Oscar up for grabs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This year's Oscars offer hope that Hollywood may be crumbling -- in a good way, with barriers to creativity hurtling down as the tried-and-true models of class and commerce come apart.

For most of Oscar history, overweight big-star epics, tasteful family-life tearjerkers, stultifying high-toned adaptations, and elephantine biopics or costume pictures have dominated nominees and winners.

Last year signs of life emerged when Chicago, a sassy revival of the movie musical, and The Pianist, an unsparing depiction of World War II survival, split the major awards. This year, the odds-on favorite for best picture is Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, a made-in-New Zealand fantasy that combines literary brilliance with spectacular filmmaking elan.

Then there's a Tokyo-set mood piece from a young female director (Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation); a grueling tale of misguided revenge in blue-collar Boston (Clint Eastwood's Mystic River); an inspirational horse-race saga that dares to keep three main characters separate for an hour (Gary Ross' Seabiscuit); and a Napoleonic-era seafaring saga without a tacked-on love interest or demonized enemy in sight (Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).

No matter what you think of them individually, they constitute one of the most varied and eclectic best-picture rosters in Oscar history. (I'm a big fan of Return of the King, Master and Commander and Seabiscuit; I dislike Mystic River and I'm so-so on Lost in Translation.) Add major showings in diverse categories for off-Hollywood films such as Jim Sheridan's In America (next to Return of the King, my favorite), Fernando Meirelles' City of God, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 21 Grams, and you've got a group that would look at home at the independent movie ceremony, the Independent Spirit Awards.

Clout over quality

Once upon a time, from the 1930s to the 1950s, you could chalk up Oscar's predictability to studios that swayed their massive talent stables into lockstep voting. Winners were awarded more for their prestige and industry clout than for their entertainment value or quality.

After the studios waned in power and influence, the force of cultural inertia kept these traditions going. Despite the air-clearing tumult of the 1960s and early 1970s, the last quarter-century of Oscar choices have often been dismayingly routine, including deluxe soap operas like Ordinary People, Kramer vs. Kramer and Terms of Endearment, and soporific uplifting films like Chariots of Fire and Gandhi.

In the 1990s, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Pictures, the company that put the box-office oomph into independent pictures with Pulp Fiction, began dominating the awards. But Weinstein mostly did it with movies that reflected the Academy's long-held respect for plush pedigrees. By the end of the decade, Miramax's Oscar movies at their best were like Oscar-winners of old, only more irreverent and hip (Shakespeare in Love), or more socially and politically up-to-date (The Cider House Rules). At their worst, they were just as sentimental and fuzzy-minded (The English Patient) as anything put out at Louis B. Mayer's MGM.

Happily, this year it looks as if voters may have decided to blow up the staid Oscar universe for good. Chalk it up to a younger and more diverse Academy electorate, to an industry-wide crusade against overweening promotional campaigns, or just to diligent members who judge from the film in front of them.

No matter what the reasons, the usual verities have disappeared into a black hole, and fresh paradigms have emerged in a movie-land Big Bang.

Just when Peter Biskind in his gossip-ridden new book, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, proclaims that independent film is spiritually dead, indies have made some of their most vigorous inroads into the mainstream; Lost in Translation is merely the most prominent example.

Just when Americans are supposed to be turning their backs on foreign-language movies, the Hollywood elite has showered honors on Brazil's City of God, nominating it for four awards outside the best foreign film category. Widespread attention to this category, which often overlooks movies that the Academy lauds elsewhere (such as City of God), has catalyzed calls for revamping its voting rules. A similar tumult shook up the best documentary nominators several years ago -- and now the once-stodgy best documentary nominees have turned cutting-edge, with controversial provocations like Capturing the Friedmans and intimate poetic achievements like My Architect.

Comedy gets its due

Even within the bounds of commercial American moviemaking, the old Oscar rules don't apply. Entertainment for its own sake -- even comedy -- has suddenly become au courant.

