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Some get what they deserve, others are robbed

The Oscar picks for this year's flicks

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(CNN) -- I used to get all excited when the Oscar nominations were announced. Lately, however, the awards, like everything else in American popular culture, have begun to revolve around unseemly promotional crusades.

This year, we get "Chocolat," which received several questionable nods courtesy of Miramax's campaign to alert the unwary of its hypothetical magnificence. Next year, Miramax should take it a step further and see if it can stir up a best picture nomination for a nonexistent film.

At any rate, here's who I think will win ... not that I know any more than you do:

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

Bardem delivered the most difficult, multidimensional performance in this category. But it was in a real downer of a picture, and, at one point, he's shown in full sexual congress with another man. As foolish as it may sound, that should keep conservative types from siding with him. Rush was fine, in a juicy role, but that's really about it. And Harris won't win because Jackson Pollock was an abstract painter, and most Academy voters are incapable of abstract thought.

That leaves Hanks and Crowe. Hanks put his back into it, as always, but it doesn't help that he's received more awards in his relatively brief career than the entire Kodak All-American football team. Still, he might pull it off, if people aren't too overwhelmed by Crowe's stud-like demeanor.

I say Crowe gets it, for no real reason other than he looks good in that little skirt, and the Academy never got around to giving an award to Richard Burton. Or, more to the point, to Victor Mature.

My vote: Tom Hanks, although Bardem is pretty great. I'd accept either one of them.

Where is he?: "Unbreakable" was a deeply flawed but exceptionally challenging film that annoyed a lot of people because it simply refused to be an action movie ... and because it wasn't "The Sixth Sense II." Bruce Willis absolutely should have been nominated for his tense, highly controlled performance, as a man who's crippled by fear and self-doubt. It's easily the best work of his career.

Michael Douglas also got screwed. His bedraggled work in "Wonder Boys" was subtle and full of rich shadings. He was a far sight more impressive than Crowe, that's for sure.

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

Allen is a great actress who doesn't deserve a nomination for mundane work in a mundane picture. "Chocolat," as I've already pointed out, is more like "Carob," so forget Binoche. Burstyn whipped herself into a frenzy, giving the most histrionic performance in a movie that unspools like a crystal meth-addicted 9-year-old kicking and screaming for two hours. She's a brilliant performer, but she basically participated in a group shriek.

It all boils down to the suddenly blooming Linney and golden girl Roberts, with Roberts being as close to a sure thing as you'll find at this year's ceremony. Don't hate her because she's beautiful. She was outstanding, in a role that allowed her to poke fun at her movie-star looks while generating a welcome dose of good old-fashioned compassion. If she can get nominated for claptrap like "Pretty Woman," surely to God she can win for this.

My vote: Julia Roberts.

Where is she?: In my "10 Best Films of 2000," I wrote that Bjork deserved an Oscar for her harrowing work in Lars von Trier's often silly "Dancer in the Dark." I didn't think she'd actually win one, however, because her performance -- especially her final scene -- nearly traumatizes the viewer. This is the single most ridiculous snub in this year's field. Binoche should send Bjork an official letter of apology, and maybe even a fancy bon-bon.

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

Things always get crazy in the supporting categories. This is where people like Mira Sorvino, Marisa Tomei, and Cuba Gooding Jr. end up walking away with it. I've been screaming for years that Bridges is our most under-appreciated actor, but his cartoonish role in "The Contender" is close to laughable. That may well mean that he's a front-runner. Dafoe is a lot of fun, in an especially flashy, knowing performance. Del Toro is also quite good, if not as good as everyone is pretending he is, and Phoenix camps it up with reckless abandon. I don't think anybody here even touches Finney. His deceptively informal interplay with Roberts is a marvel, but he hasn't been getting all that much press. Let's say it goes to Del Toro, because he won the Golden Globe, and word has somehow started circulating that he's Acting incarnate.

My vote: I'd go for Finney, in a split second.

Where is he?: If "Cast Away"'s Wilson the Volleyball had appeared in a Miramax film, I'm sure he would have gotten the nomination he so richly deserves. Outside of him, Aaron Eckhart should have received recognition for "Erin Brockovich." And while we're at it, what about Fred Willard, for his riotous, ad-libbed commentary in "Best in Show?" Willard is a master at playing off-kilter dumb, which is not as easy as it looks.

