LOS ANGELES – "Million Dollar Baby?" Old news. Jamie Foxx? Ancient history. It's time to set odds on which films will dominate next year's Academy Awards (search), based on what's visible in Hollywood's ever-changeable lineup for 2005.
Granted, no one's seen these movies, and some haven't even started shooting, so who knows which might have that touch of Oscar gold, or which won't manage to be ready in time to qualify?
But there are keys to early Oscar handicapping. Does it have Gwyneth Paltrow in it? Does it feature a woman pretending to be a man? Does it have Gwyneth Paltrow pretending to be a man?
Beyond that, the best signposts are a film's heavyweight-drama quotient and pedigree of talent. How many past Oscar winners are involved? Does a cover-girl performer efface her looks for a stark and sober story? Is it a "master" filmmaker tackling a "momentous" subject?
These are subjective criteria, but as a studio mogul noted in "Barton Fink": "I guess we all have that Barton Fink feeling. But since you're Barton Fink, I'm assuming you have it in spades."
For this crystal-ball exercise, we're looking for that Oscar feeling, and we figure people such as these — Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Ron Howard, Roman Polanski — must have it in spades.
And the Oscar could go to:
"Cinderella Man" (search) — Oscar winners Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger star in the story of Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock, who gets a second chance in the ring. The academy loves underdog stories, Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind") directs and Crowe punches people out.
"Memoirs of a Geisha" (search) — Rob Marshall ("Chicago") directs this adaptation of the novel about an orphan girl (Zhang Ziyi) who becomes a queen-bee madame kept in style by powerful men. Sex, sumptuous sets, exotic locales, a beautiful leading lady poised for a breakout role. Sex.
"Kingdom of Heaven" (search) — Ridley Scott ("Gladiator") directs the saga of a battling knight (Orlando Bloom) in Jerusalem during the Crusades. Scott revived the moribund Roman epic. If anyone can make a Crusades story palatable in this politically correct age, he's the man.
"War of the Worlds" (search) — Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise spin the spectacle of sci-fi spectacles, a new take on H.G. Wells' invaders-from-Mars classic. Everyone secretly loves to see the world toasted, and it co-stars that adorable Dakota Fanning.
"All the King's Men" (search) — Sean Penn stars in this update of Robert Penn Warren's novel loosely based on political kingfish Huey Long. Penn in the meatiest role since his Oscar win for "Mystic River," backed by Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, Jude Law and James Gandolfini. Can you say dream cast?
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (search) — Johnny Depp has scored Oscar nominations as a sashaying pirate and a repressed Edwardian playwright. Can he earn another as Willy Wonka? Tim Burton's remake offers endless visual possibilities, and the story of candyman Willy playing tour guide to children is a beloved one for academy boomers.
"Jarhead" (search) — Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") aims for another mix of drama and macabre humor with this tale of an elite sniper unit in the Gulf War. British theater vet Mendes has a keen outsider's eye for stories about Americans. And enlisting Jamie Foxx to co-star doesn't hurt.
"King Kong" (search) — "Lord of the Rings" maestro Peter Jackson directs a remake of the great ape biopic, with Naomi Watts as the new Fay Wray. After elevating the fantasy genre to Oscar glory by treating hobbits with dead earnestness, Jackson's madman enough to do the same for a giant gorilla.
"The New World" (search) — Colin Farrell tries to put "Alexander" behind him in this colonial tale of John Smith and Pocahontas, from director Terrence Malick ("The Thin Red Line"). Malick hardly ever makes movies, but when he does, they're awesome.
"Oliver Twist" (search) — For his first film since winning the best-director Oscar for "The Pianist," Roman Polanski has a go at Charles Dickens' classic of an orphan among pickpockets. Oscar winner Ben Kingsley as the nefarious Fagin. Doesn't everyone prefer Sir Ben in "Sexy Beast" demeanor rather than "Gandhi" mode?
"The Producers" (search) — Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reunite for a movie based on a stage hit based on a movie, about con men bilking investors on a Nazi musical. A best-picture trophy for producer Mel Brooks would make a nice companion bookend for his screenplay Oscar on the 1968 original.
"Walk the Line" (search) — Joaquin Phoenix is the man in black, Johnny Cash, with Reese Witherspoon as wife June Carter. In the same way people went, "Huh? Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles? ... Oh, yeah. I see it," Phoenix bears a curious resemblance to Cash. But can he lip-synch?
"Untitled Steven Spielberg Project" (search) — The director goes for another twofer in one year, this one featuring Eric Bana in a drama chronicling events at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed by Palestinian militants. It's his most "important" film since "Saving Private Ryan."