Like most everyone else, I specialize in Oscar predictions pulled right out of the air, answering the who's-gonna-win question with whatever wild surmise my mouth finds itself forming. I was at a party for the New York Underground Film Festival last week, beleaguered by under-indies who wanted to talk Oscar and star dazzle. They wanted to speak the speak that is Julia. They didn't say, "Oh, Ellen Burstyn has had a remarkable career, and in Requiem for a Dream, she showed the kind of daring and talent that sears the screen." Nope. They wanted to bask in Julia's foreordained Oscar for baring her acting chops and push-up cleavage.
But seriously, folks, these are the jokes: Chocolat? Gladiator? Don't give me a break, give me a movie that at least inflames me enough to get me p.o.'d. The Academy recognized some of the best studio-released films, such as the dreamy fancies of flight in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Steven Soderbergh's socially conscious pop double-header, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. While I would have liked to see You Can Count On Me, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's funny and deeply empathetic gem examining life's complications in the top five, it was also nice to see certain movies absent, such as Quills, that self-proud stink bomb of confused moral messages.
Among films missing, there's at least one masterpiece, from Hong Kong, Wong Kar-Wai's In The Mood for Love, a brooding, sleek fever dream of sexual longing, set in 1962 Hong Kong. An amazing movie, and a victim of the Academy's complicated procedure for nominating foreign language pictures. With the inevitable win for Crouching Tiger in that category, another small, lovely gem will likely be overlooked, France's gentle, subtle The Taste of Others.
The big story, beyond the four-plus-hour running time of the program (couldn't they cut a few commercials to make it shorter?) is always politics and voting procedures and endless promotion for a few titles to get the gold. DreamWorks and Miramax have been toe-to-toe for several years, particularly since the light, likeable Shakespeare in Love beat out the loud, self-important Saving Private Ryan. This year, DreamWorks has pulled any number of stunts to get Gladiator noticed in every possible category, and Miramax once again called in its Department of Smoke and Mirrors to get the wan Chocolat among the five best picture nominees. Why not Almost Famous? Whether most audiences could empathize with the fairy tale adventures of a 15-year-old boy coming of age in the world of 1970s rock and roll, at least there is passion and moments of pop bliss, as opposed to Chocolat, a movie as disposable as a candy bar wrapper.
Ang Lee's just won the DGA nod for best director, and with Steve Soderbergh splitting his vote between Traffic and Erin Brockovich, it looks like Lee may take the Best Director slot. And it's worthy: Beyond the popular Sense and Sensibility, his Ride With The Devil is one of the best epics of recent years, and The Ice Storm -- there's a movie you ought to rent if you haven't seen it. Gestures and silence: What are taken as Asian-style filmmaking elements instead infuse a portrait of 1970s U.S. suburbia in ways both comic and moving that show Lee's range. Soderbergh will go on to make more clever popcorn; Lee is planning a New York musical and an adaptation of The Incredible Hulk.
Among best actors, the hulk and the best of the bunch is hands-down Javier Bardem. Remarkable in the impressionistic portrait of a lusty writer in Before Night Falls, yet Ed Harris's Pollock is a haunted masterpiece amid a middling movie. Tom Hanks has his shelf full of Oscars, and the worst that could happen is Russell Crowe kidnapping the statue from this bunch. I'd bet on Harris, but I'm rooting for Bardem. Like Roberts, Benicio Del Toro is everyone's guess for his smoldering, mostly-in-Spanish portrait of a Mexican cop trying to keep to the straight and narrow. Joaquin Phoenix's "vexed" performance in Gladiator could be part of a sweep if the Academy throws all reason to the lions. Another traditional sacrifice in Oscar land is the nod for Best Supporting Actress, which is expected to go to the winsome, toothsome Kate Hudson, for her role as an angelic groupie in Almost Famous. Think Mira Sorvino: We'll give you the little gold man, but we're taking your career away from you.
All in all, I'm not particularly rooting for any of the movies, except perhaps to see Chocolat and Gladiator lose. Each of the leading five films has done remarkable box office, with both Traffic and Crouching Tiger having just passed the $100 million milestone. My guess for the greatest number of awards is five or six for Crouching Tiger, but I do hold a modest fear of a sweep for the galumphing mediocrity of Gladiator.