Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn't There

With the Academy Awards a few weeks away - they're scheduled to air on ABC on Sunday, March 24, at 7:30 p.m. - the nominees are currently basking in the publicity, visiting Entertainment Tonight and E! Television, making the requisite statements about how they feel lucky to be in the company of their fellow nominees, and how they feel undeserving of such an honor. Many of them should feel that way. The following are my personal preferences for nominations in the top six Oscar categories, and while there are still a few nominees I haven't yet caught up with, remember that Oscar voters don't see all the possible contenders, either.

[Note: (A) denotes an Academy Award nominee; a bold entry denotes my personal preference.]

The Man Who Wasn't There
(A) Moulin Rouge
Mulholland Drive
The Royal Tenenbaums

I'm always relatively thrilled when the annual Best Picture candidates are movies I don't hate, and Oscar voters, en masse, did the right thing this year by keeping Ridley Scott's offensive Black Hawk Down and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's aggressively self-satisfied Amélie out of the race for the big prize. I also thank them profusely for their inclusion of Moulin Rouge and can certainly see the sense in nominating Lord of the Rings and Gosford Park; both came this close to inclusion in my own top five. A Beautiful Mind is an oddity that couldn't be denied: a hugely popular disease-of-the-week movie with A-level acting and a Sixth Sense-like plot twist two-thirds of the way in. It's simultaneously extraordinary and awful - perfect Best Picture fodder. The fifth candidate, In the Bedroom, is a showcase for some very fine acting but winds up a pulpy revenge fantasy; the actors' bloc of the Academy, with the help of Miramax's notorious campaign strategists, was able to sneak it through. (That actors' branch is a powerful contingent; is it just a coincidence that the Screen Actors Guild Award nominees for Best Ensemble Cast this year mirror the Academy's Best Picture race?)

So, given the choice, I'd keep Baz Luhrmann's wizardly Moulin Rouge on the roster and replace the others with David Lynch's hypnotic Mulholland Drive, the true Best Picture of the year; Christopher Nolan's endlessly clever jigsaw puzzle Memento; Wes Anderson's hilariously stylized The Royal Tenenbaums; and the Coen brothers' brilliant noir film The Man Who Wasn't There. Each of these four works, though, were probably missing the "heart" and "purpose" you're supposed to find in a Best Picture contender (you know, the sort of heart and purpose that allow Dances with Wolves and Forrest Gump to triumph over GoodFellas and Pulp Fiction).

(A) Robert Altman (Gosford Park)
Joel Coen (The Man Who Wasn't There)
Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge)
(A) David Lynch (Mulholland Drive)
Christopher Nolan (Memento)

Win a few, lose a few: The Academy got it just right by opting for Lynch over In the Bedroom's Todd Field, and then voters go all screwy by choosing Black Hawk Down's Ridley Scott over Luhrmann. Ah, well. Sandwiched between those two polar opposites on the Academy's short list are Altman, who has rarely put his genius for ensemble direction in better service; Peter Jackson, who, amazingly, was able to put a personal stamp on Lord of the Rings and found a delicate balance between the Hollywood blockbuster and the scrappy independent; and Ron Howard, who pulled off some elegant direction in segments of A Beautiful Mind but remains, at best, a middling, populist filmmaker with no discernible style but a sure hand with actors.

It's hard to account for his nomination, and harder still to account for Scott's, when helmers Coen (who shared the Best Director prize with Lynch at last year's Cannes Film Festival) and Nolan (a Directors Guild nominee) were deprived of nods. Coen - or, more precisely, the Coens - created a mordantly funny, thrilling experience that rewrote its genre rules while celebrating them; it ranks with Fargo as their greatest accomplishment. And Nolan succeeded in pulling off the head-trip of the year. If the Best Director nomination is indeed an acknowledgement of the orchestration that goes into all aspects of a film's production, then for orchestrating such wonderful performances in such an ingenious screenplay (which he wrote, by the way) that has been edited so fluently, Nolan is a perfect choice. Or at least, he should have been.

(A) Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind)
Gene Hackman (The Royal Tenenbaums)
Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge)
Guy Pearce (Memento)
Billy Bob Thornton (The Man Who Wasn't There)

This year, Oscar voters went out of their way to champion leading actors triumphing over mediocre material. True, Crowe and In the Bedroom's Tom Wilkinson appeared in films that were, for the most part, respected as much as their performances. But despite being a sizeable hit, Training Day was a routine genre piece notable only as a Denzel Washington showcase, and Ali, somehow, was both overlong and dramatically empty, which hurt Will Smith's solid effort in the title role. (Much has been made about how great it is to finally have two African Americans represented in this category, and indeed it is. But while I enjoy both actors' work in general, neither film, nor performance, did much for me.) As for Sean Penn being cited for the loathsome I Am Sam, it's easily the stupidest nomination in this category since Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves. (Though the praise Penn and the film have received of late scares the bejeezus out of me, recently, two separate acquaintances nearly went for my throat for not loving this sickly piece of treacle.)

Crowe's gruff, emotionally direct, and technically accomplished portrayal gets my vote among the Academy's choices, and while Wilkinson is terrific, I'd still trade him and his three fellow nominees for Hackman, doing masterfully comedic work; McGregor, whose progression from starry-eyed lover to tortured artiste was both joyous and heartbreaking; Pearce, a spellbinding figure of confusion, determination, and possible madness; and best of the lot, Thornton, who gives The Man Who Wasn't There soul and humor, terror, and bewilderment, and pulls it off without seeming to do anything at all. Any actor worth his salt can play schizophrenic or mentally challenged and put you on their side. Thornton does it with a comically charged deadpan of boredom and complacency, then shocks you by revealing just how much inner life lies behind that mask of Zen-like calm.