Diane Keaton's astonishing characterization of a 57-year-old playwright finding love, a performance that deepens and sharpens everything that was appealing back in her Annie Hall days, has given her a good shot at the best actress Oscar. Johnny Depp's highly amusing performance with no redeeming social value in Pirates of the Caribbean won him a best actor nomination. His recent best actor win at the Screen Actors Guild awards marks him as a contender -- a fitting tour de force for a year in which the only honorary Academy Award will go to director Blake Edwards, a creator of classic slapstick in The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark.

The delightful Finding Nemo, the most popular movie of 2003, is up for four awards, including best animated feature and best original script. Finding Nemo, hatched at the Pixar animators' headquarters in the San Francisco Bay area, is also at heart an independent picture -- a fact brought home by the company's recent decision to disengage from its distributor, Disney. And then there are glorious oddities like Finding Nemo's closest animated-feature competitor, the even more eccentric French-Belgian-Canadian production The Triplets of Belleville, whose exhilarating nonsense theme notched a place on the best song list.

Hollywood has finally acknowledged that the boldest glitter often covers junk and that treasures can be found in the sideshows off the circus midway. In today's movie world, traces of pop-culture electricity most often course through imports, disreputable genres and grunge.

Not all this is for the good: For my money, nothing can compare with the thrill of big-audience movies that are also original and prescient and true, like Oscar-winners On the Waterfront and The Godfather Parts I and II. And such movies may (we can all hope) rise again.

But in the meantime, the Academy has connected to reality. And that may push Miramax's Weinstein back into more adventurous directions.

Over the last decade, Weinstein's mimicry of the studio system tried to transform Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman into luminaries as bright and magnetic as Greta Garbo and Audrey or Katharine Hepburn, and to guilt-trip members into honoring projects for their gloss, even when they were as flimsy as, say, Chocolat.

This year, Weinstein appeared to have his dream Oscar project with Cold Mountain, written and directed by Anthony Minghella (a previous Miramax Oscar-winner for The English Patient), from another acclaimed novel, with a cast of Miramax house goddesses Kidman and Renee Zellweger and perennial up-and-comer Jude Law.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Kodak Theater.

Weinstein's influence

Cold Mountain, a misconceived, lumpy and romantic antiwar epic, garnered eight Golden Globe nominations. From the Academy it got only seven, and was absent from the best picture, best director or best writer ranks. Writing and directing nominations did go to Meirelles' apocalyptic Brazilian update of Little Caesar, City of God -- also released by Miramax and kept in theaters largely because of Weinstein's faith. That last fact illustrates how central Weinstein and Miramax have become to the American film scene -- as crucial as the studios in Hollywood's Golden Age.

Back then, major dream factories operated like monopolies, keeping talent of every kind under long-term contract and entire theater chains at their disposal. Moviemakers and critics alike bemoaned the hegemony of moguls who haggled over money and cut movies capriciously and said "No!" to auteur projects.

But when the studios' founding fathers gave way to glorified bureaucrats and financiers, many of the same directors and writers, stars and critics waxed nostalgic for the moguls' one saving grace: their visceral connection to celluloid.

Weinstein has done the moguls one better: He's simultaneously made himself a figure of scorn, admiration and nostalgia. Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures would have no point or narrative without him. It chronicles Weinstein's volatile attempts to play the executive genius and his realization that small movie companies could both champion offbeat fare and beat the studios at their own game. Miramax may not boast a full-fledged best picture nominee, but it owns pieces of Master and Commander and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

If Cold Mountain represents Miramax at its nadir, then City of God is Miramax at its peak. As Miramax social-protest movies go, I prefer the more emotional and compassionate The Magdalene Sisters, but City of God, a razzle-dazzle muckraker set in a slum ironically called "City of God," is a real live-wire movie. Entries like these, Fox Searchlight's exhilarating In America, Focus Features' Lost in Translation and that honorable misfire 21 Grams (which grabbed acting nominations for Benicio del Toro and Naomi Watts) testify to the benign impact Miramax has had in opening up the American film community to unexpected possibilities.

