The Academy Goes One Way; I’ll Go for Zellweger, Lynch

The Academy Award nominees for 2001 reflect a growing eccentricity that amounts to a jumbled consensus combining the tastes of the various critics’ groups, the National Board of Review, the Golden Globes, the box office, the puffery of certain distributors, the industry buzz on the West Coast, an old love affair with Great Britain and a trophy marriage with Australia.

I was pleasantly surprised by some of the choices, and depressingly resigned to others. As an enthusiastic admirer of the unjustly neglected Iris , I was happy to see Judi Dench nominated for Best Actress, Kate Winslet for Best Supporting Actress and Jim Broadbent for Best Supporting Actor. These three mentions for the film earned it a return engagement in a few theaters, and I urge all my readers to rush off to see it.

Contrary to the received wisdom of the gossip columns, Robert Altman was not “punished” for his recent publicized anti-American comments; nor was Gosford Park with seven nominations, including one for Best Picture, Mr. Altman’s directorial nod, and two for Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith as Best Supporting Actress. Indeed, they might just as well have nominated everyone else in the cast, or perhaps they could have invented a new category for Upstairs-Downstairs Excellence, with only one ensemble eligible for consideration.

In my heart of hearts, I didn’t really expect my favorite film of the year, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence , to be nominated for much of anything, and it wasn’t, except for John Williams’ original score and its visual effects, which are sure to lose to those of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

I and many other people wrongly predicted that Nicole Kidman’s showy performances in Moulin Rouge and The Others might cancel each other out and thus have her come up empty. Instead, Ms. Kidman cashed in with the ridiculously overrated Moulin Rouge , and the much more richly deserving Billy Bob Thornton suffered the fate of the overqualified, with his two prize-worthy performances in The Man Who Wasn’t There and Monster’s Ball both overlooked.

A Beautiful Mind with its eight nominations, including Ron Howard’s first-ever directorial mention, followed the lead of the Golden Globes rather than that of the various critics’ groups, the members of which mostly pretended that the movie and its romantically paired performances by Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly didn’t exist.

But let’s face it: The Academy nominated three films for Best Picture that made my list of movies other people liked and I didn’t ( In the Bedroom , The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Moulin Rouge ), and only two ( A Beautiful Mind and Gosford Park ) that made my 2001 10-best list. So why am I jumping around as if I’m happy?

My film class at Columbia University collectively gasped when I declared that–given the unavailability in the Best Actress category of Stockard Channing in The Business of Strangers and Frances O’Connor in A.I . and About Adam –I would choose Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary over Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Judi Dench in Iris, Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge and Sissy Spacek in In the Bedroom . But comedies are always short-changed. Fortunately, they forgave me when I said that I would vote for David Lynch as Best Director over Ron Howard, Ridley Scott ( Black Hawk Down ), Robert Altman and Peter Jackson ( Lord of the Rings ). Yes, I know–I picked Mr. Altman as my favorite director last year, even over Zhang Yimou, and at that time Mr. Lynch placed fourth. But picking Mr. Lynch as Best Director now is my way of tweaking the Academy for giving such short shrift to Mulholland Drive.

I know more than a few of my friends, acquaintances and colleagues will find it outrageous that the universally panned Pearl Harbor and the wildly acclaimed Black Hawk Down each received four nominations. I prefer to focus on the fact that the Academy didn’t acknowledge the gritty, war-is-hellish Black Hawk Down even further, suggesting a lack of martial spirit after the traumatic events of 9/11.

As for the new category of Animated Feature Film, I certainly hope that Shrek beats out Monsters, Inc . and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius . But again, there will be those who wonder why Waking Life was not even nominated.

I’ll pass on sizing up the nominees for musical awards, forever trapped as I am in a Jerome Kern time warp. And I’ll stop the stalling: What are my picks for this year’s major Oscars? Even after my usual warning that under no circumstances are you to bet the rent money on my choices, I must add a further disclaimer after my disastrous betting experience at this year’s Super Bowl party at a friend’s house. To put a point to it, I went with the hype and picked the supposedly omnipotent St. Louis Rams to win by 17 points. By contrast, my usually sports-averse better half bet with her heart and picked the New England Patriots to win by three. It wasn’t losing the bet that bothered me; it was something in my nature that I recognized and finally acknowledged. All my life, all things being equal (and for a New Yorker, all things were equal in this Boston-St. Louis contest), I have always rooted for the favorite against the underdog. I have never been moved by the triumph of the human spirit against the odds. For me, the odds represent the logic of analysis, and I feel deeply that logic should always prevail over emotion. I know it doesn’t, but though this was the best-played and most exciting Super Bowl of all time, I felt only saddened at the defeat of logic by emotion yet again. So sue me.

