By EW Staff
Updated January 10, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Gangs of New York: M. Tursi

Who’s up for the Best Picture Oscar

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Some of December’s anticipated Oscar contenders should have been exposed as empty hype when they opened. Instead, everything that was supposed to be good was.

Surprisingly, the surest nominee doesn’t have a single major critics’ group win yet: CHICAGO. Riding a wave of excellent notices to great initial grosses, the movie will win the vote of anyone rooting for the resurgence of movie musicals. Last year, the less accessible ”Moulin Rouge” snagged seven nods, a total Rob Marshall’s film should beat. Another likely finalist is THE HOURS, a prestige literary adaptation (which never hurts) that’s also a tearjerker (never hurts either) and an acting showcase (the trifecta!). A best-picture win from the National Board of Review put Stephen Daldry’s film on the map early, and there it remains.

GANGS OF NEW YORK is trickier. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance has kept the film in the mix, but even its admirers point to flaws. However, respect for ”Gangs”’ accomplished production (expect lots of technical nods) and for Martin Scorsese’s endurance through a tough shoot and a tense postproduction should secure a nomination. As for THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS, it’s gotten better reviews and done bigger business than the first, which landed 13 nods, so where’s the love? While some voters may feel director Peter Jackson got his due last year, enough should be willing to reward his sustained achievement to put ”Towers” in contention (otherwise, how will they give ”The Return of the King” the big prize next year?).

Among other competitors, MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING has clicked with older voters, but we can’t believe the Academy is going to mistake this underdog for one of the five best films of the year. ABOUT SCHMIDT and ADAPTATION, two critical darlings, seem to be suffering from mild backlash, the former over whether it’s too condescending to its corn-belt ensemble, the latter over whether that last half hour is a letdown. Both will score in other categories, but perhaps not here. Last summer’s ROAD TO PERDITION didn’t get the sustained support necessary to survive a competitive winter, and ANTWONE FISHER, which needed Academy word of mouth to carry it past muted reviews, should have hit more theaters sooner. (Why didn’t Fox give it the plum wide-release date that went to ”Drumline”?) Instead, we think the fifth nomination will go to freshman indie Focus Features, either for Todd Haynes’ FAR FROM HEAVEN (the New York Film Critics Circle best picture) or for Roman Polanski’s Holocaust portrait THE PIANIST (surging with a best-picture win from the National Society of Film Critics). Our call: ”The Pianist” by a hair.