But other possible nominees, like ''Traffic,'' have yet to win audience approval, says Mark Harris

By Mark Harris
Updated December 25, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST
Russell Crowe, Gladiator
Credit: Dreamworks Pictures

”Gladiator” and ”Erin Brockovich” lead the Best Picture Oscar race

This is how gratifyingly, intriguingly murky the Academy Awards race for Best Picture is: At this writing, there is not a single contender for Oscar’s top category that doesn’t have at least one strike against it.

Consider the three films that currently share front runner status (by a consensus much shakier than the one that had already anointed ”American Beauty” by this time last year). Ridley Scott’s epic ”Gladiator” is a fair bet to make the final five (in fact, I’d put money on it leading the nomination totals on Feb. 13). But it has to overcome the perception on the part of some dissenters that it’s merely a glorified summer movie in an ignoble genre — the sword and sandal epic — that’s better suited to ”Mystery Science Theater 3000” than Oscar night.

On the other end of the spectrum are two films anointed by the country’s major critics’ organizations: Ang Lee’s ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (which won the Los Angeles group’s Best Picture prize), and Steven Soderbergh’s ”Traffic” (which was honored by New York). Lee’s film will have to make history to get a Best Picture nomination: No Asian language film has ever cracked the category, nor — despite the recent inclusion of ”Il Postino” and ”Life Is Beautiful” — has the Best Picture race ever included a subtitled film this genuinely ”foreign” (as in unusual, exotic, non- Western). As for ”Traffic,” it has yet to be field tested in a single movie house — and if audiences aren’t as rapturous as critics, a ”what’s the big deal?” backlash could set in.

And those three are the ones with GOOD chances. Here’s what the negatives on their competition look like:

”Erin Brockovich” suffers from an early 2000 release date and the possibility that voters who honor director Steven Soderbergh’s other movie, ”Traffic,” may want to spread the wealth.

Two films beloved by critics — Curtis Hanson’s ”Wonder Boys” and Cameron Crowe’s ”Almost Famous” — will try to overcome indifferent box office using opposing strategies. ”Almost Famous” will try to make voters forget that it flopped, while Paramount has effectively REMINDED voters of the failure of ”Wonder Boys” in the hope that they’ll want to rescue the film by giving it the ”The Insider”/ ”Quiz Show” slot.

”Billy Elliot” — the subject of what may be the year’s most aggressive early bird campaign — will have to convince naysayers that it’s more than just a British version of ”Flashdance,” and knock off a pair of contenders that want to take it down: Miramax’s ”Chocolat” (which will push hard for the triumph of the human spirit vote), and Paramount Classics’ ”You Can Count on Me” (which will siphon off some of the little movie that could contingent).

Three more movies that are only now going into wide release will have to fight a crowded marketplace. Robert Zemeckis’ ”Cast Away” needs to do blockbuster numbers — and get strong word of mouth — in order to convince voters that it’s a great movie, not just a showcase for a great actor, Tom Hanks. The Cuban Missile Crisis drama ”Thirteen Days” was locked out by the Golden Globes and will have to fight hard to get on the radar during Academy voting in January. And Philip Kaufman’s ”Quills,” which won the season’s very first Best Picture prize (from the National Board of Review), will have to stay in theaters and build its audience in order to overcome a perception that it’s peaked too soon.

EW’s movie department has already picked its final five — the results will be published on Jan. 5. Any guesses?