Though it has rarely been the academy's style to embrace probing, difficult material, the year's events seemed to have -- if anything -- increased its love of the familiar. As a result, four of the five best picture nominees, even those with ostentatiously glitzy exteriors like "Moulin Rouge," are conventional at their core. And, with one exception (the exceptional "In the Bedroom"), films that didn't fit that mold suffered in the voting.
Of course, there is comfort food and there is comfort food, and it is heartening that the picture that got the most nominations (a near-record 13, including picture, direction, screenplay, cinematography and Ian McKellen for best supporting actor) was the masterful "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." It was encouraging that the academy not only had no trouble differentiating this film from "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (which managed only three nominations) but also recognized that "Rings" was no ordinary colossus but one made with intelligence and true emotion.
Coming in behind "Rings" with eight nominations, including picture, direction, screenplay and acting nods for Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, was "A Beautiful Mind." Though loosely based on the true story of a schizophrenic math genius, "Mind" has had more nips and tucks done to its underlying reality than a desperate trophy wife, all with the object of making a troublesome, complicated reality into an audience-pleasing, reassuring "one man overcomes adversity" movie.
Tied with "Mind" in nominations is "Moulin Rouge." The academy was not distracted by the film's jazzy style nor put off by its puerile script (it's the only one of the five best picture nominees not to have a screenplay nomination). What the voters saw was what old-timers Stanley Donen and Robert Wise pointed out in "Moulin's" ads: This film's musical heart is old-fashioned enough to fit right in at MGM half a century ago. (The same situation holds true for the French film "Amelie," which had five nominations, including best foreign language film, and whose cloying nature was hard to miss despite a barrage of busy filmmaking).
"Gosford Park," which finished fast to end up with seven nominations, had the foresight to combine two familiar and much-loved genres: the Agatha Christie country party whodunit and the kind of upstairs-downstairs, smart servants-simple masters story that has been popular at least since P.G. Wodehouse created Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.
Only one non-feel-good movie prospered in this atmosphere, and that was the decidedly somber, beautifully done "In the Bedroom," which had five nominations, including best picture. A key reason was the strength of the acting: "Bedroom" had three performance nominations (for Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and Marisa Tomei), a figure matched only by the "Iris" trio of Jim Broadbent, Judi Dench and Kate Winslet.
Doubtless also a powerful factor in "In the Bedroom's" success with the academy, as it was with that of the French-language "Amelie" and also "Iris," was the power of Miramax's advertising and publicity campaign. Though the company's trademark fiscal enthusiasm does not work in all cases (the benighted "Shipping News" was shut out), it has given the studio a record 11 best picture nominations in a 10-year period. And there is something heartening about a film as good as "In the Bedroom" getting the kind of recognition it likely would not have gotten absent this kind of support.
If "Bedroom" survived the happiness blitz, other disturbing films were less successful. "Black Hawk Down" got four nominations, including best director for Ridley Scott, but its reality and its uncompromising intensity might have cost it a chance for best picture. Similarly, critical favorite "Mulholland Drive" could manage only a best directing nomination for David Lynch. Even the strength of Naomi Watts' acting couldn't get her nominated or compensate for the film's spooky and unapologetic non-linearity. More to the academy's liking was Renee Zellweger's deft comic performance in the bubbly "Bridget Jones's Diary."
As usual, the academy's writers branch came up with the most eclectic nominations. The dark comedies "Ghost World" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" received no other nominations besides best original screenplay, while the backward thriller "Memento" (original screenplay) and the animated "Shrek" (adapted screenplay) each received only one other nomination.
Now it's on to the Academy Awards, which figure to be anything but routine. There are reports of unprecedented security for the March 24 event, taking place at Oscar's new home, the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. Given all that's happened, some films that provide reassurance could be a welcome distraction.