Although the year lacks stand-out such as last year's ''The English Patient,'' the race for the 1998 Academy Awards has begun

Handicapping the Oscars is traditionally a winter sport, but if you think it’s too early to start checking out the field, we offer these facts for your consideration: By this point in 1995, moviegoers were already lining up for two films — Apollo 13 and Braveheart — that would go on to receive a total of 19 nominations, including two Best Picture nods. And 1996 was still in its infancy when Shine took the Sundance Film Festival by storm and Fargo won the hearts of critics. So some of 1997’s biggest Oscar contenders must be out already. A future Best Picture or Best Actress could very well be at the cineplex this minute. Right?

Put that question to the studios and you’ll see facial expressions as blank as Jason Patric’s in Speed 2. At the halfway mark of 1997, there’s surprisingly little for Academy voters to choose from. ”Right now,” says publicist Tony Angellotti, who helped engineer The English Patient‘s winning campaign last year, ”there are probably only about two dozen people in town even thinking about the Oscars.”

That doesn’t mean that next year’s awards won’t be interesting; usually, the bulk of nominations goes to films released after Labor Day. But so far, only one film this year has gotten the kind of rave reviews and appreciative crowds that guarantee a Best Picture nomination — Best Picture, that is, of 1977. After Star Wars, it’s been a bumpy ride. Neither Cannes — where Secrets & Lies debuted last year — nor Sundance fielded many potential contenders. ”They were both underwhelming,” says Sony Pictures Classics copresident Michael Barker. And Hollywood hasn’t done much better. ”It’s really been terrible,” laments one Academy insider. ”The only movie I’ve seen this year that was really interesting has been Chasing Amy” — the raunchy, verbally explicit style of which will likely have more Academy voters checking their pacemakers than their ballots.

In the acting categories, things look a shade brighter. Peter Fonda, never nominated as an actor and staging a comeback as the Henry Fonda-like paterfamilias in Ulee’s Gold, has staked a claim for Best Actor consideration. Rupert Everett — rediscovered at 38 in My Best Friend’s Wedding — could snag a Best Supporting Actor nod for the kind of amusing turn that, ironically, has won Supporting Actress trophies for performers like Mira Sorvino and Marisa Tomei. John Travolta’s plaudits for Face/Off could help him to a nomination (as could the perception that he was robbed of a nod a couple of years back for Get Shorty). Al Pacino and Johnny Depp got some of their strongest reviews ever for TriStar’s Donnie Brasco — probably the year’s best-received movie so far from a major studio — but the film ended its run months ago and is likely to slip from Hollywood’s memory unless Sony mounts a big year-end campaign (as Gramercy did last year for Fargo). And Army Archerd used his Daily Variety column to remind voters that there’s nothing to keep them from nominating James Woods’ vocal performance as Hades in Hercules — though any ‘toon turn must be seen as the longest of long shots.