Oscars are still up in the air, with no frontrunner in sight

As Oscar season comes into full swing, one can’t help but notice the lack of a true frontrunner. This year we are certainly lacking a “Return of the King” or “Titanic,” whose critical reception and wide appeal carried them both to record-tying sweeps of 11 awards. Indeed, 2004 may go down in Academy Awards history as somewhat of a free-for-all — a possibility that could open the doors to more unconventional films being nominated for big awards.

Earlier in the year, the buzz was deafening for Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” a biopic about the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. Its main competition seemed to be from Oliver Stone’s epic, “Alexander,” with Colin Farrell donning the duds of the great Greek ruler. Also said to be in contention were Focus Features’ “Vanity Fair,” based on the William Makepeace Thackeray novel; Mike Nichols’ “Closer,” an upcoming drama surrounding the dynamics between two couples; and James L. Brooks’ comedy “Spanglish,” a second attempt (after 2002’s “Punch Drunk Love”) at proving that Adam Sandler can in fact act.

These early favorites have not fared as well, however, as the year has progressed. The growing hype for “The Aviator” is strikingly reminiscent of that surrounding Scorsese’s last film, “Gangs of New York,” which, perhaps unfairly, lost much of its steam later in the year, with not one of its 10 nominations resulting in a gold statuette. Stone’s “Alexander,” too, is anything but a sure thing: Early reports claim that the film lends itself more to the overblown “Troy” than to the grand and stirring “Gladiator,” Best Picture winner of 2000. “Spanglish” seems to have almost no hype going for it at this point, and “Vanity Fair,” released in September, was met with lukewarm critical reception and indifference by moviegoers en masse.

So what does this mean? In a recent cover story in Newsweek, reviewer Sean Smith noted that this falling-by-the-wayside of early frontrunners could present a more compelling case for the year’s most controversial — and, supposedly, most important — films, “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” He even proposed that were neither of them nominated for Best Picture, many would be turned off from the Academy Awards; this, possibly, would be proof that the awards were completely blind to the societal impact of mainstream films, only catering to the interests of aging white men with neatly pressed bow ties and vintage cigars.

Well, I say he’s wrong. “The Passion,” despite its worldwide impact, was hardly well-received by critics, and “Fahrenheit”– whose main claim to fame was its influence on the American voting public — may go down merely as an outrageous yet entertaining piece of modern muckraking. Neither will be nominated for the big prize come Oscar night.

So what will?

Though nothing is set in stone, expect “The Aviator” to come through with a nomination; its re-creation of old Hollywood will be too good for the Academy to dismiss. Miramax’s “Finding Neverland,” with Johnny Depp as “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie, will also likely secure a spot in the final five. “Closer,” too, may find its way into the Best Picture category, representing a smaller, more contemporary film with a great cast (think “In the Bedroom”).

Fighting for a biopic slot aside “Neverland” will be Bill Condon’s “Kinsey,” with Liam Neeson as the influential sex researcher, and Taylor Hackford’s “Ray,” which may actually get more attention for Jamie Foxx’s astounding transformation than for the film as a whole. “The Phantom of the Opera” will appeal to the Academy for the same reason “Moulin Rouge” did, and for the same reason “Chicago” won in 2002.

And last but not least, Alexander Payne’s bittersweet critical darling “Sideways” will aim to take the indie spot in the final five occupied last year by “Lost in Translation.”

It’s hard to be impartial when predicting the nominations of Hollywood’s biggest night. With such a wide array of excellence represented by films released in this (or any) year, it’s somewhat disheartening to try to objectify their greatness. Yet there are still surprises, dark horses, little engines that could. There are still films like Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” that we root for, that we remember, even amid the throng of Oscar bait in these last few months.

We can only hope that such rays of cinematic light don’t pass under the radar — that, indeed, the memories of the almighty Academy’s old white men haven’t been erased.

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