Cryptic, sylized puzzles indicate a trend in Oscar contenders

2001 may be remembered as the year the term “Oscar frontrunner” became obsolete. With the possible exception of “In the Bedroom” — a gripping low-budget drama helmed by first-time feature director Todd Field — no film has fought free of the pack and claimed status as a shoo-in.

Field, who also served as co-producer, says he was “overwhelmed when I first read it. Initially it drew me in because the characters played by Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson reminded me of my parents. Also, I feel the picture is relevant since it deals with timeless moral issues. Andre Dubus, who wrote the original story, dealt with the human condition. He explored ideas of reloving and relearning, and how people stumble and make their way through as human beings.”

Field says he is grateful to the companies that financed the movie, Good Machine and GreeneStreet Films. “They took a huge leap of faith, gave me absolute freedom. No casting requirements. We did it in 30 days without compromising in any way. I also feel fortunate about the performers, actors who have tremendous ability and lack vanity. Only one frightening thing — we had no leading man until five days before rehearsal. We got Tom Wilkinson at the last minute and he was fantastic.”

“In the Bedroom,” despite its shocking plot, is a straightforward narrative. But several other contenders indicate a trend in 2001 for cryptic, stylized puzzles, toying with narrative structure in tantalizing, often incomprehensible ways.

David Lynch’s twisted “Mulholland Drive” is an example of bending rules.

“I personally like a movie when you don’t know where it’s going to take you — one, say, that combines a mystery, love story, thriller in the same film,” Lynch says. “Then you wait and see. It’s not always the quality of the work, though. It’s timing and fate too.”

Vital backing

Lynch gives strong credit to Pierre Edelman of Canal Plus for supporting “Mulholland Drive” until it became a feature (script had started out as a pilot for a TV series). But he shrugs aside questions about the length of shooting schedules.

“I do each scene until it feels correct, stay with things scene by scene and don’t leave a sequence until I’m satisfied,” he says. “Then I show the picture to people I respect — a horrible experience, a wakeup call, an eye-opener — so I can make adjustments. My attitude is stay focused during the process or you’re fresh out of luck.”

Oscar voters may embrace Lynch’s daring, idiosyncratic vision or step back in bewilderment, and the same goes for Baz Luhrmann’s brilliantly bizarre “Moulin Rouge.”

In addition to Luhrmann’s experimental approach — blending period drama with modern songs — he has dedicated himself to bringing back the musical form, a genre that has stubbornly resisted resuscitation.

Distributed by 20th Century Fox and made by Luhrmann’s production company, “Moulin Rouge” was, he admits, “difficult to do. The project began five years ago. I had to deal with broad comedy and high tragedy and break out in musical numbers. We maintained a full chorus of 60 dancers for the 54 weeks it took to shoot.

“There were injuries, too. Nicole Kidman broke her ribs twice and smashed her knee. But her efforts were worth it. She became the girl next door and every man’s fantasy, as well as an actress who could convey emotions through song.”

“A Beautiful Mind,” the Ron Howard-directed biography of scientist John Nash, is also a rule breaker, beginning with deceptive clarity and curving into a labyrinth of totally unexpected plot twists.

“Our movie is a very profound life journey,” reflects Howard. “I tend to be drawn to situations where the characters face the possibility of real loss in a surprising way. The character thinks he knows where life is going and is then tested. The story of John Nash and his struggle between madness and genius offered a wonderful performance opportunity. I knew Russell Crowe had enormous charisma. It also helped, since he was playing a genius, that Russell is a very intelligent man.”

Bolstered by the belief of Stacey Snider and Ron Meyer at Universal, whic backed the movie (with later co-investment by DreamWorks), Howard filmed his offbeat, thought-provoking drama in 60 days.

“We shot in sequence and came up with character ideas as we went along. It was an ongoing process of discovery, and there were aspects of the picture richer, deeper and more complex than I had ever imagined them to be.”

Where “A Beautiful Mind” is scientific and inward, Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” is an elegant display of glittering British society and slashing verbal wit. It’s an Agatha Christie-type murder mystery with dozens of ghoulishly civilized suspects, filtered through the eyes of a social critic.

“I keep looking for genres I haven’t done,” says Altman. “Then I try to turn them around a little bit. Audiences will see a different movie the second time, once they get past the basic plot. I’m a believer in creative details you don’t immediately notice.”

