Race for Oscars warms up

Ted Pigeon

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has earned a reputation over the years for overlooking the smaller and less mainstream achievements in film. It has been scrutinized for selling out to the heavy campaigning of major film studios in their conquests for Best Picture gold. As a result, Oscar night has become an annoyingly predictable and boring affair that smothers the stars with accolades and rarely awards merit to the films and filmmakers that deserve it. However, the list of nominees for the 2004 Academy Awards marks a step in right direction. Feb. 29 will be a very welcome and much needed departure from the close-minded patterns that have plagued the Academy in recent years.

While there are several big name actors and epic-size films in the mix, the list of nominated films is surprisingly diverse, mostly consisting of acting and filmmaking talent that actually deserves to be there. The nominee list has its share of obvious and surprising choices, but when looking it over, there is a surprising well-roundedness to it, something that’s been missing from the Academy Awards in recent memory.

Smaller films like “In America,” “21 Grams,” “Whale Rider,” “Lost In Translation,” “Monster” and “City of God” join the likes of “Master and Commander,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “Cold Mountain,” “The Last Samurai” and “Seabiscuit” as the films that highlight the night in contention for Awards. For the first time in a while, Oscar night might actually be worthwhile.

This year’s offering of nominees is populated with so many fascinating aspects and angles that it’s almost hard to recognize them all. Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” is up for several major awards, including Best Picture, despite the fact that it’s not a conventional mainstream affair. It’s hard to tell whether her film will be snubbed or embraced by the Academy. Or perhaps the night will belong to Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” a harrowing and intimate human drama evoking themes of death and the dark side of all of us. Tim Robbins and Sean Penn are considered favorites in their respective categories, while Eastwood is up for Best Director and the film is in the race for the Best Picture Award.

Then of course there’s “The Lord of the Rings.” It should come as no surprise that Peter Jackson’s third and final installment of the epic trilogy has been nominated for 11 Oscars including Best Picture. The previous films were a strong presence in the past two years and have performed exceptionally well regarding their technical achievements. But both have been swept in the “big” categories, much to the displeasure of fans and general audiences. Now the third film has come along, this time equipped with more support from critics and audiences than any of the previous films. It has grossed some $360 million to date and has been hailed by many critics’ circles across the country as well. This could finally be the year for Peter Jackson and his crew.

In the acting arena, Charlize Theron and Diane Keaton lead the way in the Best Actress Category. Theron is the probable favorite for her gritty, much-talked-about role of a serial killer in “Monster.” Alongside her and Diane Keaton in a surprise nomination is thirteen-year-old, Keisha Castle-Hughes for her vibrant performance in the small wonder of a film, “Whale Rider.” The news of her nomination came initially as a shock, but anybody who has seen the film knows that she was more than worthy of recognition for her role. It’s merely an example of the voters defying past conventions and going for something more bold and fitting.

In the supporting realm, Renee Zelweger leads the pack for her over-the-top portrayal in “Cold Mountain,” and Holly Hunter for “Thirteen.” Joining them and others is Shohreh Aghdashloo, from “House of Sand and Fog,” another surprise when considering the Academy, but not when reflecting on the performance — a running theme with this year’s nominations.

As for Best Supporting Actor, some surprise nominations were Djimon Honsou for “In America” and Ken Watanabe for “The Last Samurai.” But Tim Robbins has won virtually every award so far for his role in “Mystic River,” and he will likely take home the Gold, though Benicio Del Toro could win as a dark horse.

Sean Penn and Bill Murray are the frontrunners in the Best Actor Category, and it seems that will come down to the wire for these two since they have both been hailed for their performances. Joining them in the category are Jude Law for “Cold Mountain,” Ben Kingsley for “House of Sand and Fog” and Johnny Depp for his daring and rather brilliant performance in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Everyone in this category has a fair shot and delivered memorable and powerful performances in their own right, different as they may be. That’s the beauty of it all, and it seems to be another running theme in most categories this year.

In directing, Peter Jackson is hoping to take home the Oscar, but also hoping for wins are Sofia Coppola, Peter Weir and Clint Eastwood, all equally deserving. A surprise nomination went to Fernando Meirelles for “City of God.” Like the Best Picture nominees, the votes in this category will likely come down to the wire, and it is hard to predict who will actually win considering how different all of the nominees are.

And now to the category of Best Picture, which has one of the most intriguing lineups in years. “The Lord of the Rings” is considered at this point as favored to win; if it does, it will make history. But standing in its way are “Lost in Translation” and “Mystic River,” two films that have been picking up incredible momentum for several months and could upset the fantasy epic. Also vying for the statuette is Peter Weir’s seafaring epic, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” which came in second in the nomination department with 10. It didn’t land Russell Crowe a Best Actor nomination, and it hasn’t been in the same limelight as the previously mentioned films, but it is not to be underestimated. Though most of its nominations are in the technical arena, the fact that it garnered a nomination count in the double digits is more than admirable.

The other nod for Best Picture went to the old-fashioned feel-good drama, “Seabiscuit,” the kind of movie the Academy has always appreciated. At the time of its release in the late summer, the film got good reviews, but not many people at the time would have guessed that it would have ended up with a Best Picture nomination as well as several other nominations. It is probably the film with the smallest chance to win, but it’s already come so far and beaten so many odds, that it could potentially go all the way.

For as much speculation that can be made, we won’t have any of the answers until Oscar night. As for now, the nominees will be preparing their speeches for hopeful victories and predictions are being made across the country as the race for the coveted Best Picture Award is now coming down the home stretch.