Excuse me, but aren't we well past time for the 2004 Academy Awards race to begin shaping up?
July's almost finished, and December's importance has been reduced somewhat by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' decision to speed up its balloting process by nearly one month.
Rather than waiting until late March to hand out prizes, allowing other awards shows, notably the Golden Globes, to influence voters, the 76th annual Oscars will be presented Feb. 29.
That means the deadline for final Oscar nomination ballots now is Jan. 17, a week before Golden Globe winners are announced, the first time that has happened. Unlike past years, Oscar voters can't see what the Globes do and make nominations accordingly, which has turned the Academy Awards into an anticlimactic "me-too" process. Golden Globe results still might influence final balloting to determine Oscar winners, but that's nothing new.
What is new is a greater urgency for Hollywood to provide enough worthwhile nominees and time for audiences (including voters) to experience them before the new balloting deadline.
By now, Hollywood should have given moviegoers more legitimate Oscar contenders than just Seabiscuit, which opens Friday; the animated feature Finding Nemo; the excellent documentary Capturing the Friedmans; and a few technical award candidates for special effects, sound effects and the like. Right now, all the major categories are one-horse races except for the multiple acting achievements of Seabiscuit.
What other films and performances released so far in 2003 have the qualities that Oscar voters historically honor? Nobody expects a big studio campaign for successful independent films such as Better Luck Tomorrow, The Good Thief and Bend It Like Beckham. Mainstream films that seemed like contenders in previews failed to deliver, such as The Life of David Gale.
If a movie doesn't have stars, hype or a story that reaches millions of moviegoers, Academy Award voters generally aren't interested.
So far, only Finding Nemo has done that. Because it's an animated film, any chances of acting nominations or a best picture nod are remote, but getting better with each passing uneventful week. Seabiscuit can do it, if moviegoers can tear themselves away from dumb summer entertainment long enough to notice. But no other films have displayed the all-around quality Oscar voters prefer, and the public awareness they prefer as much.
Among actors, only Johnny Depp's brazenly weird performance in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl comes close. But the academy doesn't often reward comedic portrayals, so he's a long shot. The same goes for Jim Carrey's turn in Bruce Almighty; besides, he was snubbed in the past for better work in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon. Nobody expects the best performances of the year so far - Nick Nolte in The Good Thief and Frances McDormand in Laurel Canyon - to be remembered, because those films faded fast.
Seabiscuit's trifecta of Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire and Chris Cooper - we'll box them with William H. Macy's supporting role - are firmly in the running. Actresses are well off the pace; McDormand's is the only deserving work so far. Unless the next five months are better than the first seven, we could see Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde) at the Oscars, and that would be a shame.
From the looks of things, August is a wash, still relying on action flicks (S.W.A.T.), MTV-friendly comedies (American Wedding, Uptown Girls) and celebrity gossip (Ben Affleck and J-Lo in Gigli). Then the prestige movies and campaigning begin in earnest.
September gets the awards stew stirring with Ridley Scott's caper flick Matchstick Men, starring Nicolas Cage, then a slow rollout of Lost in Translation, directed by Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides) and getting early positive buzz for dramatic performances by Bill Murray (!) and Scarlett Johansson. The casting of Robert Duvall and Michael Caine as eccentric great-uncles of Haley Joel Osment makes Secondhand Lions seem promising. Diane Lane follows her Oscar-nominated role in Unfaithful with Under the Tuscan Sun, based on novelist Frances Mayes' memoirs.
October brings the first half of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, starring Uma Thurman as a ruthless killer. Previous Oscar-winning actors Denzel Washington (Out of Time) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Sylvia, as in Plath) and directors Clint Eastwood (Mystic River) and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Dreamers) will make the scene. Joel and Ethan Coen's Intolerable Cruelty should be another quirky pleasure.
The award season's sleeper is slated for November: When Jim Sheridan's semi-autobiographical In America was screened for the nation's theater owners in March, they appeared to love it. November also brings the third Matrix flick, a Russell Crowe epic (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, written by Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) and starring Carrey and Kate Winslet. Norman Jewison's The Statement, with Caine playing a Nazi war criminal on the run, could appeal to Oscar voters as The Pianist did.
December's biggest Oscar contender is unquestionably The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, if only for the admiration voters have shown the trilogy during the past two years. But the month also includes Oscar-winning director Ron Howard's The Missing and Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai, the only late-year release already being plugged on TV. Two war epics, The Alamo and Cold Mountain, appear to be right up the academy's alley. Of course, Jack Nicholson will show up in time for nominations, with a yet-untitled romantic comedy alongside another Oscar winner, Diane Keaton.
Of course, these are all films that look good on paper. How they look on screen is what matters. Some great movies could be flying under the radar right now. But at least we're at the point in the year when we can start hoping to find films that will make 2003 more than the cinematic toy box we've seen so far. It's about time.