73rd Academy Award picks
By Vernor Rodgers  vrodgers@dabelly.com
Photos courtesy of www.oscar.com, www.movie.com, http://home.att.net/~evike/   

And the Oscar goes to ... well who knows? Until the Academy Awards are announced, it's all speculation.

As the so-called movie expert here in the DaBelly household, it is my duty to try to pick who will walk away with the statuettes. Usually I am fairly accurate, basing my selections on critics' assessments and my own theories on how the Academy will vote.

This year there is no clear-cut choice. Indeed, this is considered a weak year. None of the films nominated for Best Picture are likely to become classics. So my challenge is to rank the nominees in the order of their chances, as I see them. I restrict my predictions to the six major categories -- the acting, director and picture. Anything beyond that points to an analysis frenzy that surely is grounds for immediate institutionalization.

BEST PICTURE

1. "Gladiator." This is certainly not my choice. But the movie with the most nominations always is the favored film. "Gladiator" netted 12 nominations and goes in as the film to beat. It was an epic movie and a box-office smash, which makes it a darling with the Academy. Call it the "Titanic Syndrome," that movie was visually stunning and a wonderful work of special effects, and it garnered nearly a billion bucks at the box office, thus was a shoe-in for Best Picture. But take away the spectacular scenes of the sinking, and it's a mediocre movie at best. "Gladiator" is an old story -- an honorable man wronged who manages to survive and triumph. The special effects would have been good maybe 20 years ago. Today they look like, well, special effects. It was a good movie. But best of the year? Hmph.crouchingtiger_2000.jpg (10096 bytes)

2. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." If there is a movie to topple "Gladiator," this is it. Will the Academy make history by giving a foreign movie the Best Picture for the first time ever? Could happen. Of all the movies I have seen the last 12 months, this film has generated more passionate word of mouth than any other. The fight scenes are terrific, the soundtrack mesmerizing and the stars absolutely charismatic. It is beautiful, humorous and touching.

3. "Traffic." This movie left a more lasting impression on me than "Gladiator." An involving film, it may be a bit too depressing to garner enough support from Oscar voters. The Academy CAN come through by voting gritty, emotionally wrenching movies as Best Picture ("Midnight Cowboy"), so a win here would not be a surprise.

4. "Erin Brockovich." This one sinks because it seems like it's been out forever. It's already on video. Initial impressions have faded. Besides, it, like "Traffic," focuses on the less savory aspects of life. It ain't a feel-good movie. It needs to be outstanding to overcome that deficit, and this film doesn't quite cut it.

5. "Chocolat." The annual Miramax entry. This company, elevated out of art-house restrictions via "The Crying Game," always puts on an intense campaign to get one of its films nominated, and this one is it. There's been griping that it edged out some other good movies, like "Almost Famous" and "The Wonder Boys," but perhaps the Academy feels that an art-house flick helps legitimize the nominations. "Chocolat" is a charming little film. Everybody I've talked to has endorsed it heartily. But it's a Miramax film, and lately, that has become a liability.

BEST ACTOR

1. Russell Crowe ("Gladiator"). It's been quite a year for Crowe. He stars in one of the biggest films of 2000, gets to bed down all-time cutie Meg Ryan, reportedly dumps her and now scores a nomination for the second straight year. I wasn't all that impressed with Crowe's work in "Gladiator." No doubt it was taxing physically, but Crowe has an Eastwood stoicism that makes his acting seem too understated. I put him at No. 1 because I think the Academy may be trying to make up for not giving him the Oscar last year for his much better work in "The Insider."

hanks6.jpg (8827 bytes)2. Ed Harris ("Pollock"). This has UPSET written all over it. Harris is widely respected in the movie industry. He finally put on film a project close to his heart that took years and sacrifices to make. Plus, it's a gutsy portrayal of a brilliant but flawed and tormented man who really lived. Nobody saw "Pollock" and, except for people in the art world, nobody probably had ever heard of Pollock. So that works against Harris. But another plus: Harris has been nominated twice before without getting the Oscar. He might be due.

3. Tom Hanks ("Cast Away"). Tom is the darling of the industry. Like Jack Lemmon before him, it doesn't take much for him to get a nomination. Not that he wasn't outstanding in "Cast Away," but hey, he did much more memorable work in "A League of Their Own," a movie where he DIDN'T get a nomination. He's got two Oscars at home. It will take something more substantial than "Cast Away" to earn him a third one.

4. Geoffrey Rush ("Quills"). A good, showy part for this terrific actor. But, as I noted in my review, this movie tends to make one squirm. Plus, it has to be tough to vote for a performance that's given mostly in the nude. Rush walked away with an Oscar five years ago for "Shine." That may be enough for this scenery chewer.

5. Javier Bardem ("When Night Falls"). The Academy always like to make a nod to a brave performance by someone fairly unknown. And the thinking is: Well the nomination should be good enough.

