September 10, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Read EW Online’s early preview of the Oscar race

Labor Day is already a distant memory, which means that days suddenly get shorter, movies suddenly get better, and the seven-month spectator sport known as the Oscar race has unofficially begun. Yes, I?m already talking about the Academy Awards — because so is every executive in every studio in Hollywood.

There?ll be lots to say in the coming months about which big fall and winter movies will be getting the big push, but this week, I?d like to concentrate on what will likely be forgotten — namely, everything that came out in the first eight months of 1999. Last year, only one Best Picture nomination and 3 of the 20 acting nods went to movies released before Labor Day — and that was in a year that included such heavyweight early contenders as ”Saving Private Ryan” and ”The Truman Show.” This year, the early field is even leaner. But for any Academy voters out there, here are some thoughts for the short list.

Best Picture Until a couple of weeks ago, the word out of Hollywood was this: Zero. Nothing. Not a single film with a chance of making the final five. And then, murmurs started about ”The Sixth Sense.” At first, Disney didn?t know what to make of this odd, haunting hybrid (not quite a horror movie, not quite a psychological drama), but audiences have, and as its grosses soar toward $200 million and beyond, it has to be taken seriously. I?d bet that if the American public voted right now, it?d be the best-liked movie of the year — and not without reason: Its exquisitely crafted script and performances make it worthy of a Best Picture nomination.

Best Actor Truth is, there?s nobody to overlook: I liked ”The Matrix” as much as anyone, but it just isn?t gonna happen for Keanu, or for Adam Sandler, or for Brendan Fraser. So here?s a thought: Matthew Broderick for his incredibly unvain, pent-up, pathetic-comic turn in ”Election.” Nobody has better conveyed the angst of being an early-middle-aged guy in a world that looks more like high school every day.

Best Actress Because Thandie Newton has landed plum roles in both ”Mission: Impossible 2” and the big-screen ”Charlie?s Angels,” everyone will know who she is by this time next year. What they may not know is that she gave one of this year?s finest performances as an African emigre working as a housekeeper in Italy in Bernardo Bertolucci?s ”Besieged.” When this hits video, don?t miss it.

Best Supporting Actor The Academy could complete an honorable list right now: There?s Haley Joel Osment?s precociously controlled ghostbuster in ”The Sixth Sense,” Chris Cooper?s taciturn coal-miner dad in ”October Sky,” Eddie Murphy?s hilarious twin turn in ”Bowfinger,” Tim Robbins? sinister neighbor in ”Arlington Road,” and Jeremy Northam?s brusque barrister in ”The Winslow Boy.” Bet on Osment, and wrap up consolation prizes for the rest.

Best Supporting Actress Lean pickings, although you can expect to see a strong campaign for ”Eyes Wide Shut”’s Nicole Kidman — and even though everyone seems to have hated the movie, I?d argue that her icy confessional scene earns her some serious consideration. Finally, if ”South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” doesn?t get recognized for its screenplay and its songs, there?s no justice. And your nominees are…?

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