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From 'Magnolia' to 'American Beauty,' fall films primp for Oscar

September 21, 1999
Web posted at: 3:41 p.m. EDT (1941 GMT)

By Paul Clinton
Turner Entertainment Report Correspondent

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- The cinematic sea that lies between late September and December 31 -- the last day of eligibility for next year's Academy Awards -- is jam-packed with vessels bearing Oscar bait. After all, 'tis the season when Hollywood's movie houses set sail with their best films, all the while looking for Academy gold.

Major films open during this particular time period because their producers believe that Academy voters, and the public in general, have short memories and will forget any movie that comes out earlier.

Thus, Oscar veterans Tom Hanks and Nicolas Cage have cast upon the waters two highly dramatic films. Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey took pay cuts to make a movie that showcased their immense talents. And directors Milos Forman, Martin Scorsese and Jane Campion are all unveiling major new projects with all-star casts. Here are some of the films to watch.

Kevin Spacey stars in "American Beauty"

"American Beauty"
DreamWorks. Opened September 17

Already winning acclaim from everybody from Entertainment Weekly to the New York Times, this dark, sophisticated comedy is already the subject of Oscar buzz. This tale of two families living quiet lives of desperation is the film debut of 34-year-old British theatrical director Sam Mendes, the man behind the revival of "Cabaret" on Broadway and Nicole Kidman's critically acclaimed performance in the London and Broadway production of David Hare's "The Blue Room."

Alan Ball also makes his feature film debut with this original screenplay, an ascerbic script that Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey ("The Usual Suspects," 1995) and Oscar nominee Annette Bening ("The Grifter," in 1991) both took pay cuts to do.

John C. Reilly and Emmanuel Johnson in "Magnolia"

New Line Cinema. Opens December 10.

"Magnolia" is causing lots of buzz too, mainly because it's the first film by 29-year-old writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson since his 1997 critically acclaimed movie, "Boogie Nights," which earned him an Academy nomination for screenwriting.

Not wanting the public to have any preconceived expectations, Anderson has kept a tight lid on this $30 million production, and there are few details about his storyline.

We do know the movie is set in present day, in the San Fernando Valley. Apparently there are numerous plotlines -- at least five -- and the story deals with family relations. Stars include William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Jason Robards, John C. Reilly and Emmanuel Johnson. Tom Cruise also appears briefly in a small cameo role.

Anderson, who seems to like presenting raw reality with no judgments, is no stranger to controversy and has a proven love of the raunchy, so this film could go anywhere. Oscar potential may be limited outside the acting categories.

"Bringing Out the Dead"
Paramount Pictures. Opens October 22.

"Bringing Out the Dead" stars Nicolas Cage as a New York City paramedic who, during a grueling and bloody three-day weekend in Hell's Kitchen, begins seeing the ghosts of previous patients. With this gritty, brooding role, Cage makes his bid for this year's best actor Academy Award.

"Dead" also provides an opportunity for Martin Scorsese to make amends for his last film, 1997's "Kundun." For the first time in two years, he's reteamed with screenwriter Paul Schrader, who penned two of Scorsese's greatest films, "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull." This new movie promises to be just as dark and dramatic as those two masterworks, and hopefully even half as good as either.

Cage co-stars Ving Rhames, Patricia Arquette and John Goodman all have the acting chops to turn in award-caliber performances, given half a chance. And amazing as it may sound, five- time nominee Scorsese has never won an Academy Award. With Cage, Schrader and the rest on board, this could be the year when his stars are aligned in the Academy skies.

"Angela's Ashes"
Paramount Studios. Tentatively scheduled to open in New York and Los Angeles December 22.

Millions of hearts were pierced by the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Angela's Ashes," in which author Frank McCourt relived his horrendous childhood with his six siblings in the slums of Limerick, Ireland.

Reading McCourt's beguiling, wry narrative about his family's dire poverty and near starvation, and actually seeing the miserable, sometimes horrific conditions of his young life onscreen, may be two different experiences entirely.

However, the Academy loves serious material, and the film has a strong cast, starring Robert Carlyle (1997's "The Full Monty") as McCourt's alcohlic father and Emily Watson as his chronically depressed mother. Watson has been nominated for best actress for roles in both "Breaking the Waves" (1996) and "Hilary and Jackie" (1998), both decidedly downbeat films.

Alan Parker ("Evita," 1996) directs and co-wrote the screenplay with Laura Jones.

Johnny Depp in "Sleepy Hollow"

"Sleepy Hollow"
Paramount Pictures. Opens Thanksgiving Day.

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are not your usual Oscar bait, but the Academy has been getting younger in recent years, and harder to predict than ever. So as they reunite for their third film ("Edward Scissorshands" in 1990 and "Ed Wood" in 1994 preceded this project), they are a force to watch.

Both men seem perfect for an eccentric retelling of the tale of the headless horseman, which has gotten a major face-lift from "Shakespeare In Love" playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, who added plenty of things that go bump in the night to the film.

Depp, of course, plays Ichabod Crane. Christina Ricci is his love interest, and the film's resident damsel in distress. With lurid visuals provided by Burton, and a script by Stoppard, this film will be nothing if not interesting. It may even allow Depp to take a ride on Oscar night. (Hopefully, with his head firmly in place.)

Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in "Man on the Moon"

"Man on the Moon"
Universal Studios. Opens December 25.

