Unlike last year at this time, when few obvious Oscar contenders had emerged, this year offers several among films that have already been released.
Most obvious among these is "Erin Brockovich," which opened in the spring. Given how difficult it usually is to scrape together five female performances worthy of mention, Julia Roberts would seem to have a better-than-fighting-chance of securing her first best actress nomination since "Pretty Woman."
And depending on the strength of the fall crop of films, the Steven Soderbergh-directed movie also has possibilities in the main-event category. For good measure, Soderbergh has another potential candidate at year's end, the independently financed "Traffic," an ensemble drama about the drug trade starring Michael Douglas.
Speaking of Douglas, in addition to "Traffic," he received high grades earlier this year for his performance as a hapless, pot-addled professor in "Wonder Boys." Although Curtis Hanson's character-driven comedy didn't succeed with audiences, Paramount Pictures is giving it another shot in theaters this fall, which could serve to refresh the film in the minds of critics, the public--and, significantly, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In addition to Douglas, the film contains fine supporting turns from Frances McDormand, Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr. that could pique voters' curiosity.
Ridley Scott's film "Gladiator," which opened in May, is the kind of good, old-fashioned epic filmmaking that could, given the mix of the competition, show up among the five best picture contenders, just as the star-making performance by Russell Crowe could propel him to the best actor finals.
For similar reasons, there was once hope for "The Patriot," although it now appears to be a longshot (it didn't do well enough with critics, historians or audiences). But Mel Gibson's title performance still might make the cut. A left-field possibility is the Hungarian-made, English-language, multi-generation family drama "Sunshine," starring Ralph Fiennes and Jennifer Ehle.
Two smaller movies that opened in the first half of the year and scored critical kudos are likely to show up on top 10 lists and critics' awards at year's end: the comedy "High Fidelity," directed by Stephen Frears and starring John Cusack, and Mike Hodges' sleeper independent hit "Croupier" with Clive Owen. Despite their critical support, both films could easily be overlooked when the major studios start spending hand over fist on Academy Award campaigns for their high-profile pictures.
Now for the crystal-ball part. Several upcoming releases have already been screened at film festivals or at early press screenings and are generating interesting comment. Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," starring Chow-Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, was very well-received this year in Cannes and just might work in the "and now for something completely different" slot--an epic martial-arts romance. The Coen brothers' Depression-era comedy with music, "O Brother Where Art Thou," starring George Clooney, also made some noise and, as they proved with "Fargo," they can push the envelope and reap Oscar gold.
The Cannes Palme d'Or winner, "Dancer in the Dark," from Lars Von Trier, also pushes the envelope--inside out. It's a musical tragedy. Critics and audiences were sharply divided on the film, though the screen debut of pop star Bjork is certainly not to be discounted, again because genuine star turns for women are usually scarce.
Another performance that was singled out in Cannes was from Willem Dafoe, who played a vampire playing an actor playing a vampire in "Shadow of the Vampire." And Neil LaBute's offbeat black comedy "Nurse Betty" picked up a screenplay prize at Cannes and won points for the central performances by Renee Zellweger and Morgan Freeman ("Nurse Betty" opened last Friday). Veteran Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn got lots of attention in director Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" (as well as for her meaty role in "The Yards"), either of which could bring her a supporting actress nod.
One of the festival's genuine sleepers was the uplifting British film "Billy Elliot," about a boy from a mining town who wants to study ballet. The film has a chance to slip into the little-engine-that-could slot at Oscar time, which happened with other offbeat British films like "My Left Foot" and "The Full Monty." The film debut of theater director Stephen Daldry ("An Inspector Calls") features only one familiar name, former Oscar nominee Julie Walters ("Educating Rita"), with Jamie Bell's work in the title role being favorably compared to Haley Joel Osment last year in "The Sixth Sense."
One film out of Sundance this year could have possibilities: "You Can Count on Me," a comedy-drama about estranged siblings, with breakout performances by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo.