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'Aviator' leads Oscar nominations

"The Aviator" leads with 11 nominations. Jamie Foxx was nominated in two categories. A little film named "Sideways" won five nominations, but one of them was not for its star, Paul Giamatti. "Finding Neverland" was the dark horse, in a tie with "Million Dollar Baby" with seven nominations apiece.

"Hotel Rwanda," which started slow and built mighty word of mouth, won nominations for its stars, Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo. Katharine Hepburn, nominated 12 times, made it 13, in a sense, when Cate Blanchett was nominated for playing Hepburn in "The Aviator." And "The Polar Express" was snowed out in the animated category by "Shark Tale," which was just plain wrong.

Those are some of the headlines from the 77th Academy Award nominations, announced at the crack of dawn Tuesday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In an era when most awards shows last approximately forever, Academy president Frank Pierson and best actor winner Adrien Brody took less than three minutes to rattle off the top categories. The 2005 Oscar campaigns began five seconds later. The five best film nominees: "The Aviator," a biopic about the troubled Howard Hughes; "Finding Neverland," a biopic about the troubled James ("Peter Pan") Barrie; "Million Dollar Baby," about a plucky female boxer; "Ray," a biopic about the troubled but brilliant Ray Charles; and "Sideways," about two buddies who spent a pre-wedding week in wine country, leaving no grape unturned.

For Martin Scorsese, "The Aviator" represents a personal triumph; he may be America's greatest living filmmaker, but he has never led the Oscar sweepstakes before. He won his fifth nomination for best director, a category he told me he didn't think he would ever win. Twice he has lost to actors directing their first movies (Robert Redford and Kevin Costner). This year he may lose to an actor too; Clint Eastwood is nominated, but at least Eastwood is a veteran, with 25 credits and much respect.

Jamie Foxx's two nominations, as actor for "Ray" and supporting actor for "Collateral," is not unprecedented in Oscar history, but will inspire endless speculation among Oscar-watchers: Will it hurt him or help him? One Tuesday morning theory: Foxx would win for best actor for "Ray" if it weren't for the "Collateral" nomination, which will draw away some of his votes, allowing Eastwood to win for the first time as an actor, and therefore allowing voters to choose Scorsese over Eastwood as director. Foxx, in this scenario, may well have more total votes than any other actors, yet lose in both categories.

Besides Foxx and Eastwood, the other best actor nominees are Academy favorite Johnny Depp ("Finding Neverland"), Don Cheadle ("Hotel Rwanda") who has been underappreciated for years and found greatness in "Hotel Rwanda," and Leonardo DiCaprio, who may benefit from an "Aviator" sweep.

In the best actress category, Hilary Swank ("Million Dollar Baby") and Annette Bening ("Being Julia") are head-to-head again, as they were in 1999, when Swank won for "Boys Don't Cry" over Bening in "American Beauty." This year Swank is again the front-runner, but the runner-up may be Imelda Staunton, for her much-admired work in "Vera Drake." The Academy showed its taste and willingness to leave the mainstream by also nominating for best actress Catalina Sandino Moreno, in "Maria Full of Grace" and Kate Winslet, in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

Some of the nominees this year are veterans, but still surprises: Who thought Alan Alda would be named for supporting actor for "The Aviator?" No surprise, though, that Morgan Freeman was named for "Million Dollar Baby." Other supporting actor nominees: Foxx, of course; Thomas Haden Church, for "Sideways," although his character was joined at the soul with his buddy, played by Paul Giamatti, who was passed over; and Clive Owen, as a shameless rotter in "Closer." The nomination may encourage still more talk that Owen is the next James Bond.

Cate Blanchett may be the front runner for best supporting actress, for her droll performance in "The Aviator," but for pure heart Virginia Madsen may be the winner, for "Sideways." "Kinsey" was a controversial film, but voters responded to Laura Linney's role as the wife of an impossible man. Sophie Okonedo, a London-based actress who was wonderful in "Dirty Pretty Things," was a surprising but deserving, nominee as Cheadle's wife in "Hotel Rwanda." And Natalie Portman was nominated in her first role as an adult, in "Closer."

The directors: Scorsese, Eastwood, Taylor Hackford for "Ray," Alexander Payne for "Sideways" and the British independent legend Mike Leigh, for "Vera Drake." This category will be settled between Scorsese and Eastwood, right? Wrong? Animated films have their own category now, and the nominees are "The Incredible," "Shark Tale" and "Shrek 2." If animated films were still allowed in the top category, "The Incredibles" might have had a chance; consider Brad Bird's nomination for best original screenplay. The title that's missing is "The Polar Express." The title that doesn't belong is "Shark Tale."

