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Lions and tigers and bras, oh my

Oscars: Swords, volleyballs and stiletto heels


(CNN) -- Until recently Hollywood's class of 2000 was shaping up as a lackluster collection of movies -- at least, from an artistic view. "Gladiator" and "Erin Brockovich" were the only standouts heading into the home stretch. But in the waning months of the year, several strong releases with international roots raised the creative bar in many categories.

Could it be that Oscar voters, long accused of myopic, homogenous taste, have suddenly gone global? No, Oscar's still a long way from looking like high noon at the United Nations, but there is no doubt the Academy has at long last become aware that cinema is more and more of a global village, and that films from all over the world deserve Oscar's attention in the main categories. They don't need to be shoved to the side with a best non-English language film nod.

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Chat with movie reviewer Paul Clinton on Monday, March 26, at 11:30 a.m. EST. Did his Oscar predictions come true?

Perhaps 2000 was not that bad a year, after all.

However, second-guessing the 5,722 members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has always been a time-honored, yet risky, proposition; this year will be no exception. A few of the races are sure things, but many more are up for grabs.

Until Oscar night, then -- hold the envelopes, the heady swirl of air kisses, designer gowns, borrowed diamonds, million-dollar smiles, tearful acceptance speeches -- and please pass the crystal ball.

Best actor: Russell Crowe ("Gladiator"); Javier Bardem ("Before Night Falls"); Tom Hanks ("Cast Away"); Ed Harris ("Pollock"); and Geoffrey Rush ("Quills").

Leading the pack is Aussie bad boy Crowe. At 36, he's cemented his status as an international star by giving a stunning performance in "Gladiator." The film rests on his meaty shoulders, and he grabs the screen like a vise playing a Roman general-turned-slave who fights his way to freedom. Oscar loves guys like Maximus.

Rush, 49, has received his third nomination in five years, this time playing the Marquis de Sade in "Quills." The film never gained the public's attention, but Rush combined charm, madness, evil and genius in his impressive turn as the marquis, and can't be counted out.

If two-time winner Hanks, 44, takes home the gold for "Cast Away," he will be the first three-time best actor winner in history. The Academy loves Hanks, but don't hold your breath. His performance is brilliant, albeit self-indulgent, and comes across with a "Hey Ma, look what I can do," flavor.

Unknown (at least in America) Spanish star Bardem, 31, burst out of nowhere with his intense performance in "Before Night Falls" playing the gay writer Reinaldo Arenas, who was forced to flee his native Cuba in 1980. It's a risky performance in a risky, noncommercial film, but it's also the kind of role and movie that makes film an art form. Interesting note: Del Toro turned down the role.

"Pollock"'s Harris, 50, was snubbed by the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild, but Oscar correctly tapped him for his magnetic performance in the title role as the tormented painter Jackson Pollock. Harris' portrayal of this brilliant artist highlights his own brilliance as an actor -- and points to a promising future as a filmmaker with this, his directorial debut. Still, he's a long shot.

Will win: Russell Crowe.

Should win: Javier Bardem.

Best actress: Julia Roberts ("Erin Brockovich"); Juliette Binoche ("Chocolat"); Joan Allen ("The Contender"); Ellen Burstyn ("Requiem for a Dream"); and Laura Linney ("You Can Count on Me").

A decade has passed since Roberts' last best actress nomination -- that for "Pretty Woman" in 1991. Now, at 31, she's a full-fledged mega-star, but has no Oscar on her mantel. That's about to change with "Erin Brockovich." Roberts owns this part from the tip of her stiletto heels to the top of her amazing push-up bra. Roberts is confident, focused and in control as never before -- this is her role, her movie and her year.

Hollywood veteran Burstyn, 68, strips down to her very core as the diet-pill addict in "Requiem for a Dream." No makeup, extreme close-ups, and she gets to go insane -- that's Oscar bait. All that's missing is a tubercular cough and a death scene. But the film -- and her performance -- are unrelenting, and golden boy rarely likes to get this raw with a picture that isn't receiving wider acclaim or bigger box office.

