Thursday, November 10, 2005

Handicapping Oscar, Part I

As you might have noticed at movie theaters in recent weeks, more films considered award-worthy have started lighting up movie screens in preparation for the annual awards season in Hollywood. Yes, it's the time of year when Hollywood takes a step back to admire its body of work over the entire year and hand out award after award after award.
Next thing you know, we'll be in early March and the back patting, hugs and congratulatory handshakes will still be going on, culminating in the Academy Awards, to be hosted in 2006 by (insert comedian here).
Prognosticators begin making Oscar nominee lists in the summer, continuing the speculation all the way until the morning of the announcement in February, at which time the names go up on the board in Las Vegas for your gambling enjoyment. But if you'd like to do some gambling on the subject now, there's a Web site of an offshore gaming company based in St. John's, Antigua that already has odds posted on some of the races. (And no, I'm not kidding.)
Certainly, I'm no expert in award picking, but compiling a list of possible nominees now could help demonstrate a bit of the absolute predictability (and occasionally, randomness) of the selection process.
So here's a look, in no particular order, at Oscar hopefuls in the best picture race heading into the big night March 6, 2006:
"Crash" – Starring Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard and Ryan Phillippe. Featuring probably the best ensemble cast of the year, critics absolutely fell in love with writer-director Paul Haggis' vision of 24 hours in present-day Los Angeles. Being an early release in the year could hurt its chances. But then again, most who have seen it have little trouble remembering it. (Now on video/DVD)
"Cinderella Man" – Starring Russell Crowe, RenĂ©e Zellweger, Bruce McGill and Paul Giamatti. Based on the true life story of boxer Jim Braddock, who served as a inspiration for people as they lived through the Great Depression. Could it be two years in a row for boxing movies to be shown Oscar love? This film didn't do as well as expected at the box-office, but Crowe, Zellweger and director Ron Howard have all earned awards before. (On video/DVD Dec. 6)
"Jarhead" – Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper, Lucas Black and Jamie Foxx. An adaptation of the best-selling book of the same name by Anthony Swofford, Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") directs this story of a Marine sniper squad during the 1991 Gulf War. As the current war in Iraq continues, this hot-topic movie could be carried all the way to the Oscars. However, reviews from critics have been decidedly and surprisingly mixed. (Now in theaters)
"Walk the Line" – Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin and Robert Patrick. After the success of another biopic centered around a well respected musical talent ("Ray"), there should be some good vibes coming for the Johnny Cash story, starring Phoenix as the Man in Black. Witherspoon portrays longtime wife June Carter. Cash saw a resurgence late in his music career before his death in 2003, so that could bode well for this pic. (Nov. 18)
"Syriana" – Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, Michelle Monaghan, Chris Cooper and Jeffrey Wright. Featuring interweaving storylines in the style of "Traffic," that film's Oscar-winning screenwriter, Stephen Gaghan, is the writer and director of this film based on a 2002 book from a former government operative. Focused on the Middle Eastern oil industry, the film takes a critical look at the CIA's role in the war on terrorism, among other plot points. Can you say topical? (In limited release Nov. 23, wide Dec. 9)
"Memoirs of a Geisha" – Starring Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe and Michelle Yeoh. Set during World War II, director Rob Marshall ("Chicago") brings the bestselling novel from Arthur Golden to the big screen, following the life of a woman as she rises from an impoverished childhood into a highly desired geisha in Japan. The movie has a lot of elements that Oscar loves, but will it have box-office legs – another trait that Oscar covets? (Dec. 9)
"Brokeback Mountain" – Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway and Randy Quaid. Two young men meet in the summer of 1963, forging a powerful connection that impacts their lives, for good and bad, as the years pass. Ang Lee directs this tale that has picked up a lot of buzz at various film festivals, but will the subject matter be too controversial to overcome for a generally conservative Academy? (Dec. 9)
"King Kong" – Starring Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Jack Black and Andy Serkis. Assuming you already know this story, the big ape makes his triumphant return to theaters, under the guidance of Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings"). It would be easy to dismiss this film as more summer-worthy escapist popcorn-fare, if not for the talent involved. There were certainly skeptics when Jackson started the "LOTR" trilogy, but those films turned out successful in just about every way imaginable. (Dec. 14)
"Munich" – Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Geoffrey Rush. Another movie based on actual events, "Munich" tells the story of a secret Israeli squad sent to dispose of 11 Palestinians who killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Director Steven Spielberg helms his second film of the year (after this summer's "War of the Worlds"), with the credentials to make a very gripping and respectful movie, much like he did for Holocaust survivors in "Schindler's List" and World War II veterans in "Saving Private Ryan." (Dec. 23)
Part II (coming soon): A peek at the contenders for Oscar's major acting races.
– MC

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