Sweeping epics, a gritty crime drama and an offbeat love story set in Japan grabbed Academy Award nominations for best picture Tuesday with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" the likely favorite in this year's Oscar race with 11 nominations.
But while bestowing multiple nominations on "Rings" was expected, there were a number of surprises as well, including nods to edgy foreign films, comedic performances and, in "Whale Rider's" 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, the youngest nominee ever for a best actress award.
Besides best film, "The Lord of the Rings," which has amassed more than $840 million in worldwide box office after little more than a month in release, garnered nominations for director, screenplay adaptation and score -- though none for acting. The film is the final installment in director Peter Jackson's ambitious trilogy based on the J.R.R. Tolkien books; all three have been nominated for best picture.
Jackson, the disheveled New Zealand native who spent seven years bringing hobbits, elves and wizards to the screen, called his three nominations for film, director and screenwriter "a dream come true" for someone whose love of film began as a "Kiwi boy with a Super-8." But Jackson conceded that he doesn't have a lock on any of the nominations. "Frontrunners have a habit of not actually winning," he noted.
Robert Shaye, co-chairman of New Line Cinema, which took a $300-million gamble on Jackson's vision, struck a similar cautious note: "Being smug is the all-time world's worst attitude in this business. We're grateful for the reception and recognition this film has received, but ... there is no such thing as a slam dunk."
Joining Jackson's Middle-earth fantasy in the 2003 best picture race are "Lost in Translation" (four nominations), "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" (10 nominations), "Mystic River" (six nominations) and "Seabiscuit" (seven nominations). Four of the five are based on adaptations of well-known books; only "Translation" is an original screenplay.
Like the legendary thoroughbred upon whom it is based, "Seabiscuit" proved to have legs. "We came out in the summertime," said writer and director Gary Ross, who was nominated for screenplay adaptation. "It would have been really easy for people to forget about this movie."
A striking feature of this year's Oscar derby is how it celebrates the smaller, independent cinema while giving an international flavor to many of its categories. For example, there is only one American nominee in the best actress category; a Brazilian, a New Zealander and an Australian are up for best director; and actors from such faraway places as West Africa's Benin and Japan are vying for best supporting actor.
Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rarely honors comedic performances, two of this year's best actor nominees are Johnny Depp, for his over-the-top performance as an eccentric brigand in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," and Bill Murray in a subtly funny turn as a burned-out actor in "Lost in Translation." They are competing against Oscar winner Ben Kingsley, who plays an ill-fated Iranian immigrant in "House of Sand and Fog," Jude Law as a lovelorn Confederate soldier in "Cold Mountain" and Sean Penn as a grieving, revenge-filled father of a murdered daughter in "Mystic River."
Kingsley, who won the Oscar 21 years ago for playing Gandhi, said his role as a former Iranian military officer in "House of Sand and Fog" was "the richest character" he has ever played.
"When I put the uniform on," he recalled, "I felt I was beginning to know him quite well. He has a code of behavior and warriors stick to that code."
In the best actress category, veteran Diane Keaton, who won the Oscar for her leading role in the 1977 comedy "Annie Hall," was nominated this time for playing a middle-aged divorcee who finds love with her daughter's 60ish boyfriend in "Something's Gotta Give." Keaton follows in the footsteps of Katharine Hepburn, having received an acting nomination in each of four successive decades.
Keaton said she was up before dawn when a friend called her with the good news. "When you're older, these wonderful things don't happen as often," said the 58-year-old actress. "When I was nominated for 'Annie Hall,' there was this huge future in front of me. I love that I'm still around. It's very meaningful for me that anyone who's 50 isn't taken out into a field and shot."
Competing against Keaton this year are New Zealander Castle-Hughes, who in "Whale Rider" plays a young Maori girl who defies her grandfather to head her village; Britain's Samantha Morton as a grieving Irish immigrant mother in "In America"; South Africa's Charlize Theron as notorious Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster"; and Australian-raised Naomi Watts as another grieving mother in "21 Grams."