It's that time again: when people, and journalists too, must pretend to care about the Oscars. With this morning's announcement of the nominations which ignored Brad Pitt's work in Babel and Jack Nicholson's in The Departed, and gave Dreamgirls a leading eight nominations (three for original song!) but stiffed it in the writing, directing and picture categories a six-week flood of hope and hype begins, culminating in Oscar Night on Feb. 25. Las Vegas has already established its betting line for major categories. Everyone else, thinking ahead about Oscar office pools, will start scanning websites for tips on films most people haven't seen and many never heard about. Hmmm, Best Live Action Short. Eramos Pocos or Binta and the Great Idea...?
In Hollywood, there are movies (the ones made to make money), and then there are Oscar movies (the ones made to win awards). Only in rare cases, like Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, do the two genres intersect. For 2006, for example, the five live-action movies that grossed more than $200 million at the domestic box office Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Da Vinci Code, Night at the Museum and Superman Returns received not a single major nomination among them. (Cars, the top-grossing cartoon, won a nod in the animated feature grotto.) Until the Academy creates a category called Best Picture a Whole Lot of People Paid to See, the SPFX epics and crowd-pleasing comedies will have to be content with their consolation prize: earning untold billions worldwide.
Let's shed a quick tear for Johnny Depp and move on to the films and actors who did get nominated in seven top categories.
Letters from Iwo Jima
Little Miss Sunshine
Four of these five films were nominated by the DGA (Directors' Guild of America) and the PGA (not the golfers the gofers sorry, I meant the producers). Iwo Jima slipped into the Dreamgirls slot. Only The Departed is an old-fashioned studio movie. Iwo Jima, released by Warner Bros., was made for a miniaturized $15 million. The other three entries were sponsored by the art-house subsidiaries of major companies: Paramount Vantage for Babel, Fox Searchlight for Sunshine, Disney's (not the Weinstein brothers') Miramax for The Queen. This verifies the trend last year, when four of the films nominated for Best Picture were "indies."
Similarly, the list includes only one solid, medium-budget hit: The Departed, which has taken in more than a quarter-billion dollars worldwide. Among the more specialized fare, Babel, with its complicated structure and polylingual perversity, has totaled only about $24 million in North America but nearly $40 million abroad. Little Miss Sunshine, made for just $8 million, has grossed nearly $60 million at home and $30 million abroad; that's the kind of arithmetic that gets cheers from the Academy (and from Hollywood). The Queen couldn't have cost much more than Sunshine, and it has earned $72 million worldwide another smart investment in a quality film.
Yet sometimes Academy members look beyond the numbers and at The Man: Clint Eastwood, at 76 the industry's most active and cherished elder statesmen. The Japanese-language Iwo Jima has cadged only $2.4 million in North America (though it's earned a robust $38.7 million in Japan). No matter that civilians haven't roused themselves to see Iwo Jima. The Academy can't help loving that man.
But grosses don't explain why United 93, Paul Greengrass' meticulous, creepy and critically acclaimed 9/11 docudrama, failed to nab a slot. It pulled in a respectful $31.5 million here, $44.1 million abroad. I'd say that United 93 was snubbed for two reasons: because a lot of people were reluctant, perhaps afraid, to relive 9/11, and because, for the Academy, all Oscar politics is local. Crash proved that last year. It was the ultimate L.A. movie a drama about car violence on the interracial highway while United 93 is the ultimate New York movie. Its shot of a passenger jet cruising into a Manhattan skyscraper pretty much defines pornography (in the bad sense) for Gothamites. But the nation's largest city has little clout in the Academy membership, or in the industry's imagery. New York might as well be New Delhi.
So what about the five films that were named finalists? The list includes many worthy films, no flat-out masterpieces. Each movie has a "yes, but" rider attached. We've already touched on the Iwo Jima problem. Babel? Grand and sprawling, but maybe too sprawling, and it still hasn't connected with American audiences. The Departed? All-star, well-made, but a gangster movie, and a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs. (If you're wondering what the last famous film of its type was, and how many Oscars it received, the answers are Scarface and none.) Little Miss Sunshine? Feel-good, sure, but not of Best Picture stature. The Queen? Funny, poignant, pertinent, but at heart a TV movie.
My thought all along was that Babel's toughest fight, like Crash's last year, would be to get nominated. Now that it has made the final five, it stands a decent chance of winning. So, even though former muscle-man Arnold Schwarzenegger pronounced it " Bar-bell" at last week's Golden Globes, the movie is now a smart-money long shot for the top prize. It could be the first time the Best Picture award went to a film that is mostly not in English, except for Rocky.
But I must choose one, so...
CORLISS FAVORITE: The Departed
LIKELY WINNER: Babel
Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
Peter O'Toole, Venus
Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland
Sorry, Leo, you were too good. Or, rather, two good in both The Departed and Blood Diamond. Warner Bros., which released both movies, hoped to snag two citations for DiCaprio, and promoted him as Best Actor in Blood Diamond and as Supporting Actor in The Departed. The Academy took the lead and chose him for the lesser film.
