This year's race offers two big trends: one economic, one artistic

HOLLYWOOD — Who ever thought the Oscar race would be dominated by the spirits of Steve Reeves and Bruce Lee?

A year ago, the words “gladiator movie” and “kung-fu movie” conjured up images of dubbed, schlocky pics that would be lucky to end up direct-to-video. But by reinventing their respective genres, “Gladiator” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” paced the race for the 73rd annual Academy Awards, with 12 and 10 nominations, respectively.

Surprising, sure. But then, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences are always full of surprises.

“Chocolat,” with five nominations including best film, and “Pollock,” with two acting noms, did better than expected. Other films, such as “Almost Famous,” “Billy Elliot” and “Wonder Boys,” got several important noms, but fewer than hoped for.

Why? Who knows?

Every year, Oscar pundits pore over the nominations to come up with a new conclusion about the results and why “they” voted this way. And the following year, those theories are thrown out and replaced with new ones.

Because the Academy voters are 5,722 individuals, and attempts to probe the way “they” think are always futile. They don’t think as a unit.

This year, the nominations are full of contradictions. “They” liked big stars (Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks) and ignored big stars (Sean Connery, Michael Douglas). They embraced arthouse films (“Before Night Falls,” “Pollock”), but dismissed them (“The Claim,” “The House of Mirth,” “Sunshine”).

In the editing race, “they” went for flashy, grab-you work (“Crouching Tiger,” “Gladiator,” “Traffic”). On the other hand, “they” also went for subtle, tell-the-story editing (“Almost Famous,” “Wonder Boys”).

Even in the best song race, “they” went for big-name record stars (Bob Dylan, Bjork, Sting, Randy Newman), but bypassed them (Garth Brooks and Cyndi Lauper were only two of the many stars who had eligible tunes this year).

Oscar voters further confounded theorists who proclaim they have short-term memories. This year, Academy members heaped noms on “Gladiator” and “Erin Brockovich,” which both opened in the first half of the year.

It’s not surprising that there are so many conspiracy theories about the Academy and their voting patterns. Part of the mystery is that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences never reveals its tallies. So when some sleeper gets a best-pic nomination, the implication is that everyone voted for it. Similarly, when someone like Jim Carrey does not get nominated, it seems as if no one voted for him. He may have missed out by one vote. Or maybe it was by 1,000 votes. We’ll never know.

But it’s unlikely the Academy will ever reveal its tallies: What nominee wants to find out that out of 5,722 possible votes, he or she only got three? Even for those lucky five who are nominated, ignorance is bliss; it’s better to be ignored by Oscar than to go down in movie history as the nominee with the lowest number of votes, ever.

So what’s the conclusion? That it’s hard to come to a conclusion this year.

But in a contradictory year, we feel like contradicting ourselves.

There are two big trends this year — one economic, the other artistic. But in both cases, the patterns don’t really indicate how “they” think; instead, they offer clues about the state of the industry at large.

The most notable development is the boom in shared films. Nominated pics in which studios shared domestic and overseas distribution, respectively, include “Almost Famous” (DreamWorks-Columbia), “Cast Away” (Fox-DreamWorks), “Erin Brockovich” (Universal-Col), “Gladiator” (DreamWorks-U), “Meet the Parents” (U-DreamWorks), and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (Touchstone-U).

It’s gotten to the point when studio counts are impossible, and probably pointless. We’re a long way from the days when above- and below-the-line workers stayed for decades at one studio and cast their Oscar votes in loyalty to their employer.

And, though many pundits have praised the strong showing this year of independent films, the definition of “independent” has changed. Now it’s applied (incorrectly) to any film without marquee stars or a big budget (e.g., anything from “American Beauty” to “You Can Count on Me”).

True indies, such as Lions Gate and Artisan, are hard to find. USA Films has fiscal ties to Universal, though it operates independently. Sony Pictures Classics, Paramount Classics and Fine Line did well, but all of them have links to the majors.

Aside from the economic shifts, this year features an interesting artistic trend. The films that earned the most nominations were a Roman spectacle, a Mandarin epic, a romantic fable, a woman-battles-the-system drama and an unflinching look at the drug trade. Those pics — “Gladiator,” “Crouching Tiger,” “Chocolat,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic,” respectively — seem to be unrelated, but they do have a few things in common.

Two films center on a woman’s single-handed battle against the system: “Chocolat,” with its small-minded town, and “Brockovich,” with its corporate monolith. “Tiger” also features a female — two, in fact — battling against staggering odds.

In “Gladiator,” Maximus battles fellow gladiators as well as scheming politicians. And in “Traffic,” there are several protagonists, all struggling to keep their heads above water in a drug-filled world. Despite their range in settings, all are individuals at war with a huge, oppressive system.

It’s also the theme of last year’s winner, “American Beauty.”

Is this a reflection of the zeitgeist? In this past year, Academy members have had to deal with attacks from D.C., fears of a looming strike, widespread layoffs, omens of an economic recession — not to mention missing Oscar ballots and stolen statuettes. Is it any wonder they feel overwhelmed, and respond to David-vs.-Goliath stories?

Not all of the five best-pic nominees have a traditional happy ending; but in each case, the David won his/her war.

It’s hard to imagine films like “The Greatest Show on Earth” or “Gigi” being made today, much less winning the best pic Oscar. Awards are like tiny time capsules, presenting a picture of who we are and what we think, in a particular moment of time.

So the 73rd Oscar race may be remembered as the year of combat — the year when the spirits of Steve Reeves, Bruce Lee and Norma Rae prevailed.

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