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Oscar, don't skip the little guys Actors could see great performances go unrewarded by Academy Awards

By Andy Seiler

Hey, Oscar! I'm over here!

That's the likely cry of the actor or actress who turned in a dynamic performance in 2000 but hasn't received much attention from critics groups or Golden Globe voters. But there is still one last and best hope. The 5,685 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- the Oscar voters, to you and me -- have their ballots. Will they remember?

Don't count on it.

''The key to happiness is pay off your mortgage and don't pay attention to the Oscars,'' says Leah Rozen, who reviews movies for People magazine. ''There are so many factors that go into winning. There's the technical quality of the video your studio sent out (for Oscar consideration), the box office performance, whether you made enough appearances on Leno and Letterman -- and on the lunch circuit in Los Angeles.''

Still, it's not too late for talent to triumph. Academy voters have until Friday at 5 p.m. to turn in the ballots that will determine who gets nominated for what.

And maybe, just maybe, academy members will read this and think twice.

The best-picture candidates are another story. The year in question -- 2000 -- will go down in film history as one of the worst. Most believe that the films being touted as top contenders are as good as any, and there's little chance any will be completely overlooked. Critics most often name Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Gladiator, Billy Elliot, Almost Famous and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

But some of the best performances this year are in danger of getting lost in the flurry of slick promotions. We're hoping that when the 73rd Academy Award nominations are announced at 5:38 a.m. PT Feb. 13, at least some worthy acting long shots will make the list.

To craft a list of suggestions, we talked to major film critics as well as writers, editors and other movie fans at USA TODAY. Many of these actors were in good but barely seen movies. Others are less flashy performers in strong ensemble casts. None should be forgotten. And if Oscar doesn't remember them, maybe you will.

Best-actress hopefuls

* Sanaa Lathan, Love & Basketball. As a Los Angeles basketball prodigy, Lathan's character doesn't get the great opportunities that her neighbor -- and eventual boyfriend -- gets because she's a woman. ''The character was very attractive, and that had a lot to do with her performance,'' says USA TODAY movie critic Mike Clark. ''She carried herself very well. She was vulnerable but tough. She didn't pout.''

Where to see it: Video and DVD

* Michelle Rodriguez, Girlfight. Rodriguez, who previously had only bit parts as a movie extra, brought a fiery persona as a boxer in this Sundance festival favorite. Some have compared her to a young Marlon Brando. Alternate Oscars author Danny Peary hopes Rodriguez will break out to fame at the Oscars as Hilary Swank did last year with Boys Don't Cry. ''If you're in an independent film, you have to do something extraordinary that nobody else can do,'' he says. ''Hilary Swank won because everybody in the Academy thought that was the one performance that nobody else could have done as well. Michelle Rodriguez does the same thing here.''

Where to see it: Not in theaters; on video and DVD March 27

* Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The action superstar takes on the unusually mature role of a warrior who has had to repress her love for co-star Chow Yun Fat. While engaged in martial artistry, Yeoh had the added technical difficulty of speaking her lines in Mandarin Chinese, which she does not know well. ''I'm surprised she hasn't been getting nominations,'' says People magazine's Rozen. ''There is no more moving moment in a film this year than when she's sitting in a room with Chow Yun Fat and says, 'My hand is real.' ''

Where to see it: In theaters

Best-actor hopefuls

* Christian Bale, American Psycho. ''You could really take him straight in the horrific parts of the movie, but he did a really good job in the parts of the film that had dark comedy,'' USA TODAY's Clark says. Unfortunately, performers who get nominated for the best-actor prize usually play people of prominence and almost never carry a gun or kill anyone, Peary says. Even the obvious exception -- Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, for which Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar -- was a doctor. Since the serial killer Bale plays never went to medical school, don't expect to see the actor nab a nomination, however deserving he may be. Peary says: ''He's not going to get any kind of consideration. Absolutely none.''

Where to see it: Video and DVD

* Bruce Greenwood, Thirteen Days. Greenwood plays President John F. Kennedy in a way that is making moviegoers see the revered president in a fresh light. ''It's a very subtle performance,'' Peary says. ''Kennedy is usually presented as being strong all the time. We see John Kennedy scared.''

Where to see it: In theaters

* Ed Harris, Pollock. As the famously alcoholic abstract painter, Harris (who also directed the film) is anything but sympathetic. But Oscar tends to prefer the upbeat, says film critic Richard Schickel of Time magazine. ''This is a deliberately unappealing performance,'' he says. ''It's a wonderful piece of work by Harris precisely because it is so challenging.''

Where to see it: Reopens on Feb. 16

* Mark Ruffalo, You Can Count on Me. Laura Linney is considered by many to be a best-actress nominee shoo-in for her performance as single mother Sammy Prescott in this unusual family drama. But critics are hopeful Oscar won't forget Ruffalo, who so convincingly plays Linney's screw-up brother, Terry. ''As good as she was, I thought he was better,'' says Shawn Levy, film critic for The (Portland) Oregonian. ''Ruffalo wasn't trying to be lovable. The film sounds like a story that you could hear at a family reunion about your screw-up cousin. There wasn't anything about it that was like somebody contriving a movie. And Ruffalo in particular seemed to capture that reality.''

