'Big Fish'R.I.P Arthur Conley Rosie O'Donnell

Oscar Track for Jessica Lange's New Film

Tim Burton's "Big Fish" is the best movie I've seen in all of 2003.

If "Cold Mountain" and "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" don't live up to expectations, I'm willing to say now that "Big Fish" is headed for the Best Picture award. It will most definitely be nominated in that category and many others.

What a pleasure to finally see a film that encompasses all the attributes of a Best Picture. I was starting to fret that the group of candidates already screened — including "Mystic River," "Master and Commander," "Seabiscuit," "Lost in Translation," "Mona Lisa Smile," "House of Sand and Fog," "The Missing," "The Human Stain" — were going to be fighting for awards they didn't quite deserve.

Not to say there's anything seriously wrong with any of them. They are all well-made, entertaining films. But each of them is seriously flawed and not quite "there." For mid-November, this isn't good news.

But then yesterday all that changed. I attended an afternoon screening of "Big Fish," a film based on a short novel by Daniel Wallace currently ranked at number 17,556 on amazon.com The movie had good buzz but had not been over-hyped. I should have guessed that this would be a case similar to "American Beauty" since the same team — Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks — produced it.

"Big Fish" comes from that sensibility of high drama, sharply drawn characters, impeccable acting and — very importantly — a self contained logic. "Big Fish" actually reminded me more of "The Cider House Rules" in a way than "American Beauty." It's a whole piece of art, developed from a single vision, and conveyed with that coherence. I loved it. So will you.

Albert Finney — a cinch for Best Supporting Actor, although it would be great to see Sony/Columbia put him in for lead — plays a dying, eccentric patriarch named Edward Bloom. Jessica Lange is his loving and understanding wife, but Billy Crudup — also doing some of his best work ever — is his doubting, critical son, Will.

What Crudup is critical of is Finney's penchant for fantasy and exaggeration. He is not much for the father's lyrical sense of embroidery. And Finney, in this movie, is a storyteller with no shame. His anecdotes, by now family lore, weave themselves around carnivals, circuses, bank robberies, witches, and giants. Will is so exasperated by Edward that when the movie begins he hasn't spoken to him in three years.

Burton has made a lot of movies. Some of them were good ("Batman"), some of them were great ("Beetlejuice"), some were exercises in excess ("Sleepy Hollow"). Visually, he's always been arresting ("Edward Scissorhands"). But nothing he's done before really indicated that he could make "Big Fish."

He cuts back and forth between Edward Bloom's present and his past, using Ewan McGregor and Alison Lohman to play the younger versions of Finney and Lange. All of the campy stuff that McGregor worked on in "Moulin Rouge!" and "Down With Love" finally comes to fruition here; it's as if we had to endure those performances to enjoy this one. He's extraordinary at last.

It's Burton's movie in the long-run, and he really surprises even the most jaded viewer with "Big Fish." There are echoes of "Forrest Gump" certainly, and "The Wizard of Oz." But they are just echoes. "Big Fish" also thrives in the same area, coincidentally, as Denys Arcand's marvelous "Barbarian Invasions," with its father-son conflict.

But these are just references within the shadows. "Big Fish" is its own creation. It's a four-hanky affair, so bring lots of Kleenex. My advice to Sony is hold the house lights off well into the end credits so the wiping of tears can go in private. There was sobbing at yesterday's screening. I haven't seen tears like that since "Ordinary People."

I've mentioned the main cast, but I should tell you that there are also very fine supporting turns by Steve Buscemi, Robert Guilliaume, Helena Bonham Carter and, most importantly, Danny DeVito, who gets the role of his life and runs with it. The only negative there is that you get to see more of him than you ever wanted to, but after all, we're seasoned pros, so we can take it.

"Big Fish" probably knocks "Seabiscuit," "House of Sand and Fog," and "21 Grams" out of the big awards races simply because it is the premier drama of the season. It also may do damage to "Mystic River," as "Big Fish" gets the lump-in-the-throat payoff that the Clint Eastwood movie misses by going on long past the moment when someone should have yelled "Cut!"

