Going astray on mainstream road

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the full list of nominees for the 76th-annual Academy Awards Tuesday morning. And while each year elitist crowds of movie buffs (and that damn Woody Allen) shrug at the notion of the awards, this year’s nominations have been quite a surprise.

Starting with Fernando Meirelles’ best director nomination for City of God and ending with Keisha Castle-Hughes’ best leading actress nomination for Whale Rider, the Academy has voted in a way it hasn’t for the past several years: in favor of the indies.

Whale Rider, a small New Zealand movie about a young girl who becomes a leader of her tribe, is a hidden Easter egg within this scavenger hunt of nominations. This was also Castle-Hughes’ first-ever feature role.

But one of the most surprising nominations is not indie at all. Rather, it is the Disney comedy Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl that garnered Johnny Depp his nomination for best actor.

But Depp’s chances of winning are scarce — he’s in the company of such performances as Ben Kingsley’s (House of Sand and Fog) and Sean Penn’s (his fourth leading actor nomination in the last decade, now for Mystic River).

Leading the nomination list are Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King with 11 and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World right behind with 10. And if you consider the nine-word title of Pirates, the trend of 2003 seems to have been for abnormally long film titles.

What really comes across as odd is that the two leading films, both competing for best director and best picture awards, have no acting nominations. This year, after three nominations in the last four years, Russell Crowe was denied a nod for his portrayal of Captain Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander.

Tied at third place, with seven nominations, are Seabiscuit and Cold Mountain (whose Nicole Kidman, nominated twice in the last two years, was ousted out of a nomination by fellow Australian Naomi Watts).

But this year also marks another milestone in Academy history: Sofia Coppola is the first American woman to ever be nominated in the best direction category for her flick, Lost in Translation. She is the third woman to ever be nominated in the category (following 1993’s Jane Campion for The Piano and 1976’s Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties).

Still, those in love with the art of film-making may be irate. Almost completely ousted from the awards, save for its best original score nomination, was Tim Burton’s Big Fish. The film, which touched many people like no film has in years, was spurned from the ballots for any of the leading categories. Burton, who has never been nominated for his outstanding cinematic work, is slighted one more time.

While the Academy may be turning its head away from the big-production, big-budget, big-market films and toward the indies (after all, American Splendor, In America and Dirty Pretty Things all got nominations), the road to overt the Academy’s eyes toward achievement rather than promotion is still a long one. Still overlooked are such great performances as Hope Davis’ and Paul Giammatti’s in American Splendor, Ewan McGregor’s in Big Fish and Scarlett Johansson’s in Lost in Translation.

Instead, the Academy nominates predictable and tiring flicks such as Mystic River (whose actors and direction were splendid, but sported a story that had nothing going for it).

The Academy — while it is on the way to figuring out which actor and what film deserves nominations — is still clinging on to the precedence set in the past: Ignore the well-done for the well-promoted. The only hope left is that the members still locked in that mindset will be arrested for distributing illegal copies of their screener tapes.

Entertainment Editor Olga Robak can be reached at oracleolga@yahoo.com