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Academy Awards race proves tight from start to finish

Brian Doxtader | Sunday, January 28, 2007

George C. Scott once refused an Oscar, calling the Academy Awards “a rat race.” If so, it’s the most prestigious, exciting and controversial rat race in the world. The nominations were released on Tuesday, prompting the usual award season controversy and hype. This year’s Oscar race is being touted for its unpredictable nature – a true front-runner hasn’t emerged, and the top-nominated film (“Dreamgirls,” with eight) is not even up for Best Picture.As with any race dependent on voters, early buzz is good, but late momentum is better. “Babel,” which won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama), seems to be the early favorite, but it’s not yet clear whether the thematic comparisons to previous high-profile pictures like “Crash” (last year’s winner) and “Traffic” will help or hinder the socially conscious film. The momentum gained from the Golden Globe will no doubt be a benefit, especially since the Best Picture (Comedy or Musical) Golden Globe winner, “Dreamgirls,” was not nominated for the Oscar.The good word-of-mouth surrounding “Letters to Iwo Jima” may lead to an upset come Oscar time, especially since it wouldn’t be the first time that a Clint Eastwood-directed film made a late push to win the award. His last picture, “Million Dollar Baby,” beat the Miramax behemoth “The Aviator” for the top prizes (Best Picture and Best Director for Eastwood) in 2004.Speaking of “The Aviator,” the biggest question is whether or not this is the year that Martin Scorsese gets it done. “The Departed” is one of those films that didn’t seem hyped for Oscar prestige, but has picked up steam for one key reason: it’s really good. The film is far more deserving than Scorsese’s other high-prestige pictures of recent years (“The Aviator” and “Gangs of New York”), it might garner the venerated filmmaker the Best Director statuette that has eluded him – unless he loses to Eastwood again. “The Departed” is also probably the best film in the race, but its violent cynicism might be problematic with some voters, especially since it lacks the social consciousness or historical rooting of films like “The Queen” or “Babel.””Little Miss Sunshine” is this year’s dark horse. Every year, there’s an “odd man out,” a film whose nomination is a little puzzling – “Seabiscuit” in 2003 or “Finding Neverland” in 2004. The buzz surrounding “Little Miss Sunshine” is growing, however, thanks to several hundred thousand DVDs that have been sent to Academy voters.Some surprise acting nominations include Ryan Gosling in the little-seen “Half Nelson,” Mark Wahlberg for “The Departed” and Abigail Breslin in “Little Miss Sunshine.” There are a pair of sure bets this year in the Best Actor and Best Actress awards, which already have Forest Whitaker (“Last King of Scotland”) and Helen Mirren’s (“The Queen) names inscribed on them.As with other years, the 2006 omissions are just as notable as the nominations. Among the films that failed to garner Best Picture noms are Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men,” Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” and the aforementioned “Dreamgirls.” Both “Children of Men” and “Dreamgirls” were expected to be front-runners in the race, and their complete elimination is puzzling, especially in the face of nominated films like “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Queen.” Neither of the two major 9/11 films (“United 93” and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center”) received Best Picture nominations, though their early releases may have hindered their chances. “The Departed” is under-represented in the acting department, as Jack Nicholson failed to garner a nomination, and DiCaprio got the nod for “Blood Diamond” instead.The award ceremony is still over a month away, but the build-up is already beginning. “The Departed” is being re-released and several high-profile films are finally reaching wide-release. The momentum and vibes over the next several weeks will determine who walks away with statuettes and who won’t. Let the race begin.