Oscar wilder than ever

Kudos picture still foggy sans frontrunners

Awards season is in full swing, and there are a load of contenders for best film performances, production design, music and special effects. It’s the small matter of best picture that is dividing everyone.

In normal years, each new announcement of awards or nominations is supposed to narrow the field, and clarify the top contenders for Academy Awards attention. This year, each announcement only muddies the picture: Distant long-shots are honored, while serious contenders are ignored.

In American Film Institute nominations, unveiled Dec. 17, no film did better than Columbia’s “Black Hawk Down,” which grabbed five noms. A few days later, that same film was completely shut out of the Golden Globe nominations.

At Time magazine, Richard Corliss rated “Moulin Rouge” the second-best picture of the year while his colleague Richard Schickel rated “Moulin Rouge” as the worst.

As recently as November, there was buzz about unseen titles “Ali” and “The Shipping News.” But in the flurry of film prizes last week, these pics were easily overshadowed by films that had been hanging around with only minor buzz, such as “Mulholland Drive” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

“Everyone was counting on these big end-of-the-year films and they’re not delivering,” Paramount Classics co-prexy David Dinerstein said. “People are now digging back into what they saw in August and saying, ‘Remember that film? That was pretty good.’ ”

Dinerstein’s colleague Ruth Vitale added, “It reminds me a bit of 1996, when there were a lot of smaller films like ‘Shine’ and ‘Secrets and Lies.’ ”

While kudos confusion is not exactly a new phenomenon, it seems to be reaching new extremes this year.

Suddenly, Naomi Watts is getting more best actress mentions than Judi Dench. “Monster’s Ball” is scaring up more attention than “Monsters, Inc.” And Warner Bros. is getting more traction with “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” than with “The Majestic.”

In addition to announcements from AFI and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., last week saw kudos from the Intl. Press Academy, the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., and critics orgs in New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Boston and Toronto.

Their choices were wide-ranging, to say the least. But if awards watchers are confused, they’re certainly avid in their convictions.

“Moulin Rouge,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “In the Bedroom,” “Ali,” “Amelie,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Mulholland Drive,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” — all have fans who are vehement in their admiration; all have detractors who are equally rabid.

As the critics sat down to hash out their faves for their annual best-of-the-year kudos, the debates got very animated. That intensity is similarly reflected in conversations among industry workers (and kudos voters).

Part of this is because there is no single film to focus on. In some years, there have been groundswells of enthusiasm for one film (like “Schindler’s List” or “Titanic”). So fans of other contenders were relatively mute, knowing their favorite didn’t have a chance.

Even last year, which was similarly derided for its supposed lack of Oscar bounty, gave us “Erin Brockovich” and “Gladiator” by the halfway point. December releases “Traffic,” “Cast Away” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” also seemed like locks for at least a couple of categories.

This year, as one freelance campaigner put it, “There are very few titles from the Golden Globes list that seem absolutely certain to carry that momentum over into the Oscars.”

The free-for-all has enabled each vocal faction to see an opportunity to make its case.

Some years are lucky enough to have two films with intense loyalists (“Titanic” vs. “L.A. Confidential”; “Shakespeare in Love” vs. “Saving Private Ryan”). This year, there is no two camps. There are a dozen camps.

The ‘Shrek’ phenom

Actually, there are a handful of films that fit the traditional profile of a best-pic Oscar winner: big box office, critical success and an ability to maintain its heat long after it’s opened. And one of those pics is “Shrek.” Most people remain enthused about the film seven months after it bowed. And it’s one of the year’s few offerings that won over a vast majority of viewers.

But a best pic nominee? Many in Hollywood shrug that toons finally have their own category, so there’s no need to honor one in the Big Race. Plus, the bulk of Oscar voters are actors who don’t often thrill to that for which they cannot audition.

But since a lot of foreign films in recent years have been nominated in both their own race and the Big Race (“Il Postino,” “Life is Beautiful,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), it’s possible. And if ever there was a year to break the odds, this is it.

Other films are loved and hated for the same reasons.

Fans and detractors alike describe “Black Hawk Down” as a two-hour version of the first 20 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.” Supporters enthuse that it’s a cinematic breakthrough, giving viewers an in-your-face re-creation of what war is really like. Hecklers find it unrelenting and exhausting. Its advantage is its timeliness. It’s the only film that addresses current concerns about warfare.

“Moulin Rouge” is a real original — a little too original for some. Many have embraced it for its audacity and for reviving and reinventing the musical genre, but others find it frenzied. (Some who were negative the first time found that they liked it much better on second viewing; Fox’s challenge is to get these skeptics to see it again.) Its advantage: it’s audacious, entertaining and wildly creative, and those who like it really like it.

Even “In the Bedroom,” which has won several citations from critics groups, is lamented by some as contrived and slow-moving.

But others enthuse that it’s a great example of adult filmmaking, with natural, to-the-bone writing and performances. Its advantage: It’s the kind of film that puts the emphasis on script and actors, which is often embraced by Academy voters, the vast majority of whom are actors.

Fox chairman Tom Rothman, whose point of view is admittedly colored by the studio’s stake in “Moulin Rouge,” believes the Oscars will ultimately be doled by members looking for something fresh.

“The year has not been as desultory as people think,” he says. “A consensus is building around several pictures.”

Other divisions abound

Similar splits divide every other film in serious contention. But a split doesn’t diminish the film’s Oscar chances. Past best-pic nominees like “Fargo,” “The Thin Red Line,” “Shine” and “Chocolat” similarly divided people into love it/hate it camps. Same is true of “Braveheart” and “The English Patient” — and they both went on to win the best-pic prize.

And no film needs unanimous approval to gain an Oscar nomination. With five nominees, a pic needs only 21% of the vote to win the top prize.

On the other hand, not everything in the Oscar race can be reduced to love it/hate it factions. In many cases, there’s lack of enthusiasm for anything.

One Academy voter says it’s a problem to come up with best film contenders.

“This is the first year I remember when we’re not whittling it down to five from seven or eight potential films; we’re building it up from one or two.”

The legacy question

Academy voters this year have a special burden: Oscar’s legacy. Film awards are like tiny time capsules, cementing for future generations what the film business and the world were thinking.

In a year of strike fears, the recession and, of course, Sept. 11, it’ll be interesting to see which five films are chosen to reflect 2001, the first year of the new millennium. Not everyone, of course, believes the year has altered the race.

“There’s the same diversity there was last year,” shrugged Chris McGurk, vice chairman of MGM, which hopes the kudos sun shines on “Ghost World” and “Legally Blonde.” “It’s still the movie business, it’s still moving forward. I think you’re trying to find a story where there isn’t one.”

For all the talk about B.O. bumps and the business aspects of Oscar, it’s still the ultimate industry accolade, the unquantifiable measure of which pics struck the most fancies. So voters have to decide: What’s the best of the best this year?

All this provides clues for the ultimate film accolade: Oscar. But as Oscar mavens sort through the evidence, there are too many clues to come up with a reasonable conclusion.

That’s not to say that all this attention is useless. As veteran producer David Brown once told Daily Variety, “Awards are like chicken soup. They can’t hurt.”

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