Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge!

Normally, at this time of year, friends will ask me what films and performances I think will be nominated for Oscars in February, and they gladly offer opinions of their own; this year, they ask me because they really don't have a clue. Are movies truly getting worse, as everyone seems to agree, or are the good ones just getting harder to find? For my money, none of 2000's releases holds a candle to 2001's Mulholland Dr., Memento, and Moulin Rouge, and in a perfect world (my perfect world, at least) all three would be front-runners for Academy Awards come March. But these are movies for very specific tastes, they didn't stick around at the cineplex for very long - I can count on one hand the number of friends who, even with my endless goading, have seen all three - and they don't have the kind of broad appeal that makes for a viable Oscar candidate; love it or hate it (and plenty of people I know hated it), last year's Gladiator at least had the feel of a Best Picture contender, and this year, there isn't one critically lauded, audience-friendly, all-things-to-all-people flick to be found yet. (Well, maybe the insanely overrated Shrek. But is it Best Picture material? Please.)

So before we launch into the holiday movie season, with sure-fire Oscar possibilities such as Spy Game, Out Cold, and Black Knight recently released (I kid, I kid ... ), let's take a look at how the Oscar race is shaping up thus far, and what potential hits might be looming right around the corner...

BEST PICTURE/DIRECTOR: By last November, everyone thought Gladiator and Erin Brockovich had good shots at Best Picture and Best Director nods; who could've guessed that, with all of 2000's high-profile holiday releases yet to be screened, they'd rack up 17 nominations - and six eventual wins - between them? And while this year's cinematic output is already better than last year's (even with the worst summertime movies in recent memory), is there any 2001 work, à la Gladiator, that could wind up Oscar's Big Victor? Probably not. So far, the best choices for nominations come saddled with huge hindrances as well. Consider the year's Most Likely: Christopher Nolan's Memento (too confusing), Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (too hyperactive), David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (too weird), Todd Field's domestic tragedy In the Bedroom (too depressing), Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (too slight), the Coen brothers' film noir The Man Who Wasn't There (too Coen brothers), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's European box-office smash Amelie (too preciously French). While there are some sensational offerings in that group, none of them has that Academy Award heft that voters seem inordinately fond of. ("Heft" meaning meaning - oft times, Academy members appear to think that a perfectly realized entertainment like Memento shouldn't dare liken itself to a Gandhi or a Schindler's List.)

Oscar voters need not fret, though; December offers several candidates with the requisite Seriousness - Michael Mann's boxing bio Ali, Ron Howard's schizophrenic-mathematician bio A Beautiful Mind, Ridley Scott's war drama Black Hawk Down, and Lasse Hallstrom's adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News. And if voters are willing to go for more unorthodox choices, we still have Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's 11, Frank Darabont's The Majestic, Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums to look forward to. There are some tremendous directors in that list of 15 possibilities, but as long as at least one member of my Nolan/Luhrmann/Lynch triumvirate sneaks through, I'll be happy.

BEST ACTOR: Despite a roster of maybes, there are only two performers, thus far, whose chances are a lock: Tom Wilkinson's vengeance-minded father in In the Bedroom, and Denzel Washington, whose crooked cop in Training Day won him critical kudos and big audiences as well. (I thought his portrayal was more of a show-offy stunt than anything else, but I'm in a distinct minority on this one.) Among the other possible options are Billy Bob Thornton, as the Coen brothers' leading dupe, in The Man Who Wasn't There, and three performances that are among my absolute favorites of the year: Kevin Kline for Life as a House, Guy Pearce for Memento, and Ewan McGregor for Moulin Rouge (if not an Oscar, how about a Grammy for his heartfelt wailing of Elton John's "Your Song"?). But it's quite possible that all six of those likely contenders will fall victim to the slew of actors whose movies have yet to open, and who are already amassing major buzz: Will Smith as Ali, Benjamin Bratt as Pinero, Sean Penn in I Am Sam, Kevin Spacey - who won't be nominated for his terrific work in K-PAX - in The Shipping News, Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, Gene Hackman in The Royal Tanenbaums, Jim Carrey in The Majestic, and last year's winner, Russell Crowe, in A Beautiful Mind. Of all the year's categories, it's quite possible that this one will feature the greatest amount of deserved nominees unfortunately left out. (Keep this in mind, Mr. Carrey, if, as usual, voters exclude you from the short list.)

BEST ACTRESS: Again, two certain contenders: Sissy Spacek, playing Tom Wilkinson's damaged wife in In the Bedroom, and the sensational Nicole Kidman, up for both her singing and dancing courtesan in Moulin Rouge and her frustrated (for very good reason) wife and mother in The Others. (I'm guessing the latter's better box office will sway her nomination, and while you'll have to search long and hard for a bigger Moulin Rouge fan, I still think she deserves it for Amenabar's ghost flick.) But even if the nomination process ended today, there would still be a roster of fine choices left over: Tilda Swinton, the deviously devoted mom in The Deep End; Renee Zellweger, who overcame the book's harumphing fans to give grace and depth to Bridget Jones's Diary; Audrey Tautou, Amelie's winsome star; and my personal favorite, Mulholland Dr.'s Naomi Watts, who gave a master class in the art of screen acting, and who gave David Lynch's dreamscape true emotional weight. (Of all the year's possible nominees, I'm rooting for her the hardest.) That's more than enough choices to fill the ballot, and here's what we still have to look forward to: Julianne Moore in The Shipping News, Michelle Pfeiffer in I Am Sam, Cate Blanchett in Charlotte Gray, Stockard Channing in The Business of Strangers, and most probable of all, Oscar darling Judi Dench for Iris, in which she plays Iris Murdoch, a brilliant novelist stricken with Alzheimer's. With an Oscar-made role and the Academy already solidly behind her - three nominations, plus a Shakespeare in Love win, in four years - how can she miss?

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