LOS ANGELES — The Academy Awards are shaping up as a literal horse race.
Sweeping spectacle and historical pageantry — featuring tons of horse flesh — could dominate the ceremony Feb. 29. Everyone from jockeys and Hobbits to samurai and Civil War combatants are saddled up for a run at Oscar gold.
Among the top contenders: the fantasy epic “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” the Civil War saga “Cold Mountain,” the racehorse drama “Seabiscuit” and the 19th century warrior tales “The Last Samurai” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”
More intimate contemporary dramas produced many of the year’s finest performances, including “Mystic River, “21 Grams,” “In America,” “Lost in Translation” and “House of Sand and Fog.”
Oscar nominations come out Jan. 27. The rundown of possible contenders in major categories:
The top prize should come down to Frodo in Middle-earth vs. Odysseus in the Confederacy.
Peter Jackson has scored back-to-back best-picture nominations with his J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation, and “Return of the King” is certain to make it three straight. The final chapter follows Hobbit Frodo Baggins’ desperate attempt to destroy a ring of ultimate evil.
But will Oscar voters crown a fantasy flick as the year’s best? Such fanciful tales rarely are taken seriously enough to get nominated, and no fantasy film has ever won.
Still, there’s never been anything like “The Lord of the Rings,” one of the most lavish spectacles in cinema history, whose three parts were shot simultaneously and rushed into theaters just a year apart. Academy members might lean toward “Return of the King” for best picture as a collective prize for the entire trilogy.
Traditional Oscar wisdom should make Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain” the front-runner, though. Adapted from Charles Frazier’s Civil War best seller, “Cold Mountain” is a re-imagining of Homer’s “The Odyssey” as a wounded Confederate deserter (Jude Law) wends his way home to his sweetheart (Nicole Kidman).
“Cold Mountain” has the weighty drama, tragic romance and historical sweep that often click with Oscar voters. And it has something to offer every branch of the academy: A tremendous ensemble cast, passionate dialogue, lovely music, artful editing and cinematography, sumptuous sets and costumes.
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Since Minghella already has a Best Director Oscar for “The English Patient,” which also took the Best Picture honor, academy voters might split their ballots. “Cold Mountain” could come away as best picture, with Jackson taking directing honors for his monumental “Lord of the Rings” achievement.
Two other epics could creep into the best-picture mix, Peter Weir’s Napoleonic-era naval tale “Master and Commander” and Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai,” an East-West culture clash set in 19th century Japan.
Among more contemporary films, the strongest contender looks to be Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” a somber drama of murder, remorse and suspicion centering on three reunited childhood friends. “Mystic River” is Eastwood’s finest work since “Unforgiven” earned him best-picture and director Oscars.
Other possibilities: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “21 Grams,” a stark rumination on mortality, grief and vengeance; Gary Ross’ buoyant “Seabiscuit,” the story of the Depression-era racehorse that captivated the nation; Tim Burton’s “Big Fish,” a fanciful reunion story between a grandiloquent father and his down-to-earth son; “In America,” Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical story about an Irish family in New York City; and Nancy Meyers’ “Something’s Gotta Give,” a romantic comedy about a woman in her 50s wooed by a 60-something and a 30-something man.
A handful of other acclaimed smaller films — “Lost in Translation,” “House of Sand and Fog,” “The Station Agent,” “American Splendor” and “Girl With a Pearl Earring” — probably will not have the clout to compete for best picture but could score nominations in acting, writing and technical categories.
As with Best Picture, this looks to be a two-man race between Anthony Minghella for “Cold Mountain” and Peter Jackson for “The Return of the King.”
Clint Eastwood can figure on a nomination for “Mystic River.”
Other possibilities: Peter Weir, “Master and Commander”; Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “21 Grams”; Tim Burton, “Big Fish”; Jim Sheridan, “In America”; Gary Ross, “Seabiscuit”; and Edward Zwick, “The Last Samurai.”
Women historically fare poorly, with only two female directors ever earning nominations. Still, Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation” and Nancy Meyers for “Something’s Gotta Give” might have longshot prospects.
Sean Penn has two great performances in the running, a plus and minus for his prospects. Penn plays a reformed hoodlum out for revenge over his daughter’s death in “Mystic River” and a dying man who gets a second chance with a heart transplant in “21 Grams.”
