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''The Insider'' and ''American Beauty'' are locks for a Best Picture nod

Hollywood insiders say the Oscar race is down to just eight films — Mark Harris explains

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”The Insider” and ”American Beauty” are locks for a Best Picture nod

When we last looked in on the Best Picture Oscar race, it was a complete free-for-all, an anything-goes contest in an anything-goes year. But Oscar buzz works in mysterious ways, and suddenly, the talk from studio insiders is this: It’s down to eight movies. That’s all. Forget about ”Three Kings,” ”Magnolia,” ”The End of the Affair,” ”The Straight Story,” ”Boys Don’t Cry”… however much you or I may love (some of) them, they’re out of the hunt. In the wake of the Golden Globes and the announcement of nominations from the Producers Guild and the Directors Guild, here are the candidates (in alphabetical order): ”American Beauty,” ”Being John Malkovich,” ”The Cider House Rules,” ”The Green Mile,” ”The Hurricane,” ”The Insider,” ”The Sixth Sense,” and ”The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

And here’s the spin on them, based on unscientific chats with voters, execs, and campaigners (people beating the drum for their own company’s movies were disqualified). Everyone agrees that the two locks for nominations are ”American Beauty” and ”The Insider.” ”Beauty” was confirmed as the front-runner by its three Golden Globes, and ”The Insider” makes it in because the voters who have caught it on tape have been bowled over by its seriousness of purpose, strong filmmaking, and terrific acting. As for the other six:

The Sixth Sense Once a dark horse, it’s being taken very seriously now; witness director M. Night Shyamalan’s DGA nomination. ”People love the kid and love the script,” says one voter. And don’t count out the film’s $277 million gross, by far the highest of the eight films; the Best Picture nominees usually include at least one blockbuster.

Being John Malkovich It’s the movie to vote for if you want to salute the indie spirit of ’99 — and its PGA and DGA nominations indicate that it’s a real contender. Some voters I talked to say the film isn’t ”serious” or ”important” enough to merit a nomination — but that didn’t stop ”The Full Monty,” ”Four Weddings and a Funeral,” or ”As Good as It Gets.”

The Talented Mr. Ripley Once a front-runner, Anthony Minghella’s thriller is definitely hurting in the wake of snubs from the Globes, the PGA, and the DGA. But it has passionate partisans, and one veteran campaigner guesses that support from the Academy’s cinematographers, editors, production designers, costumers, and so on will be enough to keep it in the race.

The Cider House Rules With a gross of less than $16 million, it’s the least-seen movie of the eight, but Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel has Miramax’s mighty marketing staff practically going from door-to-door hunting down votes. The movie plays extremely well on video — a plus for stay-at-home voters — but the lack of a DGA nomination for Hallström may indicate that its support is frail.

The Hurricane Norman Jewison’s biopic about Rubin Carter soared to No. 1 at the box office the day after Denzel Washington’s Golden Globe win. But increasingly loud grumbles about the film’s alleged inaccuracies may damage its chances, and Jewison’s failure to score a DGA nomination is a bad sign.

The Green Mile Until Frank Darabont got a surprise DGA nomination, Warner’s sentimental Stephen King flick was thought to be all but out of the contest. It’s got its champions, particularly among older voters — but with no cassettes of the film, how many of them have seen it?

Nominations are announced Feb. 15. For now, I’ll stick with EW’s early picks: ”American Beauty,” ”The Insider,” ”Being John Malkovich,” ”The Sixth Sense,” and ”The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Now, let’s hear yours.