And then there were five. This Sunday at the Academy Awards, “Chocolat,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Gladiator” and “Traffic” will battle it out for the Best Picture statuette. The quest for the award has developed into a three horse race, with “Chocolat” and “Erin Brockovich” having little hope of winning.

Paul Wong
Daughter of the newly appointed drug czar Caroline Wakefield (Erika Christensen) and boyfriend Seth Abrahams (Topher Grace) post a nice fake to get the goods in Steven Soderbergh”s “Traffic.” While “Traffic” was Christensen”s breakthrough role, co-star Gr

The fact that “Chocolat” was nominated came as a surprise to many and has been attributed more to the renowned Miramax marketing machine than the merits of the film. The Academy will view the nomination as more than generous, especially considering the heat that they have taken over it.

“Erin Brockovich” is another curious choice, as it boils down to little more than a “based on a true story” (which has been trumpeted as if it makes the film good) star vehicle for Julia Roberts, where she can wear tight clothes, show off her breasts and be tart and sassy with anyone who messes with her. Roberts is considered a lock to win the Best Actress award and this should satisfy voter”s inexplicable desire to reward the film. “Brockovich” also suffers from the fact that it and “Traffic” were both directed by Steven Soderbergh, which many believe will lead to the two splitting votes by those who wish to recognize the director and his body of work over the past year.

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” will win awards, but voters are more likely to distinguish the Taiwanese import for Best Foreign Language Film and its director, Ang Lee in the Best Director category. It”s sad but not that unusual that the Academy believed the hype surrounding this film and passed over the far-superior “Yi yi” in both the Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film categories.

Yes, the fight scenes in “Crouching Tiger” are amazing to watch but the dialogue is so simple that it borders on ridiculous much of the time and its plot is miles away from the sublime level that “Yi yi” operates on.

In a year in which mediocrity reigned supreme at the movies, it is not surprising that “Traffic” was hailed as something just short of the second coming when it was first released. Critics and moviegoers alike were looking for an American movie that they could latch onto and love and “Traffic” filled the void quite well, earning high praise all-around and topping the $100 million mark at the box-office.

“Traffic,” which weaves together several stories involving the war on drugs, is a well-put together film with phenomenal performances from top to bottom. Despite its dark subject matter, “Traffic” still manages to invigorate us on the possibility of society triumphing over drugs a sequence towards the end of the film where a federal agent plants a bug in the house of a drug lord is as exciting and inspiring as movies get. He may have lost the battle but the beat goes on as he continues in his efforts to win the war.

“Traffic,” however, has its faults. Upon a second viewing, once the scope of the narrative is fully processed, the film is not as revolutionary as it might first seem. Yes, each of the stories are shot in their own distinctive style, but the film”s plot still unfolds in chronological order unlike some of Soderbergh”s other masterpieces, including “Out of Sight” and “The Limey.” “Traffic” also suffers from a somewhat preachy ending, wrapping up one of its stories, which involves the newly appointed U.S. drug czar (played by Michael Douglas), with a sappy speech that manages to bring the film down several notches and prevents it from true greatness.

Scenes like this make the film pale in comparison to “The Godfather” or “The French Connection,” both of which “Traffic” was mentioned in the same breath as when it hit theaters. “The Godfather” just wouldn”t be the same if Michael Corleone gave us a “what we”ve learned” speech at the end in the midst of going to the mattresses.

The main thing going against “Traffic” capturing Best Picture is the fact that “Brockovich” is also nominated. One can only hope that Soderbergh supporters realize the superiority of “Traffic” and throw their votes behind the better film.

This however, is unlikely happen on a large enough scale, leaving the overdone, blood-fest that is “Gladiator” as the favorite to win the Best Picture prize. We can still, however, cling to the notion that “Traffic,” which is hands down the best of the nominees, will somehow manage to spring the upset (and this is roughly a 4 versus 13 matchup for you tournament buffs) and swoop in to nab Best Picture statuette.

SHOULD WIN: TRAFFIC WILL WIN: GLADIATOR

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