BEST ACTRESS

1. Julia Roberts ("Erin Brockovich"). This could be The Year of the Julia. She's the biggest female star in the business and a potent box office force. "Erin Brockovich" was one of her rare forays into a film that was not a romantic comedy, and she pulled off a bravura performance. And she, like Ed Harris, is up for the Oscar for the third time and may be deemed due.

binoche.jpg (9942 bytes)2. Laura Linney ("You Can Count on Me"). The Oscar probably should go to Linney. The consensus is that this was the most flawless female performance of the year. But it's a dinky film nobody has seen. And even now, with a nomination in tow, this movie is playing in only a few theaters. Linney is not a big name. Other than her work in the PBS production of "Tales of the City," she's been relegated to minor roles. She cannot topple the Julia Roberts juggernaut.

3. Ellen Burstyn ("Requiem for a Dream"). Burstyn is a veteran, a six-time nominee whose career has dated back to the 1960s. Critics called this role the gutsiest of her career. It's a difficult movie to watch, however, and not likely to garner much more than a nomination.

4. Joan Allen ("The Contender"). Joan Allen has what I call the Peter O'Toole Affliction. She does great work that gets recognized via Oscar nominations (this is her third) that unfortunately never goes over the top. Her understated role as a beleaguered vice-president nominee is a monument to brilliant, subtle acting, It's appreciated, but not enough, like O'Toole, a seven-time nominee yet to carry home an Oscar.

5. Juliette Binoche ("Chocolat"). Juliette Binoche is a fetching actress. But overrated, I think. I never understood her Oscar win for "The English Patient," winning over, of all people, first-time nominee Lauren Bacall. In "Chocolat," Binoche, as the generous, liberal-minded owner of a chocolate shop, is certainly charming. But this movie is about the people around her. We barely touch on her life and she has only one scene where she gets to really emote. It's not enough.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

1. Benecio del Toro ("Traffic"). An enigmatic, intense performance, del Toro was the best thing about a very good movie. On top of that, del Toro is a superb, versatile actor. Academy members no doubt have seen his diverse work just in the last year, in "Snatch" and "The Pledge." He's been around for a decade or so, under-appreciated. That has ended.

bdtgg2.jpg (55491 bytes)2. Joaquin Phoenix ("Gladiator"). The polar performance. People either loved it or hated it. I was surprised at this nomination because his "I am vexed, very vexed" line from the movie is already parodied. I thought his performance as the tormented man of cloth in "Quills" was more touching.

3. Willem Dafoe ("Shadow of the Vampire). The dark-horse performance. Sometimes the Academy likes it when an actor renders himself virtually unrecognizable and delivers a terrific piece of work. Dafoe could have been a disaster in this role as the possible vampire Max Schreck. But he wisely chose to act physically rather than verbally. And he put on quite a show.

4. Jeff Bridges ("The Contender"). This is the third different decade in which Bridges has been nominated. His fourth shot at the Oscar could be the charm if it's a salute to his career, like John Wayne's win for "True Grit." Bridges seemed to have way too much fun playing the pragmatic president who wants to leave the legacy of the first female vice president. A laid-back performance that was enjoyed, but not likely to get the Oscar call.

5. Albert Finney ("Erin Brockovich"). Finney is another veteran star that will win probably as a salute to a long, distinguished career. He's been nominated five times and perhaps the Academy will think it's his turn.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

This is always my weakest category, and a bitter one. A few years ago I entered an Oscar pool and picked all the winners except the Best Supporting Actress. I tabbed Winona Ryder. The Academy went with Anna Paquin. As usual, this group is a tough call.

1. Kate Hudson ("Almost Famous"). I pick Hudson because of two reasons: 1) it would be a consolation to the Academy not nominating "Almost Famous" as Best Picture; 2) she's the daughter of Goldie Hawn, a popular person in the industry. Hurting Hudson's chances is Frances McDormand, also nominated from the same movie. A possible cancel-out vote.

2. Julie Walters ("Billy Elliot"). She should win because she was the heart and soul of a terrific movie. She was tough but compassionate and willing to take a chance on Billy Elliot, a boy trying to learn to dance despite hostile opposition from his family.

3. Marcia Gay Harden ("Pollock"). Like Laura Linney, Harden is a capable actress but mostly relegated to minor roles. This was a breakout performance, but she'll only win if there is a surprising anti-Gladiator movement that first sees Ed Harris win, then maybe her.

4. Frances McDormand ("Almost Famous"). McDormand almost stole the movie as the protective but open-minded mother. She has that one showy scene, where she delivers the riot act to the rock band leader (Billy Crudup) over the phone. Hurting her chances is that she won recently for "Fargo."

5. Judie Dench ("Chocolat"). Another recent Oscar winner ("Shakespeare in Love"), Dench had been nominated three times in four years. Her performance in "Chocolat" as a crusty, diabetic-ridden old woman who only needs friends and reconciliation with her daughter, is a valid piece of work. Dench is hitting her prime late in her life (she's 66), which is a story Oscar likes to embrace.

I am not going to pick apart Best Director, but my inkling is that Ang Lee will win for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Or else Steven Soderbergh, historically nominated twice for "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich" will avoid a split of votes.