Do You Like Soul Music? Yeah, Yeah

I am heartbroken to report that Arthur Conley, the very underrated soul singer, died yesterday at his home in the Netherlands. He was 57 and had intestinal cancer.

Conley sang and co-wrote (with Otis Redding) one of the biggest hits of all time, "Sweet Soul Music." It was a smash hit in 1967 and is probably heard many times a day around the world. It was a re-write of a Sam Cooke record called "Oh Yeah" which only recently turned up in its original form on a Cooke retrospective.

Redding and Conley changed the words, making it a tribute song to their soul colleagues like the "wicked" Wilson Pickett. The riff is so catchy you could get up and dance it to now. It's maybe second to another Redding number, "Respect," for instant recognition.

Arthur was 21 years old when his fame came as Redding's protégé. But the pressure was too much for him once Redding died in 1968. He thought that Stax/Atlantic and producer Phil Walden and Jerry Wexler wanted too much from him. He had some minor follow-up hits but never again anything like the sensation that "Sweet Soul Music" caused. By 1974, Conley left America and never returned.

Nearly five years ago, I hunted Conley down thinking he should be included in the film "Only the Strong Survive." No one knew where he was, although several people told me, chuckling, that they'd heard he'd had a sex-change operation.

After some doing I got his address and wrote to him under the name he'd assumed — Lee Roberts. I told him about the movie and wondered if he'd be interested.

About a week later, the phone rang at 6 a.m. It was "Lee Roberts." It took a few minutes to ascertain that he and Arthur Conley were the same person. His voice was sweet and baby-ish. He talked in riddles, and had a funny way of spitting in the middle of sentences.

He said he was recording various groups at his home studio in Ruurlo, a village in Holland near the German border. He called his disciples "my babies." He said, with a laugh, that he had not had a sex-change operation. He got a kick out of that one, though.

Every couple of months for the last four and a half years, I would get phone calls from Arthur Conley. A few days after the September 11 tragedies, he called to say he was worried about me and was wondering if I was all right.

He would ask about his old friends — Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, Aretha Franklin. He talked about touring to soul festivals in places like Sweden, where R&B was still respected. He was not interested in coming back to the United States, even if the Rhythm and Blues Foundation — which had bypassed him — gave him a Pioneer Award.

We didn't really know each other. But he was a sweetheart.

"I love you, Roger," he would tell me. He meant, he loved that I loved the music, and he understood. He hadn't seen the finished film, which he wasn't in, but he'd kept abreast of it on the internet. "You've done something important with your movie, you understand what I'm saying? You're teaching people."

Rest in peace, Arthur. I'll bet when you got to heaven, Otis and Sam and Jackie were all there waiting for you, ready to harmonize. Oh yeah.

Rosie's 'Taboo': The Hits Keep on Coming

I don't know why exactly, but my pals at the New York Post just keep whacking away at the Boy George musical "Taboo." They seem to want to kill it. Let's not let that happen. A friend of mine, who's considered a "Big Deal" film critic, went to see it in previews, folks. He told me over the weekend he and his girlfriend loved it. And this guy doesn't like anything, believe me.

"Taboo" is brimming with great, catchy pop songs, all of which are performed by very talented singers. The sets and costumes are inventive and cool. The only problem with the show is that the storyline is poorly constructed. But that doesn't matter. You get the idea. It's the story of Boy George and his unconventional friends rising through the ranks in London.

More importantly, "Taboo" has a nice message, that's okay to be a "freak," to stand out, and that just because you're dressed in black, covered in mascara with green hair, it doesn't mean you aren't a warm-hearted person. It's very much the antithesis of "Party Monster" and "Velvet Goldmine," two films in which similar-looking people were quite evil and venal.

As for changes from the London version, which I saw: the New York "Taboo" is by far superior, enriched by fleshed-out characters and songs that are actually orchestrated. The sets are superior and so is the storyline. (You can imagine how slim it was to start with.) John McDaniel, the music supervisor, has taken something slight and made it whole.

Go see "Taboo." Believe me, you'll be humming more than a few of the new Boy George songs all the way home and then some.