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Independent films could be big contenders

”Elizabeth,” ”Celebrity,” and more are Oscar-worthy films from independent distributors

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If you think Waking Ned Devine has a lot in common with The Full Monty, that’s just fine with Fox Searchlight. In a holiday season during which independent film distributors scramble to identify and promote Oscar contenders, a campaign as simple as ”Insert new British movie title here” used to be a breeze. No more: Competition for indie Oscar nominations, which in recent seasons has resulted in as many as four indie Best Picture nods in one year, is now as fierce as the big-studio side of the race. Here’s a look at the playbooks for Searchlight’s rivals, all of which are hoping to put Ned Devine back to sleep.

MIRAMAX The indie colossus has grabbed at least one Best Picture nomination six years running. The good news is that this year, Miramax has six candidates for that slot. The bad news is, not one is a slam dunk a la The English Patient. With no obvious front-runner into which to pour its advertising and energy, Miramax will have to follow the leads of reviewers and position its films with care so as not to have them canceling one another out.

Watch for Little Voice‘s Jane Horrocks, as a withdrawn girl who can channel any singing voice she hears, to get pushed for Best Supporting Actress, leaving the Best Actress field clear for Brenda Blethyn as her mother. Clear, that is, unless reviews indicate a Best Actress push on behalf of Alfre Woodard in Down in the Delta, Maya Angelou’s directorial debut about a Chicago family heading home to Mississippi. Also rumored to give a nominatable supporting turn is Angelina Jolie as a club kid in Playing by Heart; Woody Allen, the celebrity behind Celebrity, is always a contender for at least a writing nod; and some are buzzing about Best Picture, Art Direction, and Costume Design possibilities for Shakespeare in Love, a period comedy about the poet starring Gwyneth Paltrow and ’97 nominees Ben Affleck and Judi Dench. But word is that Miramax’s biggest Best Picture push may be for a movie already in theaters: Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful.

SONY PICTURES CLASSICS The feather in this company’s cap is Meryl Streep in the five-sisters ensemble of Dancing at Lughnasa, but expect a supporting actress campaign, since Universal will likely put money behind Streep for Best Actress in One True Thing. For Best Director and Best Actor, keep an eye on The General, John Boorman’s B&W biopic of Irish mobster Martin Cahill (played by Brendan Gleeson). Boorman may already have a foot in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion thanks to his best director win at Cannes. And entering the Best Foreign Film and Picture categories, alongside Miramax’s Life Is Beautiful, is Central Station, a Brazilian film about a woman and her relationship with an orphaned child.

FINE LINE The grim Hurlyburly stars Kevin Spacey and Sean Penn as morally bankrupt Hollywood pals exploring existential issues; the movie may be too gloomy for a Best Picture nomination, but Penn and Spacey are, by virtue of resume and reputation, automatic inclusions on any Oscar-pick list. The same goes for Helena Bonham Carter and Kenneth Branagh in The Theory of Flight, a romance between a woman confined to a wheelchair and the artist who cares for her. Hey, physical struggle, unlikely love, and British accents worked for My Left Foot.