Oscars toss some curve balls

Nominations offer some surprises

January 28, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A13-year-old New Zealand girl. An actor channeling a member of the Rolling Stones. A violent, gritty Brazilian film cast with amateur actors. An ostensible sure thing whose reception instead proved nearly as cold as its name.

It's nice to see the Oscars haven't lost their ability to surprise.

The 2003 Academy Award nominations, announced at a pre-dawn ceremony yesterday in Beverly Hills, proved a delightfully adroit mix of the expected and unexpected. Yes, the early favorites dominated - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King led all films with 11 nominations, including a Best Picture nod. But movies that lie off most people's radar screens also were recognized.

And there were some disappointments. Where were Melissa Leo (21 Grams), Jamie Lee Curtis (Freaky Friday), Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation), Russell Crowe (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) and Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent), all of whom deserved acting nominations? And how could The Return of the King be completely shut out of the acting competition? Sean Astin's Samwise Gamgee was as heartfelt a performance as was seen anywhere this year.

There were also plenty of reasons to take heart, as the Academy, which will hand out the Oscars Feb. 29, honored films that deserve the privilege. Any list that includes Dirty Pretty Things among its original-screenplay nominees and holds out hope that the title song from the animated The Triplets of Belleville could score an Oscar is a list put together with care.

Early handicapping holds that the Best Picture race is a contest between ROTK and Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, with Master and Commander as a possible spoiler. Also contending for the top prize is dark-horse Seabiscuit and Lost in Translation, this year's little-indie-that-could.

Not included among the Best Picture nominees was Miramax's Cold Mountain, a much-hyped, big-budget Civil War epic whose best notices seemed to come before it was released. While stars Jude Law and Renee Zellweger did land actor and supporting actress nominations, Nicole Kidman (for Best Actress) and director Anthony Minghella, a pair of previous Oscar winners, were passed over.

(Also overlooked was Kidman's ex, Tom Cruise, whose star turn in The Last Samurai seems to have left voters unmoved; apparently, the prospect of putting the former couple together on the red carpet appealed only to gossip columnists.)

No single nominee exemplified the Academy's penchant for pleasant surprises better than Keisha Castle-Hughes, who played a New Zealand teen seeking the leadership of her Maori tribe in Whale Rider. Although ignored by other awards programs - she wasn't even among the 10 actresses nominated for a Golden Globe - Castle-Hughes finds herself competing for an Oscar with 1978 Best Actress winner Diane Keaton (Something's Gotta Give); Samantha Morton (In America), Naomi Watts (21 Grams) and early favorite Charlize Theron (Monster).

That's pretty good for a young girl - Castle-Hughes was only 11 when the film was made - who not only had never acted, but reportedly couldn't swim before she was awarded the part. She also could prove the only nominee not hoping to use the honor as a springboard to a career. "I've always wanted to be an actress," Castle-Hughes told the Associated Press last year, "but now that I've had the chance, I don't know if I really want to. It's really hard."

Among the more established actors, no nomination was more welcome than Johnny Depp's. As the fey swashbuckler at the heart of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Depp - who used the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards as his inspiration - turned in a performance that was as compelling as it was unique. Depp has made a career of performances that go where few actors think to tread, and it was nice to see the Academy finally notice.

Others competing for the Best Actor prize are Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog), Jude Law (Cold Mountain), Bill Murray (Lost In Translation) and Sean Penn (Mystic River).

Besides prohibitive favorite Zellweger, supporting actress nominees include Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog), Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April), Marcia Gay Harden (Mystic River) and Holly Hunter (thirteen). The supporting actor race is between Alec Baldwin (The Cooler), Benicio del Toro (21 Grams), Djimon Hounsou (In America), Golden Globe winner Tim Robbins (Mystic River) and Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai).

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