The abbreviated voting schedule (the Oscars used to be awarded a month later) and the last-minute nature of the compromise that let studios mail out DVDs or tapes for voting members was supposed to stack the deck against smaller movies. Instead, the bias went the other way. A movie like Tim Burton's Big Fish, a father-and-son drama rendered on a mammoth imaginative scale, must be seen on the big screen to be appreciated. Screeners only hurt it; so did a rocky opening that led stay-at-home Academy members to tune out.

Weinstein made one mistake with Cold Mountain, apart from over-valuing the film. He arrogantly presumed that he could impose an alternate orthodoxy on an expansive Academy. If this roster proves anything, it's that moviemakers here and internationally are discovering their own routes to creating films and finding audiences.

Year of the Family

This brave new movie cosmos relies on the oldest of all creative units: the family. The nominations are strewn with husbands and wives and parents and children. With In America, director/co-writer Sheridan found the key to making a semi-autobiographical film about his journey from Ireland to America when he asked his daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, to collaborate with him on the script.

Sofia Coppola, of course, is the granddaughter of Oscar-winning composer Carmine Coppola and the daughter of Oscar-winning producer-director-writer Francis Ford Coppola. Francis is an executive producer on Lost In Translation, and also a recipient of "special thanks," along with Sofia's brilliant mother, Eleanor Coppola (co-creator of the documentary Hearts of Darkness).

Sofia's brother, Roman, did second-unit work for the movie, just as Sofia made a guest appearance in Roman's wild 2001 coming-of-age comedy, CQ -- a story about a film editor finding himself in circa-1969 Paris that had more life in it than his sister's latest movie. A win for Sofia would make the Coppolas the second family in Oscar history to win in three generations -- the first was Walter, John and Anjelica Huston.

Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, nominated for the script of American Splendor, are a husband-and-wife team, as are Annette O'Toole and Michael McKean, who wrote the nominated song from A Mighty Wind -- "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow."

Of course, the most acclaimed husband-and-wife team are Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who share producing credit with Barrie M. Osborne and writing credit with Philippa Boyens for The Return of the King. Jackson is also up for best director, and Walsh is in the running as part of the team for best song.

If they win, Jackson and Walsh will share a bit of history with the Coppolas, since their movie and Coppola's The Godfather Part II would be the only sequels to win best picture. Jackson and company have made their New Zealand-based WingNut Films a hotbed of creativity away from Tinseltown, the way Coppola once did with American Zoetrope in San Francisco.

A few years ago, it became chic to say that the adventurous maverick spirit Coppola embodied in the '70s was moribund or dead. The moral of Oscar 2003 may be that this spirit never went away. It passed to rising generations and spread across the seven seas, to continents on the far side of the world.

The nominees are ...

Contenders in major categories for the 76th annual Academy Awards (8 p.m. tonight, WMAR, Channel 2). For a complete list of nominees, other stories and a photo gallery on tonight's Academy Awards, go online to baltimoresun.com/oscars.

Best Picture

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Lost in Translation

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Mystic River

Seabiscuit

Best Actor

Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Ben Kingsley, House of Sand and Fog

Jude Law, Cold Mountain

Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Sean Penn, Mystic River

Best Actress

Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider

Diane Keaton, Something's Gotta Give

Samantha Morton, In America

Charlize Theron, Monster

Naomi Watts, 21 Grams

Best Supporting Actor

Alec Baldwin, The Cooler

Benicio Del Toro, 21 Grams

Djimon Hounsou, In America

Tim Robbins, Mystic River

Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai

Best Supporting Actress

Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog

Patricia Clarkson, Pieces of April

Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River

Holly Hunter, thirteen

Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain

Best Director

Fernando Meirelles, City of God

Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Peter Weir, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Clint Eastwood, Mystic River

Sun Critics' Oscar Picks

Michael Sragow

Best Picture

The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King should win and will win. This sustained flight of epic movie poetry takes audiences from the edge of despair to bittersweet elation, and says more about the corruption, weakness and courage contained within each individual than the supposedly human and "adult" Mystic River.

