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This year's Academy Awards reward the cream of the crap

I'm only looking forward to Sunday night's Oscar telecast for one reason: Julia Roberts.

Why? Because as Hollywood pats its back for its most artistically uninspired year since the advent of celluloid, her "Erin Brockovich" lead is the only performance and only role worth the recognition likely to be doled out.

The nominees for best picture evidence the cinematic drought that was the year 2000: "Chocolat," "Brockovich" and "Gladiator" all entertained, but none qualifies as superlative filmmaking. Remaining nominees "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Traffic" have narrative flaws as well, yet both were as good as film got last year. However, I'll bet "Gladiator" takes the prize, and many others as well.

That includes the Best Actor category, to star Russell Crowe's benefit. That's unfortunate. While physically challenging, his might just be the least actorly performance to ever covet the prize, and I'd trade his nomination for Mark Ruffalo ("You Can Count On Me"). As for the rest of the bunch, Oscar vet Tom Hanks ("Cast Away") and Geoffrey Rush ("Quills") were good but not at their career best, and Spanish star Javier Bardem starred in "Before Night Falls." Haven't heard of it? Chances are neither has most of the Academy. That leaves dark horse Ed Harris ("Pollock") to upset Crowe's feat with his searing portrayal of the turbulence behind one of the most creative forces of the last century, Jackson Pollock -- not to mention the fact that this is a career best, plus an impressive directorial debut.

Marcia Gay Harden also may benefit from the novelty of "Pollock" as a latecomer in her Best Supporting Actress campaign. Both she and Julie Walters ("Billy Elliott") deserve it; fellow noms Judi Dench ("Chocolat"), Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand (both for "Almost Famous") do not. I'd replace any of those three with the luminous Jennifer Connelly ("Requiem For a Dream"). Though both Harden and perennial fave Dench have a shot, my guess is Hudson takes it, not for her performance but because she is Goldie Hawn's daughter and the Academy is a sucker for nepotism.

In the Best Supporting Actor category, immediately count out also-rans Jeff Bridges ("The Contender"), Willem Dafoe ("Shadow of the Vampire") and Joaquin Phoenix ("Gladiator"), and you're left with a two-man show between the Steven Soderbergh boys. He directed both Benicio Del Toro ("Traffic") and Albert Finney ("Brockovich") to their respective nominations. Del Toro's poised to win for his firecracker performance and deserves the award, but I'm partial to Finney, an actor who has perfected the craft during four decades of film work and shone as Ed Masry, Brockovich's boss and occasional foil. It's okay: Fellow Brits Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole never won either.

Back to my favorite category of the year, Best Actress. I disagree with those who say this year had a weak field of female roles and say that if you replaced Juliette Binoche's "Chocolat" nomination with Renee Zellweger ("Nurse Betty"), you'd have the best group of actresses in a half-decade. Besides Binoche and Roberts, the nominees are the sublime Joan Allen ("The Contender"), Ellen Burstyn ("Requiem For a Dream") and Laura Linney ("You Can Count on Me").

 
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  • Burstyn poses a substantial threat, but Roberts owns this category, and rightly so. After the last two years saw actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Hilary Swank take the prize for roles in which their characters disguised themselves as men, Roberts embraced her feminine and maternal resources.

    Hers also is the lone performance this year to amass major critical and audience acclaim, and Oscar would be a fool not to recognize that. We've seen the Best Actress and Best Actor awards go to upstarts who never made good on their potential (Mira Sorvino, Helen Hunt) and as payback to stars for less-than-deserving work (Al Pacino, Robin Williams). By awarding Roberts at the apex of her career, Oscar can begin to redeem himself for past mistakes.

    The most glaring thing about this roster is that almost all the great performances were based on real people. Even "Almost Famous" is a self-proclaimed autobiographical work. "You Can Count on Me" is the one original film of merit this entire year. That's shameful. Hopefully this will teach Hollywood a lesson. If they can't get their act together soon, we may lose the art of acting altogether.

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