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Reading those Oscar tea leaves

Last summer, according to most industry prognosticators, this whole Oscar race thing was supposed to be all over already. Before its release, Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" was widely expected to be greeted with flowers and statuettes. The combination of Eastwood and Paul Haggis (screenwriter of the last two Best Picture winners, Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" and Haggis's "Crash") made the Red Carpet look like a cakewalk. "Letters from Iwo Jima" wasn't even on the release schedule for 2006, so as not to interfere with "Flags"' Oscar chances. Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," on the other hand, was cheered as a "return to his (generic) roots, " a straight-up commercial cops-and-crooks movie to follow up his prestige-picture Oscar bids, "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator," but not something seriously For Your Consideration.

Meanwhile, the Christmas roadshow release "Dreamgirls" was positioned as the "Chicago" nominee, a glitzy musical that took years to get to the big screen (the stage version played on Broadway more than 20 years ago), and was thought to be a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination.

Don't you love it when the conventional wisdom is just wrong?

"Dreamgirls," although it led in total nominations with eight Tuesday morning, was overlooked in all the major categories: Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Director. And "Flags of Our Fathers" -- though some critics have argued it is a more ambitious and complex film than its companion, "Letters from Iwo Jima," which was nominated for Best Picture -- received nominations only for sound editing and mixing.

But Oscar nomination day is a time to look at what we've got, because these are the pictures we're going to be bombarded with over the next few weeks. Statistically speaking, the likely Best Picture winner will be accompanied by nominations in a leading acting category, direction, editing, and screenplay. But of this year's nominees, only one -- "The Queen" -- has a nomination for Best Actor or Actress (Helen Mirren, of course). That's really weird, but perhaps its because the other acting nominees in Best Picture candidates are for ensemble pieces, and are therefore considered supporting performances: Alan Arkin and Abigail Breslin in "Little Miss Sunshine"; Adriana Baranza and Rinko Kikuchi in "Babel"; Mark Wahlberg in "The Departed."

With seven nominations, "Babel" would seem to be the statistical favorite for Best Picture. It's also cited in the directing, original screenplay and editing categories. Just one problem: It's a foreign language film without a country. (You could say the same thing about "Letters From Iwo Jima," which is an American production almost entirely in Japanese.) Only one of "Babel's" episodes (the one involving Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) is in English.

Foreign language films have been nominated for Best Picture before ("Z" in 1969, "Cries and Whispers" in 1973, "Life is Beautiful" in 1998), but they don't tend to win. On the other hand, "Babel" may have multiple-narrative "Crash" appeal: It's a serious melodrama with lots of parts for actors, and the acting branch is the biggest in the Academy. The difference, of course, is that "Babel" is set all over the world instead of all over Los Angeles, so everyone in the Academy is not as likely to personally know so many of the people who worked on the movie.

"The Departed" has the other requisite nominations (and can we assume Martin Scorsese will actually win his long-denied directing Oscar at last?). Although it, too, is an ensemble piece, perhaps it's best for Mark Wahlberg's chances that his "Departed" co-star Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for "Blood Diamond" instead. Still, Matt Damon and Alec Baldwin also merited recognition and weren't acknowledged. Some of us felt that Jack Nicholson's performance was just too over-the-top Jack Nicholson, calling attention to the actor but not serving the movie. Perhaps some Academy voters felt the same way, though they do tend to love performances that announce: "Look at me! I'm acting!"

"Letters From Iwo Jima" received the all-important directing and screenplay nominations, but none for acting or editing. (Just why editing honors seem to be an indicator of Oscar success is anyone's guess. It's just a statistical correlation somebody -- Richard Corliss, I think -- noticed.)

Even without a directing nod, "Little Miss Sunshine" continues its role as the Little Movie That Might, especially after winning the Producer's Guild's top award recently. Consider it the underdog -- which is exactly the way its marketers want you to see it.

Surprises and peculiarities

Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" -- with six nominations, including cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film -- should be considered the most honored film that doesn't have a Best Picture nom (even though it's no more of a "foreign language film" than BP nominees "Babel" and "Letters From Iwo Jima"). After all, three of "Dreamgirls" nominations were for songs -- and pretty watered-down, inconsequential songs at that. (The big showstopper, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" -- which single-handedly earned Jennifer Hudson her supporting "Idol" nomination -- was ineligible because it was written more than 20 years ago.)

Although Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" was embraced as one of the director's warmest and most accessible films in years, and won a nomination for Penelope Cruz as Best Actress, it surprisingly did not appear among the Best Foreign Film nominees. Still, it's a triumph for Cruz, whose witty and voluptuous work for Almodovar shows just how much has been missing from her performances under American directors.

Strangest anomaly: How can it be that none of the nominees for Best Picture is also nominated for its cinematography? How can a motion picture be considered "the best" without acknowledging its essential movieness -- the lighting and camerawork that make it look and move the way it does? All the cinematography nominees are striking-looking films -- "The Black Dahlia," "Children of Men," "The Illusionist" (2006), "Pan's Labyrinth," "The Prestige" -- but cinematography shouldn't have to stand out to be appreciated.

Sacha Baron Cohen deserved an acting nomination for "Borat" and didn't get one, but I'm puzzled by the nom his movie did receive: Best Adapted Screenplay. Since "Borat" was largely improvised in character, what was the movie supposed to be "adapted" from? Life? An outline? A treatment? The character himself? If it's because Borat was on "Da Ali G Show," then would that make "Miami Vice" and "The Addams Family" and "Coneheads" and "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" "adapted" screenplays, too?

The documentary field was also a real surprise this year -- if only because we'd actually heard of all the nominees for a change.

And I still wish Catherine O'Hara had been nominated for "For Your Consideration," and Laura Dern for "Inland Empire." But in both cases, Oscar recognition (or lack thereof) serves as a kind of meta-extension of their roles.

Your comments on the nominations? Click here: http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2007/01/obligatory_oscar_analysis.html#comments

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