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'Rings' reaches for Oscar gold

Final film of Tolkien trilogy leads with 11 nominations

By Todd Leopold

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" earned 11 Oscar nominations, including nods for best picture and director/co-writer Peter Jackson.

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Sigourney Weaver and Frank Pierson announce the Academy Award nominations. (January 27)
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(CNN) -- "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" already has earned gold -- the Golden Globe for best drama. Now the film reaches for the ultimate Hollywood accolade: Oscar.

The fantasy film, the final chapter of director Peter Jackson's version of J.R.R. Tolkien's literary classic, led all nominees Tuesday with 11 Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay.

"Down in New Zealand now, there will be a lot of celebrating," Jackson said in a reference to where all three films were made and to his native country.

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," based on Patrick O'Brian's literary sea series, received 10 nods, including best picture and best director for Peter Weir. Neither "Rings" nor "Master and Commander" earned a single acting nomination.

The Clint Eastwood-directed "Mystic River," adapted from the Dennis Lehane novel, earned nominations in several major categories, including picture, director, actor (Sean Penn), supporting actor (Tim Robbins) and supporting actress (Marcia Gay Harden).

But Oscar was not without its shockers.

"Cold Mountain," which led all Golden Globe nominees with eight nods but only received one award -- for Renee Zellweger -- was snubbed by Oscar in the best picture, best director, adapted screenplay and best actress categories. (Nicole Kidman was considered a front-runner for the latter.)

"I thought that was a surprise," said Robert Dowling, editor in chief and publisher of industry trade publication The Hollywood Reporter. " 'Cold Mountain' and [director Anthony] Minghella were kind of left out."

Minghella did not receive a Directors Guild nomination, considered a bellwether of Oscar success, and Dowling speculated "I guess the Academy just went along with it. But it's still a bit of a surprise."

The film did earn nominations for best actor (Jude Law) and best supporting actress (Zellweger), and picked up seven nominations overall.

The names of at least two nominees were probably on few people's radar before Tuesday.

Keisha Castle-Hughes, star of the sleeper hit "Whale Rider," earned a nomination for best actress, and Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles was tapped for his film "City of God," a critically revered but little-seen film about life in a Rio de Janeiro slum. At 13, Castle-Hughes is the youngest best actress nominee ever.

In addition to "Rings," "Master and Commander" and "Mystic River," the other nominees for best picture are "Lost in Translation" and "Seabiscuit."

Oscar smiles on comedy

When it came to the lead acting nominees, Oscar smiled on three comic performances -- not usually the style of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Johnny Depp, who channeled Keith Richards for his ebullient pirate Jack Sparrow in the box-office hit "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," was given a nomination for best actor. Diane Keaton, who played a middle-aged woman finding love with a hard-to-get music industry executive in "Something's Gotta Give," picked up a nod for best actress. Another comic performance, the title role in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," earned Keaton a best actress Oscar in 1977.

Bill Murray, who played a fading celebrity adrift in the neon of Tokyo in "Lost in Translation," also received a best actor nomination. Murray took home the Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy/musical for his performance and made a funny speech about the lack of respect accorded comic actors. He is considered a front-runner for the Academy Award.

Johnny Depp's flamboyant performance in "Pirates of the Caribbean" (with Keira Knightley) received a best actor nomination.

The other best actor front-runner is thought to be Penn, who won the Golden Globe award for best actor in a drama, with his performance as the bereaved father in "Mystic River."

"Cold Mountain's" Law and Ben Kingsley ("House of Sand and Fog") are the other nominees for best actor.

Aside from Castle-Hughes and Keaton, the nominees for best actress are Samantha Morton ("In America"), Charlize Theron ("Monster") and Naomi Watts ("21 Grams").

Theron's searing performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos -- for which the former model gained 25 pounds and turned her cover-girl looks into plain-jane grit -- won her the Golden Globe on Sunday. She's considered the leader in the best actress race as well.