For best foreign film, South Africa won its first nomination, for Darrell Roodt's searing, brilliant "Yesterday," starring Leleti Khumalo in a great performance as a rural woman who contracts AIDS from her husband, who works in the mines of Johannesburg. Also nominated: "The Sea Inside," with Javier Bardem as a paralyzed man tired of living; "The Chorus," from France, now playing in Chicago, about a reformatory transformed by music; "As it is in Heaven," from Sweden, and "Downfall," from Germany.

The best documentary category includes one film that caused discussion about its eligibility. "The Story of the Weeping Camel" tells a scripted story, using local people who play themselves as characters; the Academy ruled that it qualified as a doc because it grew directly out of their lives. "Super Size Me," the box office success about a man who unwisely eats at McDonald's for a month, was also nominated, along with "Born into Brothels," "Twist of Fate" and "Tupac: Resurrection," a film in which the murdered rapper Tupac Shakur narrates his own life story, drawn from many tapes and interviews he left behind.

There were no nominations for the year's most visible and successful doc, "Fahrenheit 9-11." Michael Moore's polemic was not eligible in the doc category because it played on television; he hoped for a best picture nomination, but that was unlikely.

The year's other most controversial film, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," was named in three technical categories, including cinematography.

Charlie Kaufman, the most visible and creative screenwriter in Hollywood right now, won his third nomination for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Also named: John Logan, for "The Aviator;" Keir Pearson and Terry George for "Hotel Rwanda," inspired by George's personal trip to Rwanda, Brad Bird for "The Incredibles" and Mike Leigh for "Vera Drake," although he devises his screenplays in close collaboration with his actors.

Best screenplay adapted from another medium: The Academy reached beyond the obvious to nominate Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Kim Krizan for "Before Sunset" (Krizan was the co-writer with Linklater of "Before Sunrise") and Jose Rivera, for "The Motorcycle Diaries." Also named: David Magee for "Finding Neverland," Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor for "Sideways," and Paul Haggis for "Million Dollar Baby" -- a true rarity, a screenplay that was directed exactly as it was written, with no changes.

It has become a truism that the Best Picture nominees all have one thing in common: Nobody wanted to make them. "Ray" was turned down by every studio in town, and finally made with independent funds. Eastwood couldn't get his longtime home base interested in "Million Dollar Baby," even at the bargain price of $25 million, until Chicago producer Tom Rosenberg of Lakeshore Entertainment came aboard with the first $12.5 million. Scorsese had to argue for "The Aviator" for years. "Finding Neverland" and "Sideways" were dream projects of their makers, with little studio support.

This year's Oscar ceremony will be held Sunday, Feb. 27, with Chris Rock as emcee.

The other nominees:

Art direction: "The Aviator," "Finding Neverland," "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "A Very Long Engagement."

Cinematography: Robert Richardson ("The Aviator"), Zhao Xiaoding ("House of Flying Daggers"), Caleb Deschanel ("The Passion of the Christ"), John Mathieson, ("The Phantom of the Opera") and Bruno Delbonnel ("A Very Long Engagement").

Costime Design: Sandy Powell, "The Aviator"; Alexandra Byrne, "Finding Neverland"; Colleen Atwood, "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events;" Sharen Davis, "Ray" and Bob Ringwood, "Troy."

Documentary short: "Autism Is a World," "The Children of Leningradsky," "Hardwood," "Mighty Times: The Children’s March," and "Sister Rose’s Passion."

Fim editing: "The Aviator," Thelma Schoonmaker; "Collateral," Jim Miller and Paul Rubell; "Finding Neverland," Matt Chesse; "Million Dollar Baby," Joel Cox, and "Ray," Paul Hirsch.

Makeup: "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," Valli O’Reilly and Bill Corso; "The Passion of the Christ," Keith Vanderlaan and Christien Tinsley; and "The Sea Inside," Jo Allen and Manuel García.

Original score: "Finding Neverland," Jan A.P. Kaczmarek; "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," John Williams; "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Event," Thomas Newman; "The Passion of the Christ," John Debney, and "The Village," James Newton Howard.

Original Song: "Accidentally In Love," from "Shrek 2;" "Al Otro Lado Del Río," from "The Motorcycle Diaries;" "Believe," from "The Polar Express;" "Learn To Be Lonely," from "Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera;" and "Look To Your Path," from "The Chorus" ("Les Choristes").

Animated short: "Birthday Boy," "Gopher Broke," "Guard Dog," "Lorenzo," and "Ryan."

Live Action Short: "Everything in This Country Must," "Little Terrorist," "7:35 in the Morning," "Two Cars, One Night, and"Wasp."

Sound editing: "The Incredibles," "The Polar Express, " and "Spider-Man 2."

Sound mixing: "The Aviator," "The Incredibles," "The Polar Express," "Ray," and "Spider-Man 2."

Visual effects: "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "I, Robot," "Spider-Man 2." (That category might have made note of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," in which everything other than the human actors was a special effect -- and one of them was, too.)

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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