Early birds can’t always zero in on awardees

Looking closer to predict Oscar's noms, winners

When people talk about Hollywood film awards, they’re often talking about The Award: Oscar.

And, when predicting winners and nominees for The Award, handicappers concentrate on the usual suspects: films with lofty themes, serious subject matter, and Oscar-pedigreed talent in front of and behind the camera. Prognosticators confidently talk about shoo-ins and dark horses (even though most of these seers haven’t seen the films in question).

But, to borrow the tagline from “American Beauty”: Look closer.

Oscar voters often confound expectations. For example, “The Full Monty,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Jerry Maguire” all got best-picture nominations — which means that you can’t rule out such popcorn pics as “Ocean’s 11,” “The Others” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” as best pic contenders.

Also, Miramax, which is behind the whimsical French box office hit “Amelie” would like the voters to remember that sometimes best foreign-lingo winners such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Il Postino” and “Life Is Beautiful” have a way of insinuating themselves in several other categories as well. So don’t be surprised if the tale of the French gamine ends up as a competitor in several different Oscar categories.

But, when expanding your award mindset, you must also look beyond Oscar’s boundaries.

During the award high season, which culminates with the late-March Academy Awards, there are dozens of prizes, with a wide range of contenders.

For example, comedies get a leg-up from such orgs as the Golden Globes, which offers separate categories for dramas and musical/comedies.

Such races boost the possibilities for “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (especially Renee Zellweger), “Legally Blonde” (Reese Witherspoon), “The Princess Diaries” (don’t ever underestimate Julie Andrews) and “Ghost World” (Steve Buscemi).

Aside from acting, these pics are contenders in many other categories. Same is true for such wild cards as “Legally Blonde” and “Zoolander.”

Of course, the separation of categories raises questions: Is “Spy Kids” a comedy or a drama? Is “Hedwig & the Angry Inch” a drama, a comedy or a musical? Could “Hannibal” be considered a comedy?

“Moulin Rouge,” however, is clearly a musical and looks to be favorably remembered in several categories.

And, though the definition of an “indie film” has changed over the past few years, these “little” pics have offered some outstanding work. While they may seem longshots for The Award, don’t forget about the critics groups. They love to confound expectations with offbeat (and sometimes eccentric) choices.

And the indies have provided a lot of fodder for kudos this year. Between Christopher Nolan’s direction and script of “Memento” to the performances of Tilda Swinton (“The Deep End”), Brian Cox (“L.I.E.”), Ben Kingsley (“Sexy Beast”) and Benjamin Bratt (“Pinero”), indie films seem destined for a lot of year-end recognition.

Of course, a lot of the buzz so far is not over who will get nominated: It’s who will even be in the race.

Two films that seemed like front-runners for multiple nominations have been pushed back to 2002: Miramax’s “Gangs of New York” and DreamWorks’ “The Road to Perdition,” and they’ve been replaced in this year’s race by latecomers such as “Charlotte Gray,” “Kate & Leopold,” and “Black Hawk Down.” Schedule shuffling is always inevitable, but it’s particularly notable this year, because awards look to be heavily dependent on year-end openers.

The late-year openers that are (so far) firmed to open include many prestige projects that feature a lot of Oscar vets. That list includes “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Shipping News,” “Iris,” “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring,” “I Am Sam,” “Vanilla Sky,” “Ali,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Lantana,” “Gosford Park” and “The Majestic.” These winter releases have enough epiphanies, dysfunctional families, social issues, and noble people fighting deadly diseases to keep a batallion of Academy voters happy for months. Will these films outshine the films that have already opened?

Last year, Julia Roberts’ performance in “Erin Brockovich” and the technicals in “Gladiator” seemed inevitably headed for kudosland. But few were betting money that they’d be best-picture Oscar nominees.

But as the months passed, those films retained their glow, while a lot of end-of-year openers didn’t live up to expectations — clearing the way for Erin and Maximus.

So it’s quite possible that the big winners are already in our midst. But there are certainly some biggies on the way. Only one thing is sure: If there were Oscars for early saturation awareness, least annoying child actors, or for the Film Most Likely to Break B.O. Records, WB’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” would win hands down.

(Ramin Zahed also contributed to this article.)

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