There was a lot of pressure on Hollywood this year. After last year was damned by critics as one of the worst ever, the race was on to see who could restore our faith in the movies. However, 2001 was rocky for many films, and the fickle crowds and cranky reviewers haven’t given them any slack. Usually, by the time the Oscars roll around, the herd has been thinned and the winners are fairly clear. It’s not that they are predictable, but there is usually a front-runner or a favorite. However, with tantrums, whisper campaigns and last minute lobbying as present as ever, the seemingly easy choice has been thrown into question.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of New Line Cinema

“A Beautiful Mind” is the story of brilliant mathematician and Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash, played by Russell Crowe. His mathematical ability and his unique code-breaking abilities went hand in hand with his paranoid schizophrenia, which affected him from a young age. The film follows his life from his graduate work at Princeton through his complete mental breakdown and ends with his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for economics in 1994 for his work with a revolutionary mathematical system for economics known as Game Theory. However, most of the film is spent dealing with Nash’s degenerating mental state and the effect it had on his career and his family.

What carries this film and allows it to be anywhere near the Best Picture category is the performance of Russell Crowe. The hot-headed Australian captures the nuances of the role perfectly and gives a completely convincing performance. Hailed as the best and most accurate portrayal of paranoid schizophrenia in film, Crowe’s interpretation of Nash is almost perfect, from his West Virginia drawl to his quick gestures and word salad speech patterns to his reactions to his frightening departure from reality.

Unfortunately, Crowe is the keystone that supports the movie, for the script is less than brilliant. This fact further emphasizes the high caliber of Crowe’s performance, for his acting is so good that it tricks you into thinking that the movie is better than it is. Like last year’s “Pollock,” in which Ed Harris’ acting outshines the film itself, “A Beautiful Mind” owes all of its greatness to the main actor. As for its chances of winning “Best Picture,” there are many factors that have recently come into play. Talk of inaccuracies and omissions of unsavory details of Nash’s life (including anti-Semitic remarks and homosexual behavior) began months ago, but recently, the stakes have risen. Both Crowe and Howard have accused rival film companies of maliciously leaking this information to newspapers in an attempt to undermine the film’s chances at the Oscars (think “Hurricane”). On “60 Minutes” last Sunday, Nash attributed his anti-Semitic remarks to his mental illness and denied ever being homosexual.

In theory, none of this nonsense should matter for the Oscars, but this movie award show is more like an election at a junior high school, with shady deals and childish ploys determining the outcome. However, “A Beautiful Mind” will most likely overcome the so-called “whisper campaign” and walk away with the Oscar.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first part of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous book, is one of the best fantasy films of all time. A solid combination of top-notch acting, storytelling, special effects and cinematography give this a warranted place in the Best Picture category. The nearly three-hour epic tells the adventures of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit who lives in a place called the Shire in Middle Earth. Along with the wise and powerful wizard Gandalf the Grey and a group of elves, dwarves, men and fellow hobbits, Frodo is on a mission to destroy the Ring of Power, which, if found by the Dark Lord Sauron, will allow him to rule the world and bring darkness over the earth. Braving foreign lands and dangerous enemies, the group begins the long journey to Mount Doom, the only place where the ring can be destroyed.

“Fellowship” is solid across all fronts, with no discernible weak link. It will most likely sweep the technical awards for sound, costumes, art direction, etc., but its chances of taking the Best Picture award are slim. Before you protest, stop and try to remember the last Best Picture winner that had monsters in it. I’ll save you the trouble, because it has never happened. Just as the Academy hates to give Best Actor awards to actors playing comic roles, sci-fi/fantasy films have never been particularly successful in the Best Picture category (e.g., “Star Wars”). Even though the film takes the genre to a sophisticated level beyond most fantasy movies, it can’t overcome the Academy’s stodgy unofficial guidelines. Some may be hopeful about the Academy’s open-mindedness, but considering the politicking that has gone on in recent years, it is doubtful that “Fellowship” can pull it off. The Best Picture Oscar should go to the film that is the best overall instead of just having the best actor or the most effective lobbyists, and “Fellowship” measures up.

