It's only November, but there's already a mountain of drama building about this year's Academy Awards. Unfortunately, it's all about those darned screener copies instead of the potential nominees. Our annual Oscar status report, highlighting the top candidates in the six main races, should put the focus back where it belongs.
By all accounts, the movie to beat will likely be the third and final installment of the Tolkien trilogy, ''The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,'' which has seen a nice boost thanks to the fantastic DVD sales of the first two films. But hot on its hobbit heels will be such epics as ''Cold Mountain,'' ''The Last Samurai,'' and ''Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.'' Meanwhile, smaller films like ''Mystic River'' and ''Lost in Translation'' will try to build on their positive reviews, while ''Big Fish'' is being touted as one of the holiday season's most emotional films. The summer smash ''Seabiscuit'' will also try to gallop its way into the winner's circle. Strong performances will buoy the dark dramas ''House of Sand'' and ''Fog,'' ''21 Grams,'' and ''The Missing,'' while lighter fare like ''Something's Gotta Give,'' ''Love Actually,'' ''Calendar Girls,'' and ''Finding Nemo'' (a shoo-in for Best Animated Feature Film) will attempt to sway voters' hearts. A crowd-pleasing indie like ''Whale Rider'' or ''Bend It Like Beckham'' could make the final five. And the Holocaust-themed drama ''The Statement'' will try to equal ''The Pianist'''s Oscar success.
At the top of anyone's list must be Sean Penn, who's earned phenomenal reviews for ''Mystic River.'' But his biggest competition may be himself, since his work in this month's ''21 Grams'' is equally impressive. ''Lost in Translation'' star Bill Murray might finally score his first-ever nomination, ''House of Sand and Fog'' lead Ben Kingsley shoots for his first recognition in this category since winning in 1983 for ''Gandhi,'' and two-time supporting-actor winner Michael Caine will try for two lead citations in a row (after last year's ''The Quiet American'') with ''The Statement.'' Reteaming with his ''Talented Mr. Ripley'' director, Anthony Minghella, could earn ''Cold Mountain'' star Jude Law his second career nod, while ''Master and Commander'''s Russell Crowe and ''The Last Samurai'''s Tom Cruise are each aiming for their fourth nomination. Anthony Hopkins could make it five with ''The Human Stain,'' Robert Duvall seven for ''Open Range,'' while Jack Nicholson goes for No. 13 with ''Something's Gotta Give.'' His comedic competition will come from Jack Black in ''School of Rock,'' Johnny Depp in ''Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,'' ''The Station Agent'''s droll Peter Dinklage, and Paul Giamatti in ''American Splendor.'' Tommy Lee Jones (''The Missing'') and William H. Macy (''The Cooler'') could sneak in, while two films will each offer a pair of Best Actor candidates: ''The Return of the King,'' featuring Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood, and ''Seabiscuit,'' starring Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges.
Just months after claiming this statue for ''The Hours,'' Nicole Kidman returns with another high-profile lead role in ''Cold Mountain.'' But she'll have to fend off past winner Diane Keaton, who's earning strong advance buzz for ''Something's Gotta Give,'' and ''Mulholland Drive'' snubbee Naomi Watts, who could make good with her emotional performance in ''21 Grams.'' Recent Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly and Gwyneth Paltrow could find themselves back in the race with ''House of Sand'' and ''Fog'' and ''Sylvia,'' respectively. And recent nominees like Diane Lane (''Under the Tuscan Sun''), Samantha Morton (''In America''), Toni Collette (''Japanese Story''), and ''Calendar Girls'' duo Helen Mirren and Julie Walters may see their names on a ballot once again. Meanwhile, upstarts Evan Rachel Wood (''Thirteen''), Scarlett Johansson (''Girl With a Pearl Earring''), Sarah Polley (''My Life Without Me''), and Charlize Theron (''Monster'') are trying for their first nominations. ''In the Cut'''s Meg Ryan might be rewarded for her against-type turn, though negative reviews may hurt her chances, while sharp comedy could work Oscar magic for ''Freaky Friday'''s Jamie Lee Curtis. Cate Blanchett will need to avoid vote-splitting with her roles in ''Veronica Guerin'' and ''The Missing,'' while Uma Thurman will try to slay the competition with her turn in ''Kill Bill -- Vol. 1.'' ''Swimming Pool'''s Charlotte Rampling is hoping voters remember back to her critically acclaimed summer release. And never count out past winner Julia Roberts, who inspires a classroom of young women in ''Mona Lisa Smile.''