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From top: Tom Cruise stars in 'The Last Samurai,' a film about a Civil War veteran in Japan. In 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,' Russell Crowe plays Capt. Jack Aubrey, who pits the crew of the HMS Surprise against a better armed and ruthless privateer. Elijah Wood plays Frodo as he makes his way through Minas Morgul in the final film in the trilogy, 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.' Dennis Quaid stars as Sam Houston in 'The Alamo,' a historical action-drama about Texas' war for independence from Mexico. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a repeat divorcée facing off with a divorce attorney played by George Clooney in 'Intolerable Cruelty.' {CREDITS: 'THE LAST SAMURAI': DAVID JAMES | WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT ; 'MASTER AND COMMANDER': STEPHEN VAUGHAN | TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX ; 'LORD OF THE RINGS': PIERRE VINET | NEW LINE CINEMA ; 'THE ALAMO': LANCE STAEDLER | TOUCHSTONE PICTURE ; 'INTOLERABLE CRUELTY': MELINDA SUE GORDON | UNIVERSAL STUDIOS ; OSCAR STATUE: ASSOCIATED PRESS}

Gimme the golden guy

SOREN ANDERSEN; The News Tribune

For the past four months Hollywood has deluged us with movies made for one purpose and one purpose only:

To grab our money.

Now, with the summer silly season of cookie-cutter, big-boom blockbusters fading into the sunset, get ready to be inundated with pictures designed with a quite different purpose in mind:

To grab Oscars.

And to grab our money too, of course.

The movie business is, after all, first and foremost a business. But beyond profits, Tinseltown craves prestige and respect. And no way will "Bad Boys II" and "Lara Croft Tomb Raider" win the respect of anybody. One can only be force-fed so many cotton-candy movies, full of empty-calorie elements like megaviolence and computer-generated imagery - and yes, I'm talking about you, "Terminator 3" - before one wants to throw up.

So here comes Oscar season. And not a moment too soon, either.

But as we look ahead to pictures coming out in the next few months, we can't help but notice that Hollywood seems to have climbed into the Wayback Machine in its quest for Oscar gold.

Way back to the Napoleonic Wars. Way back to the battle of the Alamo. Way back to the Civil War. And way, way back to a misty imagined time when Hobbits and Elves battled wicked wizards in Middle Earth.

Sweeping period epics are back in a big, big way this year, with Russell Crowe in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai," Jude Law and Nicole Kidman in "Cold Mountain" and Frodo & Co. in "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" all due out around the holidays.

It's easy to understand the why behind this glut of historical movies. Quick now: What do "Ben-Hur," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Braveheart," "The English Patient," "Dances with Wolves," "Unforgiven" and "Gladiator" all have in common?

Best Picture Oscars, that's what. And every one of them is a period epic.

Hollywood notices stuff like that. It notices, too, that they all did big business at the box office. So hoping history repeats itself, Hollywood is getting all historical on us.

Which isn't to say that everything coming down the pike in the next four months will be serious cinema. There also will be big unashamedly commercial crowd-pleasers such as "Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat" (opening Nov. 21) and "The Matrix Revolutions" (Nov. 5), along with romances and horror movies and all the rest. But when the curtain rises on the Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 29 (moved up a month from its longtime late-March time slot), expect one of the historical epics to make Oscar history.

Here are 10 films that look like contenders.

"Mystic River" (Oct 10)

Star power: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney and the director, a fellow named Clint Eastwood.

The story: Three men from a working-class neighborhood in Boston, friends since boyhood, grapple with the devastating effects of a long-ago trauma and a contemporary murder.

Oscar potential: Since debuting at this year's Cannes Film Festival, "Mystic River" is generating some of the strongest buzz for an Eastwood-directed movie since "Unforgiven." And we all know how that movie fared at Oscar time.

"Intolerable Cruelty" (Oct. 10)

Star power: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Geoffrey Rush and quirky filmmaker brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen.

The story: A divorce lawyer with an affinity for the jugular tangles with a much-married lady who has raised wringing alimony from ex-spouses to a fine art. Schemers, start your machinations.

Oscar potential: Comedies don't usually fare well at Oscar time, but if Clooney is as good here as he was in his previous collaboration with the Coens, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" then a nomination might be a possibility.

