×

As the New Year takes root and industry cognoscenti trade “best of” lists like so much chain mail, finding a consensus best picture for 2004 is proving to be a slippery, elusive business.

In the most wide-open awards season in years, about the best that can be hoped for is winnowing down the list of potential champs to a manageable group — and even then it’s possible a dark horse could ride in from out of the frame.

Along the way, two schools of thought have developed on where the winner could ultimately come from. The first says it will be one of the projects that solidify the rep of an established filmmaker.

That includes Clint Eastwood, who followed last year’s “Mystic River” with “Million Dollar Baby,” another lean drama with heart, soul and a calm center where actors can realize their potential.

With “The Aviator,” Martin Scorsese proved he can work on an epic budget without sacrificing his highly personal take on character and masterful grasp of the cinematic language.

Writer-director Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” meanwhile, has gleaned the year’s most rhapsodic reviews. The $16 million wine-country misadventure with a smart script, no-name cast and a generous serving of humanity earned a clutch of Golden Globe nominations, landed top honors among the New York and L.A. film critics and was included on countless 10-best lists.

Then there are those who insist 2004 will be remembered for its preponderance of biopics, and suggest best picture honors could be taken by one of the films in this group.

A leading candidate could be “Ray.” The portrait of R&B giant Ray Charles rides on the shoulders of Jamie Foxx and is driven by sheer energy, bravado and highly charged musical numbers (think “Chicago”).

Other biopics measure the tectonic shift in culture (“Kinsey”), transport us to another time period while celebrating mankind’s better nature (“Finding Neverland”) or document the formative experiences of a man who would become a controversial world figure (“The Motorcycle Diaries”).

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Closer” don’t fall into either category, but a collection of strong performances give both films an outside shot.

Then there’s “The Incredibles,” which has shown a stunningly high degree of craft while cleaning up at the box office. It proves a movie can appeal to all ages while pushing the cinematic envelope. The fact that its story deals with universal, albeit adult, themes of spiritual ennui when confronted with the suffocating trap of conformity makes its fantasy all the more absorbing.

THE AVIATOR
Distributor: Miramax
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 169 min.
Producers: Sandy Climan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Charles Evans Jr., Graham King, Michael Mann
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: John Logan
Release date: Dec. 17
Opening weekend B.O.: $831,124
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $20,778
B.O. cume-to-date: $31,541,390
2004 award noms: Golden Globes (drama), Broadcast Film Critics Assn. (picture), PGA; SAG (ensemble acting)

ETERNAL SUNSHINE…
Distributor: Focus Features
Rating: R
Running time: 108 min.
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Steve Golin
Director: Michel Gondry
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Release date: March 19
Opening weekend B.O.: $8,175,198
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $6,042
B.O. cume-to-date: $34,126,138
2004 award noms: Golden Globes (musical or comedy); Broadcast Film Critics Assn. (picture)

FINDING NEVERLAND
Distributor: Miramax
Rating: PG
Running time: 106 min.
Producers: Nellie Bellflower, Richard N. Gladstein
Director: Marc Forster
Writer: David Magee
Release date: Nov. 12
Opening weekend B.O.: $220,524
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $27,566
B.O. cume-to-date: $11,683,573
2004 award noms: Golden Globes (drama); PGA; SAG (ensemble acting)
2004 award wins: National Board of Review; Broadcast Film Critics Assn. (family film)

THE INCREDIBLES
Distributor: Buena Vista
Rating: PG
Running time: 115 min.
Producer: John Walker
Director/Writer: Brad Bird
Release date: Nov. 5
Opening weekend B.O.: $70,467,623
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $17,917
B.O. cume-to-date: $226,731,973
2004 award noms: Golden Globes (musical or comedy); Annie Awards; PGA
2004 award wins: National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle, Broadcast Film Critics Assn. (ani-mated film)

KINSEY
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Rating: R
Running time: 118 min.
Producer: Gail Mutrux
Director: Bill Condon
Writer: Bill Condon
Release date: Nov. 12
Opening weekend B.O.: $169,038
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $33,808
B.O. cume-to-date: $3,772,719
2004 award noms: Golden Globes (drama); Independent Spirit Awards: Broadcast Film Critics Assn.

MILLION DOLLAR BABY
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Running time: 132 min.
Rating: PG-13
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Paul Haggis, Tom Rosenberg, Albert S. Ruddy
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Paul Haggis
Release date: Dec. 15
Opening weekend B.O.: $177,776
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $22,222
B.O. cume-to-date: $1,044,149
2004 award noms: Golden Globes (drama); Broadcast Film Critics Assn.; PGA; SAG (ensemble acting)

RAY
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 152 min.
Producers: Howard Baldwin. Karen Elise Baldwin, Stuart Benjamin, Taylor Hackford
Director: Taylor Hackford
Writer: James L. White
Release date: Oct. 29
Opening weekend B.O.: $20,039,730
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $9,990
B.O. cume-to-date: $68,079,675
2004 award noms: Golden Globes (musical or comedy); Broadcast Film Critics Assn.; SAG (ensemble acting)

THE SEA INSIDE
Distributor: Fine Line Features
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 125 min.
Producers: Fernando Bovaria, Emiliano Otegui, Alejandro Amenabar
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Writers: Amenabar, Mateo Gil
Release date: Dec. 17
Opening weekend B.O.: $55,000
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $2,391
B.O. cume-to-date: $142,474
2004 award noms: Independent Spirit Awards (foreign film)
2004 award wins: Broadcast Film Critics Assn. (foreign-language film)

SIDEWAYS
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Rating: R
Running time: 127 min.
Producer: Michael London
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Payne, Jim Taylor
Release date: Oct. 22
Opening weekend B.O.: $207,042
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $51,760
B.O. cume-to-date: $12,759,217
2004 award noms: Golden Globes (musical or comedy); Independent Spirit Awards; SAG (ensemble acting)
2004 award wins: New York Film Critics Circle; Broadcast Film Critics Assn. (picture; acting ensemble)

VERA DRAKE
Distributor: Fine Line Features
Rating: R
Running time: 125 min.
Producer: Simon Channing-Williams
Director: Mike Leigh
Writer: Mike Leigh
Release date: Oct. 10
Opening weekend B.O.: $13,207
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $6,604
B.O. cume-to-date: $1,923,886*
2004 award noms: 0