The Oscars: Dark horses and pretty horses

THE ONSET OF Oscar season this year seems even more crazy-making than usual. There are so many 11th hour entries, it’s difficult to tell the dark horses from the pretty horses.

Movie critics and other aficionados are cramming in so many films they’re getting that Tom Hanks castaway’s glare. Screening rooms are so overbooked that people showing up for “Thirteen Days” may find themselves watching “Quills.” And the eligibility rules for movies like “Croupier” are sufficiently complex that you need a serious intellectual like Justice Clarence Thomas to interpret them.

The critics circles can always be counted on to further obscure things by honoring movies that no true-blue Academy member will ever get to see. None of the critics groups, you’ll recall, gave much credence to “The English Patient” or “Shakespeare in Love.” It remained for the Golden Globes and ultimately the Academy to anoint them.

But one thing’s for sure: The absence of front runners will ensure that big bucks will fuel this year’s Oscar race.

ALL THIS REPRESENTS business as usual for that grizzled veteran of the Oscar wars, Harvey Weinstein. The “where’s Harvey?” chorus ended abruptly last week when the Maven of Miramax finally arrived in town with his Oscar slate — “Chocolat,” “Malena” and “All the Pretty Horses.” Again, the critics circles may not smile on his slate, but Harvey, as usual, is playing by his own rules.

For one thing, he became the first company chief to vow that he’s going to work hard to prevent a strike next summer. This runs counter to the mantra of his corporate brethren who claim to welcome a shutdown.

Then, too, Harvey defied naysayers who trumpeted Miramax’s supposed “off” year, insisting that, despite problems in the arthouse business, his company notched a record 2000. Net profits, he said, jumped to $145 million versus $67 million a year ago, stemming from the success of “Scary Movie” (released under the Dimension label) as well as holdover revenues from ’99 films like “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

Even Talk Magazine, which developed an early stutter as a result of its Euro-style graphics, shows signs of a significant upturn. And though Harvey conceded his disappointment with some releases (such as “The Yards”), 2000 was a damned good year, he insisted.

Miramax has caught some heat for pushing increasingly into expensive co-ventures with major studios rather than crouching down in its niche markets, but Harvey has no intention of turning back.

IN 2001, the company will release its share of mega-pics, led by “Gangs of New York” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese. Again, rumors swirl around this high-profile film, but Harvey says its budget is still lurking under $90 million and is delighted with the footage.

And despite these ventures, he promises Miramax will maintain its fealty to the art market — witness his promised voyage to Sundance in January (he missed last year’s event due to illness).

Harvey may be confident that his Oscar campaign will fare better than his Gore campaign, but his rivals have other plans.

Despite its dark subject matter, “Traffic” from USA Films, continues to generate buzz — the New York Film Critics anointed it as best picture last week.

There’s also heat behind “You Can Count on Me,” which seemed to catch startup Paramount Classics by surprise.

No one expected a Chinese-language film to cause a stir, but that’s what’s happening to the remarkably theatrical “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

ACADEMY MEMBERS have always venerated “important” films, and the riveting “Thirteen Days,” about the Cuban missile crisis, easily qualifies. And Academy members are not being allowed to forget those breakout hits from earlier in the year, “Erin Brockovich” and “Gladiator.”

Moreover, if Harvey Weinstein is a hardy campaigner, Tom Hanks also has his share of Oscar combat ribbons. He and his distributor, 20th Century Fox, have no intention of letting “Cast Away” get lost in the shuffle.

If the screening schedules are overly crowded, filmgoers this year at least cannot complain that the movies themselves are too long.

With a few exceptions, filmmakers, circa 2000, seem to have learned the value of economy. Even when lengthy first cuts were delivered, cooler heads, and sharper scissors, prevailed.

Somewhere along the way, “All the Pretty Horses” slimmed down from three and a half hours-plus to a mere 117 minutes, and the story is still true to the book.

The fabled Harvey Scissorhands might aspire to final cut over the next presidential election.

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