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Law Abiding: Jude Law was the hardest-working man in pictures this year and should be rewarded with a Best Actor nod for 'Closer.'

Oscar Glances

It's never too early to start handicapping the Academy's race for acting honors

By Richard von Busack

It is indecently easy to handicap the Oscars this year, even this early. Most of the prestigious films have been previewed already, to critics' groups still in mourning that there is no fourth installment of The Lord of the Rings. The Best Picture nominees are the most difficult to predict. It's like forecasting the national mood three months from now. Still, the acting nominations seem already in place.

A couple of stragglers still go unviewed, and the list below discounts the chance that Adam Sandler will plumb new acting brilliance in Spanglish. At this point, all there seems to be worth looking forward to in 2004 is the Bill Murray bathysphere movie, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, unless your idea of a killer laff is seeing a dog get flushed down the crapper. The animal-cruelty gag in Meet the Fockers is ever so slightly overexposed from the previews.

Rather than meeting the Fockers, make a point of meeting the fuckers in Pedro Almodóvar's brilliant Bad Education--at least one great movie is due out in December. "Palimpsest" is a word much used by literary critics: it means the act of writing upon erased material. Bad Education, is a cinematic palimpsest, shifting between real and fictional versions of a story of priestly child molestation. Eventually, Almodóvar decides that the lens of cinema--especially film noir--is the only way to observe the story. In this satiny yet thorny melodrama, everyone is a victim of their emotions.

Will Gael García Bernal get nominated for best actor? Because of Bad Education (a shoo-in for Best Foreign Film) and The Motorcycle Diaries, he is an outside-chance contender. Jamie Foxx was uncannily like Ray Charles in Ray, standard biopic that it was. Possible also-rans are Johnny Depp's James Barrie in Finding Neverland, Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator and Christian Bale in The Machinist. More likely, the Best Actor winner will be the hardworking Jude Law, nominated for Closer. Law also has a show-stealing walk-on as a rowdy Errol Flynn in The Aviator and makes an irresistible hedonist in Alfie.

Paul Giamatti's Miles in Sideways is the second-most-likely pick. No actor is more zeitgeisty, no performance sums up the mood of impotent regret on the Left Coast from Hollywood to Napa, after the hangover of the election. The third-strongest possibility is Liam Neeson in Kinsey. The right-wing attacks on this biopic are free publicity, as they reframe Kinsey as the demonic figure who helped America find its genitals. Neeson is quite solemnly touching, and he has had a tweedy but sometimes dashing career. He may be the Academy's chance to make a feeble protest in favor of the sexual revolution.

Picking Closer for best picture would send the opposite signal: as far as Hollywood is concerned, the sexual revolution is over, and the reaction is firmly in place. It takes a serious-minded director to remove prurience from explicitness--an exercise as grim as removing alcohol from wine.

Since Natalie Portman is all girlish charm in Garden State and as tough as leather in Closer, she has a good chance in the five-way race for Best Actress. Virginia Madsen's pro-wine and one-night-stand Maya in Sideways is more my idea of a good time. Laura Linney has astonishing moments in P.S., and she is the leavening part of Kinsey, as the woman behind the great sexologist. Put Imelda Staunton on the list for Vera Drake. Her performance will be on every Academy member's mind, since legal abortion is under siege. There will be lobbyists for Annette Bening (About Julia) and Nicole Kidman (Birth), though nobody saw either film.

Best Supporting Actress is always the most interesting race in the Oscars. This is when the hard-to-fit actresses--young, old or ethnic--get their due. I hope Sandra Oh from Sideways wins. She makes being a partying single mom look like fun instead of negligent sluttishness; that's no little achievement for an actress.

Thomas Haden Church, also in Sideways, is more than just a supporting actor. Yet sentiment may weigh this category out--particularly seeing how John Lithgow in Kinsey rephrases his comic preacher from Footloose as a human tragedy. He seems as likely to walk away with the supporting honor--and to deserve it--as Michael Moore does for Best Documentary for Fahrenheit 9/11 (unless the film ends up in the Best Picture category).

Al Pacino also might turn up as Best Supporting Actor. After all, Shylock is a supporting character in The Merchant of Venice Pacino is sensational, and in this merciless year, the "quality of mercy" speech has never sounded more poignant.

Metro Santa Cruz staff writer Richard von Busack also appears on Santa Cruz Community Television's 'CinemaScene.'

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From the December 8-15, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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