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Oscar hopefuls saturate December

There is no gentle way to say it, but this year has been the worst for movies. However, the reason can be attributed to a recent trend set by lazy Oscar voters. Of the last 10 winners of Oscar’s Best Picture prize, eight of the films were released in the month of December. While movie studio executives are certainly interested in making money, getting that Oscar is like winning the Super Bowl. Unfortunately for filmgoers, that means we have to wait 11 months for the best crop of films to be released.

It has become increasingly worse since The English Patient won in 1996. Since then, Titanic and Shakespeare In Love, both December releases, edged out L.A. Confidential and Saving Private Ryan, which were both spring and summer releases. While last year’s Gladiator (2000) was a May release, American Beauty (1999) followed the December tradition.

Theories, such as Oscar voters have short memory spans, have been put forth, but the simple fact is blockbusters are released in the summer and art-house films are saved for the winter. It just turned into a situation where blockbusters started to begin production before screenplays were written. On the flip side, whenever a Cider House Rules or Good Will Hunting comes across the desk of a producer, he or she stamps a special sticker on the screenplay that signifies an Oscar hopeful. This mentality has led to a rush to release each studio’s finest at the end of the year in hopes of making the short list come Oscar time.

This year is the culmination of the worst possible scenario: No movies are picked as early Oscar contenders as we approach December. Which is good if you like the holiday rush at the multiplex, but bad if you’ve expected to see something good by now. While some films, such as Memento and kid-flicks Shrek and Monsters, Inc., have entertained this year, none scream Oscar.

This month will provide many opportunities for Oscar gold, but the result may end up as slim pickings. Whatever happens, look for some big names trying to give powerful performances. Tom Cruise, Kevin Spacey, Jim Carrey, Russell Crowe and Will Smith all have Oscar-friendly dramas being released this month.

One of most talked about releases is Ali, the Michael Mann helmed boxing biopic of Muhammad Ali, starring an ears-pinned-back, buffed-up Smith as “The Greatest.” Mann last turned a young, fit Russell Crowe into an old, pudgy whistle-blower in 1999’s The Insider. If Mann’s sleek visual style and knack for dramatic tension is utilized in Ali, this could very well be the movie to see this year. Released on Christmas Day, Ali will have to compete with The Shipping News, starring Kevin Spacey.

Spacey’s latest is based on a novel about a widower who embarks on a self-discovery journey in Newfoundland, all the while spitting out newspaper headlines describing how he is feeling. Spacey is familiar with this type of character and struck Oscar gold twice in the 1990s, most recently with Best-Picture winner American Beauty, where he took home a Best Actor award for himself. The Shipping News also stars Oscar winner Judi Dench, as well as Oscar nominees Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett. Directed by Cider House Rules-helmer Lasse Hallstrom, this Shipping could get some very good news come next March.

That is, unless, golden-boy Ron Howard finally gets lucky with last year’s Best Actor Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. The inspired-by-true-events drama tells the tale of mathematical genius John Forbes Nash, Jr., who went off the deep end after agreeing to help crack codes for the U.S. government. Nash won the Nobel Prize and the movie could get recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well. Unless, of course, Howard falls again into Schmaltzville, a dreadful place where promising movies go to die after using sentimentality rather than substance to tell a story.

Another possible tearjerker is the Frank Capra-esque Jim Carrey star vehicle, The Majestic, about a blacklisted screenwriter who loses his memory. The tale sounds fascinating and will be directed by twice-nominated Frank Darabont. In just his third film (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile being the other two), Darabont gets an opportunity to take true human emotion outside of prisons and into 1950s small town America, where Carrey’s scribe goes to find himself again. This one should be a winner, and maybe Carrey will get the notice he deserves from The Academy after getting stiffed for The Truman Show and Man on the Moon.

The last time Tom Cruise was nominated for Best Actor came at the helm of Cameron Crowe with Jerry Maguire. Crowe directs Cruise here as well in Vanilla Sky, a mystery about a womanizer who gets disfigured after a car crash. Previews have yet to give this film a definable plot and it’s debatable if one is necessary when you combine Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz as the two women vying for the affections of Cruise’s bachelor. Look for a sexy, plot-twisting joy ride and you should be pleased with whatever the outcome is here. (However, if you’ve seen Cruz’s Spanish version, Abre Los Ojos, you already know the twist.)

Fans of The Lord of the Rings trilogy should also be pleased when the first adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s popular series is released. Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler, The Fellowship of the Ring looks like it could beat the Harry Potter hype as the most anticipated novel to transition to film.

Other escapes this winter should come with laughter when you consider that the end-all-be-all of teen-spoof comedies will be released. Not Another Teen Movie looks to rip American Pie and the like in a no-holds-barred fashion that should bend the extremes of taste as well as humor. Also being released is the highly anticipated, star-packed comedy, The Royal Tenenbaums. Gene Hackman plays the father of Ben Stiller and Gwenyth Paltrow in a dysfunctional-family satire that should make fans of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore happy.

Another star-studded film is the action pic Ocean’s 11, a remake of the Rat Pack’s memorable film about pretty boys planning an impossible casino heist. Starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and Julia Roberts, this Steven Soderbergh-helmed heist flick looks to be an enjoyable start to a promising month of Oscar hopefuls.

All in all, this holiday season looks to pack the punch that should have kept us caring all year long, as opposed to spending the first 11 months anticipating what is to come. But don’t look now, it’s almost here.