A Date with Oscar

An initial glance at this year's list of Academy Award nominees should rightly confuse any Oscar aficionado or movie buff.

When compared to prior winners and other mitigating factors in the nomination process, there hasn't been a stronger, more worthy or, in a few cases, bizarre set of nominees in recent years.

Perhaps members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences felt they had to atone for blithely handing the Best Picture statuette to "Chicago," the fallacious musical that conned the ceremony in 2003.

Certainly, the decision to snub "Cold Mountain," effectively ending Miramax Films' 11-year streak in the Best Picture field, is a tacit statement against Harvey Weinstein's notorious and blatant voter pandering. Remember Martin Scorsese's distraught face when Roman Polanski ("The Pianist") picked up Best Director last year? Here's hoping Weinstein does, though it's highly likely that the influential exec will be as vigilant and tactless next year while promoting Scorsese's "The Aviator," the legendary director's follow-up to "Gangs of New York."

In the fray of the Academy's controversial video screener ban earlier this year — a stipulation officials later rescinded — screeners likely allowed smaller, under-the-radar films like "American Splendor," "Girl with a Pearl Earring," "21 Grams," "Lost in Translation" and, most astonishingly, "City of God" to gain key nominations.

Or maybe the leap year had a cosmic or astrological effect on the voters' choices — a silly, esoteric suggestion, of course, but you need look no further than Johnny Depp's Best Actor nomination as Captain Jack Sparrow for conclusive proof that Academy members went a little daffy this year.

Then again, the Screen Actors Guild Awards bestowed Depp ("Pirates of the Caribbean") with lead acting honors this past Sunday night, so maybe his nomination isn't such a left field choice.

Either way, and despite the fact that the gargantuan "Return of the King" and director Peter Jackson, its robust taskmaster, are heavily favored to collect Best Picture and Director, this year's Oscar night on Sunday could still yield a fair share of surprises and interesting wins.

Best Supporting Actor and Actress

The Best Supporting Actor and Actress awards usually bear many of the night's upsets and surprises. Yet this year, both categories seem to be the most locked-down wins of any acting contenders. Previously honored with Golden Globe and SAG awards (reliable Academy Award precursors), both Tim Robbins' jittery performance in "Mystic River" and Renée Zellweger's twangy character work in "Cold Mountain" appear to be shoe-ins.

Robbins, however, has a tighter clench on his race than Zellweger, whose Civil War-era epic received conspicuously less Oscar attention than Clint Eastwood's gloomy "River."

In that respect, Shohreh Aghdashloo (Ben Kingsley's supportive wife in "House of Sand and Fog") could possibly sweep the rug from under the tart-faced actress' feet. Also, it wouldn't be surprising for Alec Baldwin ("The Cooler") to usurp Robbins' bid for the award.

Best Lead Actor and Actress

The lead acting categories initially felt as inevitable as the supporting nods. Charlize Theron's downtrodden, prosthetics-enhanced ugliness in "Monster" will piggyback off Halle Berry's 2002 best actress win for "Monster's Ball." The only real competition is Diane Keaton ("Something's Gotta Give"), who may steal her thunder if older voters feel inclined towards bookending Keaton's 1977 win for "Annie Hall," but it's fairly guaranteed that Theron will dominate and deliver a teary, Berry-like speech.

Best Actor nominee Sean Penn's once-unstoppable win for his electrifying work in "Mystic River" is not as assured as it was following the film's October release. Nor, for that matter, is Bill Murray's performance as Bob Harris in Sofia Coppola's adored "Lost in Translation."

Both actors share similarly testy relationships with the Academy. Penn is a regular no-show at the ceremony — he reportedly has yet to decide if he'll even attend this year's awards — and, ridiculous as it is, some voters may take offense to his award show apathy. When the Academy awards its stars, it wants them to shine on stage, not from their couches at home.

Consequently, and his aloof reputation with SAG members notwithstanding, Murray's much more deserving work in "Translation" picked up tremendous momentum through the winter awards season, especially following his beloved acceptance speech at the Golden Globes in January.

Yet as I mentioned earlier, Murray's new frontrunner status hit a snag after Depp's unprecedented lead actor win from the Screen Actors Guild, whose group contains many of the same voters who will decide the award Sunday night.

Best Adapted and Original Screenplay

The Writers Guild of America screenplay awards — like the SAG's — are typically dependable in predicting Oscars. WGA winner Coppola has undoubtedly secured Best Original Screenplay for "Lost in Translation."

The writers group chose directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman's "American Splendor" script for Best Adaptation, but unless voters actually watched their "Splendor" VHS screeners, expect Brian Helgeland's "Mystic River" screenplay to win.

Best Picture

Is it worth mentioning that "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" — in addition to sweeping the technical categories — is sure to seize the Best Picture statuette? Its win will finally annul the Academy's longstanding tendency to overlook fantasy films for their top award.

One must keep in mind, however, that it was an offbeat year for the Academy nominations, and "Mystic River" or "Lost in Translation" could manage to sway credulous voters away from awarding the behemoth trilogy.

So bring on Tim Robbins' liberal opining, Sofia Coppola's shy demeanor, Clint Eastwood's grimace and Peter Jackson's merry trot. Because on Sunday night, Hollywood will celebrate the year's finest cinematic achievements in a glamorous, star-studded and ultimately superficial and pointless fashion, and I wouldn't rather be watching anything else — except for maybe "Kill Bill: Vol. One" again.

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