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Ebert's take on the Oscar picks

Supporting actress nominee Rinko Kikuchi (center) in "Babel." Are Oscar voters doing their homework?

Oscar is growing more diverse and international by the year. This year's Academy Award nominations, announced Tuesday, contain a few titles that most moviegoers haven't seen and some they haven't heard of. That's perhaps an indication that the Academy voters, who once went mostly for big names, are doing their homework and seeing the pictures.

From relative obscurity came the nominees Ryan Gosling, whose overlooked work in "Half Nelson," as a drug-addicted high-school teacher was little seen, and Jackie Earle Haley, the conflicted child molester in "Little Children," an erotic tale of stolen love in the afternoon. Also consider 10-year-old Abigail Breslin, and 72-year-old veteran actor Alan Arkin, in "Little Miss Sunshine," a story of a dysfunctional family's cross-country road trip. Adriana Barraza, whose heartbreaking role as a housekeeper in "Babel" earned her a supporting actress nomination, and Rinko Kikuchi, whose emotionally wrenching performance as a grieving deaf teenager in "Babel" also earned her a nomination in that same category.

Will the long-overlooked Martin Scorsese finally win his Oscar this year? The nominations bring us a reprise of yet another faceoff between two great veteran directors, Clint Eastwood, who gets better as the years go by, whose "Letters from Iwo Jima" was nominated for best picture, director and original screenplay, and Scorsese, whose "The Departed" was nominated for best picture, director and adapted screenplay.

In 2005, Eastwood and Scorsese squared off with "Million Dollar Baby" and "The Aviator." Eastwood took home the gold. But the director who some think is America's finest has never actually won an Oscar. Is this his year or will he lose out to one of the other nominees for best director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel"); Stephen Frears ("The Queen") or Paul Greengrass ("United 93").

Another high-profile figure roared back into the news last year: former vice president Al Gore, with the global-warming doc "An Inconvenient Truth," which was nominated in the documentary feature category. (If you might recall, in my review, I mentioned that "you owe it to yourself to see this film.")

The biggest upset Tuesday had to be the shutout of the smash hit musical "Dreamgirls" for best picture and director, though it did garner eight nominations. Eddie Murphy, who's on the comeback trail, received a supporting actor nomination, and "American Idol" Cinderella Jennifer Hudson, as expected a supporting actress nominee, has a good chance of winning after her Golden Globes win. But "Dreamgirls" director Bill Condon, who had been favored, was overlooked.

One high-profile candidate who didn't make the acting short list was Jack Nicholson, for Scorsese's "The Departed" — maybe because Jack has defined a category all of his own.

Another surprising omission came in the foreign film category, where Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" missed the cut.

However, it was a great year for African-Americans nominees generally, not only with Murphy and Hudson, but also with Will Smith ("Pursuit of Happyness"), Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland"), whose portrayal of Idi Amin is the favored to win best actor prize, and the African-born Djimon Hounsou ("Blood Diamond").

It seems as if more foreign-language films are turning up in the major categories — this year in particular the extraordinary "Babel," which also received a nomination for Guillermo Arriaga (original screenplay) in its total of seven. Perhaps surprisingly, Brad Pitt, who gave his best-ever performance in this film, was passed over. The amazing and imaginative Spanish-language "Pan's Labyrinth" by Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro also garnered an original screenplay nomination for del Toro.

Some speculated that "Pan's Labyrinth" could qualify for a best picture nod, but it turned up instead in the foreign-language category, along with "After the Wedding" (Denmark), "Days of Glory" (Algeria), "The Lives of Others" (Germany), and "Water" (Canada). Though the Japanese-language "Letters from Iwo Jima," which received an original screenplay nomination for Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis, won the foreign-language Golden Globe, it was not eligible in this category for the Oscars.

As usual, the academy loves the UK, with Helen Mirren leading the list of the usual suspects for best actress. Mirren is widely favored to win for "The Queen," an extraordinary portrait of the inside story at Buckingham Palace after the death of Princess Diana. They also have nominations for Judi Dench, best actress for "Notes on Scandal"; Cate Blanchett, who is technically Australian, for best supporting actress for "Notes on a Scandal"; Kate Winslet, best actress, "Little Children"; Peter O'Toole, best actor, "Venus"; the directors Frears ("The Queen") and Greengrass ("United 93"), and writers Peter Morgan ("The Queen"), and Patrick Marber ("Notes on a Scandal").

In a sign of hope for the industry, three out of five of the nominees for best actress are over 50: Meryl Streep for "The Devil Wears Prada," the story of a venomous women's magazine editor; Mirren and Dench. Also nominated in this category is Penelope Cruz for "Volver," the enchanting story of a woman whose life is entered by the ghost of her own mother.

O'Toole, an honorary Oscar recipient in 2003, has never won a real one — no, not even for "Lawrence of Arabia." Receiving his eighth nomination for "Venus," he's not the favorite, however; all the major critics awards and the Golden Globe have gone to Whitaker, for his highly praised work in "The Last King of Scotland."

All three animated nominees are worthy, with "Monster House" bringing groundbreaking work to animation, and "Cars" and "Happy Feet" bringing back the fun.

So stay tuned, this year's Academy Awards, hosted by Ellen Degeneres, will be handed out Feb. 25.

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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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