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Oscars 2000: BEST PICTURE

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It all starts with AMERICAN BEAUTY. As anyone savvy in the ways of the little gold god will tell you, director Sam Mendes’ crystalline dark comedy about the root rot festering beneath the average suburban family tree was a lock for a Best Picture nod from the moment it opened to raves in September. But look closer (as the poster says), and you’ll find a very close and confusing race for the remaining four spots.

Sure things? Forget it. But edging into that neighborhood is Michael Mann’s censors-and-cigarettes drama THE INSIDER, a box office disappointment that’s begun to take on the gleam of a movie the Academy wants to rescue (think Shawshank Redemption). Looking pretty good — but not a lock — is Anthony Minghella’s thriller THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, a film that’s dividing audiences (some loooove its creepiness, others are turned off). Its solid box office, the campaigning efforts of Miramax and Paramount, and its technical and artistic polish are probably enough to put Ripley in the final five (barring a backlash).

That leaves two anything-goes slots — let’s say one is taken by a mainstream smash and the other by an out-of-left-field triumph. For the first, don’t count out M. Night Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE, a spectacular piece of storytelling whose $276 million take (it’s now the 12th-highest domestic grosser ever) could put it in the Best Picture race by acclamation. Its main blockbuster competition is Frank Darabont’s THE GREEN MILE, which will have to overcome comparisons to Shawshank and gripes about its length, but has picked up considerable steam after a slowish start.

As for the underdog, we’re betting on Spike Jonze’s BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, a perfect choice to represent the new narrative techniques and styles that defined the year in movies. But David Lynch’s THE STRAIGHT STORY, a critical success by a director the Academy respects, could fill the bill as well, especially since the movie is said to play very well on the VCR, where many voters will view it for the first time.

The most serious threat to the top five is THE HURRICANE; it’s won strong reviews, but the poetic license it takes with Rubin Carter’s life story could tarnish its chances. How the film plays with audiences for the next month will be crucial. The same goes for Neil Jordan’s THE END OF THE AFFAIR and Lasse Hallstrom’s THE CIDER HOUSE RULES; both films will benefit from top-of-the-line campaigns by their studios. Milos Forman’s MAN ON THE MOON has left too many moviegoers cold. MAGNOLIA is a possible dark horse, but may be too long and too weird for voters. Mike Leigh’s TOPSY-TURVY and Kimberly Peirce’s BOYS DON’T CRY are probably too small. That, of course, leaves DEUCE BIGALOW: MALE GIGOLO. Hey, Disney! Where’s our Oscar cassette?

For Your Consideration

Last October THREE KINGS, starring George Clooney, was considered an early Best Picture contender. Since then — despite a Best Picture nod from the Boston critics — enthusiasm seems to have waned. Let the buzz begin again! David O. Russell’s Gulf War tale is the best kind of war movie — brutally savage, deeply moral. Maybe too deep: Not even Saving Private Ryan showed us carnage from a bullet’s point of view.

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