Thora Birch (Ghost World)
(A) Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge)
Nicole Kidman (The Others)
Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive)
(A) Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones's Diary)

Two caveats: (1) As of this writing, Monster's Ball and Iris are unseen by me, so I can't yet comment on Halle Berry's and Judi's Dench's Oscar inclusions; and (2) I can't go along with the Academy's ruling that only one of Kidman's two sensational performances was eligible for top-five status; the Oscar is awarded to "the best performance by an actress in a leading role," and surely her performances in Moulin Rouge and The Others couldn't have been more different. Hey, at least she made the roster for one of them. Zellweger was a welcome surprise, and Sissy Spacek is an honorable choice for In the Bedroom, though the predictability of her character arc hampers her performance. Assuming that Berry's and Dench's accolades aren't off the mark, Best Actress will probably prove to be the year's most satisfying-as-a-whole group of nominees.

And yet ... how could the Academy overlook the phenomenal work of Naomi Watts, whose performance was the absolute best by any actor all year? Maybe some thought she was a viable Supporting Actress candidate, having won that citation from the San Diego and Las Vegas film critics associations? Maybe not enough voters stuck around for Mulholland's last 40 minutes, in which her portrayal both subverts and enriches the 90 minutes that preceded it? Maybe they did stick around and never realized the woman in the last 40 minutes was the woman in the first 90? Whatever the reason, voters missed the chance to reward this performer who, based on the post-Mulholland roles she's now landing in Hollywood, looks poised to enjoy a huge career. I'd also have opted for Birch, who had what was easily the year's finest role for a young performer and imbued her anti-heroine with gawky teenage isolation and utter contempt for phoniness. She's like a comedic, female Holden Caulfield, and Birch made her a vivid, original film presence.

Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge)
Jude Law (A.I.: Artificial Intelligence)
Joe Pantoliano (Memento)
Ving Rhames (Baby Boy)
Tony Shalhoub (The Man Who Wasn't There)

Wow, the Academy sure botched this one up. Okay, I really shouldn't make that statement; I have yet to see nominees Jim Broadbent in the aforementioned Iris and Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. I'm sure I'm not alone, though, in asking, "Ethan Hawke for Training Day? Jon Voight for Ali? What the hell's up with that?" Hawke was commendable - more believable than Washington, I thought - but his naive-kid-gets-wised-up role has been done to death, and Voight's nod is a real stumper; he pulls off his Howard Cosell impersonation ably, but you'd almost think Voight was recognized just for not sucking in a role no one should ever have considered him for. The fifth slot went to Ian McKellen as Gandalf, yet as marvelous as his line reading always are, his role is nearly as clichéd as Hawke's (and it's a cliché Tolkien himself helped create): the infinitely wise, brave, magical mentor, a precursor to Obi-Wan and Yoda. Is Gandalf a great fictional character? Yes. A great character role for an actor? Not necessarily.

As far as my own roster is concerned, I hope Broadbent is as good in Iris as he is in Moulin Rouge, because if not, he was nominated for the wrong film. His showman Harold Zidler only owes the slightest bit of gratitude to Joel Grey's Cabaret emcee; Broadbent is an absolute original, wickedly funny, lecherous, paternal, and, against all odds, tragic. And that's without even mentioning his instant-classic "Like a Virgin" showstopper. In a perfect world, he would be joined by Law, whose bravura technical turn in Stanley Spielberg's opus was the only joy on display; Pantoliano, one of modern film's most enjoyable scuzzball-sweeties; Rhames, whose every syllable suggests the hard-won life his character has led; and Shalhoub, giving his smooth-talking lawyer zeal beyond measure.

Scarlett Johansson (Ghost World)
Frances McDormand (The Man Who Wasn't There)
(A) Helen Mirren (Gosford Park)
Carrie-Anne Moss (Memento)
(A) Maggie Smith (Gosford Park)

Assuming that Iris's Kate Winslet is in her usual terrific form, Best Supporting Actress looks to be an entirely satisfactory lineup - not inspired, but satisfactory. Voters at least got it right by nominating Mirren and Smith; of Gosford Park's twenty-odd-person cast, these two probably had the richest roles and gave performances to match. A Beautiful Mind's Jennifer Connelly winds up very affecting by the movie's end, but her role seems oddly unformed; considering that her first appearance is as a student in Nash's classroom, she's obviously incredibly smart, but didn't she have any life plans outside of making eyes at her professor? In the Bedroom's Marisa Tomei is touching, but her role serves as little more than a plot function, and she disappears just when you think her character is really going to develop. Connelly and Tomei are both quite good; it's their material that's lacking.

In their place, consider these alternatives: Moss, delectably self-serving, cunning, and mysterious, and Johansson, an adolescent Dorothy Parker so whiplash-smart that she sounds bored by her own sarcastic barbs even before they've leapt out of her mouth. Johansson earns bonus points for her laconic dream teen in The Man Who Wasn't There, and speaking of which, how on Earth have critics' groups and awards organizations been ignoring that film's Frances McDormand? As a brand-new genre archetype - the femme fatale as middle-aged housefrau - McDormand has her best role since Fargo; she's witheringly funny (her exasperated "Je ... sus ... Christ!" might be the all-time best reading of that line) and oddly poignant, and accomplishes both with so little fuss that perhaps her greatness was taken for granted. In a year when Russell Crowe's and Jennifer Connely's husband-and-wife act might net them both Oscars, Thornton and McDormand are the truly unforgettable marrieds in 2001 movies.

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