Allen, 44, has made a career playing dutiful wives. Now, in Rod Lurie's "The Contender," she's front and center as United States Sen. Laine Hanson, who enters a political firestorm when she's nominated as the nation's vice president upon the death the sitting veep. Allen becomes her character: She doesn't act, she reacts, and as a result her work comes across as behavior, not acting. However, neither her performance nor this film is getting the kind of loud buzz necessary to reach Oscar's ear and make her a real contender.

Binoche, 36, was the winner of best supporting actress in 1996 for "The English Patient." This Gallic beauty is sensuous and delicious in this romantic, sugar-coated fable. Add the fact that she and Johnny Depp provide the year's best on-screen sexual chemistry, and you get a treat for all your senses. But she doesn't stand a chance against the Roberts juggernaut.

In "You Can Count on Me," Linney, 37, lifts her character off the page and breathes life into her with tiny gestures and quiet moments of reflection. As Sammy Prescott, a single mother coping with a life she didn't plan on and a troubled brother she loves but can't fix, Linney proves that less is more with a performance that begins with a bubble and ends in a boil. She's a long, long, long shot -- but still a worthy contender.

Will win: Julia Roberts

Should win: Julia Roberts

Best supporting actor: Benicio Del Toro ("Traffic"); Jeff Bridges ("The Contender"); Willem Dafoe ("Shadow of the Vampire"); Albert Finney ("Erin Brockovich"); and Joaquin Phoenix ("Gladiator").

All the buzz says Del Toro, 34, will win for his stunning performance in "Traffic." Del Toro is a minimalist who actually convinced director Steven Soderbergh to cut his character's dialogue and allow him to convey many of his character's thoughts, fears and innate nobility through gestures, body language and his steady, steely gaze. In a huge, talented ensemble cast portrayed across a gigantic artistic canvas, Del Toro stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Bridges, 51, has never claimed Oscar, although he's been nominated three times before. This may make him a sentimental favorite for his role as the president in "The Contender." He's masterfully manipulative and a consummate politician in this "plot" boiler. Bridges is a highly underrated actor, because he makes everything look so effortless, but "The Contender" hasn't generated much excitement. Bridges is a long shot.

For his role as lawyer Ed Masry "Erin Brockovich," Finney, 64, has secured his fifth Academy nomination. Despite his solid performance in one of the best films of the year, he most likely will be lost in the shuffle of "Brockovich"'s four other nominations. His best chance may come if the Academy considers this nomination as a chance to give him a type of "lifetime achievement" recognition.

Dafoe, 45, is an actor's actor. He stands out because he has so little ego as a performer. In "Shadow of the Vampire," Dafoe portrays a real vampire hired to play a film vampire; he's ferocious and mesmerizing, while maintaining a subtle humor in this campy, over-the-top drama. Dafoe may be Del Toro's toughest competition.

Phoenix, 26, is nominated for his portrayal of Emperor Commodus in "Gladiator." But his performances in two other films released this year should have been his ticket to the Oscars. In both "Quills" and "The Yards," he was much better than his wimpy role in this epic. Instead of being sinister, sadistic and menacing, his take on Commodus comes off like a textbook sociopath with a large dose of drag queen.

Will win: Benicio Del Toro

Should win: Benicio Del Toro

Best supporting actress: Kate Hudson ("Almost Famous"); Judi Dench ("Chocolat"); Frances McDormand ("Almost Famous"); Julie Walters ("Billy Elliot"); and Marcia Gay Harden ("Pollock").

This is a category with no favorite, and almost anyone could win.

Hudson, 21, follows in her mother's (Goldie Hawn), bubbly, blond and very talented footsteps in the role of Penny Lane in that ode to rock 'n' roll, "Almost Famous." She won a Golden Globe for this role, and that's generally a good sign. Hollywood royalty, hit movie -- don't count her out.

McDormand, 43, is sheer perfection in "Almost Famous" as Elaine Miller, a single mother trying to keep her son away from sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, only to have him become the youngest rock music journalist ever to work for Rolling Stone magazine. Her presence drives the movie even when she's not on screen.

