It's Oscar season at the movies

The speculation over who's going to stand up March 21 in front of a billion or so TV viewers worldwide to say endless "thank-yous" has begun in earnest.

The ballots for the Academy Awards go out today to the actors, directors, producers, and assorted other industry members who'll vote for the Oscars.

Here's a quiz for you. What do these 10 films have in common?

"The Butcher Boy"

"Central Station"

"The General"

"Gods and Monsters"


"Little Voice"

"Life Is Beautiful"


"A Simple Plan"

"Velvet Goldmine"

If you guessed that all of them made the Top 10 lists of mainstream movie critics around the country, you're right. If you've seen more than one, (A) consider yourself a really, really serious filmgoer, and (B) you probably live in Los Angeles or New York.

If you don't even recognize the titles, don't feel badly. Some of these are traditional small independent films that almost never make it beyond a few screens in major cities. Others were released in a few locations late in the year (to qualify as 1998 films) and haven't even arrived in most cities.

The list suggests that the critics, who watch a lot of movies, either develop unusual tastes or they're onto something we're missing. It also suggests that they have access to films that just don't reach the suburban multiplex. So most of us don't know if we'd like these choices or not.

The truly energized, of course, will write down the names of those they hear something good about and maybe remember to look them up on the back shelves at the video store someday.

Mostly these films will be absent on Oscar night, though there's usually a "best picture" slot left for a lesser-known film. This year's nod might go to "Elizabeth," the story of the young queen whose name and reign became synonymous with the flowering of England. (Cate Blanchett's powerful performance may win her a best actress nomination.)

Among the films people have had a real chance to see, Steven Spielberg's World War II epic, "Saving Private Ryan," once the heavy favorite for best picture, is still a certain nominee. (And Tom Hanks is a favorite to win yet another Oscar for his humane performance in it.) "Ryan" now has competition from "A Thin Red Line," another powerful look at that war that isn't in wide release, but soon will be. Coming on strong is "Shakespeare in Love," a new costume romance featuring a radiant Gwyneth Paltrow, an eight-minute star turn by Judy Dench as Queen Elizabeth, and clever, funny writing.

And don't forget the innovative "The Truman Show," with Jim Carrey unknowingly living life really large as a TV show.

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