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Lost & Found 

Academy locates proper balance between majors and indies

This was the year that the major studios were supposed to wrest control of the Oscars away from the insurgent independents. The ill-advised (and short-lived) ban on screener cassettes; the Academy's decision to move both the nominations and the award ceremony up a month -- since these actions were presumably going to allow Academy members time to catch only the most widely distributed and most loudly promoted titles before ballots were due back, it seemed a given that the majors would be able to completely dominate the proceedings.

Uh, maybe next year, guys. As last week's nominations demonstrated, the indies aren't ready to go quietly into the night.

Admittedly, the big boys flexed their muscles when it came to the Best Picture lineup, lending weight to the argument that the Academy prefers spectacle over intimacy. After all, what does it say that the three Best Picture candidates with the most nominations -- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Seabiscuit -- didn't produce a single acting nominee between them? That surely has to be a first in Oscar history.

Still, one indie flick -- Focus Features' Lost In Translation -- made the top five, breaking bread with heavyweights from New Line (LOTR: TROTK), Fox (M&C), Universal (Seabiscuit) and Warner (Mystic River). And in the acting and writing branches, the mavericks hold the edge. Eleven of the 20 performers hail from independent studio projects; the same goes for six of the 10 acknowledged screenplays. And the indies even made some inroads in the technical categories, thanks to the diverse likes of City of God, Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Triplets of Belleville.

The biggest surprise among the nominations has to be the four nods accorded to the excellent but little-seen Brazilian import City of God. Certainly, it wasn't the Best Picture snubbing of Cold Mountain, as many scribes assert. While a BP nod seemed likely, it wasn't a given -- Return of the King, Mystic River and a late-surging Seabiscuit were locks, but on the heels of its lukewarm reception from the various guilds (as well as a 1-for-8 showing at the Golden Globes), this lavish epic seemed no more and no less likely than its chief competitors (Master and Translation) to secure one of those two final slots. In the end, it simply proved to be the odd film out.

Of course, Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, who's had at least one Best Picture nominee in the running for the past 11 years (a remarkable streak), claims it was because the studio released the film too late in the year -- an absurd contention, as Oscar history easily bears out. I can't help but wonder if Academy members, whose impatience with Weinstein's strong-arm campaigning tactics first became evident via last year's shutout of Gangs of New York, finally decided enough was enough and refused to kowtow to his sledgehammer approach. Then again, it might simply be that voters honestly decided the other five titles were better movies -- hey, it's possible.

At any rate, here are a few more observations about this year's balanced contest.

Highlights:
The Best Picture nomination for Lost In Translation. This year's Far From Heaven (and from the same studio, to boot), this critical favorite racked up plenty of pre-Oscar awards but suffered from the perception that it was too intimate a film to score big with the Academy. Heaven sadly faded from contention as the months passed, but Translation kept the momentum going right up to the final hour.

The Best Actor nod for Johnny Depp. Outrageous, over-the-top comedy performances rarely get singled out by the Academy, yet the fact that people were still talking about Depp's wonderfully flamboyant turn in Pirates of the Caribbean six months after the film's release indicated that he had a good shot at landing a nomination (and citations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild didn't hurt). Happily, enough voters responded to his loopy portrayal to place him in the running.

The four nominations for City of God. This powerful drama from Brazil was one of the year's best films, but who saw it? Apparently, enough Academy members to earn it nominations for Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Film Editing.

Low Points:
The shutout of The Station Agent. Miramax was so busy plugging the living hell out of Cold Mountain, it failed to adequately get behind its lovely Sundance sleeper. The film seemed to gain some steam when it earned nominations late last month from both the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild, but it nevertheless came up short with the Academy.

Omissions in the acting categories. I wasn't crazy about Jude Law in Cold Mountain, and I felt Marcia Gay Harden was hampered by a rather one-note role in Mystic River. But beyond that, I can find no fault with any of the Academy's choices in the acting categories. Still, there are a handful of performers I was sorry to see missing from the final roster: Eugene Levy in A Mighty Wind, Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent, Jennifer Connelly in House of Sand and Fog, and Maria Bello in The Cooler.

The Best Original Song nomination for Sting. I loved Sting's output with The Police, remain fond of Elton John's classics, and will even concede that Phil Collins had some choice moments with Genesis. But ever since all three have turned their attention to contributing songs to movie soundtracks, their tunes have become unspeakably, unbearably maudlin. Members of the Academy's music branch skipped over new songs from Elton (featured in Mona Lisa Smile) and Phil (Brother Bear), but Sting's piece for Cold Mountain ("You Will Be My Ain True Love") managed to slip through. A better choice for this slot? Obviously, the title track from A Mighty Wind. Still, I won't be too hard on the voters, since they did include another Mighty Wind song ("A Kiss At the End of the Rainbow") as well as the title tune from The Triplets of Belleville.

Other Observations:
With Lost In Translation, Sofia Coppola became the first American woman ever nominated for Best Director, and only the third woman, period. She was preceded by Italy's Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties) and New Zealand's Jane Campion (The Piano).

Errol Morris may be the most acclaimed documentary filmmaker of recent times, but he's never been nominated for an Oscar... until now. The man who was snubbed for (among others) The Thin Blue Line and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. has finally picked up his first nomination, for The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert A. McNamara. His film's chief competition in the Best Documentary category will be Capturing the Friedmans, which captured the lion's share of the year's documentary prizes from the various critics' groups.

This year, music composer and perennial Oscar nominee John Williams earned his 43rd nomination for... wait a minute, it appears that John Williams did not -- repeat, not -- snag a nomination this year! Holy smokes! Stop the presses! Man the lifeboats! Grab your -- oh, wait, it turns out that the reason Williams failed to get nominated is because he didn't actually score a motion picture released in 2003. Ah, that explains it; apparently, the only person who can stop John Williams from landing an Oscar nod is John Williams. Oh, well, there's always next year...

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