It’s never too early to start thinking about Oscar.

By summer of last year, “Erin Brockovich” and “Gladiator” had opened. Which means that by this point, we’d already seen the eventual winners of best picture, actor and actress.

Don’t expect that to happen this year. Most Oscar watchers are counting on upcoming pics to fill the Academy Award categories.

Like summer, the holidays see a glut of films, but, unlike summer, the accent is often on classy productions. The upcoming pics mentioned most often by Oscar gazers are those with a combo of weighty subject matter and Oscar veterans.

The roster includes Miramax’s “The Shipping News” (Lasse Hallstrom directing Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench) and “Gangs of New York” (Martin Scorsese); MGM’s “Windtalkers”; New Line’s “Life as a House” (Irwin Winkler, starring Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas), “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” (Peter Jackson) and “I Am Sam” (Michelle Pfeiffer and Sean Penn); and Paramount’s “Vanilla Sky” (Cameron Crowe, Tom Cruise).

Equally mentioned are Sony’s “Ali” (Michael Mann); Universal’s “A Beautiful Mind” (Ron Howard, with Russell Crowe and Ed Harris); Buena Vista’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” (Gwyneth Paltrow, Gene Hackman, Anjelica Houston); USA Films’ “Gosford Park” (Robert Altman, with Maggie Smith and Emily Watson) and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (Coen brothers); and WB’s “Hearts in Atlantis” (Anthony Hopkins) and “The Majestic” (Frank Darabont, starring Jim Carrey).

But it’s useful to remember: Most of these films are being touted sight-unseen. Last year’s flood of fourth-quarter “sure-fire” Oscar contenders included “Pay It Forward,” “Finding Forrester” and “Proof of Life.” The best pic award often has gone to movies that had little advance fanfare (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The English Patient,” etc.), but ended up outpacing the front-runners.

This year, there are many question marks due to schedule-shuffling (will DreamWorks’ “The Road to Perdition” be ready?), toons (will DreamWorks’ “Shrek” and Buena Vista’s “Monsters, Inc.” be considered in the best pic race even though the feature toon category bows this year?), sleepers (will Fox’s “Don’t Say a Word” upstage everyone?) and art films (will Sony Pictures Classics, Paramount Classics, etc. repeat their boffo Oscar showings of last year?)

As for the films that have opened so far in 2001, there are not many Oscar shoo-ins — or even possibilities. (No one is willing to bet at this point that “Hannibal,” for example, can repeat the top five wins of its predecessor, “The Silence of the Lambs.”)

There are a few acting contenders: Renee Zellweger, “Bridget Jones’s Diary”; Ewan McGregor, “Moulin Rouge”; Ben Kingsley, “Sexy Beast”; and James Gandolfini, “The Mexican.”

And there are lots of possibilities in the tech categories: “The Fast and the Furious,” “Jurassic Park III,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “The Mummy Returns,” “Pearl Harbor,” etc.

In terms of design, Fox seems to be leading the pack, with “Moulin Rouge,” the upcoming “From Hell,” and even “Monkeybone” — and, of course, “Planet of the Apes.”

“Planet” is also the pic to beat in terms of makeup. Many films are director-driven, and some are performance-driven; “Planet” is the only film so far this year that’s makeup-driven.

But as for best pic, the top possibility at this point seems to be “Moulin Rouge”: Though not everyone was knocked out, many industryites went gaga over its audacity and originality.

IFC’s “Memento” could be a fave on crix lists, but Oscar seems more of a challenge. The best chance for WB’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” is if the inevitable re-evaluation of the pic (“I saw it again; I liked it much better this time”) occurs within the next six months.

And then, of course, there is “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” If there were Oscars for early saturation awareness, or for the Film Most Likely to Break B.O. Records, this WB pic would win hands down.

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