DEFYING PROJECTIONS; Oscar nominations reflect the type of year it was for Hollywood, with no clear front-runners but a delicious stew of interesting stuff.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If 1999 was the year of anything in movies, it was the "Year of the Map." As in, All Over The.

Some of the strongest movies were darkly comic, resolutely independent and wickedly subversive, such as "American Beauty," "Being John Malkovich" and "Election." Meanwhile, filmgoers of more conventional tastes were rewarded by the classical storytelling and safe sentiment of such films as "The Straight Story," "The Cider House Rules" and "The Green Mile."

All of these movies were recognized yesterday, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its 72nd annual Oscar nominations. In nearly every major category, the nominations reinforced the notion that last year's films were too varied -- in genre, style and tone -- to make for clear front-runners.

Besides being wildly diverse in approach and subject, the films of 1999 included a compelling screen heroine who was a man (see Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother," nominated for best foreign-language film) and an affecting screen hero who was a woman (see Hilary Swank's Oscar-nominated portrayal of murder victim Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry").

Well-known directors also diverged from expectations. Who would have thought David Lynch would leave behind his weirdly Gothic images of America and direct Richard Farnsworth to his second Oscar nomination in the slow, quiet "The Straight Story"? (At 79, Farnsworth is the oldest nominee in the Academy's history.) Or that Wes Craven, best known for "Scream," "Nightmare on Elm Street" and other hair-raisers, would guide Meryl Streep to her 12th nomination in the utterly unscary "Music of the Heart"?

It was also a year when two of the most critically acclaimed movies -- "The Insider" and "The Hurricane" -- were based on true stories. Both played fast and loose with the facts, but only one suffered what many have seen as a critical backlash. "The Insider" was nominated for seven awards, including best picture; "The Hurricane" nabbed only one, for lead actor Denzel Washington.

And it was a year when the most talked-about movie was a no-budget, Maryland-filmed horror flick made into a must-see by an ingenious grass roots Internet campaign. If the Academy gave an Oscar for most creative marketing scheme, "The Blair Witch Project" would no doubt have been honored yesterday. Instead, the sleek, suspenseful "Sixth Sense" -- which became an unlikely mainstream sleeper hit even as "Witch" fell prey to over-hype -- exceeded expectations by garnering six nominations, among them best picture and best director.

It's not surprising that "American Beauty," Sam Mendes' elegant portrait of suburban angst and redemption, won the most nominations; none of the year's diverse offerings was as insightfully conceived, carefully executed and emotionally devastating. Not only did "American Beauty" earn a best picture nomination, but first-timer Mendes made the best director list, Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening were nominated for best actor and actress, and writer Alan Ball was nominated for his poetic, incisive script. The film is also up for cinematography, editing and Thomas Newman's haunting musical score.

"The Insider," Michael Mann's film about real-life tobacco company whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, and "The Cider House Rules," an adaptation of John Irving's novel about a young orphan's journey through life, each received seven nominations, including best picture. Both were well-made, critically acclaimed films, with solid artistic pedigrees.

But two best-picture nominations were surprises. "The Sixth Sense," which starred Bruce Willis as a psychologist who befriends a mysterious young boy, made $278 million at the box office, leading many to predict that its popularity could work against it.

And "The Green Mile," the Tom Hanks vehicle based on a Stephen King novel, got a nomination even though it received a nearly universal drubbing from critics. Still, "Mile" was a popular adult fairy-tale, which co-stars Michael Clark Duncan (nominated for best supporting actor) as a gentle African-American giant who enlightens his prison guard (Hanks) while on death row.

Comedies, especially animated ones, are perennially overlooked in the best picture category, but "Being John Malkovich" and "Toy Story 2" are just two films that were smarter, more creative and more gracefully executed than the too-long, too-syrupy and too-stereotyped "Mile."

"Being John Malkovich" received three nominations: Spike Jonze for best director, Catherine Keener for best supporting actress, and Charlie Kaufman for best original screenplay. Would that Malkovich had been recognized for his supporting role in the film -- or at the very least, that the academy had added a special category this year for Best Sport.

Still, critics and filmgoers couldn't help but be gratified by the attention received by "The Sixth Sense," which besides best picture was nominated for M. Night Shymalan (for his script and his direction), as well as the outstanding supporting performances of Haley Joel Osment (the year's youngest nominee at 11 years of age) and Toni Collette, who played a stressed-out, loving mother in the film. "The Sixth Sense" also received a deserved nomination for best editing.

Some more surprises: Jim Carrey was shut out for the second year in a row. Many filmgoers and critics thought he deserved at least a nomination last year for his lead role in "The Truman Show" and this year for his dead-on portrayal of comedian Andy Kaufman in "Man on the Moon." But the academy, perhaps in a response to Kaufman's -- and by extension the movie's -- disdain for the entertainment industry, chose instead to reward three sure things (Spacey, Washington and Russell Crowe of "The Insider"), one sentimental favorite (Farnsworth), and one from left field (Sean Penn, for his hapless guitar player in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown").

