A girl skims rooftops like a dandelion seed – then destroys a dozen men in a kung-fu-filled barroom brawl. Business as usual in the martial-arts romance Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a crowd-pleasing popcorn flick – from the director of Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm – whose dialogue is entirely in Mandarin. This eyebrow-knitting description of the film encapsulates this year’s Oscar race perfectly: No one knows quite what to make of it. Ang Lee’s Taiwanese import, which stars Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat, is positively gilded in critical praise. Yet while it could garner a Best Picture nomination (or a nod for Best Foreign Language Film, or both), it’s no sure thing. And those last three words form a fitting theme for the current contest.
”It’s more wide open than last year,” marvels strategist Tony Angellotti, an Oscar campaign vet who’s handling Universal’s and Miramax’s hopefuls this year. ”There’s no consensus. Every [major] critics’ group has picked something different.” And that makes Feb. 13, the date nominations are announced, guaranteed to supply some awww-inspiring upsets.
Part of the loosey-goosey nature of the contests can be attributed to 2000’s roster of films. ”I think they’re actually just going to cancel the Oscars,” says one marketing exec, sighing. ”It was a weak year.” Consider: When Erin Brockovich opened in March, its Oscar buzz was nearly drowned out by naysayers who harped that the movie would be forgotten over the following months. Yet at year’s end, it was still sitting pretty. Similarly, concerns that last summer’s Gladiator lacked the necessary gravitas for the Academy have been hushed. Now it’s seen as this year’s Braveheart. ”I can’t say we were thinking about Oscars when we were making it,” laughs DreamWorks production chief Walter Parkes. ”But we certainly tried to make the best gladiator movie we could.”
Even the traditional Oscar movie season – September to year’s end – failed to tighten the race. Would-be contenders like Pay It Forward and The Legend of Bagger Vance proved to be non-starters. To quote Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable: ”It’s a mediocre time.” (And don’t expect that jaggedly received film to grab half as many nods as did The Sixth Sense, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 effort, which garnered six.)
One studio’s upset is another’s big break – to promote a movie that in other years might have been overlooked. All of the roughly 5,700 eligible Academy voters determine the Best Picture nominees (for categories like Best Director or Actor, only peers vote in the nomination round). Which means that for the studios vying for top honors – and in this gold-rush atmosphere, most are – marketing is crucial.
Paramount Classics has big plans for the small-scale You Can Count on Me, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner that glitters all the more in this year’s field. Says company copresident David Dinerstein: ”When we acquired it, we never imagined people would be saying ‘You have a shot at Best Picture.”’