EIGHT INSIGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THIS YEAR'S FIELD OF OSCAR NOMINEES

Still, predictable as it was, the announcement of 2005 Oscar nominees had a few things worth noting. Here are the eight most interesting things about this year's list--or, at least, the most interesting things to me:

1. There wasn't a single obvious travesty in the bunch.

I love Paul Giamatti, and I thought he deserved a best-actor nomination for "Sideways," but it's hard to make the case that his absence is as great an oversight as, say, Bill Murray's for "Rushmore" in 1998. I love "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and I think it might be the only future classic released in 2004, but I can't say I'm surprised the Academy passed over such a quirky, complicated film. (And they did honor Kate Winslet and the film's ingenious screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.) So whose omission am I supposed to get worked up about? Julie Delpy for "Before Sunset"? Liam Neeson for "Kinsey"? Uma Thurman for "Kill Bill Vol. 2"? "Hotel Rwanda"? "SpongeBob SquarePants"? All great, sure. But there's nothing criminally wrong here. For the most part--and for the first time I can remember--the Academy mostly got it right...

2. ...Or did they?

People in the film industry, and folks like me who cover it, weren't too shocked by the nominations this morning. But most American filmgoers will surely be stunned that neither "The Passion of the Christ" nor "Fahrenheit 9/11," the two most talked-about movies of the year, earned a single major nomination. Mel Gibson's biblical epic did manage consideration for a few technical awards--best cinematography, best score, best makeup--that were token almost to the point of hilarity. Best makeup? ("I hated that movie, but I have to say, it really did look like his flesh was falling off his bones.") As for Michael Moore's documentary hit, it's hard to believe he would've been shut out if (A) he hadn't pulled his film out of the best doc category to "give someone else a chance" or (B) Bush had lost. Then again, after Moore's ill-timed acceptance-speech rant at the 2003 Oscars, maybe the Academy just didn't want him around. In any case, I'll bet there are a lot of Christians out there who are convinced that the Academy is filled with nothing but heretics, and a lot of liberals who think the Academy is nothing but a bunch of sissies. Hey, for once, can't you both be right?

3. If five best picture nominees fall in the forest and no one sees them, do they exist?

As I type this, the most profitable film among the five best picture nominees right now is "Ray," which has made a "whopping" $73 million at the box office. The next biggest, "The Aviator," has made just $58 million. Most Americans don't live within 50 miles of a theater playing "Sideways," "Finding Neverland" or "Million Dollar Baby." Now, rest assured, in the next four weeks leading up to the Oscar broadcast, all five nominees will get a second theatrical push. But it's hard to remember a year when the best picture field didn't include a single bona fide box office hit. (Last year's winner, "The Lord of the Rings" made over $300 million in the United States alone.) The smallness of this year's group surely hurt NBC's ratings for the Golden Globes; ABC has to be worried about a repeat on Oscar night. And when it happens, naturally, they'll blame host Chris Rock. Great.

4. And the winner is ... black actors.

This year, five performances by black actors were honored with nominations, out of 20 total nominations. That's 25 percent of the field. I can't say for certain, but I'll bet that's a first. Eagle-eyed readers can check me on this, but I'll bet there's another first: Jamie Foxx is the first black actor ever nominated twice in the same year. Any other year and we'd probably be complaining much louder about how Kerry Washington and Regina King, Foxx's masterful costars in "Ray," got snubbed in the supporting-actress category.

5. "Shark Tale" is an Oscar nominee? Are you serious?

The best animated feature film category is a good idea, if only because it throws a bone to some great movies unfairly hurt by the Academy's bias in favor of, you know, real people. But this category needs some re-evaluation if it only contains three nominees and one of them is derivative junk like "Shark Tale." One gets the sense that most Academy members didn't actually see any animated films and just nominated the three most profitable. In years past, this category included some terrific, gutsy picks, like Japan's "Spirited Away," which won in 2003, and France's "The Triplets of Belleville," which was nominated and lost in 2004. But they whiffed this year. Where was "SpongeBob"? Or the critically-adored Japanese anime "Ghost in the Shell 2"?

6. "The Phantom of the Opera" is an Oscar nominee? Now you have to be kidding.

I feel like I write this every year around this time: just because a movie has lots of art direction doesn't mean it's good art direction. The sets in "The Phantom of the Opera" look like what Liberace would do with the Playboy Mansion. It might be the tackiest movie of the last decade. And yet it's an Oscar nominee--in a category picked by the practitioners of the trade! It's a real puzzler because they clearly don't all have bad taste. The same group forgave "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" for being a mediocre movie and rightfully rewarded the film's dazzling production design. With any luck, "Lemony Snicket" will win.

7. The race is over in just two major categories: best actor and best adapted screenplay.

Jamie Foxx will win for best actor unless he runs over a guy with his car, then gets out and kicks him. He'll probably still win if he doesn't kick him. I guaranteed a few weeks ago in my report on "Oscar's Burning Questions" that Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor will win for best adapted screenplay; now that the nominations are out, I'm re-guaranteeing it.

Other than that, every race is a too-close-to-call showdown between at least two, often three, nominees. If you ask me, that includes the best actress race, which many people are conceding to Hilary Swank for "Million Dollar Baby." She is unquestionably the frontrunner. But she's nowhere the runaway favorite that Foxx is. But I remember in 2002 when then-unknown Adrien Brody went up against Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Caine and Nicholas Cage--four flat-out acting studs, all of them previous Oscar winners, all nominated for great work and not just on reputation--and Brody beat 'em all. I'm not saying Catalina Sandino Moreno (the first-time actor and star of "Maria Full of Grace") has Swank and the rest of the field right where she wants them. I'm just saying, ya never know. Swank will probably take home the statue, but I won't be surprised if Annette Bening or Imelda Staunton wins instead. OK, I admit it, if Moreno wins, I'll be pretty darn surprised.

8. Scorsese might not win--again.

After the Golden Globe nominations came out, I predicted that Martin Scorsese would finally get his long-awaited best director Oscar. Now I'm not so sure, and it's not just because he lost the Golden Globe to Clint Eastwood. Looking at the nominees for best director, it seems to me that the chief yardstick the Academy used to narrow the field was the performances that each man got out of his actors. Taylor Hackford was nominated for "Ray" even though the film's screenplay wasn't--a tribute to his cast and, especially, to his work with Foxx. Mike Leigh, beloved among actors for using improvisation to build his screenplays, is the only directing nominee whose film ("Vera Drake") isn't up for best picture. Eastwood and Payne were nominated for films that are essentially chamber pieces driven by three or four characters.

"The Aviator," meanwhile, got plenty of acting nominations, but Scorsese's film is the least soulful, the least human, of the bunch. It's a big, rousing epic crafted in a classic Hollywood style. Initially, I thought that would help Scorsese: he's honoring his forefathers and that, historically, is a smart path to Oscar gold. But judging from this year's other nominees, I wonder if Academy voters are picking up something else from the film: Scorsese's ego. It's no secret that his over-campaigning in 2003 with "Gangs of New York" may have cost him an Oscar. Perhaps, by nominating a handful of directors whose films are noteworthy for their cinematic modesty, the actor-heavy Academy is sending him a message again: we're the stars here, not you.

I still have a hunch that Scorsese will get his reward at least, but I'm not gonna bet any money on it. Sorry, Marty. The wait might have to go on.

EIGHT INSIGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THIS YEAR'S FIELD OF OSCAR NOMINEES | News