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Best Picture

As wide open as many observers considered last year’s Best Picture race, there was one film – American Beauty – that everyone conceded was a lock for a nomination. This year it’s difficult to call anything a shoo-in. As many holiday films expand to more theaters, any of 14 contenders could feasibly end up in the final five. The closest thing to a no-brainer is GLADIATOR, a $187 million-earning summer blockbuster that holds up mightily after topping the Golden Globe list with five nods. It tied with TRAFFIC, which, boasting a strong ensemble cast (including potential nominees Benicio Del Toro and Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Steven Soderbergh’s unique direction, also seems a sure thing – unless voters find its pessimistic attitude toward the drug war a downer. ERIN BROCKOVICH, also directed by Soderbergh, is more conventional but no less compelling, and should make the grade despite its early-2000 release. And with its wild combination of physics-defying action and vivid romance, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON should overcome a few obstacles, chiefly its subtitles, to become the seventh foreign-language film ever to land a Best Picture berth.

The fifth selection is a bit tougher to predict. Miramax’s CHOCOLAT has many Academy-friendly ingredients – two Oscar-winning actresses, beautiful scenery, a fanciful plotline – but it may be perceived as too manufactured according to the Miramax formula. Likewise, Gus Van Sant’s FINDING FORRESTER seems very reminiscent of his Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, but negative comparisons (and a complete Golden Globe shutout) cripple its chances.

Critical faves YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, ALMOST FAMOUS, and WONDER BOYS will likely earn recognition in the acting and screenplay categories but may be considered too small for the top award. The three-hour multigenerational epic SUNSHINE scored surprising Best Picture and Best Director Golden Globe nods but has too much ground to make up and a big stack of voter cassettes to compete against. And the Marquis de Sade celebration QUILLS may qualify as too…dirty. Knowing that Oscar often finds himself in a sentimental mood, a nomination could go to the effectively heartwarming BILLY ELLIOT, which is unlikely to offend a single voting member. But we’re betting that if Tom Hanks could squeak a Best Picture nod by sharing screen time with a magical mouse, his performance opposite that volleyball in CAST AWAY should be an Oscar spike.

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for your consideration

We know Kevin Costner’s Bah-ston accent is a bit jarring at times. But that shouldn’t discourage anyone from appreciating Roger Donaldson’s complex and riveting Cuban Missile Crisis thriller THIRTEEN DAYS. Thanks to David Self’s comprehensive yet brisk script and commanding performances by Costner, Bruce Greenwood, and Steven Culp, it’s the rare historical drama that satisfies not only war buffs but also the clueless.