List of dark-horse contenders a short one

It's a piece of conventional wisdom that, given the less-than-heroic nature of studio accomplishments, this year's Oscar race is a wide-open one. But, like all conventional wisdom, that turns out to be not completely true.

On the one hand, the visible absence of a slew of must-be-nominated motion pictures has made it possible for unlikely films to be considered. Just the fact that "Billy Elliot," "Sunshine" and even "Quills" are being spoken of seriously speaks for itself.

But it's also true that, given the predilections of academy voters, the weakness of the year simply means there are fewer likely candidates. In fact, a canvass of veteran Oscar watchers revealed if not downright unanimity at least remarkable consensus as to what is and is not likely to happen.

In the best-picture category, for instance, two very different films appear to be sure things: Steven Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich" and Ridley Scott's "Gladiator." Both came out in the early part of the year, a time period often neglected by academy voters, and both benefited by the decision of their studios to re-release them theatrically near the end of 2000.

Although there are more than three candidates for the last three spots, it's not a lot more than three. The handsome "Cast Away" has not only done well at the box office, it also has the kind of strained seriousness the academy favors. As this year's "Cider House Rules," equipped with the same director and the same artfully disguised sentimentality, Lasse Hallström's "Chocolat" seems a likely choice. Soderbergh's "Traffic" is also a strong possibility, though it's not clear if voters will want to select two films by the same director.

Very much in the running, though its inclusion would be a major upset, is the Chinese-language "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the holiday season's most-talked-about film. Chances for "Billy Elliot" and "Thirteen Days" also exist, but they are slim ones.

The best-director category contains this year's most intriguing question: What will be the fate of Mr. Soderbergh? His two films are obvious candidates, but it's unlikely (albeit possible) that this small and spirited directors branch will pick him twice. If it doesn't, the more adventurous "Traffic" may well get the nod. And the possibility, however remote, does exist that if the directors split their votes between both of his films, he may end up, embarrassing though it would be, shut out completely.

"Gladiator's" director, the veteran Scott, also has a lock on a nomination. And Ang Lee, whose English-language work is well-known, looks good for "Crouching Tiger." The other contenders include Curtis Hanson (who has a better chance here than "Wonder Boys" has for best picture), "Cast Away's" Robert Zemeckis, "Chocolat's" Hallström and "Sunshine's" Istvan Szabo.

When it comes to the performing categories, best actor is one of the less well-defined. Russell Crowe, star of "Gladiator" and nominated last year for "The Insider," is close to a sure thing, as is "Cast Away's" Tom Hanks, the man the academy cannot resist.

The last three slots will almost certainly go to a small pool of contenders. The respected Ed Harris seems highly likely for the performance of his career in "Pollock," and being named best actor by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association will help Michael Douglas' chances for "Wonder Boys." Battling it out for the last space will probably be the grizzled veteran Sean Connery for "Finding Forrester," "Shine" winner Geoffrey Rush for "Quills" and, if the actors branch is in the mood to reward genuinely excellent and provocative work, Javier Bardem for "Before Night Falls."

The best-actress category is an unusually strong one, and though it breaks down into a three sure and two almost-sure situation, most people agree on who the almost-sures will be. The strongest force is Julia Roberts, whose where-has-this-part-been-all-these-years success in "Erin Brockovich" will likely take her all the way to a victory on Oscar night. Her biggest competition looks to be the respected veteran Ellen Burstyn for "Requiem for a Dream," a choice whose only obstacle to a nomination will come if voters actually try to watch her film.

The third solid bet for a nomination is Laura Linney for the well-received independent "You Can Count on Me." Following right behind are Juliette Binoche (an upset winner a few years back for "The English Patient") in "Chocolat" and academy favorite Joan Allen in a rare pure starring role in "The Contender."

By contrast, the best-supporting-actress category is one of the more dicey to call. Surest as a nominee is "Fargo" winner Frances McDormand, more likely for the showier role in "Almost Famous" than her equally expert work in "Wonder Boys." Two British actresses whose performances were in constant danger of biting off more than they could chew are also nearly certain: Judi Dench as a mock-cranky grandmother in "Chocolat" and Julie Walters as a mock-cranky dance teacher in "Billy Elliot."

The outcome of the battle for the final two slots in that category is unclear. Kate Hudson has the talent, the youth and the family connections to make a nomination for "Almost Famous" look good. And Marcia Gay Harden's outstanding work in "Pollock" should also stand her in good stead. But Kate Winslet in "Quills" has started some talk, as has Amy Madigan in "Pollock," and with things so fluid, almost anyone could sneak in.

The supporting-actor candidates, by contrast, form a solid group of five. They are: Willem Dafoe as the king of the undead in "Shadow of a Vampire," Benecio Del Toro as "Traffic's" conflicted cop, Joaquin Phoenix as "Gladiator's" twisted young face, Albert Finney as the man who gave Erin Brockovich a chance, and Jeff Bridges as the president who covets his kitchen privileges in "The Contender."

Just as much if not more of a puzzlement are the two writing categories. Things are a little clearer with the originals, with Kenneth Lonergan for "You Can Count on Me," Cameron Crowe for "Almost Famous" and Susannah Grant for "Erin Brockovich" looking awfully good. Coming right behind them are William A. Broyles for "Cast Away," David H. Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson for "Gladiator," or maybe even Lee Hall for "Billy Elliot."

To look at adaptations is to look at an even greater variety of choice. There is only one sure thing, Steve Kloves for his work on "Wonder Boys," though Robert Nelson Jacobs' script for "Chocolat" also should register. After that, the field is close to wide open. Among the adaptations from novels under high consideration are Terence Davies on "House of Mirth," D.V. De Vincentis & Steve Pink & John Cusack & Scott Rosenberg on "High Fidelity," and previous winner Ted Tally on "All the Pretty Horses."

There's also a wide variety from other subject matter. "Traffic" was based on a British TV miniseries, "Pollock" on a respected biography of its subject, and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" on a 70-year-old Chinese pulp novel. It's been that kind of a year.