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Our critic's Oscar picks and misses

By David SterrittFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 2003



NEW YORK

For edge-of-your-seat suspense, this year's Oscar race deserves an Oscar all its own. It's the most wide-open competition in years, with few obvious frontrunners.

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This doesn't mean Oscar handicappers lack clues for their predictions. "Chicago" is clearly a favorite, topping the field with 13 nominations. "Gangs of New York" is close on its heels with 10 nominations, followed by "The Hours" with nine. All have plenty of partisans - and are so different from each other that one-to-one comparisons are hard to make.

If there's one thing the top candidates do have in common, it's a downbeat mood, from the suicidal musings of "The Hours" to the Holocaust horrors of "The Pianist" and the mayhem of "Gangs of New York." "Chicago" may have toe-tapping tunes, but its story is closer to '40s film noir than to "Mary Poppins," the only other musical to garner 13 nominations, back in 1964.

Will voters choose the most downbeat of the bunch? Or will they look for escape in the fantasy world of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," itself a fairly grim yarn? The test of time is no help to predictors, either. All the best-picture entries arrived in the last two weeks of the year. All of which makes for an uncommonly interesting race. Of course there are glaring flaws. Why isn't "Far From Heaven" on the best-picture list? And how could "The Wild Thornberrys Movie" not be nominated for best animated feature?

But think of all the overhyped hits that aren't in the running either, despite the zillions of tickets they sold. Whether top honors this Sunday go to an inward-looking drama, an extroverted epic, or a quixotic musical, Hollywood will have saluted a quality it doesn't always live by: the willingness to spurn conventional wisdom and take a chance on something different.

This year, even the "smaller" races are difficult to call. For best foreign-language movie, the likely winner is "Nowhere in Africa," but I'm rooting for "The Man Without a Past," a breakthrough movie by Aki Kaurismäki, Finland's greatest filmmaker.

While it's always hard to predict the feature-documentary winner, chosen by voters who follow special rules, Michael Moore's outspoken "Bowling for Columbine" should be the victor. I'm cheering for "The Hours" as best adapted screenplay and "Far From Heaven" as best original screenplay. The former is a probable winner, the latter a possible one if "Gangs of New York" doesn't edge it out.

And here's a vote for "Father and Daughter," by Paul Simon, as best original song. "The Thornberrys" has to win something!

Best picture

Likely winner: Chicago. The most important category is one of the toughest to call. Many pundits are picking "The Hours," which surely gained momentum during the voting period. There's also buzz surrounding "The Pianist," which plays into a revival of interest in Holocaust subjects - and don't forget that Holocaust films invariably win when they're nominated in the best-documentary race. Nor can you write off "Gangs of New York," the second-most-nominated movie.

"Chicago" is the razzle-dazzle leader of the pack, though, and razzle-dazzle is one of the things Hollywood's all about. Just as important, insiders are happy to support a picture that revives a genre - the Broadway-based musical - that's been given up for dead in recent years.

Sterritt's pick: The Hours. The film takes a deeply compassionate view of human problems, keeping the unorthodox structure of Michael Cunningham's moving novel while serving up the most awesome trio of female performances - and female characters - last year had to offer.

Overlooked: Far From Heaven, a film as morally rich as it is gorgeous to watch. Plus that sweeping Elmer Bernstein score!

Actor

Likely winner: Jack Nicholson, "About Schmidt." In the spirit of this wide-open race, possibilities abound. Michael Caine in "The Quiet American" has countless admirers, Daniel Day-Lewis acts up a storm in "Gangs of New York," and "Adaptation" contains Nicolas Cage's best portrayal(s) in ages.

But it's hard to disagree with most Oscar handicappers about Nicholson's nuanced performance. He and Schmidt are also on the right side of the generational divide, since the average age of academy voters is higher than the national norm.

Sterritt's pick: Jack Nicholson, if only for his amazing ability to play an utterly unglamorous character while remaining every inch the star he is.

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