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TWO CRITICS SITTING AROUND... GOLDEN GLOBES KICK OFF A WEIRD, UNCERTAIN AWARDS SEASON.

Byline: Glenn Whipp and Bob Strauss Film Critics

Tonight's Golden Globe ceremonies kick off that two-month orgy of self-congratulation, misplaced enthusiasm and unseemly pleading otherwise known as movie awards season.

Between now and the 72nd Academy Awards presentation on March 26, not-so-small armies of lobbyist and publicists will be making uncountable calls and buying oodles of trade ads to convince industry types that their version of ``This Prisoner Is Innocent'' or ``My Miserable Irish Youth'' was 1999's pinnacle of film art.

The politicking should be especially fevered this year, since no film or two dominated the year-end critics' choices and there is an unusually wide field of estimable contenders to pick from. Your usually self-assured - and sometimes even right - Daily News prognosticators Bob Strauss and Glenn Whipp admit that they, like everyone else, are essentially stumped at this point. But that, of course, won't stop them from opining about what they think will - or should - be nominated for an Oscar.

You can judge their psychic abilities for yourself when Academy Award nominations are announced in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 15.

--Strauss: Theoretically, I like the idea that there are few Oscar front-runners this year, But the fact that there was so much good work of fairly equivalent value also makes the idea of choosing a single best artistic endeavor seem even more dubious than it usually does.

--Whipp: Yes, especially when our two favorite movies from the past year - ``The Straight Story'' and ``Magnolia'' - don't stand a snowball's chance in hell of making the final cut for best picture.

--Strauss: Now now, no need to be bitter. There are plenty of really fine films in the running. ``American Beauty,'' ``The Insider'' and ``The Talented Mr. Ripley'' all have their flaws, but overall they're exceptionally intelligent and cinematically astute movies, and they're all pretty likely best picture nominees. I also think that ``Topsy-Turvy,'' ``Being John Malkovich,'' ``Three Kings,'' and maybe even ``All About My Mother'' and ``Toy Story 2'' have outside but real chances to run the big race.

--Whipp: Well, as much as I loved ``Three Kings,'' ``Malkovich'' and ``Toy Story 2,'' I can't see them winding up as best picture nominees. And ``All About My Mother'' and ``Topsy-Turvy'' are too arty for the Academy's mainstream leanings.

All of them would certainly be better choices, however, than either ``The Hurricane'' or ``The Green Mile,'' two Important Movies that seem to have been specifically geared toward Oscar voters. Same for ``The Cider House Rules,'' a minor movie that Miramax is trying to shove down people's throats as a work of art. If Miramax's Oscar campaign for this film wins it a passel of nominations, they should just call off next year's ceremonies right now and give the best picture award to the studio that ponies up the most money.

Oh wait ... that's what they did last year. How quickly we forget.

--Strauss: Yeah, except ``Shakespeare in Love'' was actually clever. Plus, it was all about putting on a show, a subject academy members understandably hold dear and which, I think, makes the late-blooming critics' darling ``Topsy-Turvy'' the most likely ``surprise'' contender.

But on to more predictable matters. I've got to say - and it's probably the only time I'll ever agree with that bunch in this or any century - that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association got the actor field as right as it possibly could with its dramatic picture Globe nominations. ``The Insider's'' Russell Crowe, ``Ripley's'' Matt Damon, ``Striaght's'' Richard Farnsworth, ``Beauty's'' Kevin Spacey and ``Hurricane's'' Denzel Washington should not only turn out to be the academy nominees, they gave my favorite lead performances of last year.

Well, them and ``Topsy's'' Jim Broadbent. And that spooky kid in ``The Sixth Sense,'' but they're wrongheadedly pushing him in the more crowded supporting actor category.

--Whipp: It is a more crowded category, although the ``kid'' (and let's give the tyke a little credit and call him by his full name, Haley Joel Osment) probably stands a better chance in winning the supporting actor award.

Crowe, Spacey, Washington and Farnsworth have all taken critics prizes, and tonight's Globes and the upcoming SAG awards will give us an idea of who the front-runner truly is. Farnsworth is the most deserving, but Washington probably has the most support. The academy could certainly do worse, i.e. Jim Carrey.