Most of the cast members — Maggie Smith, Bob Balaban, Ryan Phillippe, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam — seem born to play their roles, and Altman acknowledges “this film couldn’t have been made in America. Agents wouldn’t let their actors put in the 11 weeks. Everyone in the movie was there because they wanted to be, no one did it for the money. And our backers, Capitol and USA, were great to work with.”

Balaban, who co-produced “Gosford Park” with Altman, adds, “It’s fun, it’s clever, but it’s also deep — about class struggle, identity, a world that’s about to change. More than an exercise in who did it, it delves into the lives of the characters.”

Director John-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie,” a French echo of Audrey Hepburn’s fairy-tale vehicles such as “Sabrina” could score a nomination by satisfying Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters starved for lyrical romance and happy endings.

“I think the key to the picture’s wide popularity is sincerity,” says “Amelie” producer Claudie Ossard. “And of course, (lead actress) Audrey Tautou. Our director had chosen another actress, then she turned out to be unavailable. We were lucky!”

Ossard knows that Americans cherish a vision of Paris as perpetually beautiful, and wanted to present the city in a way that linked perfectly with audience perception.

“That’s why we worried so about the weather, the rain, because we shot so much outside,” says Ossard. “We wanted to show a Paris that’s magical, not exactly as it really is. Everything worked out, at a cost of $10 million. Not expensive for America. I was able to give Jean-Pierre whatever he wanted for the 19-week shoot. Post-production work took a year and we started the 10-month editing process during shooting.”

For those who preferred hard-hitting reality to romantic escapism, Sony offered “Ali,” a biopic of the legendary and controversial champ. Graham King, co-executive producer (with Howard Bingham), is convinced that the picture is packed with crowdpleasing, award-worthy ingredients.

“I read the script,” says King, “and found it highly commercial. The whole planet knows Muhammad Ali. I was thrilled to have Will Smith and Michael Mann onboard. A lot of people thought I was wacko doing this. African-American movies don’t usually work in the foreign market. But Ali is second in popularity to the pope.”

“Ali” took six months to shoot. King worried at first about doing “a ($100 million) movie. As a financier I was nervous, but (director) Michael (Mann) pulled it off, really achieved what he was aiming for. The Muhammad Ali story is inspiring. After Sept. 11, we don’t need to see buildings blown up. Audiences need to say, ‘I forgot for two hours what I was worried about.’ ‘Ali’ will do that for them.”

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” the highly praised box office titan, is obviously engineered to place spectators in another universe. A massive three-hour odyssey based on the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic trilogy, “Rings” is an epic that producer Barrie Osborne considers “extremely timely. The feelings are contemporary. It deals with threats to an entire civilization, different cultures. It’s a story of individual responsibility.”

“Rings'” journey to the bigscreen was filled with twists and turns, too. Star Elijah Wood wasn’t director Peter Jackson’s first choice for lead character Frodo Baggins.

“Peter wanted an English actor,” Osborne recalls. “Then he received a VHS from Elijah. Elijah was eager to be part of the picture, so he hired a dialogue coach, got a Hobbit costume and went into the woods with a friend. He recorded his own audition and sent it to us and Peter loved it.”

Osborne credits Jackson with setting up the movie and keeping firm control over all the elaborate elements.

“It was an arduous 274 shooting schedule in New Zealand, lasting a period of 15 months. We filmed in remote, rugged locations and built 15 miles of road. Often we’d have to take the road out and restore it afterward. There were more than 2,000 people on the crew. But I always remember what Warren Beatty told me. He said, ‘The two things which make a movie work are a good script and a good cast.’ I’m excited that we have both.”

Other motion pictures that could wind up competing for the top Academy prize are the ingeniously constructed “Memento,” the brutally realistic “Black Hawk Down,” the animated smash “Shrek,” and the Coen brothers’ black-and-white film noir “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” Despite carping reviews, the stratospheric B.O. of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” may influence Oscar voters to place it in the golden five.

Although 2001’s overall flock of films are highly variable in quality, the best of them demonstrate that characterization was more central to movies this year than special effects. Ron Howard sums it up:

“As visual spectacle becomes more the norm, thanks to digital technology — which is exciting as hell — it’s going to become less important. Human-connection storytelling that offers insight and thematic relevance, whether applied to an adventure tale, a thriller or a pure character piece like ‘A Beautiful Mind’ will flourish. Viewers are going to be less impressed by special effects, leaving room for humanistic stories.”

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