Oscar 2004: An Early Preview

Now that the Academy Awards have been awarded for the films of 2003, we can start to look ahead towards the likely nominees for this year.

At this time last year, Charlize Theron was in Central Florida, filming what would become her Oscar-winning performance in “Monster,” independently, without the support of a distribution deal. Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” was barely a blip on the radar screens of even the most ardent Bill Murray fan. Since it would be nigh near impossible to predict who will be at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles a year from now, this list is meant to begin a discussion between friends and family, to place early focus on what will hopefully be a deserving crop of films in 2004.

Best Picture

Alexander: Unless he is making a work of pulp fiction like “U-Turn” or “Natural Born Killers,” any film by three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone should not be overlooked as a potential Best Picture nominee. Stone’s next film is this $100,000,000 epic about the life of the fourth century BC Macedonian conqueror, featuring Colin Farrell as Alexander, alongside Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie. Set for release on November 5, through Warner Brothers.

Additional potential nominations: Director (Stone), Actor (Farrell), Supporting Actor (Hopkins), Supporting Actress (Jolie), Adapted Screenplay (Stone), Original Score (Vangelis), Editing (Yann Herve, Alex Marquez and Thomas J. Nordberg), Cinematography (Rodrigo Prieto), Art Direction (Jonathan McKinstry and Kevin Phipps), Costume Design (Jenny Beavan), Sound Mixing.

The Aviator: “Gangs of New York” director and actor Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, who at one time were going to work together on a rival Alexander The Great project, instead join forces to bring this partial biography of billionaire Howard Hughes to the screen. With a screenplay by “Gladiator” scribe John Logan, “The Aviator” focuses on the years 1930 to 1947, when Hughes attempted to make himself a Hollywood mogul, and has more Oscar-winners and nominees than any film in recent history. DiCaprio’s co-stars include Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law and John C. Reilly, and working behind-the-scenes with Scorsese include Oscar-winners Sandy Powell (costume designer), Robert Richardson (director of photography), Thelma Schoonmaker (editor). “The Aviator” is scheduled to open on December 17.

Additional potential nominations: Director (Scorsese), Actor (DiCaprio), Supporting Actress (Blanchett), Original Screenplay (Logan), Score (Howard Shore), Editing (Schoonmaker), Cinematography (Richardson), Art Direction (Dante Ferretti), Costume Design (Powell), Sound Mixing.

Cinderella Man: The last time director Ron Howard, producer Brian Grazer and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman worked together, the three of them won Oscars for “A Beautiful Mind.” This time around, the trio will team with Oscar winners Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger for this biography of Jim Braddock, the Depression-era heavyweight boxer whose fairy-tale rise from poor New York boxer to the Heavyweight Champion of the World earned him the nickname “Cinderella Man.” Universal Pictures at the moment plans to go head-to-head against “The Aviator” on December 17.

Additional potential nominations: Director (Howard), Actor (Crowe), Supporting Actor (Paul Giamatti), Actress or Supporting Actress (Zellweger), Original Screenplay (Goldsman, Cliff Hollingsworth and Charlie Mitchell), Score (James Horner), Editing (Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill), Cinematography (Salvatore Totino), Costume Design.

Closer: Based on the play by Patrick Marber, “Closer” has one of the more impressive Oscar pedigrees of 2004, including five time nominated producer/director Mike Nichols (winner for “The Graduate”), producer Scott Rudin (whose films include “The Truman Show” and “The Hours”), Julia Roberts and Jude Law. Clive Owen and Natalie Portman co-star in this drama about love, passion and betrayal between two couples, which Sony currently plans to open on December 3.

Additional potential nominations: Director (Nichols), Actor (Law), Actress (Roberts), Supporting Actor (Owen), Supporting Actress (Portman), Adapted Screenplay (Marber).

The Interpreter: With Sean Penn’s win, this Hitchcockian thriller now has no less than three Oscar-winning talents aboard. Sydney Pollack, who won twice in 1985 for producing and directing “Out of Africa,” will direct Penn and 2003 winner Nicole Kidman, who stars as an interpreter at the United Nations who overhears a plot to assassinate a foreign dignitary. The first film ever to be allowed to shoot within the United Nations building, Universal Studios currently has the film slotted for a November 19 release.
Additional potential nominations: Director (Pollack), Actress (Kidman), Supporting Actor (Penn), Original Screenplay (Scott Frank and Charles Randolph), Score, Cinematography (Darius Khondji).

The Passion of the Christ: Don’t laugh. Nothing makes Oscar sit up and take notice more than an unexpected smash hit. Just a couple years ago, the astonishing success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” helped give the film a well-deserved ten nominations, and even many of the detractors of this film can acknowledge the images are powerful and moving. There always seems to be one film nominated out of left field. Don’t be too shocked if this is the one for 2004.

Additional potential nominations: Director (Mel Gibson), Actor (James Caviezel), Supporting Actress (Maia Morgenstern), Adapted Screenplay (Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson), Score (John Debney), Cinematography (Caleb Deschanel), Editing (John Wright), Art Direction (Francesco Frigeri), Costume Design (Maurizio Millenotti), Makeup, Sound Mixing, Sound Effects Editing.

The Phantom of the Opera: The third contender from Warner Brothers on this list is Joel Schumacher’s version of the long running Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, itself based on the oft-adapted novel by Gaston Leroux. Relying on talent instead of star power, the $40,000,000 production is already rumored to be getting high scores in test screenings, even though the film does not open until December.

