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Oscar bait: an early forecast

‘Producers,’ ‘Munich,’ ‘All the Kings Men,’ ‘Elizabethtown’ could vie for Oscar. By John Hartl

If the Oscars were to be held right now, the Motion Picture Academy would have to call them off. It’s been a dismal year at the box office — and for award-worthy performances and films as well.

Aside from the boxing drama “Cinderella Man,” the character-driven “Crash” and the political thriller “The Constant Gardener,” there’s very little out there that looks like traditional Oscar bait. “The Interpreter” may have appeared to be a contender for a few weeks, and even “Batman Begins” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” had their champions, but they’re widely regarded as popcorn pictures.

Fortunately, the Oscars won’t be handed out until March 5, 2006. The burden is on the fall lineup to provide the missing contestants.

Last year, all five of the best picture nominees were released after Labor Day. The big winner, Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” didn’t even appear to be in the running until around Thanksgiving, when advance screenings began to create a momentum that proved unstoppable.

Something similar could happen with Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s “Munich,” which has a huge subject (terrorism at the 1972 Munich Olympics), a remarkable cast (Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush, Mathieu Kassovitz) and an official Dec. 23 release date. It’s still in production.

Can Spielberg finish in time? Even Eastwood, who brought “Baby” in close to the wire, allowed himself more time in the editing room.

Following in ‘Chicago’s’ dancing footsteps
If Spielberg does pull it off, he may find himself competing with the movie versions of two long-running stage musicals: “Rent,” starring Taye Diggs and other members of the original Broadway cast, and “The Producers,” with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick repeating their Broadway roles as theatrical con artists who set out to create the world’s most tasteless musical. Still, not all stage musicals click on film; for every “Chicago” there’s a “Phantom of the Opera” (or two or three).

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Woody Allen’s “Match Point,” starring Scarlett Johansson as an American femme fatale in London, was so well-received at the Cannes Film Festival that it could become his first film in two decades to earn a best-picture nomination. Another Cannes smash, Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers,” won the festival’s Grand Prix, and it could earn further recognition for Jarmusch (previously ignored by the Oscar voters) and his stars, Bill Murray and Jessica Lange.

Terrence Malick is back with “The New World,” an epic about Pocahontas and explorer John Smith. Cameron Crowe, an Oscar winner (for the script of “Almost Famous”) returns with a new romance, “Elizabethtown,” that connects Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst. Also back in the director’s chair are Curtis Hanson (“In Her Shoes”) and David Cronenberg (“A History of Violence”).

Books on filmLiterary adaptations usually do well at the Oscars. Due before Christmas are new versions of “Oliver Twist,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” plus the fourth installment in the Harry Potter series, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Michael Winterbottom has taken on the considerable challenge of filming Laurence Sterne’s experimental 1761 novel, “Tristram Shandy,” starring Steve Coogan and Gillian Anderson.

“Chicago’s” director, Rob Marshall, will be back with an adaptation of Arthur Golden’s romantic epic, “Memoirs of a Geisha,” starring Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe and Gong Li. It’s due in mid-December, and so are a couple of blockbuster remakes: Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” with Adrien Brody, Jack Black and Naomi Watts as the screamer heroine, and Steve Zaillian’s adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” with Sean Penn in the Huey Long-like role that won a 1949 Oscar for Broderick Crawford.

The movie may put Penn in the running again for best actor. For competition, there’s a long list of usual suspects: Ralph Fiennes (“The Constant Gardener”), Russell Crowe (“Cinderella Man”), Joaquin Phoenix (as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line”), Kevin Costner (“The Upside of Anger”) and Jamie Foxx (from Sam Mendes’ Gulf War drama, “Jarhead”).

Jake Gyllenhaal, who co-stars with Foxx in “Jarhead,” could earn his first nomination for that film or for Ang Lee’s gay-cowboy drama, “Brokeback Mountain,” in which he plays Heath Ledger’s lover. This could also be the year of Oscar recognition for Paul Giamatti (“Cinderella Man”) and/or Peter Saarsgard, another “Jarhead” cast member, who gave a mesmerizing performance as a depressed writer in “The Dying Gaul.”

Others who could score first-time nominations include David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night. And, Good Luck” and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in “Capote.” Terrence Howard made a big impression in two high-profile pictures: “Crash” and “Hustle & Flow.” His performance in the former may be supporting, but then that applies to all the actors in “Crash,” which could land supporting nominations for Thandie Newton, Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle and/or Sandra Bullock.

Battle of the damesAs usual, there will be a hunt for five nominees to fill the best actress category. Rachel Weisz gives her most passionate performance to date in “The Constant Gardener,” Ziyi Zhang is overdue for Oscar recognition, and it’s possible that Diane Keaton (“The Family Stone”), Joan Allen (“The Upside of Anger”) and/or Charlize Theron ( “North Country”) will be in the running again. Amy Adams (“Junebug”) could provide a dark horse here.

The category could also turn into the battle of the dames: Dame Judi Dench in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (a backstage theatrical tale that is likely to be heavily promoted by producer Harvey Weinstein) vs. Dame Joan Plowright in “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” (a “Separate Tables”-like drama that still needs a distributor). While Dench already has her Oscar, Plowright has been nominated only once before (for a supporting part in “Enchanted April”), and “Mrs. Palfrey” provides her with her biggest, richest film role to date.

Michael Moore failed in his bid last year to get a best-picture nomination for “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but the surprisingly popular and much less controversial “March of the Penguins” stands a chance of becoming the first documentary to be recognized in that category. DreamWorks’ new “Wallace and Gromit” feature, due in October, looks like a contender for best animated feature. So do Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride,” due in late September, and Disney’s November release, “Chicken Little.”

Some of the year’s most acclaimed movies have had such limited exposure that they seem unlikely to register with Academy voters. Still, Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin” has earned some of the year’s most ecstatic reviews, and some critics have pulled out the stops in praising Gus Van Sant’s fictionalized Kurt Cobain movie, “Last Days.” If they collect year-end critics’ awards, they could wander into Oscar territory as well.

Opportunities for smaller films often depend on which of the official fall releases actually open in time for the Oscar deadline. Many a major-studio “December” release has been pushed into the following year, without suffering fatal consequences. If it's strong enough, “Munich” could become this year’s “The Godfather” — which didn’t make its late-1971 release date but ended up with the Oscar for best picture of 1972.