Baz Lurhmann’s frenetic, absinthe-soaked Bohemian musical “Moulin Rouge,” despite being released early in the year, regained its momentum this winter with a special edition DVD release and heavy promotion. Lurhmann, who made his mark with “Strictly Ballroom” and “Romeo and Juliet,” mixed two things that one wouldn’t have thought possible: an 1899 cabaret/circus/brothel and 1970s pop music. The incorporation of songs like The Police’s “Roxanne” and Elton John’s “Your Song” isn’t always flawless, but it gives the already bizarre movie an even more surreal atmosphere. “Moulin Rouge” isn’t so hot in the plot department. An idealistic young writer named Christian, played by Ewan McGregor, comes to Paris and falls in love with a beautiful showgirl named Satine who works at the Moulin Rouge. Borrowing the “play within a play” motif from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” it explores the tenets of the Bohemian revolution: Truth, beauty, freedom and love.

The film is exciting and visually striking … for a while, but it cannot sustain itself solely by flooding your senses with the dreamlike sights, sounds and smells of the time and place. (Also, and this is petty but valid, it is hard to accept Christian and Satine in romantic situations when one minute, Satine is coughing up blood from her tuberculosis, and the next, she and Christian are making out.) Overall, the movie is interesting, but it just doesn’t have the staying power necessary to achieve greatness.

Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park,” a subtle film that is rich in its characters and in its dialogue, sits on the opposite side of the spectrum from “Moulin Rouge.” With a cast that redefines “ensemble,” your head will hurt for the first half an hour while you try to keep the various storylines straight. The film is ostensibly a murder mystery that takes place at a luxurious English country home in the 1930s. However, the murder is almost an afterthought and is more satirical than plot-related. The main focus of the film is on the people who have gathered for the weekend at the home for the “shooting party.” The action switches between the lavish upstairs, where the guests of William McCordle and other assorted aristocrats spend their leisure time, and the dank and noisy lower floors, where the servants toil and gossip.

The film has Altman’s trademark dialogue approach, in which you begin the movie frantically trying to keep up with conversations that seem to overlap, end mid-sentence, or occur completely in the background. Even Altman fans never get used to this dizzying style. What makes the film truly brilliant is that although you seldom get to see the various characters for more than a few minutes at a time, at the end of the movie, you realize that you care about most of the characters, who you had thought of only as minor additions. The film is full of hilarious dialogue and countless excellent performances, but it is not mainstream enough for most audiences. Not that Altman would care. The contrary director has lambasted the Academy Awards as trivial and stupid, and he has been joined by “Gosford Park” cast members and Best Supporting Actress nominees Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren. This collective jab at the Oscars is not likely to help the film this Sunday, which is especially detrimental, considering that the film is widely seen as the second choice for Best Picture.

Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom” is a painful drama that (without giving too much away) focuses on the day to day struggle of two parents to get over intense grief, frustration and guilt. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek give outstanding performances, conveying paralyzing grief and anger with a twitch or a forced smile. Field’s direction, which adheres to the philosophy that less is more, is surprisingly moving, with daily, mundane interactions (most without musical score) becoming as emotionally charged as any dramatic scene from standard dramas.

However, he takes this method too far, and it becomes tiresome. Also, the end of the movie is a massive cop-out, falling back on generic thriller conclusion and abandoning the daring, almost experimental style that it followed. Whether co-writers Todd Field and Robert Festinger got scared and went with a traditional ending or just couldn’t think how to wrap it up, it betrays the film and ruins all that came before it. “In the Bedroom” has very little chance of winning the Best Picture Award because it has a limited audience due to its excruciating subject matter and the fact that its buzz has been low-key.

The main factor that could affect the outcome is the dreaded “split vote,” in which like-minded voters spread their votes and end up ruining both movies’ chances (the same phenomenon can occur with actors, e.g. the “Gosford” Best Supporting Actresses). This unintended effect could allow one o the dark horses to steal the Oscar out from under the favorites.

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