Letter from LA: 10 films you need to see if you want to be in the Oscar loop

There are 10 films you need to see if you want to be in the Oscar loop. And here they are ...

The Oscar race has just shifted into high gear. Members of the 13 branches of the 6,000-member Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are starting to flock to special screenings. The studios are now mailing members stacks of videos and DVDs, and 'for your consideration' ads start fattening the pages of Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. 2002's very first 'reminder ad' crammed with quoted praise - for Maggie Gyllenhaal as Best Actress in Secretary - ran on 6 November.

The neophyte actress's chances depend on how many Academy members actually see the kinky comedy about an office romance. Oscar promoters go to great lengths to screen their movies: they send prints to holiday film festivals in industry vacation hubs such as Aspen and Maui, and book in-person appearances for the likes of Frida director Julie Taymor at the Los Angeles County Museum and other venues. But Frida has Miramax's marketing machine behind it. A smaller movie like Secretary, even with great reviews, can get lost in the crazy din that builds through to the nominations on 11 February. To go all the way, a movie must gain momentum by making year-end critics' 10-best lists, landing critics' group prizes, and winning a Bafta or Golden Globe award.

For now, at least 10 movies that are being screened are really in the running for Oscars. Five favourites will nab the most nominations - including Best Picture. Others will wind up with nothing. And there are several stragglers still to come: Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can.


Spike Lee's best movie since Malcolm X. Edward Norton stars as a Manhattan drug dealer who spends one last night in the city saying goodbye to his friends (Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rosario Dawson) and father (Brian Cox) before he starts serving a seven-year prison term. Norton's regret at his wasted life, brought into sharp, painful focus by his arrest, is echoed by the larger reality of scarred New York City post 9/11. Norton and Pepper (Saving Private Ryan) are standouts in a stunning ensemble. In a competitive year, screenwriter David Benioff will surely land a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.


Writer-director Alexander Payne's follow-up to his high school farce Election, is dour, depressing and brilliant. Jack Nicholson digs back into his Midwestern past to play a sad schlumpy insurance actuary who at age 65 finds himself a retired widower. Nicholson is sure to earn his eighth nomination for best actor (he has won twice in that category, and once for supporting). And because Oscar-winner Kathy Bates (Misery) was brave enough to go naked in a hot tub, she could also get a Supporting Actress nod. But the movie makes fun of dumb Americans, and needs to score at the box office to wind up in Best Picture territory.


Rookie director Denzel Washington (2002's best actor winner for Training Day) pulls a searing performance from young Derek Luke as a Navy sailor who can't control his anger. Washington plays a childless Navy psychologist who puts Luke in touch with his past and the mother who abandoned him. Actor-directors have a leg up with the Academy, which is composed of more actors than any other group. For this movie think Robert Redford's Ordinary People meets Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves. It is socially conscious, heartfelt and a four-hankie tearjerker. It will strike a deep nerve in the American public, both black and white, and the liberal soft hearts in the Academy will love it. It could be the frontrunner for Best Picture.


Stage director Rob Marshall's movie version of the Bob Fosse musical is riding the coattails of last year's surprise Academy favourite, Moulin Rouge, and should get a boost from the Golden Globes' 'best musical or comedy' category. Renée Zellweger's heartless guttersnipe Roxie Hart and John C Reilly's cuckold husband should both win nominations. But while the movie is flashily entertaining, it has no soul and Marshall is no Fosse.


Todd Haynes's gorgeously mounted homage to the Douglas Sirk Technicolor melodrama has earned critical raves, but it needs to thrive in theatres to go the distance. Julianne Moore should score a best actress nomination for her role as a Fifties suburban housewife who seeks support from her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) when she catches her husband (Dennis Quaid) kissing another man.


Both high-minded drama and delicious, sexy entertainment, this could be one of those Miramax movies that Oscar voters embrace and critics don't, such as Chocolat or The Cider House Rules. At minimum, this US arthouse hit should wind up with nominations for Cinematography, Art Direction, Score and Costume Design; depending on the competition it could also nail nominations for actors Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina and director Julie Taymor.