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

This isn't an especially strong group of nominations. None was bad, exactly, but no one did anything that deserves to be remembered with the most ballyhooed entertainment award on earth. Dench was just sort of there, sipping hot chocolate and waiting for the PR machinery to kick into gear. Harden was brassy and forceful, although her character was little more than a commentator in Ed Harris' movie. Hudson was a lot more sparkly than the others -- she's a lot more sparkly than pretty much anybody, outside of Carole Lombard and Mr. Clean -- and she's a very sweet, likable young woman. No one seems to care that her role was emotionally shallow, if not downright phony. McDormand's character seemed to have fallen out of a mid-1970s sitcom, and Julie Walters always gets ignored.

For some reason, I think Hudson is easily the front-runner. But everyone keeps mentioning McDormand; don't ask me why. Hudson will probably get it.

My vote: I really wouldn't vote for any of these people. If forced, I'd say Hudson, because she might smile at me if I ever got a chance to tell her about it. Don't think for a second that I'm the only person who's looking at it that way, either. In Hollywood, people don't shake hands, they pucker up and kiss gluteus maximus.

Where is she?: I knew she'd be buried by the ensemble, but Laura Dern was a blast as a continually tipsy socialite in Robert Altman's "Dr. T and the Women." If it were up to me, though, I'd give the actual award to Robin Wright Penn, for her completely disregarded work in "Unbreakable." The brief scene in which she tells Willis, who plays her emotionally estranged husband, that she wants to start over again, is one of the most honest pieces of acting I saw all year.

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

Now this is a big, fat mess. Soderbergh is the obvious winner, even if he doesn't get an award. I'm not so sure why everyone has soured on "Erin Brockovich"'s populist charms. I think it's far more effective than the busy but relatively simple-headed "Traffic." It doesn't matter, though, because Soderbergh's votes will be split two ways, and he'll lose. (If the Academy was actually on its toes, he would have won for "Out of Sight" two years ago.) Daldry doesn't stand a chance, and shouldn't even be there -- call it the "Full Monty" syndrome. And Scott is Scott, nothing but a technically proficient hack who must sit around his office smoking cigars and drinking testosterone spritzers.

As good as Soderbergh is, Lee is the real poet in the bunch. He orchestrated a dreamlike film full of tenderness and supple, gliding movement. Pray that he wins, because if he doesn't, Scott gets it for an absurdly violent, chest-pounding variation on "G.I. Jane." I'll say Lee walks away with it, mostly because I don't want to say that Scott is just as likely to do it.

My vote: Soderbergh, for "Erin Brockovich," which proves that you can be humane while aiming for big box office. I also like how it looks slapped together, but runs like a Swiss pocket watch.

Where is he?: I hate to belabor the "Unbreakable" rebuff. Suffice to say that I think M. Night Shyamalan oozes talent and ambition, and got the shaft for daring to be spiritual, a move that can't be spelled out in block letters for lazy audiences. Had Willis slapped on a leotard and started kicking butt 20 minutes into the movie, everyone involved would currently be getting measured for formal wear.

This year's other big loser who's actually a winner is Curtis Hanson. For whatever bizarre reason, people simply refused to watch "Wonder Boys," even after it was re-released. I guess it wasn't worth the trouble because nobody gets yanked in two by a team of chariots.

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

Once again, this is a nutty turn of events. There's really no telling what might happen, for a variety of reasons that have little to do with the content of the nominated films.

"Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic" will definitely suffer. Since they're viewed as Soderbergh pictures, first and foremost, they'll wind up taking votes away from each other. Sad, but true. "Chocolat"'s nomination is a joke. That means the contest will likely come down to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"'s lyricism, and "Gladiator"'s spewing arteries. Care to guess who gets the nod in that situation?

Don't kid yourself -- industry types are just as swayed by loud noises and gore as the kids at the Topeka Megaplex are, if not more so. There's also the opportunity to bow even more deeply to dehumanizing technology, courtesy of "Gladiator"'s (not especially convincing) computer-generated arenas and crowd sequences. That sort of thing is a lot easier to grasp than a outdated concepts like grace and elegance. Besides, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is also nominated for best foreign film, which means that it will actually be taking votes away from itself!

It's an awful thing to have to say, but it looks like "Gladiator" will win. Never mind that it's supposed to be at least partially about the horror of the masses lining up for organized bloodletting, while taking full advantage of America's willingness to do just that. Hooray for Hollywood.

My vote: "Erin Brockovich."

Where are they?: "Wonder Boys," "Unbreakable."

Special note: If there's any God, and I'm growing less convinced every day, Bob Dylan will nab a much-deserved trophy for "Things Have Changed," his altogether rocking theme to "Wonder Boys." Look for a brilliantly incoherent acceptance speech, and maybe even a funny hat.



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