Although in theory any film released last year is eligible for that Hollywood prize, the reality, especially where 2002 is concerned, is that almost every picture in serious contention in the major categories came out in either November or December. In fact, the two films that a survey of veteran Oscar watchers agrees are the surest bets for best picture nominations came out on the same final Friday of the year: "Chicago" and "The Hours."
After that, the best picture picture gets a bit murky, but not fatally so, with eight films in serious contention for the remaining three slots. Of these, the most intriguing dark horse seems to be Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," which has the advantages of a veteran director, a Holocaust story informed by his own life, and international awards to go along with its conventional story elements.
Also likely to get a slot is "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," whose appeal to lovers of action-adventure epics and mastery of all craft elements should overwhelm the unfortunate tendency to disregard the middle part of a trilogy.
Three films beloved by critics and critics' groups also will be fighting it out for those final slots: Todd Haynes' updated retro "Far From Heaven," Spike Jonze's unusual "Adaptation" and Alexander Payne's Jack Nicholson-starring "About Schmidt." More distantly possible but difficult to completely discount because powerful forces are pounding the drums behind them are "Gangs of New York" and the early bird of the group, "Road to Perdition."
The biggest question mark of the contenders is the Denzel Washington-directed "Antwone Fisher," exactly the kind of emotional story the academy tends to go for but a bit lost in the end-of-the-year madness. If voters can be persuaded to take a look, this too could make it onto the final list.
The best director category, as always, will not exactly mirror the best picture choices. Stephen Daldry seems to be a sure bet for "The Hours." Ditto Peter Jackson for his towering "Two Towers" achievement. A known commodity like "The Pianist's" Roman Polanski is always on firm ground with this academy branch. Which is why, odd as it sounds given the film, Martin Scorsese might be a sentimental choice here, with a better chance for a nomination than his picture has. Conversely, "Chicago" is a surer thing for best film than first-timer Rob Marshall is for direction.
Also touted by Oscar pundits are the veteran Phillip Noyce for "The Quiet American," Haynes for "Far From Heaven," Jonze for "Adaptation" and even, possibly, two Spanish-language directors: Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien") and Pedro Almodovar ("Talk to Her"). Stranger things have happened.
The acting logjam
There are so many heavyweight contenders in the best actor category that there seems to be little room for outsiders. Sure to get nominated are Nicholson for "About Schmidt," Daniel Day-Lewis, glass eye and all, for "Gangs of New York," and the transcendent veteran Michael Caine for "Quiet American." Almost as sure is Adrien Brody as "The Pianist," which leaves everyone else to compete for but a single slot.
If there were any justice in the academy, Dennis Quaid would get nominated for "The Rookie," but he'll probably get the supporting nod for the more elaborate "Far From Heaven" instead. Though Tom Hanks in "Road to Perdition" can never be counted out, surer bets are newcomer Derek Luke for "Antwone Fisher" or two Nicolas Cages for the price of one in "Adaptation."
In the best actress category, the logjam is, if anything, even more severe, with four actresses set in stone for a nomination: Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep for "The Hours," Diane Lane for "Unfaithful" and Julianne Moore for "Far From Heaven." Fighting it out for the last slot will be Renee Zellweger for "Chicago" and Salma Hayek for "Frida."
As to supporting actresses, two women with similar names are the only certainties: a firecracker Catherine Zeta-Jones for "Chicago" and an engaging Kathy Bates for "About Schmidt." Both Streep and Moore are up for this category as well (the latter essentially reprising her "Far From Heaven" role in "The Hours," the former doing something completely different in "Adaptation") and both could get nominated a second time.
Also strong possibilities, though their films did not catch fire, are Michelle Pfeiffer with a superb, hair-raising performance in "White Oleander" and Edie Falco in a non-Soprano role in "Sunshine State."
Longer shots include Samantha Morton in "Minority Report" and Patricia Clarkson for "Far From Heaven."
The supporting actor category is also led by a pair of sure things: Chris Cooper changing lanes in "Adaptation" and Paul Newman, ageless and impeccable in "Road to Perdition." Also likely are Christopher Walken in "Catch Me If You Can," John C. Reilly, omnipresent this year but irresistible singing "Mr. Cellophane" in "Chicago," and Quaid in "Far From Heaven."
Less likely but still viable are Ed Harris in "The Hours," veteran Alan Arkin in "13 Conversations About One Thing," "Frida" costar Alfred Molina and an in-your-face Ray Liotta in "Narc."
The two faces of writing
The two screenwriter awards present a study in contrasts, with a wealth of candidates in the adapted side and a nearly bare cupboard where original scripts are concerned.
In the adapted category, David Hare for "The Hours," Charlie Kaufman (and his imaginary brother, Donald) for "Adaptation," and Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor for "About Schmidt" needn't worry about being overlooked.
Other likely suspects include "The Pianist" and "The Quiet American," with "Chicago" and "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" also possible and the amusing "About a Boy" looming as the category's dark horse.
In the original half of the scorecard, things are almost surreally thin. The only certainty seems to be Haynes' "Far From Heaven," with another writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson for "Punch-Drunk Love," also a contender, as is Antwone Fisher for writing up his own life. The pickings are so slim that even "Gangs of New York," a weak effort by some strong writers (Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan) that is being pushed as an original can't be counted out.
This is also where at least one and possibly both Spanish-language standouts, "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Talk to Her" -- films ineligible in the foreign-language category -- probably will get nominated. Whether this says more about the strength of those scripts or the weakness of original material in Hollywood is one question not even the Oscars can answer.
Kenneth Turan is a Times movie critic.