Additional potential nominations: Director (Schumacher), Actor (Gerard Butler), Actress (Emmy Rossum), Supporting Actor (Patrick Wilson), Adapted Screenplay (Schumacher), Best Song (Andrew Lloyd Webber, if he writes a new song for the movie, as he did with “Evita” in 1996), Cinematography (John Mathieson), Editing (Terry Rawlings), Art Direction (John Fenner), Costume Design (Alexandra Byrne), Makeup, Sound Mixing.

The Polar Express: Could become the first film to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Animated Feature. Robert Zemeckis directs this $150,000,000 CG animated adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s book, which stars Tom Hanks as the conductor of a steam locomotive which takes doubting children to the North Pole for a meeting with Santa Claus. The film, which is the final movie featuring the late, great Michael Jeter, was shot using motion-capture of the actors, who where then animated into the CG-created scenes.

Additional potential nominations: Director (Zemeckis), Adapted Screenplay (William Broyles, Jr. and Zemeckis), Special Effects.

Proof: David Auburn’s four-character play won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play when it premiered in 2001. John Madden, who directed the 1998 Best Picture winner “Shakespeare In Love,” is directing Oscar-winners Anthony Hopkins and Gywneth Paltrow in the cinematic adaptation, about the long-suffering daughter of a genius math professor who has lost his grip on reality. Adapted for the screen by Rebecca Miller, who likely learned a thing or two about writing from her father Arthur Miller, “Proof” is Miramax’s number one contender for Oscar glory this year, and is scheduled to open on Christmas Eve in New York and Los Angeles.

Additional potential nominations: Director (Madden), Actor (Hopkins), Actress (Paltrow), Supporting Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal), Supporting Actress (Hope Davis), Adapted Screenplay (Auburn), Score.

An Unfinished Life: While Lasse Hallstrom has yet to direct an Oscar winner for Miramax, two of their last three collaborations (“The Cider House Rules” and “Chocolat”) have been nominated for Best Picture. Here, the director teams with fomer acting nominees Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman to tell the story of a farmer (Redford) who allows his former daughter-in-law (Jennifer Lopez) to move in with him, to help care for his grand-daughter, even though he still blames the women for the death of his son. Alan Ladd, Jr., who won an Oscar in 1995 for producing “Braveheart,” adds an extra luster to the project, which is also scheduled to open on Christmas Eve.

Additional potential nominations: Director (Hallstrom), Actor (Redford), Actress (Lopez), Supporting Actor (Freeman), Original Screenplay (Mark Spragg and Virginia Spragg), Cinematography (Oliver Stapleton), Score (Christopher Young), Editing (Andrew Mondshein), Art Direction (David Gropman).

Other Titles to Watch

Beyond The Sea and De-lovely: Two music-based docudramas. The former stars Kevin Spacey (who also directs) as tragic 1960’s singer Bobby Darin, while the latter features Kevin Kline as song master Cole Porter. Both Oscar-winning actors should never be overlooked at award time.
The Brothers Grimm: Terry Gilliam’s latest could see some technical nominations including Cinematography, Costume Design and Makeup.

I, Robot: Likely nominee for several technical nominations including Visual Effects.

The Incredibles: Already the front runner for Best Animated Feature.

J.M. Barrie’s Neverland: A curiosity for 2004. Marc Forster, the director of “Monsters Ball,” follows up his breakthrough film with a thoroughly English story about the author of “Peter Pan.” With a cast that includes Julie Christey, Johnny Depp, Dustin Hoffman and Kate Winslet, was originally scheduled to open in the fall of 2003, but was removed from Miramax’s release schedule, despite having been rated PG in the spring of 2003. The film was even featured in last year’s Vanity Fair Hollywood issue, to help get some early press going. Based on those Vanity Fair photos alone, the film could see nominations for Art Direction and Costume Design.

King Arthur: Producer Jerry Bruckheimer hopes to duplicate the success of “Pirates of the Caribbean” with this retelling of the Arthurian legend. Directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley, film there are potentials nods for Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects.

The Life Aquatic: Alfred Hitchcock had Jimmy Stewart. Martin Scorsese had Robert DeNiro. Today, the best director/actor tag-team combination is Wes Anderson and Bill Murray, who are together for the third time, after “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” in his comedic drama about a famed oceanographer who must concurrently deal with the discovery of a long-lost child, the loss of his best friend and partner, the quest for a mythic shark and other distractions. Along with Bill Murray and frequent Anderson collaborator Owen Wilson, the eclectic cast includes Cate Blanchett, Bud Cort, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, Jeff Goldblum, Anjelica Huston and Noah Taylor. This could be the Best Actor win for Murray that he was denied this year, along with nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Cinematography and Special Effects (courtesy of Henry Selick).

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The adaptation of Daniel Handler’s famed series of books for children, which will star Jim Carrey and Meryl Streep, is likely to get nominations for Costume Design and Sound Effects Editing, and could squeak in for Score and Cinematography.

Shark Tale: Dreamworks entry for this year’s Best Animated Feature race.

Son of the Mask: The first film was nominated for Visual Effects, which gives the sequel the potential for a similar nomination.

Vanity Fair: Mira Nair’s follow-up to “Monsoon Wedding,” an adaptation of William Thackeray’s oft-filmed novel. Reese Witherspoon could secure her first Actress nomination as the social-climbing Becky Sharp. Nominations are also possible for Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Costume Design and Cinematography.

A Very Long Engagement: In 2001, “Amelie ” became the cause celebre amongst the film intelligentsia, grabbing five Oscar nominations including Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Its director and star, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Audrey Tatou, respectively, have teamed again on this $50,000,000 adaptation of Sebastien Japrisot’s World War I-themed novel, which features a supporting role by two time Oscar winner Jodie Foster. A long shot for Best Picture, “Engagement” should be France’s nominee for Best Foreign Language film, and is a contender for several other awards including Best Adapted Screenplay.