Oscar's Burning Questions

If you're like most moviegoers, meaning you don't live in a big city and you don't get to the art-house theater every month, you're probably wondering one thing this week: what the heck is so great about this "Sideways" movie? It's an understandable question. This is a film about two middle-aged bozos--the guy who played Pig Vomit in that Howard Stern movie and the guy who was on the show after "Cheers," like, last century--who yap about wine and their dead-end lives. Neither of the guys is particularly handsome. Neither is particularly likeable. But trust me on this: if "Sideways" isn't quite as good as advertised, it's close. It's sweeping the critics awards and it racked up seven Golden Globe nominations this week, including best picture (musical or comedy), and it will probably win. So in a down year for movies, this tiny film about two drunken schlubs is suddenly an Oscar front runner.

Or is it? So far, only the critics have spoken. The Golden Globes are handed out at a lavish and star-studded ceremony, but they're selected by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. In other words, more critics. The Academy Awards are a whole different animal. Its voters are actors, producers, directors and film craftspeople. At the end of the day, they're often voting for friends and colleagues, not just movies and performances. The critics' lists and Golden Globe nominations narrow a bit, but they don't really solve much about Oscar night. So what are the big, burning questions about the 2005 Academy Awards, slated for late February? Here are five--and my answers. Bear in mind that I'm only wrong, at an absolute maximum, 60 percent of the time.

Can 'Sideways' win the Oscar for best picture?

No. All the critical esteem and exquisite craftsmanship will get "Sideways" plenty of nominations and maybe even some statues, but not the big one. Ultimately, it's a tiny, unglamorous movie about regular folks and regular lives, and they just don't give out best-picture Oscars for those. Hollywood sees cinema as a vehicle for inspiration or, in special cases, heartbreak. "Sideways" is neither: it's a reality check. Meanwhile, its chief Oscar competition is either inspiring (the J.M. Barrie tale "Finding Neverland"), heartbreaking (Clint Eastwood's boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby") or both (Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic "The Aviator"). One of those movies will win. At the moment, having seen all three, my money's on "The Aviator." It's a sleek, smart, grandiose--and entertaining--epic that salutes Hollywood's favorite subject: Hollywood. That's a winning recipe.

Will Martin Scorsese finally get a directing Oscar?

Yes. Watching "Gangs of New York," you could feel the strain in Scorsese. This was his naked Oscar grab, and to get it, he made the movie that he believed everyone expected from him: a grisly piece of cinematic nihilism. Then he and Miramax's Harvey Weinstein campaigned mercilessly for the statue. Few people liked the movie, even fewer liked seeing a cinema giant stoop to such tacky self-promotion. Lo and behold, he got beat. Now, I'm rarely right, so I'd like to take this chance to boast prematurely: last winter, I predicted (on television, no less) that "The Aviator" would provide a storybook ending to the Scorsese saga. He'd lost the Oscar when he wanted it too badly, and now he would win with a movie that paid homage to his love for old Hollywood--a classic prodigal-son thing. But here was the rub: in order for it to work, "The Aviator" had to be good. Not great, just good. And it is. Better yet, it's good because of Scorsese. It's a delight of pure filmmaking, even though it doesn't always work intellectually. And unlike "Gangs," which felt like such a slog, "The Aviator" is a wild ride. This is Scorsese's year, at long last.

Unless. Unless Scorsese once again hits the election trail too hard--and there are already signs, I'm told by folks in the industry, that he's doing just that. Overreach for an Oscar once and people will blame Harvey; overreach twice and it's on Scorsese. If that happens, the door will swing wide open for a well-liked director with a solid film in the mix--someone like, say, Clint Eastwood. I'm a sports fan, and to me, Eastwood is the Trent Dilfer of movie directors. Dilfer, an ex-Baltimore Ravens quarterback, won the Super Bowl a few years ago by being unspectacular and not making any big mistakes. That's Clint, and that's "Million Dollar Baby." Eastwood's a humble guy who makes humble movies, and if Scorsese doesn't pipe down, Eastwood's gonna feed him humble pie on Oscar night.

Footnote No. 1: If Eastwood does beat Scorsese, it'll be the third time in 24 years that Scorsese has lost to an actor-director. Wanna bet Scorsese is keeping count, too?

Footnote No. 2: What about "Sideways" director Alexander Payne? Couldn't he sneak in and win? No, his pat on the back will be for best adapted screenplay. In fact, I guarantee he and writing partner Jim Taylor will win this category--and the Oscar nominations don't even come out for another six weeks.

Is Hilary Swank going to win another Oscar? Really?

No. Let me say this about Swank in "Million Dollar Baby": I think she's wonderful. In fact, I think she's better than critics are saying, and they're saying she's pretty great. Swank plays a fearless but scarred woman who knows she's white trash, and she pulls it off without a hint of condescension or mawkishness.

Other than her, I can't think of a single young actress capable of such a thing. Now here's why she won't win. In 1999, Swank won the best-actress Oscar for "Boys Don't Cry." In the history of the Academy Awards, only 10 women have won two best-actress Oscars. This is the list: Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Olivia De Havilland, Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Jodie Foster, Glenda Jackson, Vivian Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor. That's a heavyweight group. And I just don't think Oscar voters, who are largely actors and who know their history, are ready to put Hilary Swank in that group. Not yet, anyway.

Will two African-American men be nominated for best actor--for the second time in four years?

Yes. Jamie Foxx ("Ray") is a guaranteed nominee and the likely winner. The history-making second African-American nominee, meanwhile, will be Don Cheadle for "Hotel Rwanda." The actor field is loaded this year, which makes it all the more unlikely that someone who didn't get one of the 10 Golden Globe nominations for actors--such as Kevin Bacon ("The Woodsman"), Gael Garcia Bernal ("Bad Education") and Eastwood for his own film--will sneak into the Oscar pool. Out of the 10 who did make the Golden Globe cut, you can eliminate Kevin Kline ("De-Lovely") and Kevin Spacey ("Beyond the Sea") pretty easily. Those two only got nominated because the Globes has an acting category for musicals and comedies. They're out come Oscar time.

From this point, it's easier to go in the other direction and decide who's almost certainly in the field: Foxx, Leonardo Di Caprio ("The Aviator") and, less confidently, Johnny Depp ("Finding Neverland"). One Oscar expert I spoke with thinks Javier Bardem will make it for "The Sea Inside," partly because he plays a quadraplegic fighting for the right to die--classic Oscar fodder--and partly because he really is terrific in the film. That leaves Liam Neeson ("Kinsey"), Cheadle ("Hotel Rwanda"), Paul Giamatti ("Sideways") and Jim Carrey ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") fighting for one spot. So why will Cheadle snag it? Much as I'd love to see Giamatti's face in one of those five little Oscar-nominee windows on TV, he's built a career out of playing overlooked men, which is why I think he'll get overlooked here. "Eternal Sunshine" was my favorite movie this year, but it worked mostly because of Charlie Kaufman's genius script and Kate Winslet's wondrous Kate Winsletness. Like Kline and Spacey, I think Carrey got into the Globes because of the category.

Which leaves Neeson and Cheadle. I haven't seen either of the movies, but let's face it: it's not really about the performance, it's about what a nomination would say. I can imagine Hollywood nominating Neeson and rewarding the film's frank look at a sex pioneer just to stick it to conservative America. But sweeping stereotypes about Academy voters can be dangerous. I'll bet there are just as many members who will find "Kinsey" too frank. Meanwhile, Cheadle stars in a film that recounts the true story of a man who saved more than a thousand lives during the Rwandan genocide. That sounds a lot like "Schindler's List," which helped land a first-ever Oscar nomination for ... Liam Neeson. This is a perilously tough category to call, but I think Cheadle gets in.

Will "The Incredibles" get a best-picture nomination?

No. Kudos to Pixar for making such great films that we have to go through this rigamorole every year, but it always ends the same, and with good reason. The Academy created a new category in 2002 specifically to reward animated features and to keep the best-picture race squarely in the hands of the real people they obviously prefer. Those who argue that this year could be the exception tend to cite the weakness of the field. But the field ain't that weak. And, more importantly, it's consistent: the best film of this year probably isn't that much better than the 10th best. If there were three clear heavyweights and then a huge drop-off, "The Incredibles" would have a better chance. That's where "Finding Nemo" was last year, and it still didn't get a nomination. In fact, here's what I wrote in this space after last year's Oscar nominees were unveiled: "An animated film will never again be nominated for Best Picture. The last time it happened was in 1992, when 'Beauty and the Beast' was nominated. It was almost unheard of even before the Academy created a special category ghettoizing animated features two years ago, and now that it has, well, forget about it ever happening again. If 'Finding Nemo,' a critical and commercial home run, couldn't do it, then nothing can." I'm standing by that claim. Sorry, Mr. Incredible. But the consolation prize, which you'll almost certainly nab, isn't bad: the Oscar for best animated feature.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that if Don Cheadle and Jamie Foxx are nominated for best actor, it would be the first time two black men were ever nominated for the award in the same year. In 2001 when Denzel Washington was nominated (and won) for Training Day and Will Smith was nominated for Ali.

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