Sean Astin, Elijah Wood, ...
Credit: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: Pierre Vinet
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Who’s up for the Best Picture Oscar

Can anyone beat ”The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”? At first glance, it doesn’t seem likely. The third and final installment in New Line’s wildly successful franchise has a New York Film Critics Circle award, record-breaking box office, and all-around hobbit power behind it, so it’ll take a major surge by another contender to turn this into a race.

Which isn’t to say that’s out of the question. The equally epic ”Cold Mountain” dominated the Golden Globe nominations and carries the dual pedigree of two past winners — director Anthony Minghella and star Nicole Kidman — not to mention that unquantifiable Miramax mojo. On a smaller scale, the year’s other sure thing is ”Mystic River,” which should coast on its second-to-none acting and Clint Eastwood’s superb direction.

Our hunch is that the category will be filled out by one more bank buster and one indie — but which ones? From the big studios, ”The Last Samurai” won early praise from the National Board of Review but received sharply divided critical response. While ”Big Fish” will certainly tug at many voters’ heartstrings, the film’s combination of whimsy and emotionalism is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition; given its slow release pattern, ”Fish” may fall victim to the Academy’s dopey and misguided decision to accelerate the awards schedule this year (by the way, since the faster schedule was ostensibly intended to put a cap on campaigning, and campaigning this year has been as cutthroat as ever, what exactly was the point?).

Speaking of campaigning, Universal has done everything but start a special Equine branch of the Academy in order to get ”” a nomination, but although the film may be one of the strongest horses from the first two thirds of the year, it seems to have completed its race months ago. The most see-worthy just might be ”Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” which boasts strong reviews and the potent (and Academy-friendly) combo of Peter Weir and Russell Crowe.

Of the more modest films, there’s the heartwarming ”In America,” which has picked up some steam in the past month but might come across as too small. ”House of Sand and Fog” features several indelible performances but also one of the bleakest endings of the year. Ditto ”21 Grams,” which was completely shut out by the Globes. And lacking much in the way of production values (except for those way-cool animation sequences), critical fave ”American Splendor” might fare better in the writing and acting categories.

That leaves perhaps the most beloved indie darling, Sofia Coppola’s ”Lost in Translation,” which heralded both the arrival of a major filmmaking talent and the renaissance of Bill Murray. Some say the film is too small to make the final five in a year studded with epics, tragedies, and history lessons, but what’s a Best Picture race without an indie underdog?

21 Grams

  • Movie
  • R
  • 125 minutes
  • Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu