Still some surprises among Academy Award nominees

When Frank Pierson, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, walked onstage with Sigourney Weaver to announce the nominees for the 76th Academy Awards, few thought that a low-budget and little-seen Brazilian film (“City of God”) would rake in two major nominations. Fewer still thought alleged shoo-ins Nicole Kidman (for her solid work in “Cold Mountain”) and Scarlett Johannsen (for her lovely turns in “Lost in Translation” or “The Girl with the Pearl Earring”) would get the shaft. And even fewer still, most of them likely being fired from Miramax Pictures’ marketing department, thought “Cold Mountain” would go without a best picture nod.

It’s an interesting list of nominees, with some glaring omissions (“Kill Bill”) and some terrific additions that add up to what could be one of the most intriguing Oscar races in years. Not since the mid-90s when pictures like “Pulp Fiction” and “Fargo” were considered viable contenders have so many smaller, low-budget films been recognized. That’s not say that the Academy has forgotten about Hollywood spectacle-“Return of the King,” racked up 11 nominations and “Master and Commander” scored 10-but even these pictures have a depth to them that typical Hollywood fare lacks. If anything, for all their massive battles, they are interior epics, more concerned with internal conflict than blowing shit up real good.

Does this indicate a shift in Academy taste? Most likely not, but it does bode well for a lot of smaller pictures to gain some much needed attention.

Here’s a look, with commentary, at the major nominations.

BEST PICTURE

  • THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
  • LOST IN TRANSLATION
  • MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD
  • MYSTIC RIVER
  • SEABISCUIT

Thanks to a huge publicity push by Universal Pictures, "Seabiscuit" swept in and picked up what Miramax probably considered a lock. In many ways "Seabiscuit" represents the "crowd-pleaser" slot that has been filled by the likes of "Chocolat" or "The Cider House Rules." Whatever the reason, it's a big moment in Oscar history as it marks the first time in 11 years that Miramax hasn't had a film nominated for the top prize.

So how to explain "Cold Mountain's" snubbing? The best bet is a Hollywood backlash towards Miramax. After Miramax earned a degree of infamy for its alleged dirty tricks campaign against last year's nominees, this may be a warning shot fired in the direction of Miramax's hardball tactics. Coupled with the release of Peter Biskind's excellent book, "Down and Dirty Pictures," which paints a highly unflattering portrait of some of Miramax business strategies, this could be a way of serving the company its just desserts or at the very least an attempt to ratchet them down a notch.

As for the other nominees, all are obvious choices, with "Return of the King" clearly the movie to beat after sweeping the Golden Globes on Sunday. While my affection for the "Lord of the Rings" films is lukewarm at best, they are grand achievements and impeccably made epics that have nabbed the zeitgeist. Still my heart lies with Sophia Coppola's remarkable "Lost in Translation," a deeply moving almost-romance. And Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" still retains its power as a poetic street-level opera about the cycle of violence and the scars it leaves on generation after generation.

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Sofia Coppola, LOST IN TRANSLATION
  • Clint Eastwood, MYSTIC RIVER
  • Peter Jackson, THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
  • Fernando Meirelles, CITY OF GOD
  • Peter Weir, MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD

Once again “Cold Mountain” was snubbed, with director Anthony Minghella being overlooked in favor of Fernando Meirelles of “City of God.” It is clearly the year’s most surprising choice, considering the picture barely received release earlier this year. I’ve yet to see it (it played theaters near 210 West’s central Ohio offices for under a week), but the word is overwhelmingly positive. Still, it doesn’t have a chance, but ultimately the attention it gains from this nomination will have to be reward enough.

As usual the director and best picture nominees don’t sync up, which means “Seabiscuit” won’t likely win best picture. The odds of it happening are rare, but not without precedent-Steven Spielberg took best director in 1998 for “Saving Private Ryan” while “Shakespeare in Love” ganked best picture and last year “Chicago” got best picture while Roman Polanski received best director for “The Pianist.”

Coppola will take the original screenplay award and the honor of being only the third woman and first American woman ever nominated for best director. Not only that, but her win will make her one of the great Hollywood success stories: scion of a Hollywood dynasty goes from acting infamy in "The Godfather, Part III" to well-respected writer/director in a little under 15 years. It's prime fodder for a Hollywood anecdote, and in this case, her work is more than deserving of the accolades.

This category boils down to Eastwood and Jackson. I think Jackson is about as close to a sure thing as can be. His work on the trilogy is almost unparalleled in Hollywood and it’s been pretty clear that by making “Lord of the Rings” the bridesmaid for the last three years the Academy has been waiting to honor the final film as a cumulative achievement. But don’t count Eastwood out. “Mystic River” is regaining momentum thanks to a successful re-release and his professionalism and craft on that film is superb and in many ways could be a factor in priming the pump for an upset.

