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Three-way race for Oscar

‘Million Dollar Baby,’ ‘Aviator’ and ‘Sideways’ square off

The recent Golden Globes hinted at it. And now the Oscar nominations have confirmed it: the Academy Awards will be a three-way race involving Clint Eastwood’s boxing drama “Million Dollar Baby,” Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator,” and Alexander Payne’s road-trip comedy “Sideways.”

Any one of them could be crowned best picture of 2004 when the Oscars are handed out Feb. 27. And it’s anyone’s guess as to which will triumph. Each carries nominations in all the essential categories: acting, writing and directing. “The Aviator,” with 11 nominations, is this year’s most nominated film.

Also nominated for best picture are Marc Forster’s “Finding Neverland,” which lacks a best director nomination, and Taylor Hackford’s “Ray,” which seems likely to take home an Oscar only for its star, Jamie Foxx.

As usual, the nominations included surprises as well as unexpected omissions. Here’s a roundup of notable developments:

Embarrassment of riches: For the second year in a row, several popular documentaries are in contention, including the clever fast-food satire, “Super Size Me.” Also nominated are “Born Into Brothels,” “Tupac: Resurrection,” “The Story of the Weeping Camel” and “Twist of Faith.”  But that leaves out such excellent non-fiction films as “Touching the Void,” “Home of the Brave” and “Riding Giants,” all of which were eligible. Eliminated before the nominations were announced were “Control Room,” “The Corporation” and the year’s top-grossing documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which Michael Moore hoped would earn a best picture nomination. It didn’t happen.

Mel’s “Passion” recognized. While Moore’s film earned no nominations, the year’s other controversy-stirrer, “The Passion of the Christ,” was nominated for best music, cinematography and makeup.

Year of the biopics: “The Aviator,” “Finding Neverland” and “Ray” all earned nominations for best picture. But “Kinsey” and “The Motorcycle Diaries” were mostly shut out.

Among the missing: Sissy Spacek (“A Home at the End of the World”), Eileen Atkins (“Vanity Fair”), Peter O’Toole (“Troy”), Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”), Peter Sarsgaard (“Kinsey”).

Eastwood’s double nomination. Eastwood has been collecting prizes for best director since his movie made its debut, but this is the first time he’s been singled out for best actor for “Million Dollar Baby” (he was previously nominated for best actor for “Unforgiven”). Apparently he pushed Giamatti off the list — which could tip the scales in favor of “Million Dollar Baby” in other categories.

SAG differences: Although there’s considerable overlap between Academy voters and Screen Actors’ Guild members, their nomination lists never line up perfectly. The Oscar voters nominated two supporting players who won Golden Globes but weren’t mentioned in the SAG nominations: Clive Owen (“Closer”) and Natalie Portman (“Closer”). Among the SAG nominees that didn’t make it to the Oscars: Giamatti, James Garner (“The Notebook”), Cloris Leachman (“Spanglish”) and Freddie Highmore (“Finding Neverland”).

No “City of God.” The Brazilian film that came out of nowhere last year by collecting four major nominations (directing, writing, cinematography, film editing) has not produced a foreign-language followup this year. Closest calls: “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which is up for best song and best screenplay adaptation, and “The Sea Inside,” which is nominated for best makeup and foreign film.

It’s Annette vs. Hilary, again: Five years ago, Annette Bening (“American Beauty”) lost the Oscar to Hilary Swank (“Boys Don’t Cry”). This year, Bening is nominated for “Being Julia” and Swank is nominated for “Million Dollar Baby.” Too close to call? Will the voters bypass them both for Imelda Staunton’s excellent work in “Vera Drake,” which also earned nominations for Mike Leigh’s direction and script?

No directing nomination, no best picture winner: It’s almost impossible to win the best picture prize without being nominated for best director. “Finding Neverland” didn’t carry its director, Marc Forster, into the winners’ circle, so it looks like an also-ran in the race for best picture. OK, it’s happened once since 1932, when “Driving Miss Daisy” was named best picture of 1989 while its director, Bruce Beresford, wasn’t even in the running. But a repeat seems wildly unlikely.

Who’s supporting whom? In “Collateral,” Jamie Foxx shares an awful lot of screen time with the star, Tom Cruise, yet he’s been nominated in the supporting category. In “Sideways,” Thomas Haden Church has only slightly less screen time than Paul Giamatti, yet Church is nominated for best supporting actor and Giamatti is considered the lead in the film. And do Owen and Portman really qualify as supporting actors? Certainly this is nothing new: Tatum O’Neal appeared in every scene in “Paper Moon,” and Tommy Lee Jones drove the story in “The Fugitive,” but both received supporting Oscars. On the other hand, if you count their screen time, Anthony Hopkins (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and Patricia Neal (“Hud”) probably shouldn’t have won the big one. Are there any ground rules here?

Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees of Omission. Passed over several times by the Oscar voters, most notably for a remarkable performance in 1995’s “Murder in the First,” Bacon did his most daring, complex work to date as a child molester in “The Woodsman.” He campaigned heartily for recognition, but perhaps the role was too uncompromising. In 1962, Stuart Whitman was nominated for best actor for “The Mark,” about a potential child molester. Perhaps Bacon’s mistake was playing a character who actually committed the crime.

Lonely at the top. Catalina Sandino Moreno is nominated for best actress for her film debut in “Maria Full of Grace,” but her movie is otherwise missing from important categories. The same goes for Annette Bening, also nominated for best actress for her work in “Being Julia.”

Foreign-language omissions. The National Society of Film Critics recently named Ousmane Sembene’s “Moolaade” the best foreign-language film of 2004, but Senegal did not submit it in the Oscar race, so it isn’t up for best foreign film. Other critics’ groups picked Zhang Yimou’s dazzling “House of Flying Daggers,” which was China’s official entry in the Oscars, but it was also shut out. In their place are a mediocre French film, “The Chorus,” and Spain’s biopic “The Sea Inside,” which won the Golden Globe for best foreign film. Also nominated: Sweden’s “As in Heaven,” Germany’s “Downfall” and South Africa’s “Yesterday.”

Ethan Hawke scores as a writer. Nominated for best supporting actor for “Training Day” a few years ago, Hawke earned his second Oscar nomination for co-writing Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset” with Linklater and Julie Delpy. The script is partly based on Hawke’s experiences as a budding novelist.

Most baffling nomination: “Shark Tale” for best animated feature. Mediocre at best, this tediously derivative cartoon will be competing with “Shrek 2” and “The Incredibles,” which looks like a shoo-in in this category. “The Incredibles,” like the original “Toy Story,” is also nominated for best screenplay.

Overdue and underrated...Alan Alda’s nomination for his supporting role as a corrupt politician in “The Aviator” was not expected. But it’s the first time he’s been nominated in a long career, and that alone could carry him into the winners’ circle . . . Alexander Payne, nominated for directing and co-writing “Sideways,” has long been functioning on the fringes of the Oscars. He and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, were nominated for “Election” but they were shut out of the race for “About Schmidt.”

Missing “Rings.” For the first time since 2001, no hobbits are in the running.