Best Actor

Sean Penn will win for masticating the scenery in Mystic River. But the worthiest contender is Ben Kingsley for House of Sand and Fog. He supplies a downbeat film with more concentrated entertainment-power than Johnny Depp does in Pirates of the Caribbean or Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. Kingsley revels in the harsh comedy of an upper-class Iranian immigrant working the American system better than the natives, then finds the heartbreak in the man's hubris.

Best Actress

Charlize Theron has followed old Academy advice -- "to win an Oscar, play a prostitute" -- and thus will bring home the award for Monster. But Diane Keaton deserves it more for her tremendous outpouring of talent and wisdom in Something's Gotta Give. She uses a symphony of expressive vocal quavers and a ballet of stop-start physical gestures to express erotic reawakening with full-bodied conviction and virtuoso comic dexterity.

Best Supporting Actor

It looks as if Tim Robbins has it wrapped up for his sorry snapped-rubber-band portrayal of a sadly-abused loser in Mystic River. But we hope Djimon Hounsou will prevail for expanding the already-magical In America with his big-souled embodiment of a frustrated African artist who heals the emotional wounds of an Irish immigrant family with his own raging thirst for life.

Best Supporting Actress

Renee Zellweger's crowd-pleasing Young Mammy Yokum impersonation in Cold Mountain will probably snag her the statuette, but Shohreh Aghdashloo's superb partnering with Ben Kingsley in House of Sand and Fog -- an astonishing feat that matches a ramrod husband's force with traditional wifely strengths -- may snatch victory from the front-runner.

Best Director

Peter Jackson, for Lord of the Rings, deserves and will get the prize. Making Tolkien's daunting trilogy click as a three-part film, Jackson collaborated with special-effects wizards and an amazing troupe of actors to create a fully inhabited and wondrous alternate world that generates parallels to our own world without losing its mystery.

Chris Kaltenbach

Best Picture

If The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King doesn't win, the Academy is going to have some explaining to do. Rarely has the choice for top cinematic honors been so obvious, thanks to the beauty and artistry of the work, the scope of the accomplishment and its overwhelming popular and critical acceptance. Of course, Saving Private Ryan seemed a sure thing a few years back, but the injustice of passing over this film would constitute criminal malfeasance.

Best Actor

His surprise win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards gives me the fortification needed to predict this year's upset special: Johnny Depp will win for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the year's most daring, original and delightful performance. No disrespect to favorites Bill Murray and Sean Penn, but Depp's fey swashbuckler was as out-there as they come, and he deserves the prize.

Best Actress

Charlize Theron has won everything short of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for her work in Monster, and the accolades shouldn't stop here -- even if Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give made you want to go out and hug someone, so masterfully did it demonstrate the possibilities still untapped in actresses of a certain age. Theron will win the battle, but here's hoping Keaton wins the war.

Best Supporting Actor

I see an upset here too. Although Tim Robbins likely will win for Mystic River (he was the best thing about that overrated film), here's betting Academy members will want to reward director Jim Sheridan's heartbreaking and life-affirming In America. Giving an Oscar to Djimon Hounsou for his depiction of an angry dying man with unexpected emotional reserves would certainly do the trick.

Best Supporting Actress

Renee Zellweger provided all the emotional weight to Cold Mountain, not to mention some needed comic relief. Plus, this is the third consecutive year she's been an Oscar nominee. As resonant as the performances by Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) and Holly Hunter (thirteen) were, this is Zellweger's moment. (Patricia Clarkson will win an Oscar eventually, but not this year.)

Best Director

Peter Jackson's accomplishment in bringing one of the 20th century's best-loved works to the screen and pleasing just about everyone -- book fans, movie fans, fantasy fans, New Zealand fans, baseball fans, whoever -- deserves accolades aplenty. The man came through under serious pressure with grace, wit and nobility.

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