Never too soon for Oscar buzz

The Academy Awards ceremony is still more than three months away and the nominees won't even be announced until Jan. 25. But make no mistake, the Oscar race is already in full swing as studios begin courting Academy voters with trade-magazine ads and special screenings of their movies. For movie pundits, December is also the time to start speculating on who will be in the running for the top Oscar categories on the night of Feb. 27.

I'll begin with some journalistic full disclosure: Everything you read in this article is probably wrong. That's not because I'm a poor Oscar predictor. I'm pretty good at guessing the outcomes of individual races once the contenders are lined up.

I suspect my fairly strong track record stems from my lifelong refusal to take the race even a tiny bit seriously. It's basically a Hollywood popularity contest, and once you realize its outcomes have little to do with artistic quality or cultural worth, you gain a weird kind of focus on things like the "buzz" and "scuttlebutt" that precede new movies.

The reason this article may be full of wild guesses - if we look back at it three months from now - is that lots of the most buzzed-about movies haven't opened yet. Oscar voters and critics (including me) have seen many of them, but our from-the-hip responses - known as "reax" in the trade - are often tentative and contradictory.

Take an eagerly awaited opus like "The Aviator," with Martin Scorsese directing Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, the oddball billionaire. Entertainment Weekly (EW) calls it a Best Picture possibility. But the magazine lists a slew of other films in the same paragraph - including the Adam Sandler comedy "Spanglish" and Wes Anderson's genre-bending "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," which have already garnered negative word of mouth.

EW also notes that Mr. Scorsese is overdue for an Oscar, after four prior nominations. But it promptly adds that Mike Nichols is also overdue, in a different way - namely, he hasn't earned a statuette since "The Graduate" in 1968, which could add Oscar propulsion to his acerbic "Closer."

Then too, why should we take EW's word for anything? GoldDerby News, a website that specializes in award prognostication, says a recent "Aviator" screening for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association revealed Scorsese and DiCaprio as "locks" for their respective categories; that it propelled Cate Blanchett into the supporting-actress race; and that it made Best Picture "reachable" as well.

Look a bit closer, though, and you'll notice that the association (which sponsors the Golden Globes contest) saw an unfinished version that may be changed and trimmed before release.

And hey, two years ago "Gangs of New York" was supposed to skyrocket Scorsese to Oscar glory, until it disappointed critics and tanked at the box office. I support Scorsese all the way (he's my favorite American director), but it's way too early for "The Aviator" to be labeled anything more than a tantalizing possibility.

Enough of this hedging, though. While the Oscar nods won't come until February, other award-giving groups (the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, and more) will bestow their honors a lot earlier. The contenders of 2004 are a varied lot, so this is none too soon for speculating on who's really in the running - although I have to be a tad cagey about movies that haven't opened yet, since I'm embargoed from reviewing them until opening day.

Regarding those critics' groups, some of which I belong to, they're often seen as predictors of the Oscar race or (more accurately) as an alternative to it, since the voters are reviewers, not industry insiders. The best-reviewed film of recent months is probably "Sideways," which should score big with critics' awards. But this won't lock in Academy Awards for the movie or its stars.

Best picture: Clint Eastwood reportedly pressured Warner Bros. into releasing "Million Dollar Baby" before the Dec. 31 deadline for Oscar qualification, so he's evidently convinced he has, well, a million-dollar baby on his hands. "Closer" has a dream cast and a screenplay that manages to obsess about sex while keeping most of it off-screen, which could be a winning combination with Academy voters.

The movie adaptation of Broadway's popular "Phantom of the Opera" is said to be wowing the Academy's older members, if not the younger ones. But if it winds up competing with "Sideways" or "Ocean's Twelve," you might want to remember GoldDerby's observation that when "tuners" compete with "laffers," musicals always trump comedies, deserving or not.

And don't forget that "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Incredibles" could become those rarest of rarities, a documentary and animation deemed worthy of nominations, if not wins.

Best actor: The only sure thing is Jamie Foxx in "Ray," and I predict he'll win. Messrs. Eastwood and DiCaprio seem likely nominees, and Bill Murray could slip in if "The Life Aquatic" doesn't strike voters as too bizarre. Dark horses include Sean Penn in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" and John Travolta in "A Love Song for Bobby Long." Supporters are pushing Liam Neeson's portrayal of "Kinsey" and Paul Giamatti's acting (the best of the year, I think) in "Sideways."

There's also Javier Bardem in "The Sea Inside," if the anti-subtitle gang doesn't squelch it.

Best actress: Early buzz has centered on Imelda Staunton's superb portrayal of "Vera Drake," the middle-aged Englishwoman at the center of Mike Leigh's new drama. Nominations should also go to Julia Roberts for "Closer" and Scarlett Johansson for "Bobby Long," and possibly Kerry Washington for "Ray."

Let's face it, though, it's still anybody's guess. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" strikes some as a self-indulgent indie, yet it has admirers, and if the fans stick together you could find Kate Winslet in contention, not to mention the movie itself. While nobody had heard of Catalina Sandino Moreno before "Maria Full of Grace" opened, there's serious talk (especially in pro-subtitle circles) of an Oscar nod for her. Sigourney Weaver is no newcomer, but she could receive her third nomination if "Imaginary Heroes" catches on.

Supporting roles: Some of my favorite candidates seem like long shots, including Sandra Oh and Thomas Haden Church in "Sideways" and Laura Linney in "Kinsey," but all have supporters in the awards community. Anything could happen.

And now for the one absolutely certain, positive, unqualified prediction I'll make: Oliver Stone's highly anticipated "Alexander" is so terrible in every way that it won't receive a nod for anything.

Then again, everything in this article is probably wrong. Could it be...?

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