In the best supporting actor category, Oscar finally paid tribute to Alec Baldwin, who was overlooked when he played a hard-edged sales coach in "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992). He was nominated this year for his role as a casino manager in "The Cooler," another hard-edged portrait.

Also picking up their first Oscar nominations were Ken Watanabe as a samurai warrior in "The Last Samurai" and Djimon Hounsou (of "Amistad" fame) as an AIDS-afflicted artist in "In America."

The other nominees are Benicio Del Toro ("21 Grams"), who won an Oscar for "Traffic"; and Robbins ("Mystic River"), who was nominated for a directing Oscar for "Dead Man Walking."

Charlize Theron (right, with Christina Ricci) picked up a best actress nomination for "Monster."

In addition to Zellweger and "Mystic River's" Harden, other best supporting actress nominees are Holly Hunter ("thirteen"), Shohreh Aghdashloo ("House of Sand and Fog") and Patricia Clarkson ("Pieces of April").

Both Harden and Hunter are previous Oscar winners -- for "Pollack" (2000) and "The Piano" (1993), respectively. But Zellweger, with two earlier nominations, is considered a favorite for her role as a blunt neighbor who assists a Southern belle in managing a farm in "Cold Mountain."

Coppola follows in father's footsteps

Sofia Coppola, daughter of multi-Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola, picked up nominations for best director and best original screenplay for "Lost in Translation." In earning the former, she became the first American woman to be nominated in that category and only the third woman ever.

But the favorite is considered to be Jackson, who made his project of bringing Tolkien's trilogy to the screen the ultimate feel-good Hollywood story: a $300 million gamble that paid off artistically and financially.

Other best director nominees were the previously mentioned Meirelles ("City of God"), Weir ("Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World") and Eastwood ("Mystic River").

"American Splendor," with Hope Davis and Paul Giamatti, picked up a nomination for best adapted screenplay.

Screenwriting nominations recognized several smaller works. In the original screenplay category, both Denys Arcand's script for his "The Barbarian Invasions" and Steve Knight's script for Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things" earned nominations. The category is rounded off by "Finding Nemo," "In America" and "Lost in Translation."

Adapted screenplay nods went to "American Splendor," Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's film version of Harvey Pekar's life and work; "City of God"; "Lord of the Rings"; "Mystic River"; and "Seabiscuit."

Three films were nominated for best animated film: "Brother Bear," "Finding Nemo," and the French film "The Triplets of Belleville," which has done well in many critics' lists.

The documentary category includes two films that have had box office success -- and created controversy in the press. "The Fog of War" is Errol Morris' unblinking interview with Vietnam War-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and Andrew Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans" takes a look at the members of an upper-middle-class family whose lives are torn apart by allegations of sexual abuse.

Making predictions

Most of Oscar's surprises were in the acting categories.

Two huge stars -- Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe -- were passed over for best actor, Cruise for his performance in "The Last Samurai," Crowe for "Master and Commander." Jack Nicholson, who was touted for his performance in "Something's Gotta Give," fell short of his 13th nomination.

Sigourney Weaver and Frank Pierson announce the Oscar nominations Tuesday.
Sigourney Weaver and Frank Pierson announce the Oscar nominations Tuesday.

And when new names get in, somebody's left out. Nicole Kidman missed out on best actress for "Cold Mountain," and in the case of the "film that directs itself," Gary Ross' "Seabiscuit" earned a best picture nomination while Ross himself was ignored for best director.

But now that the nominees are in, the question of the hour is: What's going to win?

Many pundits are already anointing "Rings." The film leads at least one online oddsmaking site, and The Hollywood Reporter's Dowling thinks sentiment is on its side.

"What Jackson and [his] team did is a case study in filmmaking," Dowling said. Moreover, he added, it helps that this is the trilogy's conclusion with all the emotion that engenders; given the strong best picture competition, a first film might not fare as well.

"This being the third film puts the odds in its favor, I think," he said. "It'll be fun to see what happens."

The Academy Awards will be handed out February 29 from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. Billy Crystal returns as host of the show. ABC will air the Oscar telecast.

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