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One Film To Rule Them All

Ring master leads solid Oscar slate

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There are two ways to look at this year's crop of nominees for the 74th Annual Academy Awards. For those who care to ac-cent-chu-ate the positive, it's clear that, for the most part, Academy members chose wisely, picking a palatable mix of mainstream blockbusters and independent gems to create a playing field that found favor with both critics and the paying public while managing to avoid offending anyone. Sure, there are a couple of bone-headed inclusions (but we'll get to Sean Penn later), but the overriding word in regards to this year's batch might be "respectable." On the negative side, 2001 was a year of innovative cinematic experiences that frequently grabbed the status quo and shook it by the collar. But look over the list of nominated achievements and it's obvious that Oscar once again erred on the side of caution and conservatism. Sure, there are a couple of risk-taking inclusions (but we'll get to David Lynch later), but the overriding word in regards to this year's batch might be "cowardly."

At first glance, I should side with the naysayers. After all, not one of my five favorite movies of the year cracked the Best Picture line-up (see sidebar), the first time that's ever happened since the dawn of man, er, the dawn of me. On the other hand, two of the titles (A Beautiful Mind and In the Bedroom) placed in my 10 Best, and all five turned up in my Top 20, meaning that as far as I'm concerned, there are no also-rans or out-and-out lemons, no film that earned its slot simply by merit of incessant hype or lavish spending on the studio's part. All in all, this is a competent sampler, and with one major exception (but we'll get to Sean Penn later), I can't imagine any potential victors on Oscar night (March 24) that would create the sort of mini-scandal that often accompanies each year's event.

Here, then, are some more observations -- good, bad and otherwise -- regarding this year's race.

Highlights:

* The 13 nominations accorded to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. This blockbuster adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien classic may have failed to crack my 10 Best, but as a fan of the fantasy genre (which rarely gets respectful treatment from the Academy), I was pleased to see a film of this nature do so well. It fell one short of the record number of nominations received by 1950's All About Eve and 1997's Titanic.

* No Best Picture nomination for Black Hawk Down. The swirling fog of patriotic fervor that has saturated our nation since 9/11 -- and that took on near-mystical proportions with the symbolically named New England Patriots' win over the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl -- seemed likely to secure a nomination for this pro-American (but also pro-mediocrity) war movie. But apparently, enough voters rightly regarded the film as little more than a chaotic video game and so denied it a slot in the top category (it did score a Best Director bid for Ridley Scott, as well as three technical noms).

* Renee Zellweger's Best Actress nomination for Bridget Jones's Diary. In Bridget parlance: It's about bloody time. Zellweger deserved nods for her past work in Jerry Maguire and especially Nurse Betty but was turned away at the door both times. Third time's the charm, though, and the Academy finally got it right.

* Nicole Kidman's Best Actress nomination, period. In the final weeks of Oscar campaigning, the buzz centered on whether or not Kidman would split votes for her acclaimed work in two dissimilar movies -- Moulin Rouge and The Others -- and be left empty-handed once nominations were announced; this feeling increased when she failed to secure a nod for either film from the influential Screen Actors Guild awards. Kidman actually gave the better performance in the sleeper ghost story, but it's gratifying that she managed to make the final cut, one way or the other.

Low Points:

* Sean Penn's Best Actor nomination for I Am Sam. In my original I Am Sam slam, I wrote, "Academy members have a history of being suckered, but I can't believe that even they would fall for this. . .embarrassing performance." Whoops. Penn's excruciating turn automatically joins Al Pacino's Scent of a Woman scenery chewing and Ali MacGraw's Love Story somnambulism as among the worst acting nods in Oscar history.

* The absence of my not-so-triumphant triumvirate. While the acting nods are largely solid, I was sorry to see the omission of my favorite performances of the year in the categories of Best Actor (Hedwig and the Angry Inch's John Cameron Mitchell), Best Actress (Mulholland Drive's Naomi Watts) and Best Supporting Actor (Ghost World's Steve Buscemi). All three were largely considered long shots, and in the end, only one long shot (Training Day's Ethan Hawke) made the final roster.

* No Best Director nomination for Moulin Rouge's Baz Luhrmann. First off, I'm not one of these whiny people who believe the Best Picture and Best Director categories should always match up perfectly -- I think it's possible to have a Best Picture nominee that earned its berth more on the strength of script, performances, etc. than direction. Having said that, it's unfortunate Luhrmann didn't make the cut. He's the guiding light behind Moulin Rouge -- the movie was crafted completely according to his vision -- and while the film picked up eight total nominations, it seems awkward that his direction was given the cold shoulder.

Other Observations:

* David Lynch earned a Best Director nomination for his work on Mulholland Drive, the sole nomination given to the film. This is a repeat of what happened in the 1986 race, when Lynch was nominated for Blue Velvet but the movie was shut out in every other category.

* For the 10th consecutive year, Miramax Pictures captured at least one slot in the Best Picture line-up, this time for In the Bedroom. That's one heck of an impressive run.

* John Williams earned his 40th and 41st nominations for his original scores for A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. As usual, the decrepit music branch's slavish devotion to Williams meant that some fine scores by some never-been-nominated folks had no fighting chance, most notably Yann Tiersen's delightful musical composition for Amelie and Angelo Badalamenti's mysterious one for Mulholland Drive.

* And finally (and my apologies for ending on a downer), it was previously announced that the host for this year's ceremony will once again be Whoopi Goldberg, arguably the worst emcee the show has endured in modern times (yes, I liked David Letterman's stint). This time, let's hope she leaves her arsenal of flatulence jokes at home.*

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