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This year's Oscar race goes global

When did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences turn into the United Nations? The folks who hand out those golden Oscars have always been fairly friendly to the world that exists outside U.S. borders, sometimes to a fault (just ask Roberto Benigni). But this year, perhaps in a subconscious repudiation of all the hysteria surrounding immigrants, the organization has been particularly cozy with foreigners from across the globe.

In the acting categories alone, the nominees hail from such diverse countries as Spain, Mexico, Japan, Benin, Ireland, Australia and, of course, England. The technical categories expand the boundaries to include France, Italy and Hungary, among others. And this doesn't even take into account the Best Foreign-Language Film nominees, which include works from Denmark, Algeria and Canada.

It's rare for a non-English-language film to crack the Best Picture ranks, but here's Letters From Iwo Jima, with practically all of its dialogue in Japanese. And while Babel contains plenty of English, significant chunks of dialogue are spoken in Spanish, Japanese and Berber.

In other all-inclusive news, this race also sets a new record for the number of blacks to receive acting nods. True, Dreamgirls didn't get its expected Best Picture nomination (though it still leads the field with eight citations), but feeble protests of racism never gained much traction, and with good reason. It's hard for this charge to stick when five of the 20 acting nominees are black; furthermore, the film's creators who were denied nominations in the Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay categories are all white. Instead, Dreamgirls most likely fell victim to the excessive hype that was declaring it the best picture of the year all the way back in the summer, before anybody had even seen it. In that sense, it's most like Cold Mountain and Memoirs of a Geisha, two other heavily promoted Oscar-bait titles that underwhelmed Academy members (as well as many critics) when it came time to mark those ballots.

Here, then, are some more observations about this year's crop.

Highlights:

• The Best Director nomination for United 93's Paul Greengrass. With the exception of The Departed's Martin Scorsese, Greengrass has copped more critics' prizes for his mesmerizing work than any other director this past year. And if the 9/11 drama had any chance of cracking the Oscar ranks, it was in this category, which in the past has often recognized daring achievements that the other branches were too timid to even consider. As examples, think Scorsese for The Last Temptation of Christ and David Lynch for Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, the helmers of three titles that were otherwise shut out of their respective Oscar races. The other maverick group in the Academy tends to be the writing contingent, but oddly, United 93 failed to earn a nod for Best Original Screenplay. In addition to Greengrass, though, it did manage a nomination for Best Film Editing.

• The six nominations for Pan's Labyrinth. Wow, what a terrific showing for one of the best films of the year; only Dreamgirls and Babel scored more nods (The Queen also nabbed six). Unless the plotline concerns itself with Hobbits, the Academy tends to ignore fantasy flicks except in the technical categories. But two of this film's nods came in major categories, Best Foreign-Language Film and Best Original Screenplay. With Pedro Almodovar's Volver unexpectedly absent from the foreign lineup, Labyrinth is the clear-cut frontrunner for that statue.

• The Best Supporting Actor nod for Little Children's Jackie Earle Haley. This wasn't exactly a surprise, as Haley had been racking up awards (six total) throughout the awards season. But Haley's performance as a former child molester deserves its slot, and besides, who doesn't like a comeback story? A popular child actor in the 1970s (The Bad News Bears, Breaking Away), Haley gradually disappeared from the scene, and it had been 13 years since his last film role before he reappeared last year in both Little Children and All the King's Men. In the interim, his jobs included pizza delivery man, limousine driver and security guard.

• The Best Documentary nomination for Deliver Us From Evil. In a great year for nonfiction films, this expose about a pedophilic priest was by far my favorite, and I'm thrilled it was honored. In fact, don't look for the equivalent of penguins in this year's crop: All of the nominees are topical and torn from the headlines. An Inconvenient Truth centers on global warming, Jesus Camp looks at the dangers of religious brainwashing, and Iraq In Fragments and My Country, My Country both focus on Bush's disastrous war. And speaking of our, uh, glorious leader, the surprise omission in this category is Shut Up & Sing, the entertaining film about the furor caused by the Dixie Chicks' controversial (but accurate) take on Bush. A pity it wasn't nominated: How could the Academy pass up a chance to show the clip in which American patriot Natalie Maines calls Bush "a dumb fuck"?

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