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Academy hits perfect international note

Hartl: From 'City of God' to 'Whale Rider', voters largely get it right

As surprising as an Iowa primary, this year’s Academy Award nominations have an unusually international flavor, with films and artists honored from Brazil, West Africa, Canada, England, Australia, France, Japan and New Zealand.

The voters clearly did their homework, whether they watched the films in theaters or on those increasingly troubled screener videos. In several cases, they went out of their way to recognize work that had gone unmentioned by the Golden Globes or the various Hollywood guilds.

Unlike the Writers’ Guild, which stuck with English-language scripts, the Academy’s voters nominated two foreign-language films for screenplay awards. Unlike the Screen Actors’ Guild, which nominated New Zealand’s Keisha Castle-Hughes as best supporting actress for “Whale Rider,” the Academy recognized her as the picture’s star.

While still honoring the biggies — “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” earned 11 nominations — the voters didn’t throw everything at them. Three of the “best picture” nominees did not earn recognization for their actors, who were clearly seen as part of an ensemble. The voters tended to single out performers who stood out in other circumstances.

Here’s a roundup of notable developments:

Colder “Mountain.” Miramax’s impressive, skillfully made adaptation of the Civil War best-seller was hot stuff a month ago, when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association showered it with eight Golden Globe nominations, but it failed to win a Directors’ Guild nomination for Anthony Minghella and won only one of those Globes. The voters have clearly cooled on this one, apparently preferring the blandly erratic “Seabiscuit” in the best picture race.

“City of God.” Fernando Meirelles earned an utterly unexpected best-director nomination for this raw, sometimes hard-to-watch Brazilian street drama, which also collected nominations for best cinematography, film editing and screenplay adaptation (it was written in Portuguese). It may be the most radical thing the directors’ branch has done since nominating Gillo Pontecorvo for “Battle of Algiers” in the late 1960s. But why was Meirelles’ co-director, Katia Lund, not mentioned?

Missing “Rings.” Some critics focused on Sean Astin, others favored Andy Serkis, but in the end none of the cast members from “Return of the King” matched Ian McKellen’s supporting nomination for the first “Lord of the Rings” epic two years ago. Also missing was any mention of the film’s lush cinematography; only the first “Rings” film scored in that category. But “Rings” fans can breathe a sigh of relief that the script and director Peter Jackson, bypassed last year when “The Two Towers” was in competition, are back in the running.

Canadian sequel scores. Denys Arcand’s clever, racy French-language 1986 talkathon, “The Decline of the American Empire,” earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film, and so has its more emotional sequel, “The Barbarian Invasions.” For the first time, Arcand was also mentioned in the category for best original screenplay. It’s an honor long overdue for the literate writer-director who is still best-known for “Jesus of Montreal.”

“Whale” of a change. Perhaps the most heartening nomination in the whole list is 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes’ nod for best actress. Ordinarily a performer so young would have been nominated in the supporting category, just as Tatum O’Neal was for “Paper Moon” and Haley Joel Osment was for “The Sixth Sense.” This nomination is the first sign that the Academy voters have chosen to recognize a leading role as a leading role, no matter what age the performer.

Among the missing. The voters ignored Gus Van Sant’s brilliant, disturbing version of the Columbine killings, “Elephant,” which took best film and director prizes at the Cannes Film Festival last spring. They also bypassed Palestine’s wonderfully quirky “Divine Intervention” and Afghanistan’s powerful drama about life under the Taliban, “Osama,” which won the Golden Globe for best foreign film. Most surprising was the omission of “The Station Agent,” which seemed to be building up to a breakout, with three nominations from the Screen Actors’ Guild, including one for best ensemble.

Almost missing. “American Splendor,” a marvelously inventive film about comic book creator Harvey Pekar, was the year’s most original American movie, and the National Society of Film Critics named it the best picture of the year. But it will have to make do with a single Oscar nomination: best screenplay adaptation. Almost as fine, Christopher Guest’s ingenious fake documentary, “A Mighty Wind,” is nominated only for best song, though that song — “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” — is the heart of the movie.

Another Oscar-winning director in the family? Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Coppola, who won an Academy Award for directing “Godfather II,” may become the first woman to win the same award. She’s only the third female to be nominated, and she has a better chance to win than her predecessors, Jane Campion (whose “Piano” got run over by “Schindler’s List”) and Lina Wertmuller (whose “Seven Beauties” lost to the not-to-be-denied “Rocky”). Sofia’s movie, “Lost in Translation,” is nominated in all the key areas — best picture, director, script, actor (Bill Murray) — and could put her over the top. Especially if the voters have had it with hobbits.

Whatever happened to . . . Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, without whom “Master and Commander” might have become waterlogged . . . Scarlett Johansson, who was the female star of “Lost in Translation” as well as “The Girl With the Pearl Earring.” She earned Golden Globe nominations for both performances, and that translated into nothing at Oscar time . . . Evan Rachel Wood (“Thirteen”), Maria Bello (“The Cooler”), Chris Cooper (“Seabiscuit”) and Peter Dinklage (“The Station Agent”) all earned Screen Actors’ Guild nominations, but they’re not on Oscar’s list.

Third or fourth time’s the charm? Renee Zellweger earned her third Oscar nomination in a row for her work as Nicole Kidman’s comic-relief assistant in “Cold Mountain.” Sean Penn has now been nominated for best actor four times; “Mystic River” gives him one of his strongest dramatic showcases. Both are expected to win, and both did pick up Golden Globes, but they also look like the kinds of “sure things” that lead to upsets like last year’s near-sweep for “The Pianist.”

Will the enabler win? It could be argued that the Oscar voters have developed a soft spot for self-sacrificing spouses lately. Marcia Gay Harden (“Pollock”), Jim Broadbent (“Iris”) and Jennifer Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind”) all won for playing candidates for martyrdom. This year’s prime candidate is Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Iranian actresss who puts up with a lot from Ben Kingsley in “House of Sand and Fog.”

Overdue and underrated. This year marks the first time several reliable actors have been nominated. Johnny Depp, who should have been up for “Ed Wood,” is finally in the running for “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Alec Baldwin may be nominated for “The Cooler,” but a lot of fans remember him best for his knockout performance in “Miami Blues.” Djimon Hounsou should have been nominated for “Amistad”; he finally got there with “In America.” It’s inexplicable that Patricia Clarkson wasn’t nominated for “Far From Heaven” last year, and now she has a real chance with “Pieces of April.” Never underestimate the cumulative impact of a career on Oscar night (see: Don Ameche, “Cocoon”).