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"And if there was anything about the show I was looking forward to most, it would be (Crystal)."
"With a win, it might add credence to a new category known as Best Ensemble Performance in a Motion Picture."
"Nominations are still controlled by the studios with the megabucks."
"Will 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' take home the most coveted of all prizes?"
2004 Academy Award Preview  

THE YEAR OF THE FISH...ER, KING!

The 76th annual Academy Awards are approaching faster than ever, thanks in part to a decision to move the famed telecast up a notch early (Sunday, February 29th). The decision to accelerate the awards was an attempt to cut down on heavy campaigning and propaganda that have plagued recent years. Shamelessly, posting "For your consideration?" advertisements and commercials, big studios have dominated the trades and airwaves, influencing the 5,700 Academy members for months on end. Of course, the overall effect of the move will most likely cause the studios to release their films in November rather than December this year, squeezing in the extra time to solicit nominations. But the move certainly impacted this year's awards, bringing quite a few surprises from Djimon Hounsou to Keisha Castle-Hughes to a little place known only as the "City of God."

Much like previous years, the Oscars come on the heel of many other award shows: The Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the People's Choice Awards, and an ensemble of Critics Choice Awards. But unlike other awards shows, the Oscars are considered the most glamorous and most prestigious of all. The award show is almost always festive, but last year was the exception. Following the news of a conflict in Iraq, the show tamed the red carpet and presented its awards professionally, albeit downbeat. The show went on, but more importantly, it never forgot its place in the world.

This year, the outlook appears noticeably brighter. For starters, the Academy has once again solicited the services of Mr. Showtime himself: Billy Crystal . Returning for his eighth time as host, Crystal will help restore the glitz and glamour of big time Hollywood. With song and dance, jokes and jabs, Crystal will not only transform the telecast into a spectacle, he'll make the three plus hours an enjoyable celebration of film. And if there was anything about the show I was looking forward to most, it would be him. Says Crystal upon his return: "It was either this or run for governor." And thank goodness, he chose the Oscars!

In retrospect, 2003 brought a mixture of successes and failures. There were over hyped action bonanzas like "The Hulk" and "2 Fast 2 Furious," brainless sequels like "Legally Blonde: Red, White, and Blonde" and "Bad Boys II," and misguided indie pictures like "Irreversible" and "The Singing Detective." Still, for every bumbling "Matrix" trilogy, there was a "Lord of the Rings" to off set it. And when we were delivered the troubled theme park inspired "Haunted Mansion," we also received a gem in "Pirates of the Caribbean."

2003 brought in many great independent films such as "Lost in Translation, " "Shattered Glass,, " and "American Splendor, " films that took creativity to a new level. But most importantly, it reeled in a big fish by the name of Nemo. "Finding Nemo" splashed into the top 10 domestic box office with a record $336 million. And although box office success doesn't necessarily guarantee award success, it's hard to picture this film coming home on the 29th without the award for best animated feature. In addition to best animated feature, the film has earned nominations for best original score, sound editing, and original screenplay.

Leading the way with 11 nominations this year is "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." The Rings trilogy marks only the second time in Oscar history in which an entire series of films has been nominated for Best Picture. The other, of course, was "The Godfather." Yet, to say that "The Return of the King" is poised for an Oscar sweep is a bit premature. For the last two years, the Academy has virtually snubbed Peter Jackson and his hobbit like cast/crew, bestowing Oscars primarily in the areas of technical expertise such as sound editing and visual effects. In all its glory, "Fellowship" snagged only 4 out of 13 and "Towers" captured 2 out of 6 awards. Oddly enough, this year's entry does not have a single acting nominee (nor does "Master and Commander"), a rarity for Oscar Best Pictures. But with a win, it might add credence to a new category known as Best Ensemble Performance in a Motion Picture.

SURPRISES

  •   Among the most significant of surprises this year was the recognition of 13 year old, Keisha Castle-Hughes for her beautiful portrayal of Pai in one of the year's finest little films from New Zealand called "Whale Rider." With this nomination, Keisha becomes the youngest Best Actress nominee in Academy Award history, younger than Isabelle Adjani ("The Story of Adele H") who was 20 back in 1975.
  •   Also surprising is the recognition of the Brazilian film, "City of God," which earned 4 nominations for cinematography, directing, film editing, and adapted screenplay. The film depicts the horrific life of Brazilian gangs in the ghettos near Rio de Janeiro and is certainly one of the year's best. But what makes this interesting is the fact that the film was technically released in 2002, becoming the first film in Academy history to benefit from a 1999 ruling allowing films released internationally in one year (2002) to compete in a variety of other categories based upon its U.S. release (2003).
  •   And finally, it's hard not to talk about Sofia Coppola . The surprise, of course, was not the fact that she was nominated, but that her selection for Best Director makes her the first American woman ever nominated in the category. It's almost hard to believe, but a historic triumph for sure. Though there have been two other women nominated for Best Director awards, Lina Wertmuller (Italy) for "Seven Beauties" and Jane Campion (New Zealand) for "The Piano," neither is American.
  • DISAPPOINTMENTS

  •   Out of the five nominated films for Best Picture, only one ("Lost in Translation") could be considered a low budget independent. Smaller pictures deserving of a Best Picture nomination: "In America," "American Splendor," and "Whale Rider." But it just goes to show that even with the MPAA's removal of the screener ban and the earlier telecast date, nominations are still controlled by the studios with the megabucks.

  •   Charlize Theron's incredible transformation into Aileen Wuornos in "Monster" must have been done without the use of prosthetics and artificial skin treatments. It's the only way to explain the omission of Toni G.'s work in the Best Makeup category, a category that allows for 5 nominees, but oddly enough, only selects 3.

  •   Out of the 20 acting nominees this year, only Renee Zellweger is making a return trip. Those with legitimate claims for back to back nominations were Nicole Kidman, Jack Nicholson, Chris Cooper, and Diane Lane to name a few. And it begs the question, who will Billy Crystal pick on this year?

  •   Of course, the biggest disappointment was that some of the best performances of the year were completely ignored. For instance, Peter Sarsgaard in "Shattered Glass," Hope Davis and Paul Giamatti in "American Splendor," and Edwark Zwick and John Toll's work on "The Last Samurai."
  • INSPIRING DREAMS

    Oh well, it's the surprises and disappointments that make the Oscars the distinguished awards that they are, inspiring dreams and boosting many a career. So, who will win the big prizes this year?

  • Will it be Johnny Depp for his Keith Richards meets Pepe LePew impersonation in "Pirates of the Caribbean?"
  • Will Keisha Castle-Hughes become the youngest recipient to win the Best Actress award?
  • Will Sofia Coppola make her family the second three generation family to achieve Oscar gold (the first was the Hustons)?
  • And will "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" take home the most coveted of all prizes?
  • These answers and more are waiting for you in my annual Oscar preview!

    2004 Academy Awards Preview (CONTINUED)

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