The best Oscar surprise: indies, comedies get noticed. Besides the shoo-ins like ''Return of the King,'' voters also recognized small films like ''In America'' and comic actors like Bill Murray

By Gary Susman
Updated January 27, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, ...
Credit: Lost in Translation: Yoshio Sato

The best Oscar surprise: indies, comedies get noticed

For the past few months, this year’s Oscar battle has grown to resemble the siege of Minas Tirith in ”The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” with studio mastodons threatening to overrun the demoralized, overmatched independents. The war over the screener tapes, which ended in a court victory for the indies, threatened to result in an awards (and box-office) shutout for the little guys, since Academy voters would have little chance to see those sparsely distributed movies. But as Tuesday’s nominations show, the indies still have plenty of fight in them. The Academy came up with a praiseworthy list that seemed to recognize quality whether it came from little movies or big-studio epics, and from dramatic turns or from usually overlooked comic performances.

Big surprises, small films The Academy agreed with critics’ groups and recognized a number of movies that may not have made it to your multiplex this year — ”American Splendor,” the French Canadian ”Barbarian Invasions,” the Brazilian ”City of God,” ”The Cooler,” ”Dirty Pretty Things,” ”Girl With a Pearl Earring,” ”In America,” ”Lost in Translation,” ”Monster,” ”Pieces of April,” ”Thirteen,” the French cartoon ”The Triplets of Belleville,” ”21 Grams,” and ”Whale Rider.” Of the 20 acting nominations, 10 went to indie films. Even if there’s no Adrien Brody-style upset at this year’s ceremony that sends, say, 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes of ”Whale Rider” or Djimon Hounsou of ”In America” to the podium, these performers and their films will reap the benefits of the increased exposure that comes from their nominations.

The snubs By the same token, Academy voters had the same misgivings about some highly touted, big-budget Oscar hopefuls as critics did. ”Cold Mountain” earned seven nominations but was snubbed for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress (Nicole Kidman). ”The Last Samurai,” which saw snubs for Tom Cruise and director Ed Zwick, scored the biggest of its four nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category (Ken Watanabe). ”Big Fish” earned a nomination only for Danny Elfman’s musical score.

Recognizing favorites Not that the Academy went elitist and ignored what pleased crowds. Rousing epics scored well with Oscar. ”Return of the King” ruled with 11 nods, ”Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” earned 10, and ”Seabiscuit” took seven, even though none of these three Best Picture nominees earned a single acting nomination (and ”Seabiscuit” didn’t even earn Gary Ross a Best Director nod). The voters also recognized Johnny Depp’s comic turn in one of the year’s big hits, ”Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” and they honored ”Lost in Translation”’s Bill Murray, whose complaints about comic actors being ignored at awards time have continued, even during his Golden Globes acceptance speech on Sunday. Given the overall balance of this year’s list of nominees, perennial Oscar grumps will have to find something else to complain about.