'Personal' films vie

Among this year's Academy Award nominations for best picture, there are no real surprises. Most of the entries have at least a modicum of merit, and have managed to couple critical esteem with box-office clout.

Not surprisingly, the list includes a couple of self-important projects -- "All That Jazz" and "Apocalypse Now" -- but the other candidates are smaller and less portentous productions. Peter Yates's "Breaking Away" and Robert Benton's "Kramer vs. Kramer" are modest examinations of family life, while Martin Ritt's "Norma Rae"looks at the problems of a union struggle in a factory town.

If there is a trend to be noted among the five entries, it lies in the "personal" nature of each of the films. Even the gigantic "Apocalypse Now" reflects the personal, idiosyncratic reflections of director Francis Coppola on the Vietnam war. and "all That Jazz" -- a splashy musical full of songs and dances -- boils down to ta meditation on mortality by filmmaker Bob Fosse, whose personal experience apparently determined the style and content of the movie.

So far, there hasn't been much major controversy over the films on the best picture list, though I would argue that "All That Jazz" has a lot more sound and fury than constructive meaning. Indeed, most of this year's Oscar talk has focussed on films left out of the running.

Chief among these is Woody Allen's "Manhattan." Whatever its assets or liabilities as as film, it received generally ecstatic reviews upon its release, and has outpaced all Allen's other films at the box office. Yet neither the movie itself nor Allen as director received nominations -- even though Allen's "Annie Hall" walked off with the award for 1977. Perhaps that's just the trouble: The academy may feel its honeymoon with Allen is over. And there may be lingering resentment that Allen chose not to appear in Los Angeles to pick up his "Annie" Oscar in person.

Other major pictures that might have made the list include James Bridges's "The China Syndrome," Hal Ashby's "Being There," and Sydney Pollack's "The Electric Horseman."

As for the eventual winner among those that are in the running, "apocalypse Now" may have an edge after having shared the best-picture award at the last Cannes Film Festival. Then again, European awards don't usually determine the whims of Oscar, and one of the smaller items could well walk away with the statuette. Both "Breaking Away" and "Kramer vs. Kramer" have picked up a lot of sympathy from moviegoers who see their own lives reflected therein, and the academy voters are ultimately moviegoers just like everybody else.

(Next week: best acting awards)m

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