BEST ACTOR

  • Johnny Depp, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL
  • Ben Kingsley, HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG
  • Jude Law, COLD MOUNTAIN
  • Bill Murray, LOST IN TRANSLATION
  • Sean Penn, MYSTIC RIVER

After Bill Murray’s win at the Golden Globes he’s close to being the front-runner. His work in “Translation” is stunning, but all signs point to Penn taking the Award. Penn is an actor who has consistently given great performances and his work in “Mystic River” ranks as one of his best.

While none of the nominees are all that surprising, Johnny Depp’s nod is a bit unexpected. It is a brilliant comedic performance, and made the overlong, underwritten “Pirates” watchable, but Depp’s Oscar will come somewhere else down the line. The most glaring oversight is Paul Giamatti in “American Splendor.” Along with Penn and Murray it was one of the year’s best performances.

BEST ACTRESS

  • Keisha Castle-Hughes, WHALE RIDER
  • Diane Keaton, SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE
  • Samantha Morton, IN AMERICA
  • Charlize Theron, MONSTER
  • Naomi Watts, 21 GRAMS

In the interests of full disclosure, I admit that of all the nominees I’ve only seen Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give.” It’s a stellar comic performance, and that will be its jinx, unless she triggers a groundswell of nostalgia.

All signs point to Charlize Theron and her transformation into serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” as being the performance to beat. The nomination for “Whale Rider” is especially surprising, considering Castle-Hughes is only 13, which in some ways might work in her favor a la Anna Paquin in “The Piano.” And while it may seem funny to some, Uma Thurman deserved a nod for her graceful, hard-assed performance in “Kill Bill.”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  • Alec Baldwin, THE COOLER
  • Benicio Del Toro, 21 GRAMS
  • Djimon Hounsou, IN AMERICA
  • Tim Robbins, MYSTIC RIVER
  • Ken Watanabe, THE LAST SAMURAI

Robbins has got the momentum after his Golden Globe win, and his work as the victim of childhood abuse in “Mystic River” is outstanding. His choice to play his character as a dead man walking, shell-shocked by violence was a wise one, and he has several moments that will break the heart of all but the strongest of souls.

Though a long shot, it would be great to see Baldwin take the Oscar for his ferocious work in “The Cooler.” Over the last decade Baldwin has slowly been finding his niche as a tough-guy character actor and superb comedic actor, and “The Cooler” is the end result. It’s a brutal, funny, and weirdly charming performance.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • Shohreh Aghdashloo, HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG
  • Patricia Clarkson, PIECES OF APRIL
  • Marcia Gay Harden, MYSTIC RIVER
  • Holly Hunter, THIRTEEN
  • Renée Zellweger, COLD MOUNTAIN

The supporting actress category is generally where the Academy surprises. Marcia Gay Harden pulled an upset when she was honored for “Pollock” a few years ago and pretty much everyone remembers Marisa Tomei’s unexpected win for “My Cousin Vinny.” It makes this category that much more difficult to predict, even if Zellweger seems to be the expected winner. That said, don’t be shocked if Aghdashloo or Clarkson walks away with the nod.

The most stunning omission is Scarlett Johansen’s subtle work in “Lost in Translation.” Odds are she split the vote with herself between her work in “The Girl in the Pearl Earring” and “Translation.” She may be out now, but she’s building the kind of career that gets its honors down the road.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

  • THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS - Denys Arcand
  • DIRTY PRETTY THINGS - Steven Knight
  • FINDING NEMO - Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson and David Reynolds
  • IN AMERICA - Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan & Kristen Sheridan
  • LOST IN TRANSLATION - Sofia Coppola

The surprising nods for "Dirty Pretty Things" and "Barbarian Invasions" aside, this is clearly Coppola's award. Her quiet, gentle writing for "Translation" wisely utilized silence and atmosphere and had an inherent understanding of the unnerving feeling of romantic and geographic displacement. And "Finding Nemo" is a well-deserved nomination as it was one of the year's most cleanly written and witty mainstream pictures.

The biggest rip here is Quentin Tarantino's writing for "Kill Bill" being passed over. Sure it was a Grand Guignol of grindhouse violence, but "Bill" is an elegantly structured work of B movie genius. Perhaps it's because Tarantino played Solomon and sliced his movie into two parts and the Academy is waiting to honor part two next year, but most likely it's because "Kill Bill" is such a unique piece of work that no one knows quite how to take it.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

  • AMERICAN SPLENDOR - Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman
  • CITY OF GOD - Braulio Mantovani
  • THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING - Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson
  • MYSTIC RIVER - Brian Helgeland
  • SEABISCUIT - Gary Ross

Despite “City of God’s” other surprise nomination, the adapted screenplay category is “Lord of the Rings’” to lose. It’s nice to see “American Splendor’s” structural innovation recognized, and it’s clearly the best-written piece of all the nominees, but at this point, even with no acting nominations, “Return of the King” is a hobbit-powered steam roller that will take home pretty much everything it’s up for.

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