The 10 hottest films for the Oscars

This year, the drama and intrigue that surround the Oscars began even earlier than usual.

This year, the drama and intrigue that surround the Oscars began even earlier than usual. The campaign strategists were already jittery when the Academy Awards moved up one month to 29 February. But then the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, threw Hollywood into a tizzy when he tried to ban the studios and their specialised subsidiary companies from sending out preview tapes, for fear of piracy.

Eventually, after just about all the movie-industry vigorously protested at the ban, the academy offered to have its members sign for watermarked video cassettes only, and Valenti relented. (For this year.) But while academy voters are now getting studio cassettes (true indie distributors such as Lions Gate are free to ship them to anyone), many of the groups responsible for other awards (critics, craft guilds, the Golden Globes and Bafta) are still complaining loudly about not getting their tapes.

In fact, hordes are now flocking to see films, God forbid, in screening rooms and theatres. One recent academy screening of Clint Eastwood's Mystic River was packed to the rafters. The funny thing is that it's a great year for studio movies. While there are plenty of small-scale indie films that may earn an Oscar nomination or two for performance, costumes or screenplay ( In America, Pieces of April), many of the must-see movies this year are big-budget adventures in the Gladiator mould.

And many have a decidedly Commonwealth flavour, including three eagerly awaited movies that are still in the final editing stages: Kiwi filmmaker Peter Jackson's final instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King; Anthony Minghella's American Civil War drama, Cold Mountain, starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman; and Canadian Norman Jewison's The Statement, starring Oscar perennial Michael Caine as a former Nazi executioner.

Here are 10 currently screening movies (listed in alphabetical order) that are must-sees for Oscar voters. Five will grab the lion's share of nominations, including a Best Picture slot. Others will wind up with nothing.

1. Big Fish

Steven Spielberg once toyed with directing John August's screen adaptation of the Daniel Wallace novel. Finally, Tim Burton took the directing reins on this sweet, magic fable - part Princess Bride, part Forrest Gump - about William Bloom (played by Grayson Stone and Billy Crudup), who never quite believed the tall tales of his travelling salesman father (Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney). When the young careerist goes home to see his dying father, he demands to know which stories were true. Finney is heartbreaking as a man who has no intention of giving up his well-told life. This role could give Finney, after five nominations, the chance finally to win an Oscar.

2. Girl With a Pearl Earring

BBC drama veteran Peter Webber wasn't sure he wanted to make the transition to features with a conventional period romance about the painter Johannes Vermeer and his muse until he read the ear-piercing scene. Then he saw the heart of the upstairs-downstairs domestic drama: the conflict between the artist (Colin Firth) and his patron (Tom Wilkinson), the painter and his family, and the unspoken attraction between the man and his model (Scarlett Johansson). Webber was not afraid to fashion a quietly paced movie that is as visually lovely as a Vermeer. A hit on the festival circuit as well as with academy voters, Girl With a Pearl Earring could be the Frida of this Oscar race.

3. The Last Samurai

Tom Cruise is perfectly cast in Ed Zwick's sweeping epic action fantasy about disillusioned Civil War soldier, Nathan Algren, who travels to Japan to teach the young emperor's army the methods of 'modern' warfare. But Japan's artillery prove no match for rebel samurai Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) and his sword-wielding warriors on horseback. Katsumoto captures Algren and takes him to his mountain base, where the American soldier is humbled by even the youngest fighters. But he eagerly learns the Samurai ways and earns their respect. Watanabe, however, steals the show, and should secure a supporting actor nomination.

4. Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola wrote her idiosyncratic valentine to the city of Tokyo with Bill Murray in mind, and insists that she would not have made the movie without him. Luckily for everyone, the notoriously whimsical actor showed up - and delivered the performance of his career. Coppola's personal little movie (Scarlett Johansson is uncannily like her) has rated astonishing coverage from mainstream and alternative press alike and should wind up with acting nominations for Murray and Johansson.

5. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

As the hero of the late Patrick O'Brian's seafaring sagas, Captain Jack Aubrey, Russell Crowe has never been more charming. In one scene, the Navy officer and gentleman soulfully plays the violin with cellist and ship's surgeon/naturalist Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany); in the next, he throws on his uniform and leads his loyal men into crushing battle against a superior French force on the raging high seas. Director Peter Weir effectively brings this English shipboard colony to life. Cannonballs plough through the decks, inflicting terrible damage on ship and crew. Afterwards, as the crew rebuilds the ship, Maturin stitches up the wounded men, some of whom are mere boys. Crowe's Aubrey is a protective leader and teacher; generous friend; entertaining dinner companion; tough disciplinarian; and fearsome fighter in defence of King and country. 'This ship is England!' Aubrey cries as he rallies his men for the film's climactic battle. This hugely enjoyable action epic should give Return of the King a run for the Best Picture Oscar.

6. The Missing

Having got his Oscar out of the way with A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard was set on directing a western (it was supposed to be The Alamo with Crowe until Howard and Disney parted ways). Howard's toughest and least lovable movie to date, The Missing is a rough-and-tumble frontier drama starring Cate Blanchett as a gun-toting, pioneer single mom who fearlessly and obsessively tracks her daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who has been captured by Indians (there are echoes of John Ford's The Searchers). Tommy Lee Jones chews into his role as Blanchett's graceless, estranged father, who wants desperately to win back his daughter's trust. Blanchett will probably grab her Oscar nomination for this role, not Veronica Guerin, which will fade from view as the Oscar race heats up.

7. Monster

Like Halle Berry and other actresses before her, Charlize Theron wants to prove that she is more than just a gorgeous Hollywood starlet. So she gained 30 pounds to lose herself in the character of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in Florida for killing seven men. Writer-director Patty Jenkins puts the prostitute at the centre of a lesbian love story. As Wuornos struggles to support her young girlfriend (Christina Ricci), she loses control of her anger at the punters who often abuse her. In a weak year for best actress candidates, Theron is a shoo-in for this chilling tour de force.

8. Mystic River

When Clint Eastwood first read a book review of Boston mystery writer Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, he saw a movie in it. Eastwood read the novel and phoned Lehane, who had resisted selling his books to Hollywood, to talk him into granting him the movie rights. Eastwood had enough clout at Warner Bros to get the movie made with actors, not stars, and knew how to coax the best out of Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne, who unexpectedly supplies much-needed comic relief. One of the best-reviewed films of the year, Mystic River should yield nominations for Eastwood, Penn and Robbins.

9. Something's Gotta Give

Writer-director Nancy Meyers pits Diane Keaton against Jack Nicholson in this comedy war of the sexes. Playing a single playwright in her 50s who has abandoned all hope of finding love again, Keaton has never been more alluring. Frances McDormand is Keaton's feminist professor sister. Nicholson plumbs new depths as an inveterate bachelor who likes to date younger women such as Keaton's daughter (Amanda Peet). Keaton is courted not only by Nicholson, but by gorgeous doctor Keanu Reeves. It's perceptive and funny, and academy voters will reward beloved icons Keaton and Nicholson with nominations.

10. 21 Grams

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu collaborated with his Amores Perros writer, novelist Guillermo Arriaga, on their first English language movie. They give this intensely violent drama about guilt, loss, revenge and redemption a jarring out-of-sequence narrative structure, which toys with viewer assumptions about the unfolding story. Sean Penn plays an ailing maths professor who falls in love with grieving widow Naomi Watts; together, they plot revenge on ex-con Benicio Del Toro, who has accidentally killed Watts's husband and two kids with his truck. While it is too relentlessly grim to be accessible beyond sophisticated cinephiles, 21 Grams will not be ignored by the profession.

Anne Thompson

The GuardianTramp

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