No such dilemma presents itself in the actress category, where it's Hilary Swank and ... well, Hilary Swank. She has won every award thus far. But then, not everyone has seen her boyish turn in ``Boys Don't Cry,'' which could bode well for Annette Bening, even though she's probably the least of ``American Beauty's'' fine ensemble. It just highlights what a weak category this is. There will be none of those silly ``year of the woman'' pronouncements this year.

--Strauss: Speaking of silly, I'm afraid the limited field means we're going to see a Janet McTeer nomination. The ``Tumbleweeds'' star is perfectly suited for the traditional overacting Brit slot that's accommodated Brenda Blethyn, Julie Walters and Pauline Collins in recent years.

On a more ambivalent note, I'd love to see the always-deserving Julianne Moore compete in the big contest. Unfortunately, she only qualifies for one of her five 1999 films, ``The End of the Affair'' - which, though another best picture possibility, was much too timid in addressing the tough spiritual themes of Graham Greene's blistering novel. Other than that, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder and Reese Witherspoon could all conceivably make the cut, but yeah, it doesn't matter; Swank looks like the safest Oscar bet of the season. The role gave her a lot to work with, and she achieved practically all of its great potential.

--Whipp: Well ... yes. But, I would hasten to add Cecilia Roth's deeply moving turn in ``All About My Mother'' to any list of worthy performances. She's every bit as good as Swank, and in many respects, she pulls off a more profound accomplishment.

We don't have to look so hard to find worthy nominees for supporting actress. ``Boys'' co-star Chloe Sevigny deserves just as much acclaim as Swank, while Catherine Keener and Cameron Diaz made ``Malkovich's'' identity crises so much fun to watch. Then add two disparate turns: Angelina Jolie's seductive wild child in ``Girl, Interrupted'' and Samantha Morton's mute moll in ``Sweet and Lowdown,'' and you have a group that positively dwarfs those in the actress category.

--Strauss: I'd like to see Moore for either ``Magnolia'' or ``An Ideal Husband,'' and ``Sixth Sense's'' Toni Collette will get votes just for playing Spooky's mom, but that pretty much covers it. From those slim pickings, though, we go to overflowing volume in the supporting actor category. We can probably each pick five decent candidates who have a good chance and still have big ol' Michael Clarke Duncan from ``The Green Mile'' left over.

In fact, let's do it. I'll go with, in descending but close order, ``Magnolia's'' Tom Cruise, ``Beauty's'' Wes Bentley, ``Insider's'' Christopher Plummer and ``Cider House's'' Michael Caine. ``Three Kings' '' Said Taghmaoui may be a little obscure for my fifth choice, but the way he humanized that Iraqi torturer was incredible.

--Whipp: OK. I'll pick Eddie Murphy, so good in his dual roles in ``Bowfinger,'' followed by Jude Law and Philip Seymour Hoffman from ``The Talented Mr. Ripley'' (although you could just as easily nominate Hoffman for his work in ``Magnolia'' too), the previously mentioned Osment and, of course, John Malkovich for lampooning himself so fearlessly in ``Being John Malkovich.''

Murphy and Malkovich are my two favorites and, unfortunately, neither will win (Murphy won't even be nominated) because of the academy's blindness to the merits of comedy.

--Strauss: That's not fair. Look at the general run of foreign language Oscar winners over the past two decades - their taste in that category is hilarious, while at the same time poignantly tragic. I'd say Pedro Almodovar's ``All About My Mother,'' which has won the lion's share of the world's major film prizes, should logically have that award all sewn up. But since it doesn't have a sad-eyed little kid in it, the academy may well not be capable of finding the film meaningful enough.

I'd bet Almodovar has a good chance for an original screenplay nomination, since the writer's branch is traditionally the academy's most perceptive lot. But I don't know if being a writer-director will work against him politically among that oversensitive, turf-protective group, and it may have the same effect on such other accomplished hyphenates as ``Three Kings' '' David O. Russell and ``Magnolia's'' P.T. Anderson. Don't think the writers will exclude ``Sixth Sense's'' director M. Night Shyamalan, though; that twist ending was Hollywood craftsmanship at its undeniable apogee.

