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Best Picture

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An epic love story, heart-wrenching flashbacks, tragedy and death. No, we’re not talking about last year’s Oscar-winning The English Patient but about this year’s Best Picture wannabe TITANIC (1). Certainly, Titanic’s decks are stacked in its favor: Harking back to old-fashioned tear-jerkers like Dr. Zhivago, it has pleased most critics and almost all moviegoers. The only iceberg in its way is that $200 million price tag. ”I just have a problem with any movie costing that much money,” confides one Academy voter.

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (2) is another sure bet: Hailed as the year’s best picture by every major critics’ group, the intricately plotted film noir is also the year’s best-reviewed movie. Its adroit use of genuine L.A. locations should endear it to hometown voters, and older Academy members are sure to perk up at mentions of Lana Turner and Veronica Lake.

Two feel-good movies also seem headed for the Academy’s embrace: Hollywood was eagerly awaiting AS GOOD AS IT GETS (3) even before it opened, thanks to the pedigreed trio of Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and director James L. Brooks, and the film’s strong reception virtually ensures its inclusion. GOOD WILL HUNTING (4), on the other hand, began life as the work of two Hollywood neophytes — actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — but it’s become the best against-all-odds success story since 1976’s Oscar-winning Rocky (or at least since last year’s Sling Blade).

The fifth, and most problematic, contender is Steven Spielberg’s AMISTAD (5). A serious-issue movie — with searing images of the 19th-century slave trade — by one of the industry’s reigning directors, it should have been an automatic nominee. But it got off to a shaky start when novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud claimed the filmmakers had plagiarized her 1989 novel Echo of Lions. With controversy overshadowing its respectful reception, Amistad’s slot might be shaky, but no challenger has built up enough momentum to knock it out of the box. THE SWEET HEREAFTER, which didn’t get the critics’ prizes it needed, may be too austere for Hollywood tastes; BOOGIE NIGHTS, too risque; THE FULL MONTY, too slight; THE ICE STORM, too chilly. The Hollywood-Washington satire WAG THE DOG could sneak in — though Hollywood doesn’t usually exhibit much of a sense of humor about itself (just a few years ago, the Academy conspicuously snubbed The Player). And THE WINGS OF THE DOVE (shot in England and Italy) or THE BOXER (filmed in Ireland) might stand a better chance in a year when the Academy’s motto wasn’t America first. — GK

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LOVABLE LONG SHOT

Academy voters are likely to reach back to the 1950s to honor L.A. Confidential, to 1912 for Titanic, even to 1839 for Amistad. But their memories may not extend back to last February, when Mike Newell’s smart, rueful gangster-buddy movie Donnie Brasco opened. The film, Newell, eight-time nominee Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, and the knockout of a script by Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) would surely be front-runners for nominations had the movie opened last month instead of a year ago. They still deserve to be.

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