'Return of the King' leads Oscar nods

by Rebecca Leffler | 1/28/04 6:00am

With barely enough time to breathe after Sunday night's Golden Globe Awards, that little metallic movie-loving man has snuck up on us once again. After months of debate surrounding screener bans, the nominees for the 76th Annual Academy Awards were announced Tuesday.

Though this year's nominee pool is filled with many familiar faces, Oscar also provided a few surprises. Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" seems to be making a "hobbit" of pleasing critics these days, as it leads the Oscar race with 11 nominations, including Best Picture. This was certainly a year of epics, as Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" follows with ten nominations. Though these adventurous blockbusters were the most nominated films, they both failed to receive nominations in any of the acting categories. Other Best Picture nominees include Sofia Coppola's comedy of international understanding, "Lost in Translation," Clint Eastwood's moving murder mystery, "Mystic River," and Gary Ross' equestrian tearjerker, "Seabiscuit."

One of the biggest surprises of yesterday's nominations was "Cold Mountain," which was noticeably absent from the Best Picture category. Though recognized in seven categories, the film's director, Anthony Minghella was not nominated. And Nicole Kidman, last year's best actress winner for her nearly unrecognizable role in "The Hours," was not recognized for her portrayal of Ada Monroe in "Cold Mountain." The film did secure nominations in several categories, including Best Actor (Jude Law), Best Supporting Actress (Renee Zellweger, who took home the Golden Globe for this same role on Sunday) and Best Cinematography, among others.

Joining Law in the Best Actor category are Sean Penn for his role as an emotionally worn father in "Mystic River" (which also earned him a Golden Globe), Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley in "House of Sand and Fog," Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" and Bill Murray (also a Golden Globe winner on Sunday) in "Lost in Translation." Notice that Hollywood heavy-hitters Russell Crowe, star of "Master and Commander," and Tom Cruise, star of "The Last Samurai" did not make it to the aforementioned list.

The Best Actress category this year, among other performance categories, is definitely good news for fans of independent film, as four out of the five nominees were recognized for their roles in "indie" flicks. These nominees include Naomi Watts in "21 Grams," Samantha Morton in "In America," Diane Keaton in "Something's Gotta Give, " Charlize Theron in "Monster, " and, finally -- perhaps most surprising of all -- Keisha Castle-Hughes for her role in "Whale Rider" which makes her the youngest actress ever to be nominated in this category.

While the Golden Globes honor comedic and dramatic performances in separate categories, the Academy Awards combine both categories, making the Oscar race much more brutal. Best Supporting Actor nods went to Alec Baldwin ("The Cooler"), "Benicio Del Toro ("21 Grams"), "Djimon Hounsou ("In America"), Tim Robbins ("Mystic River") and Ken Watanabe ("The Last Samurai"). Joining Renee Zellweger in the best supporting actress category are Shohreh Aghdashloo ("House of Sand and Fog"), Patricia Clarkson ("Pieces of April"), Marcia Gay Harden ("Mystic River") and Holly Hunter ("Thirteen").

Nominations for the Best Director include Fernando Meirelles ("City of God"), Golden Globe winner Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"), Peter Weir ("Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"), Clint Eastwood ("Mystic River") and Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation"). Coppola is only the third woman -- and the first American woman -- ever nominated for an Oscar in this category.

Will independent film triumph over the traditional monopoly of the Hollywood studios, or will the winners prove that popcorn sales really do measure quality? Only time will tell, so make sure you tune in to The 76th Academy Awards on Feb. 29 starting at 8 p.m. Eastern standard time on ABC as Billy Crystal returns as host of the red carpet event of the year.