Allen, whose jazz-age romantic comedy marked a return to the more whimsical storytelling of earlier years, also succeeded in coaxing an Oscar-nominated performance from Samantha Morton, who shared honors for best supporting actress with Keener, Collette, Angelina Jolie ("Girl, Interrupted") and Chloe Sevigny ("Boys Don't Cry").

The documentary category, whose arcane rules have undergone some changes recently after being criticized for snubbing commercially successful films, held its own surprises, some welcome, some not.

On the plus side: "Genghis Blues," Roko and Adrian Belic's charming, if aesthetically rough, film about a blues singer who travels to faraway Tuva to compete in that country's throat-singing competition, received an unexpected nomination. And "Buena Vista Social Club," Wim Wenders' exuberant film about a group of elderly Cuban musicians who enjoy a resurgence late in life, received a deserved nod.

On the minus side: Chris Smith's "American Movie," a funny and touching portrait of the American Dream through the eyes of a struggling Wisconsin filmmaker, was overlooked.

Finally, the unpredictable nature of this year's nominees couldn't have been more perfectly summed up than in the nominations for best original song. Although R.E.M. and their lyrical, haunting "The Great Beyond," for "Man on the Moon," went inexplicably wanting, there's something weirdly wonderful about a category bookended by Disney's super-wholesome "Tarzan" and the transgressively satirical "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut."

In the Year of the Map, two more polar opposites could not be found.

Oscar nominations

Most of the nominations announced yesterday in Beverly Hills, Calif, by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (See Page 1E for the top categories):

Director: Sam Mendes, "American Beauty"; Spike Jonze, "Being John Malkovich"; Lasse Hallstrom, "The Cider House Rules"; Michael Mann, "The Insider"; M. Night Shyamalan, "The Sixth Sense"

Foreign Film: "All About My Mother," Spain; "Caravan," Nepal; "East-West," France; "Solomon and Gaenor," United Kingdom; "Under the Sun," Sweden

Screenplay (written from material previously produced or published): John Irving, "The Cider House Rules"; Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, "Election"; Frank Darabont, "The Green Mile"; Eric Roth and Michael Mann, "The Insider"; Anthony Minghella, "The Talented Mr. Ripley"

Screenplay (written directly for the screen): Alan Ball, "American Beauty"; Charlie Kaufman, "Being John Malkovich"; Paul Thomas Anderson, "Magnolia"; M. Night Shyamalan, "The Sixth Sense"; Mike Leigh, "Topsy-Turvy"

Art Direction: "Anna and the King," "The Cider House Rules," "Sleepy Hollow," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Topsy-Turvy"

Cinematography: "American Beauty," "The End of the Affair," "The Insider," "Sleepy Hollow," "Snow Falling on Cedars"

Sound: "The Green Mile," "The Insider," "The Matrix," "The Mummy," "Star Wars -- Episode I: The Phantom Menace"

Sound Effects Editing: "Fight Club," "The Matrix," "Star Wars -- Episode I: The Phantom Menace"

Original Score: "American Beauty," Thomas Newman; "Angela's Ashes," John Williams; "The Cider House Rules," Rachel Portman; "The Red Violin," John Corigliano; "The Talented Mr. Ripley," Gabriel Yared

Original Song: "Blame Canada" from "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut," Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman; "Music of My Heart" from "Music of the Heart," Diane Warren; "Save Me" from "Magnolia," Aimee Mann; "When She Loved Me" from "Toy Story 2," Randy Newman; "You'll Be in My Heart" from "Tarzan," Phil Collins

Costume: "Anna and the King," "Sleepy Hollow," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Titus," "Topsy-Turvy"

Documentary (Feature): "Buena Vista Social Club," "Genghis Blues," "On the Ropes," "One Day in September," "Speaking in Strings" Documentary (Short subject): "Eyewitness," "King Gimp," "The Wildest Show in the South: The Angola Prison Rodeo."

Film Editing: "American Beauty," "The Cider House Rules," "The Insider," "The Matrix," "The Sixth Sense"

Makeup: "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," "Bicentennial Man," "Life," "Topsy-Turvy"

Animated Short Film: "Humdrum," "My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts," "The Old Man and the Sea," "3 Misses," "When the Day Breaks"

Live Action Short Film: "Bror, Min Bror (Teis and Nico)," "Killing Joe," "Kleingeld (Small Change)," "Major and Minor Miracles," "My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples in New York"

Visual Effects: "The Matrix," "Star Wars -- Episode I: The Phantom Menace," "Stuart Little"

Oscar winners previously announced this year: Gordon E. Sawyer; Dr. Roderick T. Ryan, who created a film processor for use in special effects; Irving Thalberg Memorial Award: Warren Beatty; Honorary Award: Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda

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