Which movie first? A critic leads the way

Chicago Tribune movie critic

Christmas and New Year's were a time of celebration and remembrance for everybody. But for movie fans the holiday season and its immediate aftermath are something special in a different way: catch-up time.

Now is the winter of our (relative) content, those few weeks when almost all the major winter releases have made it to the theaters and when the Oscars, screen guilds and movie critics' prize fields are beginning to add up or take shape.

With the 76th Oscars just a few weeks away, now may be the time to strategize. If you want to see most of the prime candidates with an audience before the Feb. 29 Academy Awards show, how do you make plans? How do you avoid packed theaters and make sure that you don't accidentally miss out on the smaller, less-advertised, non-blockbuster favorites that are harder to see?

It's not an unpleasant problem to have.

Which should you go to first? "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" or "Lost in Translation"? "Cold Mountain" or "Mystic River"? "Master and Commander" or "Monster"? And which smaller, harder-to-catch movies should you make special plans?

Some of these movies are huge blockbusters that will definitely be around for a while. Others are more ephemeral, in fewer theaters. Some are available right now on DVD. So, in some instances, you have to plan -- just as critics and Motion Picture Academy members do.

Of course, in many respects, it is naive to use the Oscars and current Oscar favorites as our measuring stick; many of the year's best movies and a few potential classics won't even be in that race. But since the Oscars are a highly popular spectator sport and national guessing game, it is fun to be forearmed.

For those of you who are curious (about the potential main categories of best picture, actor, actress and director), here's a short list of the movies you have to see -- at least right now.

In the best-picture category, two movies tower over the rest of the field: "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" and "Cold Mountain." You won't have trouble finding them -- though you may have trouble getting in.

If you don't want to get stuck in the "King's" long lines for the moment, five other prime Oscar candidates are also currently visible: "Lost in Translation," "In America," "Finding Nemo," "Mystic River" and "Seabiscuit." Appropriately, considering the last film on the list, they're the dark horses. Three are in theaters and two others ("Nemo" and "Seabiscuit") were just released on DVD.

These seven are the current leading best-picture candidates, with some strong acting award possibilities in them as well: Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as the May-December odd couple lost in Japan in "Translation," Sean Penn as the neighborhood ex-con patriarch on a rampage and Marcia Gay Harden as his ex-friend's tormented wife in "River," Nicole Kidman as the ethereal Southern beauty in "Mountain." And the two leading best-actress candidates are in two other movies a bit easier to see: "Something's Gotta Give" (Diane Keaton) and "Monster" (Charlize Theron).

Of them all, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"' is my favorite, not just because of its sheer quality, ambition and brilliant execution, but because it's high time to award Peter Jackson's magnificent movie adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy as a whole.

You have an extra advantage right now. If you haven't seen the first two parts (2001's "The Fellowship of the Ring" and 2002's "The Two Towers"), or want to see them again before sampling "King," you can buy or rent them in several DVD editions, enriched with documentaries, commentaries and many previously deleted scenes. Seeing them first will enhance the experience greatly, help you to see the "Rings" movie trilogy as a whole -- one marvelous saga.

"Cold Mountain" is the most plausible "Rings" spoiler. Writer-director Anthony Minghella's gorgeous, exciting and somewhat dreamlike adaptation of the Charles Frazier Civil War novel, with Kidman, Jude Law and Renee Zellweger, fits the usual Oscar profile more than "Rings."A hit with critics, it also should have legs, giving you time to read Frazier's fascinating book.

In the interim, you can catch the three films that aren't playing as many theaters or getting as big an ad push: "Lost in Translation," "Mystic River" and "In America."

"Translation" is one of the sleepers of the bunch, and a real vindication for Sofia Coppola. Much maligned only a decade ago when Papa Francis cast her in the last minute to replace an ailing Winona Ryder in "Godfather 3," she is now a prize-winning best director, courtesy of the New York Film Critics. Her "Translation," a sweet, smart, unsentimental tale of cultural dislocation and improbable romance (between Murray's movie actor and Johansson's artist), should have legs enough to stick around to the Oscars. Now's the time for the nonspecialized audience to see it.

Ditto for "Mystic River," another critical hit that much of the public has yet to see. Clint Eastwood's movie of Dennis Lehane's psychological thriller about three Boston neighborhood childhood friends caught in violence past and present is stark and brutal on the surface, quietly compassionate underneath and contains one performance (Penn's) widely considered an Oscar shoo-in. Again, "River" is based (by screenwriter Brian Helgeland) on a first-rate novel -- and it's a quicker read than either Tolkien's or Frazier's.

Finally, "In America" is the other big sleeper -- and another film you should make a point to catch soon. An original script by writer-director Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot"), it's a great immigrants-eye view of America, based on the real-life experiences of Sheridan, his wife and family (Samantha Morton as the wife is another Oscar possible), during their New York City sojourn. It has exactly those qualities of realism, intelligence, atmosphere and heart that Oscar voters love to reward -- and which audiences usually relish as well.

Also in the theaters, or due to arrive soon, are three other must-sees -- not because they're as likely best-picture nominees, but because they contain very likely best-actor and best-actress nominees. They are "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," for Russell Crowe's stout-hearted, thick-muscled portrayal of Patrick O'Brian's British naval hero Jack Aubrey; "Monster," for Theron's searing portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and "Something's Gotta Give," for Keaton's sparkly screwball comedy turn as Broadway playwright and Jack Nicholson inamorata Erica Barry.

Remember, though, neither Oscar nominations nor victories are ever an infallible imprimatur of greatness. After all, "Lord of the Rings" has been beaten twice before -- and how many movie lovers or experts really believe that the best pictures of the last two years were "Chicago" and "A Beautiful Mind," rather than "The Pianist" or "Rings"?

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