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Oscar keeps one surprise up his sleeve

The 2008 Academy Award nominees hew mostly to predictions, but the real question is whether or not the show will go on February 24.
/ Source: contributor

Memo to Angelina Jolie, John Travolta, and David Fincher — no need to worry about crossing a picket line on Oscar night, now that the Academy has snubbed you and your movies at the upcoming 80th annual Academy Awards. The absence of nominations for, respectively, “A Mighty Heart,” “Hairspray” and “Zodiac” were among the few surprises to be had Tuesday morning when Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Sid Ganis and Oscar winner Kathy Bates faced the press at 5:30 a.m. Pacific time with the list of this year’s anointed.

Two of the morning shocks involved actors who were already expected to be among the nominees: Tommy Lee Jones, predicted to be in the running for Best Supporting Actor for his work in “No Country for Old Men,” instead found himself in the Best Actor category for his well-regarded turn in “In the Valley of Elah,” one of several fall flops having to do with the Iraq war. And while Cate Blanchett earned her expected nod for her performance as an aspect of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” she was the surprise recipient of a two-fer, with the Academy also acknowledging her lead role in the overstuffed and critically-reviled “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.”  (The fact that Blanchett was the sole nomination for that latter film suggests the nomination stems purely from lingering goodwill for her appearance in the first “Elizabeth.”)

In some quarters, this Oscar season has already proven to be a controversial and vexing one, for reasons that have nothing to do with the Writers Guild of America strike and the potential it has to put the kibosh on the annual telecast. Last week, the Academy released a shortlist of nine films that were the finalists to be nominees in the Best Foreign Film category; missing from that list were Romania’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” which won the Palme d’ Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and France’s “Persepolis,” both of them among the year’s most critically acclaimed films. (The latter, at least, picked up a Best Animated Feature nominee, alongside “Ratatouille” and the surprising “Surf’s Up,” which usurped a slot most assumed would go to “The Simpsons Movie.”)

Blogger Jeffrey Wells called the “4 Months” snub “(o)ne of the biggest outrages in the history of the Academy’s foreign film committee — a scandal fed by deficient taste and myopic, mule-like obstinacy.” Even Mark Johnson, the chairman of the Academy’s foreign language nominating committee, admitted to the L.A. Weekly that the exclusion of the film indicated the need for further overhauling of the nomination process. So in light of that controversy, grousing about Philip Seymour Hoffman getting nominated for his fine work in the dreadful “Charlie Wilson’s War” and not for “The Savages” or “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” seems like small potatoes indeed.

But there are happier stories to be told. In the Best Supporting Actress category, for instance, Blanchett is the only contender to have been previously nominated. “American Gangster’s” Ruby Dee, at 83, gets her first Oscar nod alongside fellow newbie Saoirse Ronan, 13, from “Atonement.” Two-time Tony nominee Amy Ryan joins them after winning practically every critics group award under the sun for “Gone Baby Gone,” as does the luminous Tilda Swinton, whose roots in the ’80s underground cinema of Derek Jarman eventually led to Hollywood seeking her out for movies like “Michael Clayton.”

And it’s “Michael Clayton,” incidentally, that proved to be one of the day’s big winners. The George Clooney vehicle about the redemption of a corrupt corporate lawyer boasted neither the rapturously glowing reviews of “There Will Be Blood” or “No Country for Old Men” nor the audience buzz of “Juno,” but it nonetheless racked up nominations from the WGA and the DGA before snagging seven Oscar nods. (“Clayton” and “Atonement” are tied, with only “Blood” and “No Country” surpassing them with eight nominations apiece.)

Those four leading contenders will probably enjoy at least a bit of a box-office bump between now and the Oscar presentation on February 24, but it’s hard to say what other films stand to benefit from the Academy’s spotlight. (And be not mistaken — selling movie tickets is what the Oscars have always been about.) Non-arthouse audiences probably missed Marion Cotillard’s feral performance as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose,” but they can now see her on DVD. Ditto Julie Christie’s heartbreaking work in “Away from Her,” which also snagged a well-deserved Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley.

One would hope that Warner Bros., whose neglect of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” has been nothing short of criminal, would put the film back on the big screen so that audiences could fully take in the work of its nominees, actor Casey Affleck and cinematographer Roger Deakins, but with a February 5 DVD release date, it seems unlikely. With “The Savages” still in theaters, there’s a chance that the Oscar accolades for Laura Linney and screenwriter Tamara Jenkins could drive more folks into the theater.

If there’s one thing to be said for this year’s crop of Oscar contenders, it’s that there’s an exciting lack of predictability, and not just when it comes to prognosticating whether the nominees will spend February 24 on the red carpet or sitting at home watching Mary Hart read out a list of winners. With a few notable exceptions — Javier Bardem in Best Supporting Actor, Animated Feature nominee “Ratatouille” — there aren’t a lot of sure bets this year. Granted, there’s going to be a whole lot of politicking and a even more guessing over the next few weeks. But for now, at least, the field looks pretty open.

Alonso Duralde is the author of “101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men”; find him at .