Oscar regulars and newbies vie for the golden statue

February is perhaps the hardest transition for movie goers. All of the late Christmas bloomers have left theaters and it is still months before the summer rush begins. But there’s still excitement for the film fanatics when rumors begin to swirl about who will take home the golden statue of the nude man holding a sword. That’s right – it’s Oscar time! Let’s take a look at who is on the hot seat to take home Hollywood glory in 2005.

What better way to get your film in the Oscar hunt then by setting the mood with the right music. Up for the Best Score category are “Finding Neverland,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Village.” Frankly, while I’m happy that James Newton Howard was recognized for his excellent body of work, anything involving “The Village” is pretty much a no-go.

I’m rooting for Oscar regular John Williams to take home the turkey for his “Harry Potter” soundtrack, but more likely than not, the prize will go to the man who set the haunting notes for “The Passion,” John Debney. My dark horse pick is the excellent music set for “Finding Neverland,” by Jan Kaczmarek.

While discussing music, what about Best Song? Up in this category are “Shrek 2’s” “Accidentally in Love,” “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” from “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Believe” from “The Polar Express,” “Learn to be Lonely” from “Phantom of the Opera” and “Look to Your Path,” features in “The Chorus.” The choice that immediately jumps out at me is “Learn to be Lonely” simply because it is one of only a few nominations for the extremely late release of “Phantom.” It’s particularly controversial not only because of its last-second dash to the theaters, but also because this song is not in the Broadway play and theater aficionados are affronted by this adaptation’s disregard for material.

That having been said, while I love “Accidentally in Love,” it is clearly too mainstream to win. The next best bet is “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” by Jorge Drexler. My money is on “Learn to Be Lonely” though.

Aside from hearing the sound of dollars entering the register and credit cards swiping, the next best thing for a producer to hear involving the subject of sound is the news that the sound editing team is up for an Oscar. This was the case for the crew of “The Incredibles,” the “Polar Express” and “Spider-Man 2.”

Here, my vote is split between the two superhero movies. “Spider-Man 2” featured some of the most complicated battle scenes I think I’ve ever witnessed on film (go watch the DVD featurette on the train fight), while “The Incredibles” could have sunk to caricature had it not been for the entire production crew’s attention to detail. As much as I loved Spidey, I think the statue belongs to the “incredible” work of Mike Silvers and Randy Thom.

Constructing a sound film requires believable characters that blend with their environment. For example: would it look right for Brad Pitt to stroll up towards the gates of Troy in jeans and a leather jacket? Perhaps that example is a bit extreme; still, it is important to recognize the kings and queens of costuming from the past year: Sandy Powell (“Aviator”), Alexandra Byrne (“Neverland”), Colleen Atwood (“Unfortunate Events”), Sharen Davis (“Ray”) and Bob Ringwood (“Troy”). While I sincerely hope that “Ray” wins a few Oscars, I don’t think that a movie set in fairly contemporary times deserves credit for originality.

Powell’s “Aviator” garb required plenty of Hollywood-star eye candy, while Ringwood had to recreate Greek armor without being clich?d. My guess is that the Academy will be flipping a coin here, with “Ray” edging in from the outside.

As my former roommate put it, some people just enjoy watching explosions. The category of Best Visual Effects gives a nod to the men and women who make us believe we can fly, swing or, well, explode. This year’s nominees are from crowd-pleasers “Harry Potter 3,” “I, Robot” and “Spider-Man 2.” As a fan of all three, it’s difficult for me to be objective. I’ve always found the effects in the Potter films to be somewhat subpar, and “I, Robot” could have been a little more polished. Frankly speaking though, it’s hard to pull off a believable fight involving a guy with eight mechanical arms on a movie vehicle or up and down a skyscraper. Give the gold to John Dykstra and company from the Spidey faction.

We can conclude the first half of the Oscar picks with the Achievement in Film Editing category. Up this year are Thelma Schoonmaker (“Aviator”), Jim Miller and Paul Rubell (“Collateral”), Matt Chesse (“Neverland”), Joel Cox (“Million Dollar Baby”) and Paul Hirsch (“Ray”). I’d rule out “Aviator” simply because there wasn’t much to the plot manipulation. The same goes to “Finding Neverland” – the continuity of the story was fairly linear. Look for veteran Hirsch to be a contender, while Joel Cox looks to cash in for “Million Dollar Baby.” The outside threat is the “Collateral” duo – their film had a frantic, breathless pace. This could result in Academy approval.

Tune in next week for my picks for the writing and acting categories. Until then, see you at the movies!