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They Soar, They Score 

Led by The Aviator, Oscar nominees take flight

For my money, the best 2004 performance by a male actor in a leading role - yes, even better than the amazing Jamie Foxx in Ray - came from Liam Neeson for his beautifully modulated work as sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in the excellent biopic Kinsey. So why am I more annoyed at the lack of a nomination for Sideways star Paul Giamatti?

Such is the nature of the Oscar game: When the buzz surrounding a particular individual's chances reaches a deafening level, we often find ourselves climbing aboard the populist wave of support and riding it until it either subsides or comes crashing down. So when the nominations for the 77th annual Academy Awards were announced last week, the snub heard around the film community was the omission of Giamatti from the final tally.

And why not? Kinsey, for all its acclaim (including the Best Actor prize for Neeson from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association), never really caught fire and faded as the awards season dragged on. The fact that Neeson failed to score a Screen Actors Guild nod was an indication that things were no longer going his way — it's easier (if no less disappointing) to accept the shafting of a long shot than a sure thing. Giamatti, on the other hand, appeared to be a sure thing. Sideways captured the fancy of the critical and Hollywood communities from the get-go and never relinquished its spot, collectively winning more honors than any other film of the past year. With so much love being thrown its way, the odds were strong that its leading player, its MVP, would make the Academy shortlist. Clearly, his galvanizing performance ranked among the top five of '04.

Instead, befitting the lovable loser he plays in the film, Giamatti ended up getting the short end of the ballot — though he was hardly the only one. Still, all things considered, the Academy's embarrassments were few and far between, resulting in a playing field that (as usual) leans toward the conservative yet includes more than its fair share of statue-worthy achievements. Here, then, are some observations about this year's nominees.

Highlights:

  • The acting nods for Clint Eastwood, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman. Eastwood delivers a career-best performance in Million Dollar Baby, yet all talk had been focused on his direction — even the Golden Globes and SAG both bypassed him for an acting nod. But the Academy wisely recognized his efforts and handed him his second Best Actor nomination (the first being for Unforgiven). As for Owen, I've been a huge fan ever since catching his breakout turn in 2000's Croupier, and it's gratifying to see him earn a Best Supporting Actor bid for Closer, a movie that probably turned off as many Academy voters as it attracted. Closer's only other nomination was for Natalie Portman as Best Supporting Actress; she deserved the nod more for her lovely work in Garden State, but we'll take it however it comes.

  • The three major nods for Hotel Rwanda. The Little Movie That Could, Rwanda slid into the awards season late in the game yet quietly built enough support to keep it in the playoff hunt. I had hoped that it would snag the one Best Picture slot not nailed down — instead, that went to the less deserving Ray — but it nevertheless scored bids for Best Actor (Don Cheadle), Supporting Actress (Sophie Okonedo) and Original Screenplay (director Terry George and Keir Pearson).

  • The Best Director nod for Vera Drake's Mike Leigh. Imelda Staunton was a lock to get a nomination for her work as the title character, and Leigh himself stood a good chance of scoring an Original Screenplay mention. Both nominations indeed materialized, joined by an unexpected Director bid. Even taking Leigh's past Academy success into account (directing and writing noms for Secrets & Lies, a screenplay citation for Topsy-Turvy), this one caught most Oscar prognosticators by surprise.

  • The one-shot nominees. The Academy's integrity is often most evident when its members take time to single out notable achievements in movies that are otherwise completely ignored. It demonstrates that somebody was doing their homework. Thus, we get Best Costume Design for Troy, Best Cinematography for House of Flying Daggers, Best Visual Effects for I, Robot and Best Adapted Screenplay for Before Sunset.

Low Points:

  • Too much talent, too few slots. In the Best Actor race, there were so many exemplary performances this year that the second string of non-nominated turns is as strong as the batch that did get cited: Neeson; Giamatti; Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); Jeff Bridges (The Door In the Floor); Kevin Kline (De-Lovely). And we haven't even gotten to the notable Oscar-bait turns by Sean Penn (The Assassination of Richard Nixon), Kevin Bacon (The Woodsman) and Javier Bardem (The Sea Inside).

