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Published: Thursday, 1/27/2005

Choices confirm Oscar truths

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

PARK CITY, Utah - They hate the bagels. There may be decent bagels around somewhere, but they're not here - not in the condos rented by studios and public relations firms for the Sundance Film Festival.

Bagels are generally the least of people's concerns. But Tuesday morning was strange and different.

For the first time, the Academy Award nominations were announced during Sundance, and complaining about the bagels became a way of getting your mind off whether your film or your client would be recognized.

At 6:30 a.m. local time, when the nominations were announced on television here, Mark Pogachefsky of MPRM Public Relations paced his suite and flipped back and forth between local Salt Lake City newscasts. His agency handles The Sea Inside (which was nominated for best foreign language film) and The Motorcycle Diaries (which landed a best adapted screenplay nod for Jose Rivera), and at this time last year, he was promoting The Motorcycle Diaries and the little-known Maria Full of Grace at Sundance.

When actor Adrien Brody got around to best actress, Pogachefsky sat down and leaned forward. Brody read, "Annette Bening for Being Julia." Pogachefsky put his hands to his face. Brody went on: "Catalina Sandino Moreno for Maria Full of Grace."

"Oh, YEAH!?" the publicist screamed in the dead-quiet Park City Marriott. You pictured people in the adjoining rooms waking up with a start.

It was odd to watch Oscar poke his head into Sundance. When I saw Maria Full of Grace at the festival last year, Moreno was a young actress who had never been in a movie before. And this year, Twist of Faith, the documentary about Toledo firefighter Tony Comes and his lawsuit against the Toledo Catholic Diocese, was the only film anyone could think of that played Sundance even as it nursed an Academy nod.

"I never thought anyone would consider my film," director Kirby Dick said. "But then that's the nature of being an independent filmmaker: It's a shock others notice."

Going through the nominations this year, there are certain Oscar truths we hold to be self-evident, time and again. Here are some thoughts on the nominees:

●There's always the late bloomer: The late bloomer is a recipient of bold marketing strategies, and Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby played the part with style.

Unlike last year, when Eastwood's Mystic River arrived in theaters in October and was swamped by the Return of the King tidal wave a few months later, Warner Bros. gave Eastwood a push at the last minute, in the hopes that a surprise contender (only confirmed as a holiday release in November) would shake things up at the last minute.

It helps when you have a great picture, and it worked: Million Dollar Baby and Finding Neverland (with seven nominations apiece) were second only to The Aviator's 11 nominations, and quickly tightened the best picture race, which is generally a bore.

●There's always the robbery victim: The robbery victim is the most obvious potential nominee who gets robbed. Paul Giamatti takes that title for the second year in a row. First, he was overlooked for American Splendor and now, a real stunner, he was overlooked for Sideways, despite winning a raft of critics' awards and a Golden Globe nomination. (His robber was none other than Clint Eastwood, not widely considered a shoo-in, but widely loved.)

Also, given Hollywood's emphasis on special effects, I was surprised that The Day After Tomorrow, a bad movie with disturbingly real visions of environmental apocalypse, was ignored, despite destroying Los Angeles so effectively.

●There's always the pleasant surprise: This year, it's a multilayered pleasant surprise. Not only was the radiant Moreno a longshot for the little-seen (but brilliant) Maria Full of Grace, she rode a wave of minority nominations. For the first time every acting category contained at least one minority actor or actress, a small but welcome sign that, at least in this case, black and Latino performers are consistently landing smart roles. (Even here at Sundance, a handful of the most satisfying films, including Hustle & Flow, feature strong performances by black actors; the movie also landed the largest Sundance deal in years when it sold to Paramount for $9 million.)

●There's always the backhanded compliment: This year has more than one. In the documentary category, the tepid, promotional Tupac: Resurrection was likely helped by guilt over how lame this category has been in the past. The academy likely thought it was being contemporary and hip.

Same for the odd inclusion of Before Sunset, a genuine masterpiece, as a best adapted screenplay nominee. The question is: From what published work, other than the screenplay to its predecessor, Before Sunrise, was it adapted? (Which raises another question: Why is director Mike Leigh nominated for best original screenplay for Vera Drake when he famously works not from a screenplay but from his actors' improvisations?)

●There are always the peer pressure nominees: These are named for the way the academy seems to nominate certain pictures and people because everyone else says it should. This year's most obvious recipients were Natalie Portman and Clive Owen for Closer, and Imelda Staunton for Vera Drake - each starring in a movie that was either not generally loved by the academy or too depressing for the academy.

These are often the nominations that reveal how much academy voters are influenced by buzz and press: Otherwise, why would Kate Winslet be a shoo-in nomination for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but her co-star Jim Carrey not even considered? Why? Because everyone predicted it. Perverse, huh?

●There's always the bittersweet nominee: In this case, if the Weinstein brothers part with Disney and their landmark company, Miramax, sometime in 2005 (as widely expected), one final mark of their influence is the 11 nominations that Miramax's The Aviator landed. That's not including the strong showing of Miramax's Finding Neverland.

On the other hand, all those nominations, for what are essentially studio pictures produced at a mini-major studio, point out that Miramax has probably outlived its own relevance.

●Finally, there's always the snob factor: Otherwise a great popcorn movie like Spider-Man 2 would have been nominated for, at the very least, best adapted screenplay. The snob factor is a highly cultivated result of the narrow way we think of what constitutes important, acceptable culture.

Animation is another victim: As much critical praise as it received, as sophisticated as it was, The Incredibles is worthy of a best original screenplay nomination, but not a possibility for best picture. Likewise, The Passion of the Christ is worthy of technical nominations, but its politics (further to the right than Hollywood is generally comfortable with) hold it back.

The snob factor tells us the important subjects of movies are: tragedy (Hotel Rwanda), great men (Ray), and the power of imagination (Finding Neverland). Independent thought is a distant fourth.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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