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And the Oscar nomination goes to...

Can  independent films triumph in the year of the epic?

The Academy Awards aren’t always cut-and-dried. On several occasions, they’ve ended in a tie, most famously in the early 1930s, when Fredric March and Wallace Beery shared the best-actor prize, and in 1969, when Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand were both named best actress.

How close were those votes? The Motion Picture Academy isn’t telling how many votes each performer got, or how far down the runners-up ranked, but apparently the tie was genuine: the number of votes was exactly the same for each winner.

And how much did it matter whether the Academy voters (now more than 5,800 strong) saw all the performances in competition in that category? The fact that one voter happened to see a film — or not see a film — could make all the difference. Availability of the eligible films is essential to the voting process, and so is the time necessary to sort through and watch them.

But significant cutbacks have now been made in both areas, and the consequences could be dire, especially for independent films.

First, the Academy announced that it would be moving the awards show from late March to Feb. 29, giving the voters one month less to come to a decision about the 254 eligible films. Then it was announced that the voters would not be allowed to watch the films in their homes, on videotape or DVD, though eventually it was decided that tapes could be permitted because they’re not as likely to be pirated as DVDs.

Chances for independent films

Hope Davis as Joyce Pekar and Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar in Fine Line's American Splendor - 2003

The nominations (which used to come out in mid-February) will be revealed at 5:30 a.m. Jan. 27, and there are already hints that independents will have to look elsewhere for recognition. The Producers’ Guild recently named its top films of 2003, all of them pricey major-studio productions. The Directors’ Guild found room for only one low-budget indy on its list: Sofia Coppola’s lovely and soulful “Lost in Translation.”

Completely absent from either list was “American Splendor,” which won the National Society of Film Critics’ prize, the Seattle Film Critics’ prize and the Los Angeles Film Critics prize for best picture of 2003. The Golden Globes tossed it one bone: a best supporting actress nomination for Hope Davis, although the New York Film Critics’ Circle and the Seattle critics’ group deemed her the year’s best leading actress for the same performance.

It’s doubtful, under the present circumstances, that an independent film such as “Boys Don’t Cry” or “Pollock” could win an Oscar. Still, the Academy voters have had their maverick moments, and there’s at least one indy that refuses to be ignored, if only because it faces relatively little competition in the best actress category.

Charlize Theron's year?

Actress Charlize Theron is shown in a scene from her filmX80001

In other words, this could be Charlize Theron’s year. “Monster,” in which she gives a spectacular turnaround performance as a desperate serial killer, hasn’t been as cannily promoted as “Boys Don’t Cry,” which won a best-actress Oscar for then-unknown Hilary Swank. But neither was “Pollock,” and it ended up winning a supporting-actress prize for Marcia Gay Harden.

All Theron needs to do is get nominated, which could turn out to be the trickiest part. If she does make it into the finals, her competition will probably include Diane Keaton (“Something’s Gotta Give”), Scarlett Johansson (“Lost in Translation”), Nicole Kidman (“Cold Mountain”) and Jennifer Connelly (“House of Sand and Fog”). Deserving but unlikely: Charlotte Rampling (“Swimming Pool”), Naomi Watts (“21 Grams”) and Hope Davis (“American Splendor”).

Murray vs. Penn

Actor Bill Murray (R), star of director Sofia Coppola's filmFocus Features / X80001

This could also be Bill Murray’s year, but only if he gets nominated for his work as a disconnected movie star in “Lost in Translation.” Like Steve Martin, another “Saturday Night Live” veteran who has won critics’ prizes but no Oscar nominations for his film work, Murray has often been passed over in favor of more “serious” actors, even though his performances in “Rushmore” and “Groundhog Day” are now widely acknowledged as classics.

The one sure thing in this category is Sean Penn, though it’s not clear whether he’ll be nominated for “21 Grams” or “Mystic River” (probably the latter). He will no doubt be joined by Russell Crowe (“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”), Ben Kingsley (“House of Sand and Fog”) and Jude Law (“Cold Mountain”). If Murray doesn’t make it, Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) or Jack Nicholson (“Something’s Gotta Give”) could fill his slot.

Great performances in supporting roles

FLUSHING, NEW YORK - AUGUST 25: Alec Baldwin serves as narrator for the opening ceremony during the US Open August 25, 2003 at the USTA National Tennis Center, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, in Flushing, New York. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)Al Bello / Getty Images North America

The supporting races are tougher to call – and could produce a nomination or two for indys. Alec Baldwin’s sharkish turn in “The Cooler” has definitely been noticed, and so has Peter Sarsgaard’s charismatic work in “Shattered Glass.” They’ll probably be competing with such heavyweights as Tim Robbins (“Mystic River”), Paul Bettany (“Master and Commander”) and one of the “Return of the King” actors — either Sean Astin or Andy Serkis (probably the latter).

The prolific Patricia Clarkson is long overdue for a supporting-actress nomination, and she’ll probably get her first for “Pieces of April” (though she could just as easily be cited for her work in “The Station Agent”). Also likely to be in the running are Holly Hunter (“Thirteen”), Shohreh Aghdashloo (“House of Sand and Fog”) and Samantha Morton (“In America”). Still, Renee Zellweger, who appears to have a lock on her third straight Oscar nomination, will be tough to beat for “Cold Mountain.”

The one major category in which indy films are guaranteed to triumph is best foreign-language film. Among the 55 films eligible for the finals (and independently distributed) are Afghanistan’s powerful “Osama” and Palestine’s wonderfully strange “Divine Intervention.” If the Iranian actress Aghdashloo is nominated, this could be the strongest  showing for Middle East talent in the Academy’s history.

For best picture, the nominees will most likely be “Cold Mountain,” “Master and Commander,” “Mystic River,” “The Return of the King” and “Seabiscuit,” all of them major-studio productions with large ambitions. One could get knocked out by “Lost in Translation,” or Tim Burton’s tediously whimsical “Big Fish” - and it’s almost an Academy tradition that the best picture nominees won’t line up perfectly with best director (Coppola seems most likely to benefit this year).

But the epics appear to be in control of the main event. Watch for a backlash if it happens.