Dench, 66, won this category in 1998 with only nine minutes of screen time as Queen Elizabeth I in "Shakespeare In Love." In "Chocolat," Dench is both cranky and touching, gruff but vulnerable, and she has a lot more time on screen. This is a character-driven film, and Dench is deep in her element. "Chocolat" has a total of five nominations, and Dench is the film's best bet for an appearance up at the podium.

Walters, 51, provides the inspiration for a person with raw talent in "Billy Elliot." This dramedy about a working-class dance prodigy could have been full of the typical cliches that have plagued many triumph-over-adversity films hoping to become the next "Rocky." But Walters keeps things real and edgy as a teacher willing to move heaven and earth to help her young charge achieve his dreams.

Like Linney, Harden, 41, is not a new face in Hollywood, but she is new on the awards circuit. With her performance as the wife of the painter in "Pollock," she is a revelation as she explores and strips away every facet of this complex woman. In scene after scene she goes toe-to-toe with Ed Harris (in the title role), and the results are mesmerizing.

Will win: Kate Hudson

Should win: Judi Dench

Best director: Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot"); Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"); Steven Soderbergh ("Erin Brockovich"); Ridley Scott ("Gladiator"); and Steven Soderbergh ("Traffic").

With the exception of Scott, who was nominated for "Thelma & Louise" in 1991, all nominees in this director category are first-timers. In addition, Soderbergh is the first director double-nominee since Michael Curtiz got twin taps in 1939 for "Angels with Dirty Faces" and "Four Daughters." He lost to Frank Capra, who won for "You Can't Take It with You."

The same fate may await Soderbergh if the votes are split between his double-play nominations for "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic." However, Soderbergh, 38, not only directed "Traffic," he was also the director of photography and the main camera operator -- much of it hand-held. It boggles the mind. Not that "Erin Brockovich" isn't an outstanding achievement, too: This crowd-pleasing, straight-forward film is built around Roberts' enormous appeal. But Soderbergh's style and sure-handedness comes out best in "Traffic."

If the votes split on Soderbergh it may be to Scott's benefit. Scott, 63, an art director turned film director, has outdone himself with "Gladiator." Ancient Rome comes to life through Scott's camera lens. Creating films the size of "Gladiator" are like planning the landing at Normandy, and Scott seems to do it without breaking a sweat. Despite the film's shaky narrative, Scott single-handedly brings a fresh look to an old genre, and we will never look at sandal-and-toga epics in quite the same way after Scott has put his brand on that time and place.

Taiwanese director Lee, 46, could also benefit from a split vote over Soderbergh's two nominations. Until "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," he was best known for "Sense and Sensibility" (1995), followed by "The Ice Storm" (1997). "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" would be a stunning achievement under any circumstances, but add the fact that it's in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles, breaks all the rules of gravity, and contains a compelling love story, and you have a film that's a historical benchmark.

This year's dark horse is 40-year-old theater director turned moviemaker Daldry for "Billy Elliot." This movie is not up for best picture, and traditionally that means Daldry doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of taking home the prize. On the other hand, this delightful little film is a story about beating the odds and making your dreams come true. Life imitating art? Don't bet on it.

Will win: Ang Lee.

Should win: Steven Soderbergh for "Traffic."

Best picture: "Gladiator," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic" and "Chocolat."

The smart money here narrows down to a sweaty battle pitting tigers and dragons against sandals and togas. Scott's roaring Roman epic, "Gladiator," is the favorite to win, but Lee's martial arts love story, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," is hot on its heels. However, "Erin Brochovich" cannot be easily dismissed and has an outside chance. Also sharing this category -- and sharing the same director (Steven Soderbergh) -- is the raw, gritty, and multilayered drug drama, "Traffic." Unfortunately, this edgy, spectacular and sprawling tale is not the type of fare usually picked to take home the top prize. This year's dark horse is a "Chocolat," a sweet, melt-in-your-mouth treat. A charming romantic fable set in a small French village, "Chocolat" is a bit too whimsical to be crowned the best picture of the year despite its subtle brilliance.

Will win: "Gladiator."

Should win: "Traffic."

Now, remember, there are no winners or losers in the Oscars. It's an honor just to be nominated...

...Yeah, right! Congratulations to all.

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