"Runaway Jury" (Oct. 17)

Star power: Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman appearing together on screen for the first time.

The story: Hoffman and Hackman play legal adversaries in the latest adaptation of a John Grisham courtroom best seller. Hackman plays a jury consultant, Hoffman a principled lawyer and John Cusack a juror who's ripe to be tampered with in a trial that has the gun industry in the crosshairs.

Oscar potential: Hoffman and Hackman both have golden guys on their mantelpieces already, and the possibility that one or the other will go home with another cannot be ruled out.

"Veronica Guerin" (Oct. 17)

Star power: Cate Blanchett, Brenda Fricker.

The story: Blanchett plays a crusading Irish investigative journalist whose probing into the Dublin underworld led to her murder in 1996.

Oscar potential: A true-life tale. A tragic heroine. And Blanchett, who was nominated for her lead-role performance in "Elizabeth." Definitely a contender, we think.

"The Human Stain" (sometime in October)

Star power: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman.

The story: Oscar-winning filmmaker Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Places in the Heart") directs this adaptation of Philip Roth's best seller about a disgraced college professor who scandalizes the academic community by entering into an affair with a young cleaning woman played by Nicole Kidman.

Oscar potential: With that cast and that pedigree, sky high.

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" (Nov. 14)

Star power: Russell Crowe, director Peter Weir.

The story: Clear the decks and run out the guns. Capt. Jack Aubrey, one of the fightingest skippers in the British Navy, sets sail during the Napoleonic Wars in what promises to be a stirring epic based on the popular series of seafaring novels by the late Patrick O'Brian.

Ten years in the planning, and with a budget reported to be in the $135 million range, this could put Peter Weir in the forefront of A-list directors at last. He's been a critical darling ever since "Picnic at Hanging Rock" in 1975 and has had his share of Hollywood hits, but he's never worked on a picture of this scale before.

Oscar potential: Huge. Oscar does love historical epics, and "Master and Commander's" studio, Twentieth Century Fox, moved the picture from a June 6 opening back to November to better position for a run at the gold. If the movie lives up to its buzz, Crowe could be in line for his fourth best actor nomination (he won for "Gladiator") and Weir for his fourth nod in the director's category (he's been previously nominated for "Witness," "Dead Poets Society" and "The Truman Show").

"The Last Samurai" (Dec. 5)

Star power: Tom Cruise

The story: Speaking of historical epics, Cruise plays a Civil War veteran who journeys to Japan in the 1870s to train that country's military in the Western way of making war. But once there, he finds himself powerfully attracted to the warrior code of the samurai. Big battle scenes? You betcha. "Glory" proved that director Edward Zwick knows how to stage such grand and gory spectacles.

Oscar potential: Hefty, though "Master and Commander," which precedes it into the marketplace (and into the minds of Oscar voters) might steal its thunder.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (Dec. 17)

Star power: The now-familiar band of brothers: Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Elijah Wood and Sean Astin.

The story: The epic comes to its end.

Oscar potential: Handicappers are predicting this is the one to beat. The thinking is that academy voters have held off showering the series with statues in the major categories (the first two installments have won a combined total of six in technical areas) until all three parts are out in the world. If "The Return of the King" matches the scope and excellence of its predecessors (and since they were filmed back-to-back, there's little reason to think that it won't), director Peter Jackson can probably look forward to a very pleasant evening next year at the Oscar ceremony.

"The Alamo" (Christmas Day)

Star power: Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett, Jason Patric as Jim Bowie and Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston.

The story: Everyone knows this story.

Oscar potential: Hey, if the John Wayne version could get nominated for best picture and a slew of other categories in 1961 (it won for best sound), there's no reason to think this new take on the epic tale won't have a shot.

"Cold Mountain" (Christmas Day)

Star power: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, director Anthony Minghella.

The story: Charles Frazier's best seller about a Confederate soldier's long, eventful trek homeward after the Civil War is an American "Odyssey," though, for budgetary reasons, it was filmed in Romania.

Oscar potential: Hmmm. Let's see. The last time Minghella tackled a picture of this scope - that would be "The English Patient" - the movie walked away with nine golden guys, including the awards for best picture and best director.

(Published 12:01AM, August 31st, 2003)

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