"Chicago's" Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere, "Adaptation's" Meryl Streep, Jennifer Aniston and Edie Falco and others are winners at the 60th annual Golden Globe awards.

LOS ANGELES - It's Golden Globes time again and the awards by 90 obscure foreign correspondents of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association have taken on an importance they haven't had in years.

The reason is simple --- there are a lot of good films out there this year and any well-watched awards show will help narrow the field as the U.S. movie industry gears up for its moment of truth, the Oscars on March 23.

This means the Globes are ``must-see'' this year and the limos are ready to ferry some of the biggest names in the business to the Beverly Hilton Hotel for the free-wheeling show that has the reputation of being the best party in town.

So far the best films, actor and actress picks by critics and awards groups have been all over the motion picture map. The National Board of Review went for ``The Hours'' as the year's best picture, the New York Film Critics opted for ``Far From Heaven,: the L.A. Film Critics crowned ``About Schmidt'' and to add to the confusion, the Broadcast Film Critics Association on Friday named ``Chicago.''

So members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association have a heavy burden on them: they have to come with credible choices for the best film drama and best musical or comedy of the year as well best actors and actresses in those categories. Whether the people who give out the Oscars like to admit it or not, the studios use success at the Globes the way a politician would use victory in the New Hampshire primary: it's a major claim of momentum.


The Globes have had their miscues -- they once honored Pia Zadora for her acting abilities -- and they have their successes, often pointing the direction that Oscar will take. ``Gladiator'' cut off heads here first

``Chicago'' is expected to sweep the best musical and comedy categories, but the hardest choice will be finding the best film drama between ``About Schmidt,'' ``Gangs of New York,'' ``The Hours,'' ``The Pianist'' and ``The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.''

The favorite is ``The Hours'' but some critics are guessing that Martin Scorsese's ``Gangs of New York'' could rub out the competition, taking its first major pre-Oscar honor and giving the film a respectability it has so far lacked. Others think Roman Polanski's wrenching tale of Holocaust survival ``The Pianist'' may win to give it a huge boost going in the Oscars.

``The Pianist'' won best picture at Cannes and has picked some minor critics awards, but it has not received the attention given to ``The Hours,'' starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, or ``About Schmidt,'' with Globes favorite Jack Nicholson.

So the Globes long known for humor, good cheer and a bubbly celebrity audience, this year have something else -- suspense.

There will also be plenty of celebrities. Along with Kidman and Streep, will be Salma Hayek for ``Frida,'' Diane Lane for ``Unfaithful'' and Moore in ``Far From Heaven.'' The category is too close to call, but industry watchers say Kidman, Streep and Moore are vying for top honors with Lane and Hayek only inches behind.

In the best dramatic actor group, Nicholson seems the front-runner, but Daniel Day Lewis' ``Bill the Butcher'' character in ``Gangs'' may just cut him to shreds. Adrien Brody in ``The Pianist'' and Michael Caine in ``Quiet American'' are also too close for comfort, and Leonardo Di Caprio in ``Catch Me if You Can'' is a real crowd pleaser.

In the best musical or comedy category, ``Chicago'' appears to be the show stopper with eight nominations overall. But ``Greek Wedding'' has shared its own brand of razzle dazzle with audiences this year, which could lead to Golden Globe success.

``Chicago's'' Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones will compete with ``Greek Wedding's'' star and creator Nia Vardalos for best actress in a musical or comedy. They are joined by Goldie Hawn in ``The Banger Sisters'' and newcomer Maggie Gyllenhaal for ``Secretary.''

In the best comedic actor group, Chicago's Richard Gere looks set to tap dance his way around Hugh Grant in ``About a Boy'' as he squares off against Nicolas Cage in ``Adaptation'' and Adam Sandler for ``Punch-Drunk Love.'' Newcomer Kieran Culkin for ``Igby Goes Down'' was a surprise nominee in the group.