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Uncommonly good

Are these the nominations for the 76th annual Academy Awards, or more winners from Sundance? This year’s nominations, announced early Tuesday, showed uncommon taste and imagination in reaching beyond the starstruck land of the Golden Globes to embrace surprising and in some cases almost unknown choices. It’s one of the best lists in years.

This was supposed to be the year the independent films got stiffed, because of the MPAA ban on advance screeners for Academy members. But the voters hardly limited themselves to general-release blockbusters and big stars. Walking down the red carpet this year, nominated in the major acting categories, will be New Zealand teenager Keisha Castle-Hughes; Djimon Hounsou, who was born in Africa; Shohreh Aghdashloo, from Iran; and Ken Watanabe, from Japan. But no Russell Crowe. No Nicole Kidman. No Tom Cruise.

Superbly made big-budget epics dominated this year’s nominations; “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” led with 11 nominations, and the sea epic "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" had 10, but both were shut out of the acting categories. Both films ran up their totals with their below-the-line excellence in the craft categories. As expected, the Academy nominated Charlize Theron, whose work in the low-budget “Monster” by first-time director Patty Jenkins was the performance of the year. Sean Penn’s work as a grieving and vengeance-minded father in “Mystic River” was also honored, and look for those two to win the Oscars on Feb. 29.

In the top categories (picture, acting, writing, direction) the leader was Clint Eastwood’s brooding drama “Mystic River,” with six nominations, including Penn, Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden. “Lost in Translation,” Sofia Coppola’s sweet and observant comedy about two lonely people in the middle of a Tokyo night, won four.

And consider the astonishing four nominations (director, screenplay, cinematography, editing) for the Brazilian film “City of God,” which was ineligible in last year’s foreign film category because the Brazilians refused to nominate their brilliant and angry film. And what about the support for “In America,” the touching drama of an Irish immigrant family in New York, which was nominated for best actress, supporting actor and screenplay? And the seven nominations, mostly in craft categories, for “Seabiscuit,” the horse-racing drama that voters remembered even though it opened way last summer?

Despite one of Miramax’s patented high-powered Oscar campaigns, its candidate “Cold Mountain” was relatively overlooked despite its seven nominations; Jude Law was nominated for best actor and Renee Zellweger for supporting actress, but no best actress for Nicole Kidman, and no best picture, although it gathered nominations for cinematography, score, song (twice) and editing. After critics publish their annual best 10 lists, readers often complain: “I’ve never heard of half those films!” This year the Academy will get similar letters. Most of North America has not had a chance to see (from the top eight categories) “Pieces of April,” “House of Sand and Fog,” “thirteen,” “The Cooler,” “21 Grams,” “Whale Rider,” “City of God,” “The Barbarian Invasions,” “Dirty Pretty Things” and “American Splendor.” Not to mention the animated nominee “The Triplets of Belleville” and most of the documentary choices.

“In America” has had a relatively limited release, and “Monster” is only now going wide on the basis of publicity for Theron’s performance. Many moviegoers in smaller cities and those not blessed by independent theaters and imaginative programming will recognize the titles of “Lord of the Rings,” “Master and Commander,” “Mystic River,” “Cold Mountain,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Finding Nemo” and "Something's Gotta Give" and after that they’ll be in the dark.

What the nominations demonstrate, dramatically, is the disconnect between artistic quality and mainstream Hollywood product. As the major studios have increasingly focused on predictable mass entertainment formulas, quality and imagination have migrated to what could be called Sundance films: Lower budget, innovative projects fueled by the love of their makers, and sometimes by the determination of actors trying to break out of assembly-line fodder.

The unfamiliar titles on this year’s list will be very familiar to veterans of the Sundance and Toronto festivals (“Whale Rider” won the audience award at both fests). But many multiplexes, booked by computer from Hollywood with no regard for local tastes, never show such titles. Even college towns in mid-America never get them. Looking at the nominations again, my delight only increases. How perceptive of the Academy to know that Holly Hunter, not Evan Rachel Wood (as her daughter) gave the best performance in “thirteen.” What imagination to honor Johnny Depp, who transformed a pirate epic with his weird and daring performance (he said he was channeling Keith Richard). How daring to honor Keisha Castle-Hughes as best actress instead of caving in to the Miramax steamroller for Nicole Kidman. How right to admire Diane Keaton’s work in “Something’s Gotta Give” without feeling obligated to give Jack Nicholson his 13th nomination.

With only three slots in the animation category, how absolutely correct to assign one of them to “The Triplets of Belleville,” the Canadian-French co-production, one of the most delightfully weird of animated features. And consider the original screenplay nominations for “Dirty Pretty Things,” a political thriller about immigrants in London, and Denys Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions,” about a dying leftist intellectual in Quebec. (Both films were big-time audience pleasers, but given distribution patterns, of course reached only small audiences).

Even some of the universally-expected nominations took some imagination. Bill Murray, Charlize Theron, Alec Baldwin, Benicio del Toro, Samantha Morton and Ben Kingsley may have been on lots of lists of Oscar predictions, but their work is uniformly inventive, offbeat and exciting—and not in blockbusters, but in lower-budget films made in the independent spirit.

How good were this year’s nominations? Well, assuming that my list of the best films of 2003 is the gold standard, the Academy distributed 30 nominations among eight of my top 10 titles. You’d think it was one of those critics’ groups.

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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