LOS ANGELES, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" may have established itself as an Oscar favorite with Saturday's best picture win at the first-ever American Film Institute Awards -- but it's still too soon to tell.
For one thing, since the AFI Awards have no track record, it is impossible to use the result as an indicator -- the way Oscars handicappers have learned to use the Golden Globe Awards and the various guild awards that are announced in the lead-up to the Academy Awards.
Besides that, although well established pre-Oscar awards have proved to be generally reliable indicators of Oscar success, the track record is far from perfect. In a year such as this, when no picture has established itself as a clear favorite for Oscar gold, handicappers will require more information than they have now to sort out the serious contenders from the merely hopeful.
On top of all that, consider that "Rings" was in competition with 9 other titles for the AFI Picture of the Year award. Theoretically, it might have won with a very small plurality of votes -- perhaps not even the 21 percent that it takes to win the Oscar in a field of five nominees.
Having said that, "Rings" is well on the way to favorite status.
"Rings" also won AFI awards for production design and visual effects. "Moulin Rouge" was the only other picture to take more than one AFI Award, when it won for editing and music score -- leaving the other seven nominated movies to split the remaining AFI prizes evenly among them.
"Rings" is one of the five Golden Globe nominees for best drama picture and a finalist for the Broadcast Critics Association's Critics Choice Award for best picture. Although it did not make the National Board of Review's year-end list of the 10 best movies, the NBR did honor "Rings" director Peter Jackson with a citation for special achievement in filmmaking.
Jackson has won best directors honors from the Las Vegas Film Critics Society, and is nominated for a Golden Globe and a critics Choice Award. Howard Shore's music score has received multiple nominations and won the Las Vegas critics' award.
To the extent that there is a rivalry between "Rings" and "Harry Potter" for awards season supremacy, "Rings" has a commanding lead. For that matter, "Rings" has rung up more nominations so far than any other picture -- including "A Beautiful Mind," "Black Hawk Down," "Gosford Park," "In the Bedroom," "Memento" and "Mulholland Drive."
Two pictures that had been expected to show up on the list of highly decorated 2001 movies, "Ali" and "The Shipping News," have yet to throw any weight around among awards selectors -- although "Ali" was nominated for Golden Globes for best drama movie, best actor (Will Smith), supporting actor (Jon Voight) and music score.
At the moment, "Mulholland Drive" is making as much of a case for best picture as any other title out there -- even though some critics have derided it as an almost incomprehensible movie that does not deserve a kind word, let alone an Oscar or any other award.
The National Society of Film Critics -- a group whose membership includes many of the better known movie critics -- named "Mulholland Drive" best picture, as did the New York Film Critics Circle and the Boston Film Critics. It was No. 10 on the NBR's list of the best pictures of 2001, and was nominated for best picture by the AFI, the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association -- which will hand out the Golden Globes on Jan. 20 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Naomi Watts has won a couple of acting awards for her portrayal of a young woman who comes to Hollywood and loses herself in the search for fame and fortune. David Lynch won best director honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Boston Society of Film Critics, and was nominated by the AFI and the HFPA.
The discord among critics may come as some consolation to entertainment consumers who wonder whether critics actually know what they're talking about.
The critics seem to be forming a consensus on most of the acting award categories. Sissy Spacek ("In the Bedroom") and Denzel Washington ("Training Day") are both amassing acting honors, but Jennifer Connelly ("A Beautiful Mind"), Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball"), Nicole Kidman ("Moulin Rouge"), Billy Bob Thornton ("The Man Who Wasn't There"), Russell Crowe ("A Beautiful Mind"), Sean Penn ("I Am Sam") and Smith are expected to show some strength in the Oscar balloting.
Supporting actor is shaping up as a two-man race between Steve Buscemi ("Ghost World") and Jim Broadbent ("Iris"), who have pretty well cornered the market on supporting actor awards this season. Supporting actress contenders include Watts, Frances O'Connor ("A.I. Artificial Intelligence"), Helen Mirren ("Gosford Park") and Dakota Fanning, the new young star of "I Am Sam."
The Broadcast Film Critics will present the Critics Choice Awards on Jan. 11. After the Golden Globes on Jan. 20, Hollywood will brace itself for the announcement of the Academy Award nominations on Feb. 12.
The nomination ballots were mailed Tuesday to the 4,263 members of the Academy who live in California. Ballots were mailed on Jan. 4 to voting members who live outside of California.
Between Feb. 12 and March 24 -- when the Oscars will be handed out at their new permanent home, the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood -- the film community will busy itself with the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Directors Guild Awards and the Producers Guild Awards. Besides giving filmmakers several opportunities to warm up for Oscar night, those awards have proved to be among the most reliable bellwethers of Oscar gold.
The announcement of the nominations five weeks from now will provide more clarity than any other single event regarding Oscar favorites -- and the handicapping will begin in earnest.