Ty Burr explains why ''Lord of the Rings,'' ''Mulholland Drive,'' and three other imaginative leaps should be this year's Best Picture nominees
Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, ...
Credit: Memento: Danny Rothenberg
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Fantasy films are the new Oscar leaders

Predicting a front-runner for the 2001 Best Picture Oscar has turned into one of those three-card monte games that Rudy Giuliani chased off the streets of New York: Wherever you expect that ace to be, it ain’t.

Initially, everyone was waiting, as we always do, for the December heavyweights to arrive, assuming that at least a few of the big, shiny award-pedigree movies like ”A Beautiful Mind,” ”Vanilla Sky,” ”Ali,” and ”The Majestic” would pan out as Oscar fodder. Surprise — they all developed engine trouble to one degree or another, with even the best of the bunch (”Mind” and ”Ali,” both well worth the price of a ticket) not quite having the critical/commercial oomph needed to send them arrowing toward the winner’s circle. Best Picture nominees? Probably. Best Actor winners? Possibly. Best Picture winners? Nope.

Then, at the end of the year, the critics groups and other organizations started coming out with their ”Best Of” lists, and things took a different tilt. ”Mulholland Drive” named best picture by the Boston and New York critics’ circles and by the National Society of Film Critics? Why, hardly anyone had seen the thing in the six weeks it had been in release. Robert Altman named Best Director for ”Gosford Park” by the New York critics, the National Society, and the AFI? Why, it hadn’t opened at all. And all those under-the-radar movies like ”In the Bedroom” and ”Monster’s Ball,” or on the radar but still fairly tiny blips like ”The Royal Tenenbaums” and ”Sexy Beast” and ”The Deep End”? Where’d they come from?

Now the landscape is shifting again with the AFI’s naming of ”The Fellowship of the Ring” as its choice for Best Picture. And now I think we’re beginning to see the pieces of the eventual race for the Oscar clicking into place. Initially, ”Ring” was not much of a contender: The hordes of Tolkien faithful were awaiting it, but, believe me, most of Hollywood and the media was holding its breath to see whether Peter Jackson and New Line had gambled on a proper Elvish train wreck.

Now the movie’s come out to grand reviews, grander box office, and — far more important — that mysterious word-of-mouth momentum that turns a mere film into a cultural event. NOW Hollywood’s taking notice, especially since there’s a very real possibility that ”Rings” may end up grossing more than ”Harry Potter.” Granted, box office millions don’t guarantee an Oscar — they often work against it — but it’s just possible that we may see a recurrence of the ”Titanic” effect, in which a singularly talented director bites off more than he can chew, is expected to fail mightily, instead succeeds mightily, and is rewarded both for his artistry and as the industry’s form of atonement.

There’s another commonality that one-time Oscar dark horses like ”Rings” and ”Mulholland” have: They’re vast, man-made fictional worlds that breathe with the natural ease of dreams and that hold water both artistically and narratively. Okay, EVERY movie is a two-hour slice of alternate reality, but those two films require audiences to take unusually big leaps of faith, and not a little of their pleasure comes from the length of the leaps and the depth and consistency of the ensuing experiences.

They’re not the only two who pulled this off last year. I can think of at least three other films that had the temerity to create fictive worlds that, while you were there, seemed more believable than our own. No, not ”Moulin Rouge,” at least not for me (hell of a fictive world, and I didn’t buy into it for a second). They’re ”Shrek,” ”Memento,” and, yes, ”Gosford Park,” which pointillistically depicts a 1930s British mansion as a massive, self-enclosed binary-star system of masters and servants.

That’s five places I’d never been before 2001, and I’m grateful for having been taken there. And it sounds an awful lot like a decent Best Picture slate, don’t you think?

The Royal Tenenbaums
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