One should never underestimate the talents of actor Jim Carrey or director Milos Forman. Nevertheless, "Man on the Moon," which features Carrey as late comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufman, may be a challenging Academy sell.

Kaufman's Elvis impression, his antics with women in wrestling rings, his appearances on "Saturday Night Live" and his role on the series "Taxi" kept him in the public eye for much of his short career.

Yet though he was considered a genius by many of his contemporaries, his brand of comedy was off-beat, extremely confrontational, and at times uncomfortable for his audiences. And Kaufman himself was not an easy man to know, or even to like on a personal level.

Making him sympathetic won't be easy. However, pornographer Larry Flynt also seemed an unlikely subject for a feature film until Forman proved otherwise. And for Carrey's part, since some feel he was unfairly overlooked by the Academy for his work in last year's "The Truman Show," if he delivers a worthy performance this could be payback time.

"Holy Smoke"
Miramax. Opens October 22.

Miramax is known as one of the most aggressive studios, if not the most aggressive, when it comes to courting Oscar. So the fact that the studio has chosen the film "Holy Smoke" to open in October speaks volumes about their hopes for this movie starring Kate Winslet and written and directed by Jane Campion.

Both women have had brushes with Oscar before: Kate was nominated as best actress for her work in "Titanic," and Campion won an Oscar for her screenplay for "The Piano" in 1993.

The premise of this film sounds dubious at best, but the same could have been said for "The Piano." Winslet plays an Australian woman whose parents hire a cult deprogrammer to free her from the clutches of a self-proclaimed holy man by the name of Baba Chidaatma. Harvey Keitel plays the deprogrammer.

The last time he and Campion got together, in the aforementioned "Piano," Keitel won an Academy Award. Let's hope he keeps his pants on this time around.

"Green Mile"
Warner Bros. Opens December 25.

The last time Frank Darabont adapted a film from a Stephen King novel was for his feature film debut, "The Shawshank Redemption," in 1994. It got seven Oscar nominations, including Darabont's best adapted screenplay nod.

Now Darabont comes up to bat for the second time with "Green Mile," another Stephen King adaptation. This time, Tom Hanks plays a guard on death row in a Southern prison during the height of the Depression. When one inmate, a meek but huge, black man convicted of killing two white girls, shows mysterious powers, Hank's character has to rethink his moral code.

Any movie starring Tom Hanks, and coming out at this time of year, has to be considered an Oscar bid. Add the fact that this film is directed by Darabont from a Stephen King novel and you have major Academy potential.

"The Talented Mr. Ripley"
Paramount Pictures. Opens December 25.

Once again, it's the names involved in this film, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," that automatically make it a project with Oscar potential and pretentsions. Starring Oscar nominee Cate Blanchett and Academy Award winners Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, and directed by Oscar honored writer/director Anthony Minghella, this movie could be a strong contender come nomination time.

But it won't be easy. Just like he did with his award-winning movie "The English Patient," Minghella has chosen a very difficult novel to adapt to the big screen. Written by Patricia Highsmith, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," is set in Italy in the 1950s and requires the audience to identify with a murderer, played by Damon.

Tom Ripley is a sociopath who becomes enamored of the life of his wealthy friend, played by Jude Law. So he murders him and tries to take over his life. Paltrow plays Law's girlfriend; Blanchett plays a friend of Ripley's.

Brad Pitt stars in "Fight Club"

"Fight Club"
Twentieth Century Fox. Opens October 15.

"Fight Club," Brad Pitt's first film since the mind-numbing "Meet Joe Black" opened in November 1998, reunites the actor with director David Fincher, who helmed the very disturbing and successful film "Seven."

Also starring Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter, "Fight Club" casts Pitt as an anarchist with lots of charm, who teams up with an average Joe Blow (Norton) and a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed woman (Bonham Carter). Eventually, Norton's character drops out of his normal existence and joins Pitt in the underground world of ultraviolent and top secret "fight clubs" where men get together to beat the hell out of each other.

Based on the dark but funny novel by Chuck Palahniuk, this story is supposedly about men trying to find empowerment by connecting with themselves and others through fisticuffs. It's not exactly a pretty picture, but getting beaten to a pulp won Robert DeNiro an Oscar for the 1980 film "Raging Bull."

It could be a tough sell both in the Academy and among moviegoers in post-Columbine America. But if marketed correctly, "Fight Club" could be a long-shot contender for both big box office and Oscar buzz.

"Todo sobre mi madre"
Sony Pictures Classics distributing. Limited release November 24.

In the field of international films, the big buzz is over Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's latest film, "Todo sobre mi madre" (All About My Mother). Known for over-the-top sexual farces like 1988's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," this movie is a drama, albeit with outrageous comedic overtones.

The film tells the tale of a woman searching for the father of her son, who has recently been killed. The man she is searching for now calls himself Lola and dresses as a woman. And, it seems that Lola has impregnanted a beautiful nun who is now also HIV-positive. This mad melodrama won Almodovar the best director award at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Of course, this list doesn't even stratch the surface of the more than 150 films coming out over the next three months -- months that will be full of surprises and disappointments, just like every year on the road to Oscar.

Review: 'American Beauty' is just that
September 17, 1999
McCourt brothers making most of memories
January 13, 1999
Movie makes 'Fight Club' book a contender
September 7, 1999

'American Beauty'
'Bringing Out the Dead'
'Sleepy Hollow'
'Man on the Moon'
"Fight Club"
"The Green Mile"
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