Gosling, he rode the indie wave onto Santa Monica beach with his solid if mannered portrayal of a drug-addled teacher. O'Toole, 74, was nominated for his charmingly cadaverous work in Venus and for outliving decades-long expectations of his demise. Smith ought to get a prize for making hits out of movies in unfashionable genres: romantic comedy, as in Hitch, and this male weepie. He's the black Hanks; and since Tom soiled himself last year by doing The Da Vinci Code, Will gets the good-guy nod.
But none of these is likely to upset Whitaker's front-runner status. As the self-proclaimed "His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa and Uganda," the normally soft-spoken actor gives the kind of booming, effortlessly charismatic performance that charms Oscar voters. No matter that the film has grossed only $5.5 million in four months in the theaters. The acting awards are where Hollywood does its good deeds, regardless of box office clout. And talk about affirmative action: If the early line holds, three of the four actor awards will be going to African-Americans.
CORLISS FAVORITE: Leonardo DiCaprio
LIKELY WINNER: Forest Whitaker
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet, Little Children
Gee. Five terrific performances! And three by women in their 50s (Streep), 60s (Mirren) or 70s (Dench). Cruz is a fierce madre di tierra, and Winslet a thoughtfully adulterous mom, but their films have not been widely seen. Streep is superb, but in a supporting role (though she does play the title character). It'd be funny if, having been nominated five times in the past decade for work that was just OK, Dench were finally to do great work in a juicy role and lose. Funny but predictable. In the duel of the Dames, Mirren will win in a royal walk.
CORLISS FAVORITE: Judi Dench
LIKELY WINNER: Helen Mirren
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Mark Wahlberg, The Departed
Arkin got a prize for playing the nattering alterkocker (though he's the same age, 72, as Dench). Hounsou may be tiring of playing the iconic African, but Hollywood obviously hasn't wearied of seeing him do it. From a rich rogue's gallery of featured players, Wahlberg was chosen over Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Jack Nicholson. (The Academy must have agreed with some critics than Jack didn't support the movie so much as he subverted it.) Haley, out of the business for a decade, has a feel-good story, and is swell and creepy as the paroled child molester in Little Children.
Does Hollywood have the same warm feelings for Murphy? If the members can stand him, they'll probably give him a statuette, as much for services rendered as for this solid comeback performance.
CORLISS FAVORITE: Jackie Earle Haley
LIKELY WINNER: Eddie Murphy
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Adriana Barraza, Babel
Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi, Babel
A 10-year-old girl, a 25-year-old playing a disturbed teenager, a middle-aged Mexican woman ... and a real movie star, Cate Blanchett. The category has a lovely demographic mix.
But these are just four bridesmaids for Hudson, who has already won the Golden Globe and National Board of Review prizes, as well as Supporting Actress kudos from the Florida, New York, Palm Springs, Phoenix, Satellite, Southeastern and Washington, D.C., film critics. Hudson is such a sure thing that, if she doesn't win, I will personally pay $1 to every TIME.com reader who writes in. (Offer not available to any TIME.com reader.) It happens that she's also sensational in the role.
CORLISS FAVORITE: Jennifer Hudson
LIKELY WINNER: Jennifer Hudson
Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima
Stephen Frears, The Queen
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel
Paul Greengrass, United 93
Martin Scorsese, The Departed
No one was hoping more for Clint's exclusion from this quintet than Marty or, at least, the admirers who want the best director of the past 30 years to finally get an Oscar. Five times nominated for Best Director but never a winner, Scorsese has lost three times to first-time directors (Robert Redford, Kevin Costner and Rob Marshall), once to Barry Levinson (Barry Levinson!) and once, two years ago, to Clint, when Million Dollar Baby snuck in and stole The Aviator's thunder. And its Oscars.
With the old man back in it, this time as a director of two estimable features, Marty could be getting another case of deja motherfreakin' vu. Or if the Academy goes the Babel route, he can blame Hollywood's invasion of Spanish immigrants.
CORLISS FAVORITE: Martin Scorsese
LIKELY WINNER: Martin Scorsese
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
After the Wedding, Denmark
Days of Glory, Algeria
The Lives of Others, Germany
Pan's Labyrinth, Mexico
Water, Canada (but really India)
Another Gee! Or should I say Zut alors!? For the first time in ages, the foreign-language category boasts five films that not only are quite good but which critics like me have actually seen. I'm sorry that Pedro Almodovar didn't make the finals with Volver, but it's not as if he needs another Oscar. Deepa Mehta certainly deserves some kind of award for Water, which she made despite sabotage and death threats from Indian fundamentalists. And I'm pleased that The Lives of Others was cited: partly because it's a smartly pensive spy thriller, partly because this means that some Generation Why cutie will have to stand on the Kodak Theatre stage and try to enunciate the director's name: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. (Paging Gov. Schwarzenegger?) But I chose Pan's Labyrinth as my film of the year, so I have to go with that one.
CORLISS FAVORITE: Pan's Labyrinth
LIKELY WINNER: Pan's Labyrinth