Written in the STARS

As a rule, surprises are the exception in the Oscar nominations. Here's a peek at what and who to expect.

February 10, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Don't expect much in the way of surprises when the Oscar nominees are announced tomorrow morning. Most of the favorites have become pretty clear, if only because they're the ones that have been raking in all the other awards for the past several weeks.

So, expect to hear the titles Chicago, The Hours and Gangs of New York a lot - which is fine, they're among the best films to come out of Hollywood during the past year, the ones members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will think of when they mark their ballots.

But that familiarity, that lack of spontaneity when it comes to picking the contenders, also has its drawbacks. It means that many quality films, many wonderful performances, will be overlooked simply because they've fallen off the voters' radar screens.

No greater crime against cinema is likely to be committed than the omission of director Phillip Noyce from the list of Best Director nominees. All Noyce did was craft not one, but two of the best films of 2002 - Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American. Unfortunately, neither has been a box-office hit, nor have they garnered much hardware during the current awards season (Michael Caine's effortlessly magnificent turn in The Quiet American has been much-lauded, but he keeps earning runner-up honors when it comes to acting).

Especially unfortunate is how much influence the Golden Globes has come to wield. The group that votes on the Globes, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, is little known and even less understood, yet a failure to earn recognition from them has doomed many an Oscar-worthy performance in recent years.

Still, there's always hope. While most of the five slots for nominees in the major categories have pretty much been filled, there's usually room for at least one variable, one welcome (or unwelcome) surprise. Here's a look at what to expect when nominations are announced.

Best Picture

Bet the mortgage on The Hours and Chicago, two late-season entries in the Oscar race - heck, just about everything award-worthy for 2002 was released in the last month of the year - that swept the Globes and have shown up on dozens of critics' "best-of" lists. Although less certain, some of the smart money also is on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Gangs of New York (which, even though it's been panned by some critics and performed poorly at the box office, is a film Martin Scorsese has poured his heart and soul into for more than a decade).

For the fifth slot, The Pianist may have the early edge (a rare example of a Cannes Palme d'Or winner that's also proving a favorite in Hollywood). The buzz behind Far From Heaven seems to have faded in recent weeks, while About Schmidt is more likely to be nominated for Best Actor than Picture.

Two dark horses could slip onto the list: Y Tu Mama Tambien, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron's hard-edged look at emerging adolescence, and Denzel Washington's crowd-pleasing Antwone Fisher. And don't forget audience favorite My Big Fat Greek Wedding; even though the nation's critics would howl, people love this movie (more likely, though, is that star and screenwriter Nia Vardalos will earn a nod for her adapted screenplay).

Best Actress

In a year that has featured a plethora of strong women's roles, the Oscar should be a toss-up between Julianne Moore as a '50s housewife not nearly as repressed as everyone thinks she is in Far From Heaven and Nicole Kidman and her fake nose as Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Also expect a nomination for Diane Lane in Unfaithful, a rare example of a movie released in the first part of the year that's still on the Oscar voters' collective mind.

Renee Zellweger for Chicago is another almost-sure thing, especially after she won the Golden Globe for actress in a comedy. Meryl Streep will probably be nominated for The Hours (she's been nominated for just about everything else she's ever done), but voters might pay more attention to her supporting performance in Adaptation.

Should the voters bypass Streep, the fifth nod could go to one of three actresses who shone in smaller, less-mainstream films: Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary (thus becoming the first actress nominated for a performance that involved considerable time in bondage) or Salma Hayek in Frida. My Big Fat Greek Wedding might sneak in here, also, with a nod for Nia Vardalos.

Best Actor

This category is also generally seen as a two-person race, between Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt (going for his record-tying fourth Oscar) and Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York (going for his second). Also likely is Nicolas Cage, who gave the performance of his career playing identical twins in Adaptation, and Richard Gere, displaying tap-dance moves no one knew he had in Chicago.

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