Oscar's eyes wide open

Almost anything goes in this year's Academy Awards field

— What glorious chaos this year's Oscar race offers.

Frontrunners often begin to emerge by now. In past awards seasons, films such as "Titanic," "American Beauty" and last year's "Gladiator" rose to status as favorites in December and held on to dominate the Oscars in March.

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AP Photo

Cast members of Touchstone Pictures' "The Royal Tenenbaums" appear in this promotional photo. The ensemble film about a family of failed geniuses may have a shot at an Oscar. From left are Ben Stiller, Danny Glover, Gywneth Paltrow and Anjelica Huston at the Tenenbaum dinner table.

But this time around, as studios screen the last of their prestige films, there are plenty of films catching solid Oscar buzz but no consensus on the lead contender. Reactions are across the board on latecomers with apparent Oscar pedigrees, among them "A Beautiful Mind," "Ali" and "Black Hawk Down."

And earlier films such as "Moulin Rouge" and "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" provoked love-it or hate-it sentiment among viewers.

Other awards help sort out the Oscar race. Major critics awards, honors from trade unions such as the Directors and Screen Actors guilds, the Golden Globes and the new American Film Institute awards can make or break a film's shot at Oscar nominations, which will be announced Feb. 12.

Another factor is box-office performance. If "A Beautiful Mind" or "Ali" were to bomb, their awards buzz could tail off. Conversely, if "Vanilla Sky" � generally being dismissed as cinematic sleight-of-hand � were to catch on big with audiences, that could prompt awards voters to rethink its Oscar worthiness.

Here's a rundown of possible contenders in major categories:

Best Picture:

There's a trio of films with the sort of weighty subject matter that often clicks with Oscar voters: "A Beautiful Mind," with Russell Crowe as paranoid schizophrenic and mathematical genius John Nash; "Ali," starring Will Smith as the outspoken boxer; and "Black Hawk Down," based on a doomed U.S. military foray in Somalia.

Few are raving about the movies, though. Each has drawn healthy but unspectacular responses.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," part one of the J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy trilogy, has gained acclaim as a serious candidate. The film has exhilarating action and dazzling visuals, and nicely captures Tolkien's sense of camaraderie among hobbits, elves, dwarves, humans and wizards.

The tragicomic musical "Moulin Rouge" has both fierce defenders and detractors. Its advantages: A nomination in the Golden Globe musical or comedy category would boost its Oscar hopes. And the film has notable achievements for every branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: actors, directors, set designers, makeup artists, visual-effects creators � all can find something to appreciate.

Steven Spielberg's "A.I." has a tougher road. It has serious admirers, but it left many people cold and puzzled.

"The Royal Tenenbaums," an ensemble film about a family of failed geniuses, may have a shot, thanks largely to an outstanding cast led by Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston and Gwyneth Paltrow. Another ensemble, Robert Altman's satiric whodunit "Gosford Park," also might be in the running because of great performances.

Savvy Oscar marketer Miramax, which campaigned its way to best-picture nominations for "The Cider House Rules" and "Chocolat" the last two years, is pushing "The Shipping News," conveniently directed by the same man who made those films, director Lasse Hallstrom.

With the addition of an animated-film category this year, the cartoon features "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc." appear less likely to compete in the overall best-picture field.

Best Actor

This could be the most competitive acting category, dominated by big-name winners and nominees from past years. The most likely of those: last year's winner, Russell Crowe, for "A Beautiful Mind"; Kevin Spacey, "The Shipping News"; Denzel Washington, "Training Day"; Gene Hackman, "The Royal Tenenbaums"; Sean Penn, "I Am Sam."

In his first major dramatic lead, Will Smith delivers well enough with "Ali" to warrant Oscar consideration.

Tom Cruise is good in "Vanilla Sky," but lackluster response to the film might scuttle his chances. Ditto for Haley Joel Osment in "A.I.," who also faces a possible reluctance by Oscar voters to nominate a child actor in a lead category.

Other possibilities: Ewan McGregor, "Moulin Rouge"; Tom Wilkinson, "In the Bedroom"; Billy Bob Thornton for either "The Man Who Wasn't There" or "Monster's Ball"; Guy Pearce, "Memento."

Footnote: One of the year's best male performances was by John Cameron Mitchell in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." But this isn't Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie"; Mitchell's transsexual glam-rocker is almost certainly too hip and weird for Academy tastes.

Best Actress

This was last year's strongest category, with Julia Roberts ultimately coasting to victory for "Erin Brockovich." It's a lighter field this year, opening the door for contenders in smaller films that don't necessarily scream "Oscar."

Nicole Kidman has two shots for a nomination: as a singing prostitute in "Moulin Rouge" and as a mother beset by phantoms in "The Others." Past winner Sissy Spacek seems like a shoo-in for a nomination with her icy, repressed performance as a grieving mother from "In the Bedroom."

Other possibilities: Michelle Pfeiffer, "I Am Sam"; Tilda Swinton, "The Deep End"; Halle Berry, "Monster's Ball"; Cate Blanchett, "Charlotte Gray"; Judi Dench, "Iris"; Julianne Moore, "The Shipping News"; Audrey Tautou, "Amelie"; Stockard Channing, "The Business of Strangers"; Hilary Swank, "The Affair of the Necklace."

Best Supporting Actor

What gives with Jon Voight? First, he was unrecognizable as Franklin Roosevelt in "Pearl Harbor," now he's more unrecognizable as Howard Cosell in "Ali." But his turn as the sportscaster could earn him a nomination. "Ali" co-star Jamie Foxx also may have prospects as a troubled buddy of the boxer.

Other possibilities: Ben Kingsley, "Sexy Beast"; Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen, "Lord of the Rings"; Ethan Hawke, "Training Day"; Clive Owen, "Gosford Park"; Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore and William Fichtner, "Black Hawk Down"; Jim Broadbent for either "Moulin Rouge" or "Iris"; Marlon Brando, "The Score"; Jude Law, "A.I."; Joe Pantoliano, "Memento"; Luke Wilson and Owen Wilson, "The Royal Tenenbaums."

Longshots: Steve Buscemi, "Ghost Cars With Boys."

Supporting Actress

Yes, she's a pretty face, but Jennifer Connelly has proved in recent years that she's a terrific actress. She could emerge as a front-runner for "A Beautiful Mind."

Other possibilities: Gwyneth Paltrow and Anjelica Huston, "The Royal Tenenbaums"; Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren and Kelly Macdonald, "Gosford Park"; Frances McDormand, "The Man Who Wasn't There"; Frances O'Connor, "A.I."; Carrie-Anne Moss, "Memento"; Kate Winslet, "Iris"; Judi Dench, "The Shipping News"; Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz, "Vanilla Sky"; Marisa Tomei, "In the Bedroom"; Robin Wright Penn, "The Pledge"; Naomi Watts, "Mulholland Drive."

Best Director

Ron Howard got skunked when "Apollo 13" picked up an armload of nominations but not for directing. This time, he'll likely get the credibility of a best-director nomination for "A Beautiful Mind."

Other possibilities: Ridley Scott, who made last year's best-picture winner "Gladiator," for "Black Hawk Down"; Michael Mann, "Ali"; Peter Jackson, "Lord of the Rings"; Baz Luhrmann, "Moulin Rouge"; Steven Spielberg, "A.I."; Wes Anderson, "The Royal Tenenbaums"; Lasse Hallstrom, "The Shipping News"; Robert Altman, "Gosford Park"; Christopher Nolan, "Memento."

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