Woe is he who goes foraging for potential Oscar nominees before September. Seasonally speaking, Oscar is a late fall, early winter sort of spud — as far as the main categories go, you won’t find many winners in recent years that originated in any month other than those that end with "ber."
Sometimes, there are exceptions. Julia Roberts won for "Erin Brockovich" a few years back. That was a February release. Another big winner, "Gladiator," leapt onto the scene in May 2000. Last year . . . well, that was the exception to the exception. Nothing remotely Oscarly came out in the first half of last year.
The midyear Oscar primer for 2004 is somewhat more promising, led by a $400 million-grossing Passion play and a little romance about losing your head.
No performance, be it by man or woman, child or adult, ogre or donkey, quite defied my expectations as did Jim Carrey’s work in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." As a fidgety, heartbroken loner who pays to have Kate Winslet zapped from his memories, Carrey completely retuned his motor, delivering the most nuanced, inward performance of his career.
For suffering hours of simulated beatings and other apocryphal tortures, Jim Caviezel may get a push for his title role in Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ." Mario Van Peebles strutted and bullied his way to rave reviews in "Baadasssss!" while Ewan McGregor discovered a new core of haunted nihilism in "Young Adam."
Potential Oscar contenders: Carrey and Caviezel both have an outside chance.
As the spunky, moody misfit who Jim Carrey chases through his own gray matter in "Eternal Sunshine," Kate Winslet gave her brightest, most lively performance since "Titanic." It’s a safe bet that the zombie masskilling spectacular "Dawn of the Dead" will go Oscar-less, but Sarah Polley gave the brainsplattering proceedings a dramatic urgency with her firstrate performance as a widowed nurse.
Gena Rowlands, directed by son Nick Cassavetes in "The Notebook," gave a moving performance as a mentally diminished woman charmed by the story of her own youth.
Potential Oscar contenders: Somewhat likely Winslet, less likely Rowlands.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
In a film that inspired so much derision, admiration and controversy, it was Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern who cut through the static, playing a grieving mother forced to witness her son’s cruel demise in ‘‘The Passion of the Christ.’’ Morgenstern’s boiling, mostly wordless performance humanized what could have been a purely pornographic spectacle of violence and gore.
Pop moonbeam Mandy Moore flashed unexpected comedic chops as a Biblethumping holy terror in "Saved!" French stunner Virginie Ledoyen was tres formidable as a headstrong freedom fighter in the quasi-farcical wartime thriller "Bon Voyage."
Potential Oscar candidates: Morgenstern, if there is a God.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
With the formidable marketing muscle of Miramax behind him, David Carradine could knock the competition dead with his performance as the smooth, sad-eyed villain in "Kill Bill: Vol. 2" — and don’t think Oscar voters wouldn’t love giving it to him.
As conflicted frontiersman Davy Crockett, Billy Bob Thornton shined in the otherwise lusterless "The Alamo." Eric Bana was a tanned tower of virtue in Wolfgang Petersen’s epic "Troy."
Potential Oscar contenders: Realistically, probably just Carradine.
Lacking a powerful distributor, Mel Gibson pocketed the lion’s share of the fantastic grosses earned by "The Passion of the Christ" — and if he wants the picture to enjoy a strong Oscar publicity push, he might have to dip into his earnings. Besides which, it’s unclear whether Gibson can shake charges of anti-Semitism and marshal widespread Oscar support in Hollywood.
Maybe Oscar will take a cue from the Cannes Film Festival and give a documentary a shot at the main prize. When the smoke has finally cleared, Morgan Spurlock’s "Super Size Me" and Michael Moore’s "Fahrenheit 9/11" will rank among the most successful documentaries in history, and Kevin MacDonald’s mountainclimbing drama hybrid "Touching the Void" is certainly in the same caliber.
Michel Gondry’s scrumptiously warped "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" earned rave reviews, but is probably too outre for the Academy’s staid taste, and Petersen’s "Troy" — through possessed of Oscar-caliber scope — tripped while storming the box-office beachhead.
Potential Oscar contenders: "The Passion of the Christ" should win some converts.
And in the second half of the film year . . .
A few late-year offerings that could make an Oscar splash:
"Alexander": Beating a rival Leonardo DiCaprio-Baz Luhrman project to the finish line, Oliver Stone ("Platoon") directs Colin Farrell as the continent-conquering Macedonian. (opens Nov. 5)
"The Aviator": Leonardo DiCaprio plays Howard Hughes in his most productive, pre-germaphobic years, when he built an aviation empire and romanced the likes of Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani). Martin Scorsese directs. (November TBA)
"Ladder 49": Trapped in a fire, waiting for his mates to rescue him, a firefighter (Joaquin Phoenix) reflects on his life and career, a la "For Love of the Game." (Oct. 8)
"I Heart Huckabees": From his usual comic vantage, director David O. Russell ("Three Kings") tells the story of a husband-wife team (Jude Law and Naomi Watts) who help clients solve existential issues. (October TBA)
"Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Story": Like Angela Bassett playing Tina Turner in 1993's "What’s Love Got to Do With It?" Jamie Foxx could warrant Oscar consideration portraying the late, great blues pianist. (Oct. 29)
"An Unfinished Life": Reclaiming his usual Christmas cleanup spot in the Miramax batting order, director Lasse Hallstrom ("Chocolat," "The Cider House Rules") helms this drama about an abused wife and mother (Jennifer Lopez) who escapes to Wyoming to live with her estranged father-in-law (Robert Redford). (Dec. 24)