blockbuster to maximum audience satisfaction, to siphon many a vote. recall 1994, when winona ryder won the globe and was predicted by many as an easy oscar winner. however, her performance, as well as her film in general, lacked momentum and enthusiasm within the academy. as far as i can tell, especially in the supporting acting categories, there must be a definite affection for either a particular performance or actor to result in a win. at the time, winona was a highly-respected young actress, but that particular performance was not one which audiences were terribly passionate about. she also was splitting votes with rosie perez, emma thompson, and holly hunter. in came miss paquin, who was seen (like osment is now) as an amazingly gifted young actor in a film which many viewers felt passionately about. new (talented) blood!

in this year's case, i agree with you that the film will probably get nominated for only osment and its screenplay, as it should. however, i cannot remember having a conversation about or reading a review of The Sixth Sense where osment wasn't mentioned as rather phenomenal. i remember the same reaction to paquin. a supporting acting award is also a prime way to reward a critically-acclaimed blockbuster that will most likely not have a chance at the larger awards, because it was exactly that - a blockbuster. example: jerry maguire's cuba gooding, jr.

who knows if you agree at all, but that's what i think. as competitive as it is this year to simply receive a supporting actor nomination, i think the winner is already established."

- Richard

A: I rather hate to leap to the defense of The Sixth Sense, especially when I only vaguely appreciated it, but with regards to ADoSST's comments, I'm loath to simply reduce the film to the description of "a story of a boy who, essentially, sees dead people -- that's it". To quote Roger Ebert, a movie is not what it's about; it's how it is about it. And to that extent I completely agree with ADoSST's following remarks that the film is based on the twist ending; much like The Usual Suspects (another recent film which has attained cult-like devotion, and which I similarly was cool on), The Sixth Sense critically revolves around its surprise twist.

As to whether or not the Academy will go out of its way to nominate an 11-year-old in a movie about ghosts, well, I figure if they can vote for a movie about ghosts with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, anything's possible. (Is Ghost the absolute nadir of 1990s Best Picture nominations? Let's hear 'em!)

More seriously, I'm growing increasingly doubtful about The Sixth Sense's chances for a Best Picture nomination mostly because of the growing amount of competition for the five spots in the category; there just may not be enough room. The Sixth Sense joins a growing group of films vying for the coveted fifth nomination -- Being John Malkovich, The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, etc. I'm rather wary about its chances at this point.

On the other hand, I can't share the same skepticism about Haley Joel Osment's prospects. The Best Supporting Actor category is indeed a very competitive category, but given the number of critics' awards he's received and the massive amount of attention his work has commanded, I remain confident that he'll be nominated (as will M. Night Shyamalan's original screenplay). (And if I'm wrong, well, ADoSST called it.)

With regards to Richard's letter, while the argument is thorough and convincing, I'm not even prepared to think about who might win the Best Supporting Actor category; I'll wait to see who survives the mid-February cut before considering that most-heated race.

Q: "Rachel Portman's work on Cider House Rules is wonderful and elegant, but it comes off as mere background music. For this reason, I think she'll be overlooked (just what I heard in the trailer for Angela's Ashes had more *score* to it -- I'm not saying the subtlety of Portman's work [probably her best so far] is inferior, just that it won't get the kind of attention needed for a nomination)."

- RJ

A: It's increasingly appearing that Portman's score won't be able to crack the final five, which is especially competitive given the consolidation of the Score categories this year. On that note, I see that Mark Mancina's score for Tarzan is being touted for Best Score in Disney trade ads. However, it was announced in early December that his Tarzan work was shut out of Oscar contention due to its submission for consideration in the Original Song Score category, which was later eliminated. What's going on here? Anybody?

Q: "Thanks for saying you are "guessing" such and such to win. All too often, award speculators list their choices with an air of clairvoyance. It's refreshing to see someone who acknowledges that, albeit educated, it's all a guessing game."

- Keegan Drake

A: I'm glad you brought this up. I hope it's understood that everything in my columns that aren't clearly factual are but opinions and speculation; as per traditional USENET convention, I've not felt the need to append "In my opinion..." to every single sentence written, yet the spirit remains implicit throughout. I make no claims to clairvoyance, and personally find those who proclaim themselves as Oscar seers shamelessly tacky and self-aggrandizing. As William Goldman famously wrote, "Nobody knows anything", and that especially holds true for the Academy Awards.

Golden Globe winner reactions in the next column. Feedback? -- e-mail me. (Oscar-related correspondence received may be used in future columns with the originator credited, unless preferred otherwise.)

Alex Fung (

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