Other original screenplay slam-dunks would be Alan Ball's ``Beauty'' and Charlie Kaufman's ``Malkovich.''

--Whipp: It's a much more interesting bunch than the adapted screenplay possibilities. Most of the year's touted literary adaptations - ``Angela's Ashes,'' ``Snow Falling on Cedars,'' ``The Cider House Rules'' - didn't live up to the hype. ``The Insider'' certainly merits attention, even if screenwriters Michael Mann and Eric Roth played loose with the facts in a needless attempt to ratchet up the drama.

But the best adaptation came courtesy of Anthony Minghella, who took Patricia Highsmith's already rich source material and made it a mesmerizing thriller of the highest order. Minghella lost in the adapted screenplay category three years ago to Billy Bob Thornton's ``Sling Blade.'' This year, he should win for ``Ripley.''

--Strauss: Of course, Minghella's a possibility for repeating best director honors. But like most of the other major categories, the competition's intense. I think he's a sure nomination, as is ``Beauty's'' Sam Mendes. But after that, it's a free-for-all. Anybody who tackled a true story - ``Hurricane's'' Norman Jewison, ``Insider's'' Michael Mann, ``Boys Don't Cry's'' Kimberly Peirce and ``Topsy-Turvy's'' Mike Leigh - has to contend with people taking issue with the accuracy of their films. I'd sure like to see Almodovar and ``Malkovich's'' Spike Jonze acknowledged for, at the very least, their remarkable tonal control. But it's really anybody's game.

--Whipp: And let's not forget David Lynch, the man least likely to make a G-rated Disney film, not to mention such a masterful one. It would be nice, too, to see his collaborator, cinematographer Freddie Francis, nominated for making those amber waves of grain (and Farnsworth's expressive eyes) come alive in ``The Straight Story.''

And while we're lobbying ... how about recognition for Gabriel Yared's score for ``The Talented Mr. Ripley'' and Rick Heinrichs' evocative production design for ``Sleepy Hollow''?

--Strauss: I'll push for Conrad Hall's exquisite ``American Beauty'' cinematography, the musical contributions Aimee Mann and Jon Brion made to ``Magnolia,'' and any of the songs from ``South Park.'' --Whipp: Yup, those ``South Park'' guys sure did send you out of the theater humming. And the great thing is, there are a fair amount of people who want to vote for the movie, which underscores the great diversity we enjoyed in movies last year. Now if Oscar will just honor some of that originality ...

--Strauss: Well, anything may seem possible this year, but let's not get ridiculously optimistic.

THE FACTS

--The show: The Golden Globes Awards.

--What: The Hollywood Foreign Press Association hands out awards in film and television.

--The stars: Tons of celebrities; Barbra Streisand will receive the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement award.

--Where: NBC (Channel 4).

--When: 8 tonight. (tape delayed). Arrival coverage starts at 7 p.m. on NBC (Channel 4), hosted by Dick Clark, Nancy O'Dell and Cynthia Garrett, and at 6 p.m. on E! - hosted by Joan and Melissa Rivers. (Both shows are tape-delayed).

CAPTION(S):

7 photos, 2 boxes

Photo:

(1 -- color -- cover) Global estimates; Our critics look to tonight's Golden Globes for clues about the Oscar race. Page 3

No cutlines (Oscar silhouette behind Golden Globes trophy)

(2) Woody, Bullseye and Jessie in "Toy Story 2."

(3) Annette Bening and Kevin Sspacey in "American Beauty."

(4) Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense."

(5) Richard Farnsworth in "The Straight Story."

(6) Orson Bean, cameron Diaz and friends in "Being John Malkovich."

(7) Cecilia Roth in "All About My Mother."

Box:

(1) On Page 6: Golden Globe nominations

On Page 7: If we all had our own awards show

(2) THE FACTS (see text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 23, 2000
Words:2044
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