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1/2/03: The Contenders

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The reason I've held off starting the Playoffs columns again this year is because the field of contenders is especially murky--which is to say, there are several good movies to choose from this year. But Oscar Watch has made an attempt to quantify a few front-runners, and after checking out a few of their helpful links--including Geninn.net's handy critics chart and scoreboard--I feel like it's possible to pull a few movies apart from the pack and say that these, most likely, comprise our playing field this year.

However--this is a big however--"critics" and "Oscar voters" do not necessarily overlap all that much (we'd probably be better off if they did). In fact, if you look at last year's run-down at Oscar Watch, it would seem that the critics pretty much wanted any other movie than A Beautiful Mind to come in first (last chart on the page), and we all saw how that turned out. Last year was my first year to really track the awards season week by week, since I was doing it for the Digest, and the changes of favor and reversals of fortune over time were astonishing. So keep that in mind: anything can happen. For now, though, we'll try to narrow the nets.


About Schmidt

Starring Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney. Writ/dir. Alexander Payne (Election), from the novel by Louis Begley.
Premise (
IMDB): "Warren Schmidt is a man in his 60's. While trying to run his daughter's life, he realizes that he wasted his."
Random Rotten Tomatoes quote: "By turns hilarious and poignant, Schmidt is about nothing special and everything important" (Susan Stark, Detroit News)
Rotten Tomatoes' "Freshness" rating (% reviews positive):
84%

Adaptation
Starring Nicolas Cage (as twins), Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper. Writ. Charlie Kaufman, dir. Spike Jonze.
Premise (
IMDB): "An account of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's attempt to adapt Susan Orlean's non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, which is the story of John Laroche, a plant dealer who clones rare orchids then sells them to collectors. We see the action of the book as we see Kaufman struggle to adapt it into a movie. This is presumably a somewhat true story, as Charlie Kaufman is the real life screenwriter of Adaptation."
Random Rotten Tomatoes quote: "A movie that comes excitingly close to being some kind of masterpiece of surrealism" (William Arnold, Seattle-Post Intelligencer)
RT "Freshness":
92%

Antwone Fisher
Starring Denzel Washington, Derek Luke. Dir. Denzel Washington. Writ. Antwone Fisher, from his book.
Premise (
IMDB): "A sailor prone to violent outbursts is sent to a naval psychiatrist for help..."
Random Rotten Tomatoes quote: "Hard, endearing, caring, warm. Bring tissues" (Ross Anthony, Hollywood Report Card)
RT "Freshness":
80%

Chicago
Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly. Dir. Rob Marshall. From the Kander & Ebb stage musical.
Premise (
IMDB): "Murderesses Velma Kelly (who blanked out and killed her cheating husband) and Roxie Hart (who killed her boyfriend in a jealous rage) strive for fame at any costs including scandal and lies in 1920s Chicago."
Random Rotten Tomatoes quote: "Chicago is sophisticated, brash, sardonic, completely joyful in its execution" (Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com)
RT "Freshness":
90%

Far from Heaven
Starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert. Writ./dir. Todd Haynes.
Premise (
IMDB): "In 1950s Connecticut, a housewife faces a marital crisis and mounting racial tensions in the outside world."
Random Rotten Tomatoes quote: "Its core is a nugget of emotional truth and longing that's irresistible, and inextricably tied to a power so purely cinematic you wonder why so many other directors even bother" (John Anderson, Newsday)
RT "Freshness":
92%

Gangs of New York
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Writ. Jay Cocks, Kenneth Lonergan, Steven Zaillian.
Premise (
IMDB): "The film starts in 1846 and ends in 1863 with the draft riots. The setting is New York's five points, the most violent part of the world at the time. The story is risen out of the conflicts between the white Anglo-Saxon "natives" and the Irish immigrants coming into the five points. One boy needs to avenge the death of his father..."
Random Rotten Tomatoes quote: "It's a gruesome masterpiece, savage and majestic, unbearable and irresistible all at once" (Tor Thorsen, Reel.com)
RT "Freshness":
78%

The Hours
Starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Ed Harris, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Allison Janney, Miranda Richardson, Jeff Daniels, John C. Reilly. Dir. Stephen Daldry. Writ. David Hare, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham.
Premise (
IMDB): "The story revolves around three women in different eras who are all profoundly affected by the works of Virginia Woolf."
Random Rotten Tomatoes quote: "For its seriousness, high literary aspirations and stunning acting, the film can only be applauded" (Erica Abeel, Film Journal Inter-national)
RT "Freshness":
87%

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Christopher Lee, Brad Dourif, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, David Wenham, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett. Dir. Peter Jackson. Writ. Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Stephen Sinclair, from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Premise (
IMDB): "After the fellowship has broken, Merry and Pippin, taken by orcs, make new allies in the Ents, while Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn make allies in the people of Rohan, and all of them must launch an assault on Isengard. Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam force Gollum to guide them through Mordor, trusting him with their lives."
Random Rotten Tomatoes quote:"Seeing The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is like having a second date with a woman who made you fall in love at first sight" (Lawrence Toppman, Charlotte Observer)
RT "Freshness":
97%

The Pianist
Starring Adrien Brody. Dir. Roman Polanski. Writ. Ronald Harwood, from the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman.
Premise (
IMDB): "A brilliant pianist, a Polish Jew, witnesses the restrictions Nazis place on Jews in the Polish capital, ...from restricted access to the building of the Warsaw ghetto. As his family is rounded up to be shipped off to the Nazi labor camps, he escapes deportation and eludes capture by living in the ruins of Warsaw."
Random Rotten Tomatoes quote: "It is hard not to be especially grateful for freedom after a film like this" (Wendy Weinstein, Film Journal International)
RT "Freshness":
95%

Y Tu Mamá También
Starring Starring Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Writ. Alfonso Cuarón and Carlos Cuarón.
Premise (
IMDB): "In Mexico, two teenage boys and an attractive older woman [note: "older" here means "thirty-three"] embark on a road trip and learn a thing or two about life, friendship, sex, and each other."
Random Rotten Tomatoes quote: "...a vivid, thoughtful, unapologetically raw coming-of-age tale full of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" (Sean Axmaker, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
RT "Freshness":
94%


Secondary contenders:
Spirited Away; My Big Fat Greek Wedding; Punch-Drunk Love; Insomnia; Bloody Sunday (disqualified from Best Foreign Film); Talk to Her (not chosen as a Foreign Film submission); Rabbit-Proof Fence; About a Boy; The Rookie; Bowling for Columbine (documentary); 25th Hour; The Quiet American; Minority Report; Atanar-juat: The Fast Runner; Road to Perdition; Russian Ark.
Why doesn't Cleo have a top ten list of her own? Well, careful investigation revealed that she only saw ten movies this year (sigh.) And they were, in chrono-logical order:

1. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
2. Panic Room
3. Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones
4. Minority Report
5. The Ring
6. Red Dragon
7. Punch-Drunk Love
8. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
9. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
10. Gangs of New York