Three stellar performances from Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, and Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep as two modern versions of Woolf's literary creation Clarissa Dalloway. David Hare (adapting Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-prize winning novel) and director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) deliver a delicately balanced cinematic triptych of interlocking narratives that play off each other's moods and cadences. Suicide lurks in the lives of all three women. With help from a prosthetic nose, Kidman effortlessly erases her sexuality as the precariously balanced author; Streep's Manhattan matron throws a party for her one-time lover (Ed Harris), a gay poet dying of Aids; and Moore fights depression as a young Fifties mother trapped in a loveless marriage. Paramount is pushing Kidman and Streep for Best Actress and Moore for Supporting Actress.


The winner of the Cannes Palme d'Or, was criticised by some reviewers for its old-fashioned, unadorned storytelling. Oscar-winning writer-director Roman Polanski tapped into his Krakow ghetto childhood to tell the story of Warsaw pianist Wladislaw Szpilman. The Academy should nominate Adrien Brody (Bread and Roses) who shed 30 pounds, memorised Chopin, and lived inside the survivor's suffering. The question is whether the voters, who are always susceptible to Holocaust dramas, will forgive the exile Polanski, who has never returned to the States to face an outstanding statutory rape charge.


It had some of the year's best reviews, but the off-beat tone and lowbrow star (Adam Sandler) could turn the Academy off. Even though Paul Thomas Anderson's previous film Magnolia was indulgently long, it still got three nominations in 2000. While many members just won't get Punch-Drunk Love, the writers, cinematographers, production designers and directors could recognise this unpredictable, 90-minute romance.


It could be this year's Erin Brockovich, Gladiator or Saving Private Ryan: the summer movie that returns for a successful Oscar run. It has all the hallmarks: literate script by Scott Frank, elegantly paced mise-en-scène from Oscar-winners Sam Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall, and deep performances from Oscar reliables Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. The Academy will not forget this movie, but it has one serious drawback: it is more admired than loved.

Clooney at large

Nobody has more at stake this holiday season than George Clooney. First, the versatile actor travels to a distant planet in Steven Soderbergh's taut psychological thriller Solaris. An intense relationship drama as well as a space odyssey, Solaris earned an initial R rating (revised to PG-13) for two love scenes featuring lingering shots on Clooney's naked bum. The actor also plays a CIA agent in his directorial debut, writer Charlie Kaufman's zany comedy Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, starring Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts and Sam Rockwell (Welcome to Collinwood) as Gong Show host Chuck Barris. As if Clooney wasn't busy enough, the rookie director took time off from his editing chores to star in his second movie for the Coen brothers, Intolerable Cruelty , a romantic comedy pitting slick master divorce attorney Clooney against tough-as-nails gold-digger Catherine Zeta Jones. Somebody give this man a vacation.

Hours is not to reason

The behind-the-scenes drama on The Hours was the constant sparring between heavyweight producer Scott Rudin (The Royal Tenenbaums) and Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein. They stopped talking during the release of Iris, which Weinstein helped to finance, because Rudin felt that Miramax hadn't spent enough money on the Iris Oscar campaign. (The film won three Oscar nominations and a best supporting actor award for Jim Broadbent.) Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing brokered a peace so that the men could collaborate on The Hours, only to act as middleman during production when they fell out again. Weinstein refused to pay to send the movie to the Venice Film Festival, and later discussed The Hours's shortcomings with New Yorker journalist Ken Auletta. The enraged Rudin sent the chain-smoking movie mogul a crate of cigarettes with the note: 'Thanks as always for all your help.'

Lean pickings from a Fat Wedding

IFC Films gets the prize for Worst Deal of Year. The New York distributor made a flat-fee deal to release My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which is now heading for the $200-million mark. While IFC has the chore of collecting returns from theatres, the company has earned just $4 million. The spoils go to the producers (HBO, Gold Circle Films, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson). Gold Circle president Paul Brooks, who brought in the project as a producer, should clear $10 million from the movie. Writer and star Nia Vardalos is still on the promo trail. During her preparations to host Saturday Night Live, Vardalos exhorted Entertainment Tonight watchers: 'Don't go to a new movie until you've seen mine!'

Anne Thompson

The GuardianTramp

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