The two roles could split Penn’s support and leave him short of votes for a nomination on either film. But if he manages a nomination for one or the other (Oscar rules allow actors to be nominated only once in the same category), Penn could become the front-runner to win on the strength of both performances.
Other possibilities: Jude Law, “Cold Mountain”; Bill Murray, “Lost in Translation”; Russell Crowe, “Master and Commander”; Ben Kingsley, “House of Sand and Fog”; Jack Nicholson, “Something’s Gotta Give”; Tom Cruise, “The Last Samurai”; Tommy Lee Jones, “The Missing”; Michael Caine, “The Statement”; Jeff Bridges and Tobey Maguire, “Seabiscuit”; Ewan McGregor, “Big Fish”; Johnny Depp, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”; Colin Firth, “Girl With a Pearl Earring”; William H. Macy, “The Cooler”; and Robert Duvall, “Open Range.”
Last winter’s top prize winners from the Sundance Film Festival produced two of the year’s finest male performances: Peter Dinklage as a train-obsessed dwarf in “The Station Agent” and Paul Giamatti as gloomy comic writer Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor.”
But with such a strong lineup of bigger names in bigger films, it’s questionable whether Dinklage or Giamatti could grab enough votes for nominations.
Grim, grimmer, grimmest sums things up for three potential nominees, Jennifer Connelly, Naomi Watts and Charlize Theron.
Connelly, a Best Supporting Actress winner for “A Beautiful Mind,” delivers a fierce performance in the bleak “House of Sand and Fog” as a woman battling to regain a home lost in a tax foreclosure.
Watts is a bundle of fury and sorrow in “21 Grams,” playing a woman who moves from grieving to vengeful over the deaths of her husband and children.
Theron is absolutely ferocious in “Monster,” playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a hitchhiking prostitute executed last year in Florida. For the unflinching role, Theron obliterated her cover-girl beauty, packing on 25 to 30 pounds and disguising herself behind dark contact lenses, fake teeth and a splotched complexion.
Watts’ pal Nicole Kidman, last year’s winner for “The Hours,” is a strong contender for her third-straight best-actress nomination with “Cold Mountain,” playing a china-doll Southern belle who learns self-reliance amid the Confederacy’s collapse.
Other possibilities: Diane Keaton, “Something’s Gotta Give”; Cate Blanchett, “The Missing” or “Veronica Guerin”; Julia Roberts, “Mona Lisa Smile”; Samantha Morton, “In America”; Scarlett Johansson, “Girl With a Pearl Earring”; Helen Mirren, “Calendar Girls”; Patricia Clarkson, “The Station Agent”; Diane Lane, “Under the Tuscan Sun”; Meg Ryan, “In the Cut”; and Gwyneth Paltrow, “Sylvia.”
Two lost souls might lead the way. Tim Robbins gives a career performance as a man emotionally shackled by childhood trauma in “Mystic River.”
Benicio Del Toro, a Best Supporting Actor winner for “Traffic,” adds another tremendous role in “21 Grams,” playing an ex-con whose stab at going straight collapses in tragedy.
Other possibilities: Last year’s winner, Chris Cooper, for “Seabiscuit”; Albert Finney, “Big Fish”; Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen and Sean Astin, “Return of the King”; Ken Watanabe, “The Last Samurai”; Kevin Bacon, “Mystic River”; Djimon Hounsou, “In America”; Paul Bettany, “Master and Commander”; Alec Baldwin, “The Cooler”; Bill Nighy, “Love Actually”; and Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Cold Mountain.”
Like her co-star Kidman, Renee Zellweger of “Cold Mountain” stands to earn her third-straight Oscar nomination. This could be her year to win, playing a salt-of-the-earth handy-woman with great heart and humor.
There also are possibilities for some child actors, who historically have had their best Oscar prospects in the Best Supporting Actress category. In the running could be Keisha Castle-Hughes for “Whale Rider” and Sarah Bolger for “In America.”
Other possibilities: Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney, “Mystic River”; Melissa Leo, “21 Grams”; Scarlett Johansson, “Lost in Translation”; Shohreh Aghdashloo, “House of Sand and Fog”; Emma Thompson, “Love Actually”; Miranda Otto, “Return of the King”; Julie Walters, “Calendar Girls”; Patricia Clarkson, “Pieces of April”; Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Mona Lisa Smile”; Hope Davis, “American Splendor”; Holly Hunter, “Thirteen”; Christina Ricci, “Monster”; and Marie-Jose Croze, “The Barbarian Invasions.”
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