Has Scorsese's time come at last?

Gangs of New York must surely take the day for best picture, writes Peter Bradshaw

It is tempting to wonder how the atmosphere of war will affect the choices at this year's Academy awards.

Certainly things can't look good for Michael Moore's explic- itly anti-military documentary, Bowling for Columbine, which has the bad taste to point out that Saddam's rule in Iraq was sponsored by the US for many years.

A victory for Moore, and the subsequent barnstormingly tactless acceptance speech, would be something to savour. But I'm afraid he can whistle for it.

As for best film, a yelp of dismay, however futile and perfunctory, has to be sounded at the non-appearance in this category of Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven. Clearly, this wonderful, hyperreal 1950s homage is not to their tastes, but it's a scandalous omission. So is missing out Alexander Payne's sublime tragicomedy About Schmidt, which isn't just about Jack Nicholson's performance.

Might there be a ground- swell of support for The Pianist, Roman Polanski's high-minded picture about the Nazi invasion of Poland and the Warsaw ghetto? Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Blair have been working very hard to compare the anti-war faction to Neville Chamberlain, and this might conceivably have put some zip into its campaign. It might be considered to have redeemed Polanksi's private life.

My own view is that The Pianist is a powerful and deeply felt movie with superb cinemat- ography (a nomination for Pawel Edelman) but slightly stilted and oblique.

As for The Two Towers, the second part of Peter Jackson's monumental and passionate adaptation of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, I am still agnostic about whether or not these movies, beautifully designed as they are, really speak to non- Tolkien fans and transcend their genre fan base.

I suspect that Academy voters will prefer to stick to technical awards for The Two Towers, and wait until next year, when the entire trilogy has come out, before deciding on a best film prize.

Chicago has been a smashing box-office success and is credited with the beginnings of an old-fashioned musical revival in Hollywood, up to and including a proposed remake of Guys and Dolls. But its appear- ance in the best picture list here - along with many other nominations - baffles me, , and can only be a testament to the marketing chutzpah of Miramax. Chicago is a feelgood film, slickly made, and you could do an awful lot worse on a Friday night. But it fails to open out the stage show very interestingly, or very cinematically, and the much-vaunted wise-cracking cynicism about crime and celebrity looks a bit shrill up there on the big screen.

British director Stephen Daldry's The Hours is a film before which American critics have fallen into a dead faint. This is an ambitious and classy-looking picture - "hardback cinema" - whose juxtaposition of fine performances from three much-loved leading ladies is very well managed.

Nothing is left to say about Nicole Kidman's bizarre false nose, other than that she can smell awards with it. I find something hand-wringing and coercive in the film's emotionalism; it may well win - though awards for its leading performers would be more just.

My own pick is Martin Scorsese's giant Gangs of New York, a film with faults and flaws, but one with so much energy and balls that it must surely carry the day. Add to that the fact that the Academy has slighted Scorsese in the past, and that this movie has been 20 years in the making. They could convince them- selves it's sort of a semi-lifetime achievement award - although Scorsese is also up for directing as well. It's a big, sprawling movie with an exhilarating sense of scale.

In the animated category, there is no smasheroo on the level of Shrek, a film which could easily have competed in the best picture category as a modern classic of family entertainment. Instead, there's Lilo & Stitch from Disney, about a little Hawaiian girl who falls in love with an ET beastie from outer space.

Reasonable, though much less sharp than Fox's Ice Age. That's a feisty, witty animation about a sloth, a sabretooth tiger and a woolly mammoth who find a lost human infant - classic themes sure to be revisited when Jungle Book 2 is released later this year.

It gets my vote as best animated film, well ahead of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, a very dull anthropomorphic tale of wild, free, noble horses captured by the barbarous invader Man.

Treasure Planet is a wonky updating of the RL Stevenson classic to a sci-fi future with galleon-shaped spacecraft.

The highest-brow contender for this category has to be Hayao Miyazaki's Lewis Carrollesque film Spirited Away. Miyazaki is the veteran Japanese animator who works painstakingly by hand, creating lovingly detailed images. He is revered as a master by animators in the US, and his movies are things of beauty, but - with a gulp - I've got to confess to being still uncertain about the weird inertia that sometimes reigns and the bug-eyed faces that Miyazaki draws. It's an acquired taste which I have yet fully to acquire. But Miyazaki will very probably poll enough votes to get the big prize.

As far as the foreign-language films go, again the omissions are perplexing. Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her is not on the list, though Almodovar himself is a long- odds best director nominee.

Atanarjuat the Fast Runner didn't run fast enough, and the Latin American pictures Y Tu Mama Tambien and City of God are nowhere to be seen - which is all the more groanworthy as the Academy has actually shortlisted a Mexican movie starring Gael Garcia Bernal.

The Crime of Father Amaro is a soapy melodrama updated from a 19th-century novel about a young priest who has an affair with a 16-year-old girl, a sexual transgression which happens in tandem with discovering corruption in both church and state.

Zhang Yimou must be hoping that a little of the Crouching Tiger magic will rub off on him with his martial-arts epic Hero, the shortlisted magic-realist wire-fu combat picture in a traditional Chinese setting, starring Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi: a blue-chip cast for this kind of picture. It was given an outing at Berlin earlier this year, where the feeling was that it was too bombastic. It's a bit of an outsider here.

German cinema, widely con- sidered to be in a trough, gets a boost through the inclusion of Caroline Link's film Nowhere in Africa, about a German- Jewish family who escape the Nazi terror by emigrating to Africa. Again, this might grab the worthy vote and Link is much admired for 1996's Jenseits der Stille, or Beyond Silence. Zus & Zo is a wacky, sub-Woody Allen comedy-drama from Holland, about three sisters outraged when their gay brother gets married, a cynical ploy to inherit valuable family property that by rights should go to them.

But they must all be lagging behind my vote as front- runner: Aki Kaurismaki's quirky, deadpan seriocomedy The Man Without a Past, about a welder who is bashed over the head in Helsinki, loses his memory and starts his life all over again. The Academy will, I think, respond to its gently undemanding quirkiness. Moreover, the director's great enthusiasm for American-style rock'n'roll can't do any harm.

A Kaurismaki acceptance speech would be a great event, assum- ing that some refreshments have been available before the beginning of proceedings.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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