So much for conventional wisdom and all that buzz. When we asked three Academy insiders to give us a peek at their Oscar ballots, front-runner Chicago and sentimental favorite Martin Scorsese failed to razzle-dazzle 'em. Of course, statistically speaking, the opinions of three little Academy players probably won't matter -- there are a whopping 5,816 eligible Academy voters. But hearing how our director, screenwriter, and producer (all middle-aged males and anonymous here due to the Academy's hush-hush voting policy) arrived at their choices makes predicting who'll get ''the precious'' that much more perplexing.
Our director is a relative newcomer to the Academy, but having guided an actress to a recent Oscar victory, he knows a thing or two about winning -- not that it made voting any easier. Three of his favorite 2002 films -- Catch Me if You Can (''confident''), Road to Perdition (''beautiful''), and Far From Heaven (''adventurous'') -- were not in the running.
BEST PICTURE THE HOURS Though entertained by Chicago, our director felt it was more revival than reinvention. ''I was not knocked backward by the film the way many other people were,'' he explains. ''It didn't strike me as the most adventurous or daring movie of the year.'' Though unexpectedly captivated by The Pianist, he doesn't think it should have made the final five. Ditto on Gangs of New York, which he terms a ''stylish mishmash. It's chaotic and unsure of itself.'' If Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her had been in the running, he would be voting for that pic. But since it isn't, he's settled for The Hours, which ''was a commanding, bold, powerfully acted, ambitious movie that wasn't like anything I had seen before.''
BEST ACTOR NICOLAS CAGE, ADAPTATION So what if it's the underdog choice? Our director just can't get Cage's twin brothers out of his mind. ''This is a category with a bunch of great performances, but I was blown away by Cage,'' he says. ''He made all the script gimmicks work and feel effortless. It was very refreshing because he has been in a lot of macho war pictures, and I forgot how wonderfully funny he is.'' Three others were also worthy -- Adrien Brody, whom he'd like to work with, Michael Caine, who's ''a genius,'' and, of course, Jack Nicholson -- but he thought Daniel Day-Lewis overdid it. ''He is an amazing actor, but I felt the ghost of De Niro over him. There were times that I thought he was doing a Bob De Niro impression.''
BEST ACTRESS NICOLE KIDMAN, THE HOURS ''I'm a little torn because I really adore Julianne Moore, who was magnificent in Far From Heaven,'' he says. ''But Nicole was really magnificent -- indescribably so.'' And though he narrowly chose Kidman over Moore, he didn't consider voting for Moore in the supporting-actress category for The Hours. (He checked off Kathy Bates for About Schmidt.) ''Of the women in The Hours, I didn't think Julianne was the strongest. Maybe it was the order I saw the movies in. In The Hours, I felt like she was reprising her Heaven role as the stilted, repressed '50s housewife, but in a different neighborhood.''