Without further ado, I pick A Beautiful Mind to win over its closest competitor, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring . Why? Actors make up the biggest contingent of Academy voters, and aside from Ian McKellen’s performance, Lord plays more like an animated cartoon than an articulated drama.

The award for Best Actor is a toss-up between Mr. Crowe and Tom Wilkinson. I give the edge to Mr. Crowe because of his stirring acceptance speech at the Golden Globes.

Ms. Spacek is a lock for Best Actress, Mr. McKellen likewise for Best Supporting Actor. Ms. Connelly should prevail over Marisa Tomei for Best Supporting Actress–though my heart belongs to Ms. Winslet.

My wild hunch for Best Director is Mr. Howard over Mr. Altman. They’ve waited all this time to nominate Mr. Howard; they’ll be tempted to go all the way.

No Man’s Land should beat out Amélie for Best Foreign Film, if for no other reason than the opportunity it gives the Academy to show that it cares about social issues in the rest of the world–and particularly in what Anita Loos’ Lorelei Lee once designated as “the Central of Europe.”

You’re on your own if your Oscar pool takes in the writing and cinematography categories. One clue early in the evening, however, will be the Film Editing Award, in which A Beautiful Mind is up against Lord etc., with Moulin Rouge a distant third: Editing is an adhesive category that no one evaluates on its own merits apart from the film with which it’s associated.

The Royal Tenenbaums failed to gain any Academy recognition beyond a mention for Original Screenplay by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. The voting for the Adapted Screenplay category may be complicated by the adverse criticism directed at A Beautiful Mind for not fully recording all the sordid details in the central character’s biography–details that would have guaranteed the film’s commercial failure and prevented it from being nominated for an Oscar in the first place.

What has been overlooked in the nominations of African-American actors Denzel Washington and Will Smith for Training Day and Ali , respectively, is that white actors Ethan Hawke in Training Day and Jon Voight in Ali were swept in as nominees in the Supporting Actor category. When you add Mr. Crowe and Ms. Connelly in A Beautiful Mind , Ms. Dench, Mr. Broadbent and Ms. Winslet in Iris , and Ms. Mirren and Ms. Smith in Gosford Park , you have a doubling and even a tripling up of acting nominees in a single movie that I cannot remember in Oscar history. This makes the singleton nomination of African-American actress Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball all the more glaring for the exclusion of Billy Bob Thornton, who in addition to the aforementioned performances in Monster’s Ball and The Man Who Wasn’t There was also memorable in Bandits , with Cate Blanchett and Bruce Willis. By contrast, the lamented Gene Hackman was less than memorable in Heist .

Anyway, what are the odds on any of the African-American nominees going all the way? On the one hand, they have history, or rather the lack of it, on their side. On the other, the Academy is notorious for patting itself on the back for making a liberal gesture with the nominating process, and thus not feeling obliged to follow through on Oscar night with a full-fledged triumph. Still, I would not rule out surprise wins for Mr. Washington, for changing his type (or, rather, stereotype), and Ms. Berry, for an impressively full-bodied performance with more decibels of pure hysteria than anyone else. Mr. Smith, however, may be fatally handicapped by the doubts raised about his attempt to simulate a real-life character whom the media have made overfamiliar to most of us. It’s a game in which you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

I find it difficult to believe that Sean Penn, an actor of admittedly enormous talent, was nominated for his virtuoso portrayal of a mentally handicapped father in I Am Sam . If he should win, I would be certain that the ghost of Old Hollywood has risen from its grave for one last hurrah. I am not exactly offended by disease-and/or-handicap-of-the-week sentimentality, but when you throw in a girl-child so cute she makes Shirley Temple look positively Brechtian, run for your lives, the dam has burst. Even so, I wonder if Mr. Penn would have been nominated if the filmmakers had left in a scene in which Michelle Pfeiffer’s lawyer character goes to bed with Sam.

What are the odds?