It’s a two-track race. While Hollywood studios made money on aliens and twisters in 1996, they were left with a bare handful of quality films — despite the studios’ prolific output. Meanwhile, there’s a crowded field of richly deserving independent movies keeping the race interesting. So what will happen on Oscar night? An unlikely brawl among several Davids and a couple of Goliaths.

Ironically, Sony Pictures — which spent most of the year releasing flop movies (Multiplicity, The Fan) — has emerged as the one studio with definite Oscar prospects. Hollywood liberals are sure to honor the critically acclaimed THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT [A], a bio-comedy about the controversial Hustler publisher. The film, which waves a flag for the First Amendment, is an unapologetic message movie, a genre Oscar has repeatedly honored, from 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front to 1993’s Philadelphia and Schindler’s List.

Sony’s other contribution, the love story-cum-sports comedy JERRY MAGUIRE [B], could be written off as a mere entertainment. But not only did the likable Tom Cruise vehicle win respectful reviews, it’s also a moneymaker ($83 million to date). Plus, the tale of a high-powered exec who is forced to reexamine his priorities is a story to which Hollywood can relate.

The remaining studio contenders are on shakier ground: Twentieth Century Fox’s THE CRUCIBLE has yet to figure in any of the critics’ awards and didn’t even garner a Golden Globe nomination for best drama. Disney’s EVITA scored a Globe nomination, but its drastically divided critical response has lessened its Oscar chances. Don’t cry for Evita, however; its sets and costumes (Madonna changes clothes 85 times) should be duly noted on the big night. And, even though Academy voters have been sent videotapes of Kenneth Branagh’s HAMLET, the film’s nearly four-hour running time may be just too daunting.

In contrast, the indie scene is crowded with possibilities: THE ENGLISH PATIENT [C] has all the earmarks of an Oscar nominee — a big-scale love story safely set in the past. SHINE [D], the portrait of a troubled artist, is reminiscent of 1989 nominee My Left Foot, and FARGO [E] is Pulp Fiction with heart.

By contrast, both SECRETS & LIES and BREAKING THE WAVES, though critically admired, are austere, anti-Hollywood movies that could test the patience of even the Academy’s more adventurous members. The respectable sibling comedy BIG NIGHT may ultimately prove to be just too small. And TRAINSPOTTING is Pulp Fiction without stars — and with a toilet scene that would make for the most unglamorous film clip in Oscar history.



In a year when special effects and dalmatians dominated, LONE STAR reminded moviegoers that nothing is richer than interweaving the stories of a dozen characters into a narrative that doesn’t waste a line, a gesture, or a frame of film. Writer-director John Sayles’ dusty slice of Texas life was a love story, a social study, a family saga, and a murder mystery. The result deserves a Best Picture nod.