Where to see it: In theaters

* Owen Wilson, Shanghai Noon. Wilson's self-promoting cowboy Roy O'Bannon is ''fabulous -- absolutely great,'' Schickel says. Adds Peary: ''It would be great if they nominated him, but that's a film that will get no consideration for anything because it doesn't have any prestige. He upgrades the whole movie with his performance.'' And USA TODAY's Clark says: ''Owen Wilson is the reason that Shanghai Noon may be Jackie Chan's best American movie.''

Where to see it: Video and DVD

Supporting actress

* Erika Christensen, Traffic. Christensen wins praise as the daughter of the nation's new drug czar (Michael Douglas), a straight-A high school student with a serious cocaine addiction. ''This is a remarkable performance,'' says Levy of The Oregonian. ''She makes a face when she first freebases that tells you why people like doing drugs. It feels good to her. And it's shocking to us because so often in movies the drug experience is just degradation and doom.''

Where to see it: In theaters

* Jennifer Connelly, Requiem for a Dream. Talented veteran Ellen Burstyn has the showier role and is likely to get an Oscar nomination. But Connelly is so real as an ill-fated heroin abuser that it's easy to forget she's acting. ''Connelly's character seems to be just a pretty girl, but she goes beyond the level you expect,'' Peary says. ''She'll take that impression and change it. She's the kind of girl you get a crush on, who's a little above you in class, so it's incredible to watch that girl choosing to go down this path to hell and oblivion and completely debase herself.''

Where to see it: In theaters; video and DVD release late March

* Marg Helgenberger, Erin Brockovich. ''She's an ordinary person undergoing a toxic nightmare,'' says USA TODAY movie critic Susan Wloszczyna. ''Opposite Julia Roberts, who's got the showy role, she took an ordinary person and made you care about her, too.'' Adds People's Rozen: ''She nailed that character. When that woman came on, you knew who she was. It was a terrific little performance, and she's an actor who has a lot of depth.''

Where to see it: Video and DVD

* Elaine May, Small Time Crooks. May, who also is a writer, plays Tracey Ullman's dimwitted cousin in this Woody Allen comedy. ''She is so funny!'' Rozen says. ''Every time she comes back, you say, 'Oh boy!' She gave a lift to the film.'' Peary adds: ''Among all those people in that movie, this great cast, she's the one who really was the funny oddball. She's a funny comedian and has that great timing and those great eyes going every which way. She's playing an annoying character who becomes endearing, and that's hard to do.''

Where to see it: Video and DVD

Supporting actor

* Dan Aykroyd, The House of Mirth. Critics applaud a number of actors in this neglected but worthy film, including star Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz and Anthony LaPaglia. But USA TODAY's Clark reserves special praise for comedic performer Aykroyd in a very serious part. ''It was a very creditable job,'' he says. ''He conveys the kind of guy who would push his weight around -- and then be really indignant when he feels he has been taken advantage of.''

Where to see it: In theaters

* Rob Brown, Finding Forrester. Brown plays a gifted high school student who is recruited by a tony prep school because of his smarts -- both academic and basketball. ''He has never acted before,'' says Levy. ''But for an entire film, in every scene, he is with an Oscar winner, whether it's Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham or Anna Paquin. He just carries the film. He doesn't do the things that actors spend decades trying not to do. He's free of mannerisms.''

Where to see it: In theaters

* Morgan Freeman, Nurse Betty. Freeman adds to his eclectic repertoire as a courtly hit man in this oddball comedy. ''This is one of those where you say, 'Isn't it time to give him a cumulative award?' '' Rozen says. ''Here was this tremendous performance in this really good movie, and the man's been doing unbelievable work for 20 years. Give him an Oscar, dammit!''

Where to see it: In select theaters; not yet on video

* Philip Seymour Hoffman, Almost Famous. ''This guy is always terrific in almost everything he does,'' Wloszczyna says. ''As rebel rock critic Lester Bangs, he really captured the essence of an uncool yet larger-than-life character and made him feel real.''

Where to see it: Not in theaters; not yet on video

* Fred Willard, Best in Show. ''Precisely because it's a comedy, a number of very good performances in Best in Show are being ignored,'' says Time's Schickel. But he's not alone in saying Willard's largely improvised performance as dog-show commentator Buck Laughlin howls for an Oscar. No other actor was mentioned as often. ''Among the oddities of that movie, it's Willard's improvisation that goes totally over the edge,'' says Peary. ''He's so funny as somebody hired to do something that he knows nothing about, yet who never stops being jolly.''

Where to see it: In theaters

* Jack Black and Todd Louiso, High Fidelity. Black, in real life the lead singer for Tenacious D, demonstrates his acting chops as the boisterous record store clerk in this instant cult classic. ''He's a force of nature in a Fred Flintstone body,'' Wloszczyna says. ''The way he harasses the poor record buyers who dare ask for easy-listening records is the best part of the movie.'' Others argue that Louiso is just as good as Black's sidekick, Dick. ''To make an impact, he had a tougher job, because Jack Black was such a tornado right next to him,'' Levy says. ''He had to contrive a strategy to do his bits and get some laughs. I don't know anybody like the character Jack Black plays, but I sure know people like that other guy.''

Where to see it: Video and DVD

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