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Far from heaving 

Despite some flaws, Oscar largely gets it right

In last year's Oscar race, Sean Penn's much maligned performance in I Am Sam stood out like an elephant in a hen house, a prominent yet wholly undeserved nomination embedded in a sea of otherwise notable achievements. This year, you'd have to go way, way down the list, all the way to the Best Animated Feature category (in only its second year of existence), to find a nominee worthy of any sort of derision. Treasure Planet, a critical underachiever and box office bust, is up for an Oscar? Or you'd have to travel even further south, to the Best Makeup category. The Time Machine grabbed a slot? For what? The pancake makeup that made Jeremy Irons look like a kabuki player trapped at a Judas Priest concert? The shame! The scandal! The sordidness!OK, so these aren't exactly headline-grabbing inclusions, but then that's pretty much the story with the 75th Annual Academy Award nominees. Yes, the organization will almost always err on the side of caution and conservatism -- that's about as likely to change as our planet's orbital trajectory -- but within these parameters, the group's selections this year are a respectable lot.

Besides, look closely and you will find a radical mention here and there. As usual, the directors' and writers' branches are the boldest ones: The only groups brazen enough to nominate the likes of Blue Velvet, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bulworth in past contests are the only ones this year to bother citing two risque Latino entries, Pedro Almodovar's Talk To Her (Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) and Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien (Best Original Screenplay). And in the Best Foreign Language Film race, Mexico's highly controversial The Crime of Father Amaro managed to secure a mention.

Here, then, are some additional observations -- good, bad or indifferent -- regarding this year's playing field.

Highlights:* Salma Hayek's Best Actress nomination for Frida. As a long-time Hayek fan who always felt this astonishing beauty was an underrated performer, it was gratifying to see her recognized in such a major way by her peers (she also received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for the film). Besides, she and no-talent Jennifer Lopez are sworn enemies, even before they both were in a race to bring their respective Frida Kahlo biopics to the screen, so it's pleasurable to imagine how the future ex-Mrs. Affleck must have been fuming when Hayek's name came up on the Oscar roll call.

* The Best Actress nominees beyond Salma Hayek. Julianne Moore; Nicole Kidman; Renee Zellweger; Diane Lane -- in a word, wow. The strongest acting category of the year is so rock-solid that it crowded out superb performances by the likes of Meryl Streep (The Hours), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary), Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and Catherine Keener (Lovely & Amazing).

* The Best Original Song nomination for Eminem. Like him or loathe him, there's no underestimating the importance of his nod for the 8 Mile song "Lose Yourself." The members of the Academy's music branch have consistently been behind the times -- these are the geezers who back in the day failed to nominate a single song from the revolutionary soundtracks to A Hard Day's Night and Saturday Night Fever -- and it was unlikely that a rap song would even be seriously considered for contention until, say, the year 2040. But by going with Eminem over sapmeister Bryan Adams (who was an expected nominee for one of his Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron tunes), the Academy has demonstrated that it might finally be catching up with the times.

* The Best Original Score nominees. Speaking of the music branch, they also deserve kudos for coming up with a wonderfully varied selection in this melodic category -- from Philip Glass's narratively synchronized work in The Hours to Elmer Bernstein's old-timey score in Far From Heaven, and from Elliot Goldenthal's Latin-flavored beats in Frida to Thomas Newman's evocative theme from Road to Perdition. And while it's a given that John Williams will be nominated year in and year out, he fully deserves his nomination (the 42nd of his career) for the infectious, jazzy rifts of Catch Me If You Can.

* Michael Caine's Best Actor nomination for The Quiet American. As I stated in my Quiet American review last week, Caine went from being a sure thing early in the awards season to looking like the odd man out in the last couple weeks (especially after he failed to earn a SAG nomination). Fortunately, enough voters watched the film to ensure that this extraordinary actor would be in the running for what is unquestionably a monumental feat of acting.

Low Points:* The so-so showing of Far From Heaven. I had long suspected that the year's best film would remain more a critical darling than an Oscar favorite, and the nominations unfortunately proved me correct. Despite winning various honors from 15 critics' groups (including three Best Picture citations) and landing on more Top 10 lists than any other 2002 release (see sidebar), the movie ended up with only four nods -- a respectable showing, certainly, but far from the eight or so nods it really deserved.

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