The most impressive movie spectacles of 2003, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” both derived from famous sets of adventure novels by English writers, emerged as the top contenders for Academy Awards when nominations were announced yesterday in Beverly Hills, Calif.
“The Return of the King,” the final installment in an epic trilogy derived from a mythological saga by the late J.R.R. Tolkien, received 11 nominations, including best motion picture and director (Peter Jackson). “Master and Commander,” which draws from a cycle of 20 seafaring tales by the late Patrick O’Brian, took the runner-up spot with 10 nominations, also including best picture and director (Peter Weir).
Curiously, neither film is nominated in the acting categories. Both Russell Crowe and Paul Bethany of “Master” would have made worthy contenders. A frequent nominee in recent years, Mr. Crowe won as best actor for “Gladiator” in 2000.
A third finalist for best picture, “Seabiscuit,” a celebration of the beloved racehorse of the 1930s, also failed to break into the acting finals, despite deserving candidates for supporting actor in both Chris Cooper and William H. Macy.
A fourth best-picture finalist, “Lost in Translation,” a hushed and atmospheric comedy about culture shock in Tokyo, brought comedian Bill Murray a best-actor nomination for his role as an actor for hire as a Japanese whisky pitchman. Writer-director Sofia Coppola, daughter of “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola, was nominated for both screenwriting and direction. “Lost in Translation” is her second feature, and she became the first American woman nominated in the directing finals.
The fifth best-picture nominee, the fatalistic murder melodrama “Mystic River,” directed by Clint Eastwood, secured Oscar nominations for three cast members: Sean Penn as best actor, Tim Robbins as best supporting actor and Marcia Gay Harden as best supporting actress. Miss Harden won in the category three years ago for “Pollock.” Mr. Eastwood also was nominated as best director, a category he won in 1992 with the Western drama “Unforgiven.”
The six nominations for “Mystic River” are concentrated in major categories, but only Mr. Robbins, cast as a woebegone Boston resident who becomes a murder suspect, seems to be a favorite to win. It’s a little hard to believe, but Mr. Robbins’ nomination is his first. He seemed a deserving candidate in the past for “Bull Durham,” “The Player” and “The Shawshank Redemption” but never cracked the finals.
“Seabiscuit” and “Cold Mountain” shared third place in total nominations with seven apiece.
Two cast members from “Cold Mountain” reached the finals: Renee Zellweger as best supporting actress and Jude Law as best actor. Gary Ross, the writer and director of “Seabiscuit,” is a nominee for screenwriting but not direction. Anthony Minghella, who directed “Cold Mountain” from his own screenplay, fell short in the screenwriting and directing categories that he won in 1996 with “The English Patient.”
The first movie in the “Lord of the Rings” cycle, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” released two years ago, received more nominations than “Return of the King” 13 but had to settle for just four Oscars. One of those winners, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, is not an Oscar nominee this year. Curiously, he was nominated for one of the annual awards bestowed by his peers in the American Society of Cinematographers.
“The Return of the King” begins the 76th annual Oscar contest as the consensus favorite. Academy voters, who number about 5,800, had the option of honoring the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in three consecutive years. The second installment, “The Two Towers,” was not a best-picture finalist last year, but director Jackson has been nominated for each installment.
The preponderance of footage for all three movies was shot by Mr. Jackson during an extended production period in 2000 in his native New Zealand. The immediate box-office success of “Fellowship” transformed a $300 million gamble on the part of distributor New Line Cinema into a farsighted international triumph.
Mr. Murray and Mr. Penn, a four-time nominee who has yet to win an Oscar, could make the race for best actor a close call between humorous and sinister portrayals. The other nominees are Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” and Sir Ben Kingsley in “House of Sand and Fog.” Mr. Kingsley is a former winner for “Gandhi” in 1982. Mr. Murray and Mr. Depp give comic characterizations more prominence than they usually have at the Oscars.
The best-actress category portends a close race between a favorite comic actress, Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give,” and relative newcomers playing extremely troubled women: Charlize Theron as a serial killer in “Monster” and, in “21 Grams,” Naomi Watts as a woman who has lost her husband and children in a car accident. Voters also nominated a pair of long shots: Samantha Morton as a devoted young Irish housewife and mother in “In America” and the teen-ager Keshia Castle-Hughes in the Maori fable “Whale Rider.” Their showing proved costly to such eligible actresses as Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman, last year’s winner in this category for “The Hours.”
Renee Zellweger is regarded as a comfortable favorite as supporting actress, in part because she probably would have won as best actress last year for “Chicago” if Miss Kidman had not been a finalist. In addition to Miss Harden, the competition will come from another former Oscar winner, Holly Hunter, nominated for “Thirteen” (she won as best actress in 1993 for “The Piano”), and two accomplished character actresses, Patricia Clarkson in “Pieces of April” and the Iranian exile Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ben Kingsley’s wife in “House of Sand and Fog.” Although a virtual unknown to American moviegoers, Miss Aghdashloo may have support in the movie community because she has lived in Los Angeles for many years.
The other nominees for best supporting actor include a recent winner, Benicio Del Toro, nominated for “21 Grams.” His previous supporting-actor prize came for “Traffic.” The other three contenders are Alec Baldwin in “The Cooler,” Djimon Hounsou in “In America” and Ken Watanabe, a leading man in Japanese films, in “The Last Samurai.”
The directing category also made room for an unexpected finalist: the Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, nominated for the crime chronicle “City of God.” He would appear to be a distant long shot in competition with Mr. Jackson, Mr. Weir, Mr. Eastwood and Miss Coppola.
To its credit, the music division recognized the merits of the song score from “A Mighty Wind” and made a number composed by cast member Michael McKean and his wife, Annette O’Toole, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” a finalist for best song. It will contend with “Into the West” from “The Return of the King”; the title song from the French animated feature “The Triplets of Belleville”; and a pair of ballads from “Cold Mountain,” “Scarlet Tide” by Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett and Sting’s “You Will Be My Ain True Love.”
Also nominated as best animated feature, “Triplets” finds itself in a short field with “Finding Nemo,” the likely favorite, and “Brother Bear.” The nominees for foreign-language feature come from Canada (“The Barbarian Invasions”), Sweden (“Evil”), Japan (“Twilight Samurai”), the Netherlands (“Twin Sisters”) and the Czech Republic (“Zelary”).
Four domestic features will compete for best documentary: “Capturing the Friedmans,” “The Fog of War,” “My Architect” and “The Weather Underground” along with a Spanish import, “Balseros.”
Billy Crystal returns as master of ceremonies for the 76th Oscar presentation, which will be telecast live by ABC from the Kodak Theater in Hollywood Feb. 29. The show begins at 8 p.m. Eastern time.
The veteran writer-director Blake Edwards, whose credits encompass five decades, will receive an honorary career award. He was nominated only once, for the screenplay of “Victor, Victoria” in 1982. This could be a year in which the academy makes partial restitution for its chronic neglect of comedy specialists.