Y2K throws award forecasters into tizzy

It’s the Y2K Oscars.

For two or three years, pundits were predicting that computers would go haywire in the year 2000. As it turned out, that never happened. But everything else has gone cuckoo.

The Olympics and the World Series were overshadowed by a low-budget reality show about survivors on a desert island. The Presidential election has more screwy plot twists than a Preston Sturges farce.

And Oscar has had a goofy year. The post office misplaced ballots, then shipping workers were arrested for the theft of statuettes. And now, the contenders for the 2000 Academy Awards are breaking all the rules.

But while that last one is wacky, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Usually by this time, there are several sure bets in the Oscar derby, and strong buzz about year-end openers. This year, pundits are totally flummoxed, wailing that there are so few contenders. The implication is that Oscar is lowering the bar. In truth, Oscar is not lowering the bar — just moving it.

Who’d have predicted that a kung-fu movie or a film about chickens would be serious best-pic candidates? Or that a 14-year-old would have the inside track for a best-actor nomination? Or that films from last March — even before this year’s Oscarcast — would be remembered for next year’s ceremonies?

But “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Chicken Run,” Jamie Bell (from “Billy Elliot”), and “Wonder Boys” are all garnering genuine attention.

In fact, “Chicken Run” is garnering so much attention that DreamWorks is even pushing for a nomination for best costume design. And why not? Do you know how hard it is to come up with costumes that make a flock of chickens distinctive — and don’t make their thighs look too big?

Over the years, a certain type of film has earned the reputation as “an Oscar-type picture” — think of “Gandhi,” “Schindler’s List” — serious pics with lofty themes (and long running times).

But people often forget that such populist fare as “Double Indemnity,” “Star Wars,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Ghost” and “Beauty and the Beast” were also best-film nominees. In truth, there are no Oscar rules, and if a film does what it sets out to do, Academy Award voters often take note.

Nobody (so far) is suggesting that “Little Nicky” or “Blair Witch II” is going to sweep the awards — the year hasn’t been that cuckoo. But the spear-and-sandal actioner “Gladiator” and “Erin Brockovich” — mainstream, popcorn pic rather than “prestige” items — are being taken seriously. So are films about, of all people, the Marquis de Sade, (“Quills”) and a northern England dancer-misfit (“Billy Elliot”).

And as for year-end openers, all bets are off. Traditionally, most people wouldn’t put money on crowd-pleasers, but it’s hard to count out pics like “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Family Man,” “Miss Congeniality,” “Unbreakable,” “Vertical Limit” and “What Women Want.”

There are also strong hopes for “All the Pretty Horses,” “Cast Away,” “Chocolat,” “The Claim,” “Finding Forrester,” “The Gift,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” “13 Days” and “Traffic.”

And then there are the films from the non-majors: “Before Night Falls,” “House of Mirth,” “Pollock,” “Shadow of the Vampire,” “State and Main” and “You Can Count on Me.”

Critical kudos could boost the chances of pics as diverse as “Almost Famous,” “Bounce,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Nurse Betty,” “The Patriot,” “The Perfect Storm,” “Remember the Titans,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “Tigerland” and “X-Men.”

It’s an open field. And, as Martha Stewart would say, that’s a good thing.

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