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There will be Oscars 

Writers' strike can't dim shine of decent slate

In Hollywood, the writers' strike looms large over every aspect of filmmaking, with planned motion pictures scuttled because of unfinished scripts and even a glitzy affair like the Golden Globes reduced to a mere half-hour infomercial. But when the Oscar nominations were revealed last week, nobody was thinking about the strike. Instead, it took the death of a great young actor to dampen the celebratory mood surrounding the selections for the 80th Academy Awards.

Two years after earning his own Oscar nomination (Best Actor for Brokeback Mountain), Heath Ledger was dead at the age of 28, a long and promising career snuffed out just like that. The news broke just hours after the unveiling of this year's contenders; days of remorse and reflection followed, but since the show must go on -- even if the writers dictate that it mustn't -- industry attention has shifted back in full force to the pictures and individuals honored in this 80th annual Oscar race.

Expect to see Ledger earn prominent positioning in the "In Memorial" section of the show. And yes, there will be a show, if Academy spokespeople are to be believed. No one knows the format yet, but surely it's got to be better executed than that Globe press conference, right? Right?

We'll see. In the meantime, here are some observations about this year's crop of contenders.

Highlights:

• The Best Actor nomination for In the Valley of Elah's Tommy Lee Jones. This was the biggest surprise of the televised nominations, meaning it's the one that earned the loudest cheer from me. Jones delivers what might be the best performance of his lengthy career in this Iraq War drama, but the film was such a box office flop -- and Jones' chances for an Oscar nod were pinned on his supporting turn in No Country for Old Men -- that no one gave him much hope of cracking the list of finalists (in fact, the competition was so fierce in this category that, in my Oscar pool, no one even had him listed as an alternate selection). Happily, enough Academy members popped the screeners into their DVD players to make a difference.

• The Best Actress nomination for The Savages' Laura Linney. Linney seemed like a shoo-in ... before the Oscar season took off. Suddenly, she was inexplicably MIA: The Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and critics' groups all elected to ignore her marvelous work opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman (who managed to snag a Globe nod for his performance). But come Oscar nom time, and here's Linney taking her rightful place. As for Hoffman, he was skipped over for his lead work in Savages (as well as Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), but he's in the running for Best Supporting Actor for Charlie Wilson's War.

• The Best Animated Feature Film nomination for Persepolis. Given the Academy's tendency to reward mediocre kid toons over anything more edgy (Brother Bear, Treasure Planet and Shark Tale all received nominations in the past), I fully expected the shrug-inducing Bee Movie to join deserving nominees Ratatouille and The Simpsons Movie on the final ballot. Fortunately, this incisive French import, about an Iranian girl's coming of age, made the cut instead. (Alas, Simpsons was nixed; the third nominee is the penguin comedy Surf's Up.)

• The Best Director nomination for Juno's Jason Reitman. For the last couple of months, all the talk surrounding Juno has been about the contributions of writer Diablo Cody and star Ellen Page, with Reitman's direction rarely warranting even a footnote. But the Academy noticed his contributions to this quirky indie hit -- either that, or it's a way to apologize for completely ignoring his Thank You For Smoking the previous year.

• The Best Original Song nomination for Once's "Falling Slowly." Proving once again that no branch is as lazy as that of the songwriters and composers, the voters in this department popped one movie into their DVD player -- Enchanted -- and nominated three songs from it so they would only be responsible for locating two more (they did the same thing last year by picking three songs from Dreamgirls). I don't recall the August Rush tune, but they nailed the last nominee perfectly. The lovely "Falling Slowly" deserves to win the Oscar, and the fact that the tune hails from a movie about musicians makes its inclusion all that more appropriate.

Low Points:

• The Best Actress nomination for Elizabeth: The Golden Age's Cate Blanchett. Look, there's nothing wrong with Blanchett's performance in this belated sequel to 1998's Elizabeth, but it's simply not as exciting as when she essayed the role the first time (earning an Oscar nod back then as well); besides, she's far more interesting as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, for which she earned a second nomination (this one for Best Supporting Actress). Her Best Actress slot would have been better served by going to Enchanted's Amy Adams, A Mighty Heart's Angelina Jolie or Sweeney Todd's Helena Bonham Carter.

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