  • Shark Tale for Best Animated Film. When will the Academy realize that there simply aren't enough worthy 'toon flicks to justify the creation of this category? This obnoxious entry, which took a critical beating yet emerged a box office winner, joins past nominees Treasure Planet, Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear as subpar efforts elevated by the Academy to the level of award contenders.

  • The Best Original Score category. You'd think by now all the 90-year-old members who make up the Academy's music branch would be dropping like flies, allowing for a transfusion of young blood. But these geezers continue to largely function as a members-only club, ignoring acclaimed scores by unknowns Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles), Alexandre Desplat (Birth) and Rolfe Kent (Sideways) to make room for less memorable work by perpetual nominees John Williams (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Thomas Newman (Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events) and James Newton Howard (The Village). On the Original Song side, the lovely Wyclef Jean composition "Million Voices" (Hotel Rwanda) and the catchy Mick Jagger-Dave Stewart ditty "Old Habits Die Hard" (Alfie) were bypassed for the usual brand of gloppy ballads (most notably "Believe," from The Polar Express). C'mon, Academy members, you missed a chance to get Mick Jagger on stage — even the Globe voters were hip enough to cash in on that one.

  • No Best Art Direction & Set Decoration nod for The Terminal. I wasn't a fan of the movie, but Alex McDowell deserved recognition for meticulously building an entire airport hangar for Steven Spielberg's use. Other egregious oversights: Kinsey and Garden State for Best Original Screenplay; Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow for Best Visual Effects; The Phantom of the Opera for Best Costume Design; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.

Other Points Of Interest:

  • Five of the 20 acting slots went to black performers, a new record (the previous high was three). Million Dollar Baby's Morgan Freeman, Hotel Rwanda's Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo, and Jamie Foxx (repped with two nods, for Ray and Collateral) are the lucky contestants.

  • In the past, the Best Documentary nominees tended to be an obscure lot, but the recent success of nonfiction films has changed all that. Four of the five nominees in this category have actually played Charlotte: Born Into Brothels, The Story of the Weeping Camel, Super Size Me and Tupac: Resurrection. (The fifth nominee, Twist of Faith, just premiered at Sundance and will hopefully roll through 2005.)

  • Anybody notice the similarities between the releases of The Shawshank Redemption and Finding Neverland? Both opened with respectable reviews though few out-and-out raves; both fared modestly at the box office ($28 million for Shawshank, $32 million for Neverland, though that latter figure may rise in the following weeks); both have established a small cult of moviegoers who are just crazy about the film; both ended up performing strongly throughout awards season, better than many folks predicted; and both ended up with seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture but excluding Best Director. And here's one more similarity likely to occur: Shawshank went 0-for-7 on Oscar night, a fate that will probably be shared by Neverland.

Oscar's 5 Best
These were the films nominated by the Academy for Best Picture.
1. The Aviator (11 nominations)
2. Million Dollar Baby (7)
3. Finding Neverland (7)
4. Ray (6)
5. Sideways (5)

Critics' 5 Best
Based on a national sampling of 100 reviewers, these were the films that appeared the most frequently on critics' 10 Best lists.
1. Sideways
2. Million Dollar Baby
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
4. The Incredibles
5. Before Sunset

Brunson's 5 Best
These were my picks for the year's best movies.
1. Million Dollar Baby
2. Sideways
3. Garden State
4. Kinsey
5. Super Size Me

Moviegoers' 5 Best
These were the year's biggest moneymaking releases.
1. Shrek 2
2. Spider-Man 2
3. The Passion of the Christ
4. The Incredibles
5. Meet the Fockers

...AND THE WORST
OK, we now have a sense of which films reigned as the biggest and/or best of 2004. But what about the worst? Glad you asked. We took a look at the "10 Worst" lists of 40 national critics and discovered that the following titles appeared most often:
1. Alexander
2. Catwoman
3. Van Helsing
4. Christmas With the Kranks
5. White Chicks

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