'Tis the Season for Oscars

If the boys and girls of summer tend to get overlooked come Oscar time, the opposite is true of their fall and winter counterparts. In November and December Hollywood traditionally rolls out the heavy artillery, both to take advantage of holiday moviegoers and to ensure that the big star vehicles will still be fresh in the minds of Academy members when they vote.

This season is shaping up as one of the more interesting in recent memory, with new films from veteran directors Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Oliver Stone, and Steven Spielberg, as well as such mavericks as Fred Shepisi, Jonathan Demme, Stephen Frears, Tim Burton, Jane Campion, James Ivory, Gus Van Sant, Peter Weir, Harold Becker, and Abel Ferrara. And three men best-known for their work in front of the camera take turns behind it -- Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, and Clint Eastwood.

September kicks off the festivities with the grand experimen -- Scorsese tackling a stately period piece, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. While Scorsese has stepped away from the mean streets of Little Italy with some success in the past -- The Last Temptation of Christ comes to mind -- this film represents his most radical departure to date. There are, for instance, no roles for psychopathic killers.

Unlike Scorsese, who is regarded by many as America's premier auteur, Tony Scott, director of Top Gun and Days of Thunder, has acquired a reputation as a bit of a hack. That perception may change with the release of True Romance, from a script by neo-Scorsese Quentin (Reservoir Dogs) Tarantino.

From Tootsie to The Crying Game, confused or hidden sexual identity has become a thematic staple of modern cinema. David Cronenberg finally brings to the big screen the grand dame of them all, M. Butterfly, adapted from Henry Hwang's Tony Award-winning play, which was in turn based on the legendary Puccini opera, Madama Butterfly. Actor Morgan Freeman also gives a successful play the Hollywood treatment, casting Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard in Percy Mtwa's anti-apartheid drama Bopha!. Arsenio Hall (!) produced.

Curiosities abound in September: Macaulay Culkin as a young psychotic who could give Damien a run for his money in the R-rated The Good Son; an adaption of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club; and Dazed and Confused, Slacker director Richard Linklater's take on the lost decade of the Seventies.

October brings the most eagerly anticipated and talked-about pumpkin of them all, Robert Altman's Short Cuts. A fusing of nine short stories and a narrative poem by the late Raymond Carver, the film promises to be even more ambitious, convoluted, and sprawling than Southern California itself, where it is set. It's sort of an L.A. Story meets Nashville. In a more conventional mode, director Harold (Sea of Love) Becker returns with another serial killer thriller, Malice, set in a quiet Northeastern women's college. Robert De Niro plays both sides of the lens with his blue-collar coming-of-age story, A Bronx Tale. Sylvester Stallone and bleached blond Wesley Snipes do the Tango and Cash thing in the futuristic cop flick Demolition Man. What is it with Snipes being paired with white guys in macho buddy films -- Woody Harrelson in White Men Can't Jump, Sean Connery in Rising Sun, and now this? Maybe Passenger 57 should take his own advice and bet on black more often.

Speaking of black, one of the masters of dark comedy, Tim Burton, produced Nightmare Before Christmas and hand-picked the director. The macabre stop-motion puppet movie (that's right, puppets) has the producer's quirky stamp all over it and figures to be the creepiest release with which Disney has ever affiliated itself. Peter Weir's Fearless could strike a responsive chord in South Floridians. Jeff Bridges stars in an examination of the emotional courage it takes to survive a disaster long after the incident has taken place -- in this case, a plane crash. A Dangerous Woman features Debra Winger, Gabriel Byrne, and Barbara Hershey in a scary love triangle; director Lasse Hallstrom emerges from his life as a dog to explain What's Eating Gilbert Grape with help from a de-prettified Johnny Depp; and Abel Ferrara updates the Body Snatchers manifesto for the X generation.

Gomez and Morticia return just in time to scare up some Halloween business in Addams Family Values, and another famous TV tribe -- The Beverly Hillbillies -- rounds out October's tribute to the nuclear family. Gus Van Sant is hoping audiences will give his adaption of Tom Robbins's novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, two thumbs up A way up. Director James Ivory reunites his award-winning Howards End stars, Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, in The Remains of the Day, the adaption of a sensitive British novel about a butler; Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland get to wear capes and buckle their swashes in yet another telling of The Three Musketeers; and Macaulay Culkin busts The Nutcracker. And what Thanksgiving would be complete without a heartwarming homeless Vietnam vet story? Matt Dillon and Danny Glover do windows in The Saint of Fort Washington.

The season's scariest film may well be director James L. Brooks's I'll Do Anything, a musical comedy (!) starring Nick Nolte and Albert Brooks (!!) in which Nolte actually sings (!!!). But then again, maybe not. There have been unconfirmed reports that the preview response was so disastrous that all the singing will be excised from the finished film. Of course, Nolte's voice is probably only half as repulsive as the thinning, permed red 'do that Sean Penn sports throughout Brian DePalma's and Al Pacino's return to Scarface country, Carlito's Way. Three potential sleepers -- Romeo is Bleeding with Gary Oldman, Annabella Sciorra, Lena Olin, and Juliette Lewis, Stephen Frears's Irish tragicomedy The Snapper, and Jane Campion's The Piano, with Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel -- also bow just in time to get a jump on the holiday competition or to be carved up with the rest of the Thanksgiving turkeys.

'Tis the season of the sequels: Robocop 3, Beethoven's 2nd, Sister Act 2, and Wayne's World 2. Stocking stuffers all. But the big list this Christmas comes from director Spielberg, whose black-and-white Holocaust drama Schindler's List marks his return to historical storytelling after the disappointing Empire of the Sun. Meanwhile, Oliver Stone returns to Vietnam for Heaven and Earth, a Vietnam movie from a Vietnamese woman's perspective. Look for a big push for Tommy Lee Jones for best actor if his performance here is even remotely credible.

Philadelphia stars Tom Hanks as a gay lawyer fired from his job when it's discovered he has AIDS; Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, with Robert Duvall, Richard Harris, and Shirley MacLaine, is set in South Florida and written by a local boy; Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands casts Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger as author C.S. Lewis and his admirer-turned-spouse, Joy Gresham; Robin Williams dons drag to pose as an English nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire. The cinematic treatment of Isabel Allende's magical realist novel, The House of the Spirits, bears the curse of great expectations. How could it not, with a cast that includes Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder, Antonio Banderas, and Vanessa Redgrave?

Still, I predict the big guns this Christmas will be:
The Pelican Brief, Mrs. Lyle Lovett's return to the screen after a two-year hiatus. Denzel Washington (this could be Washington's Oscar time; he also costarred in Much Ado About Nothing and in Philadelphia) is a sympathetic journalist.

Six Degrees of Separation, based on John Guare's play which was in turn drawn from a true story about an audacious con artist (played by TV's Fresh Prince, Will Smith) posing as Sidney Poitier's son. The film's success or failure hinges largely on Smith's dramatic skills; if he pulls it off the kid could rocket right to the top.

A Perfect World teams two of Middle America's favorite male leads, Kevin Costner (as an escaped convict/kidnapper) and Clint Eastwood (as the cop on his trail). Eastwood also directs; the last time he directed himself he took home a fistful of Academy Awards for Unforgiven. After his wizened, surehanded performance in In the Line of Fire, it will be hard to deny him some sort of award if this film is even tolerable. After all, would you begrudge Clint a little statuette if he really had his heart set on it? Well, would you, punk?

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