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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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'Dreamgirls' snubbed -- with 8 noms

The peppy musical "Dreamgirls" led Academy Awards contenders Tuesday with eight nominations, but surprisingly was shut out in the best picture category for which it had been considered a potential front-runner. The sweeping ensemble drama "Babel" was close behind with seven, including best picture and acting honors for two newcomers to U.S. audiences, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi.

The sweeping ensemble drama "Babel" was close behind with seven, including best picture and acting honors for two newcomers to U.S. audiences, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi.

Other best-picture nominees were the bloody crime saga "The Departed," the World War II spectacle "Letters from Iwo Jima," the road-trip comedy "Little Miss Sunshine" and the monarchy-in-crisis chronicle "The Queen."

Going into nominations day, the best-picture competition looks unusually wide open, with no consensus on a favorite. With "Dreamgirls," a Golden Globe winner out of the race, the best picture competition was even more up for grabs.

But front-runners in all four acting categories nabbed nominations and seem poised to come home with Oscars on Feb. 25: Helen Mirren for best actress as British monarch Elizabeth II in "The Queen"; Forest Whitaker for best actor as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland"; and Eddie Murphy and former "American Idol" finalist Jennifer Hudson as soulful singers in "Dreamgirls."

All four preceded the Oscar nominations with wins at the Golden Globes. Oscar attention is a new experience for Murphy, whose fast-talking persona has brought him devoted audiences but little awards acclaim in his 25-year career. For Hudson, the nomination caps a speedy rise to stardom with her first film role, just two years after making her name on "American Idol." The best-actress category featured a 14th nomination for two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, padding her record as the most-nominated actor ever, this time as a demonically demanding boss in "The Devil Wears Prada."

Joining Mirren and Streep as best-actress nominees were Penelope Cruz as a woman dealing with bizarre domestic crises in "Volver"; Judi Dench as a scheming teacher in "Notes on a Scandal"; and Kate Winslet as a woman in an affair with a neighbor in "Little Children."

Other best-actor nominees were Leonardo DiCaprio as a mercenary hunting a rare gem in "Blood Diamond"; Ryan Gosling as a teacher with a drug addiction in "Half Nelson"; Peter O'Toole as a lecherous old actor in "Venus"; and Will Smith as a homeless dad in "The Pursuit of Happyness." Whitaker is expected to come away with best actor, though sentiment is high for O'Toole, who has been nominated seven times, losing each. An eighth loss for O'Toole, who nearly turned down an honorary Oscar three years ago because he hoped to earn one outright, would put him in the record books as the actor with the most nominations without winning.

This finally may be the year for another perennial loser, Scorsese, who is tied with four other directors for the Oscar-futility record of five nominations and five losses.

"The Departed" marks Scorsese's return to the cops-and-mobsters genre he mastered in decades past and is considered his best shot to finally win an Oscar, though a sixth defeat would put him alone in the record book as the losingest director ever.

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