Oscar thinks small

Message movies 'Brokeback Mountain' and 'Crash' lead a slate of issue-oriented films.This time, the medium was the message — and Oscar voters couldn't have put it more clearly.

Even as the big studios increasingly eliminate thoughtful dramas from their production slates, five overtly political message movies were nominated Tuesday for the best picture Academy Award, as "Brokeback Mountain," which went in the favorite, picked up eight nominations to take the lead.

Without a mass-appeal blockbuster in the bunch, the 5,798 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences singled out "Capote," "Crash," "Munich" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" in addition to "Brokeback" — movies that delve into hot-button issues, such as racial intolerance, terrorism and homophobia.

"My movie was the only one that actually caught fire and almost burned to the ground, but the other movies are really inflammatory too," said "Munich" director Steven Spielberg. "They were made with guts and passion and in such a fearless way as if to say, 'This is who I am. This is what I believe in.' "

While technically a five-picture race, the best picture contest will likely come down to two movies. "Brokeback Mountain," which starts out in 1960s Wyoming, focuses on a polarizing contemporary issue: tolerance of gay relationships. "Crash," which is set against the backdrop of modern-day Los Angeles, explores a centuries-old topic: racism in America.

"I wasn't trying to get any message across at all," said Paul Haggis, who made his directorial debut with "Crash." "I was talking about things that troubled me personally. That is what makes all of these films so effective. They ask questions that are gnawing at us."

Almost every movie faced long odds and endless delays in finding financing; "Crash," "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Brokeback Mountain" were funded either wholly or partially by non-studio investors.

But what played with the academy, though, hasn't played across America: None of the best picture nominees is a breakout hit in the middle of the country. The highest-grossing is "Crash," a series of interlocking stories about race, which has grossed a mere $53.4 million.

George Clooney collected three separate nominations: one for directing the Sen. Joseph McCarthy drama "Good Night, and Good Luck," one for co-writing the black-and-white film and the third for his supporting role in the international thriller "Syriana."

"The entire society is more political than it has been in a long time," Clooney said. "You can sit in a coffee shop in Cincinnati, and you hear people talking on either side of the aisles about political films."

Other top categories were peppered with nominees from other movies carrying progressive agendas. "North Country," a tale of sexual harassment among miners, earned a best actress nomination for Charlize Theron and best supporting actress for Frances McDormand. "Syriana," a complex account of the personal and political price of oil, was nominated for original screenplay as well as for Clooney's supporting role. "The Constant Gardener," a romantic thriller about unscrupulous drug trials in Kenya, received four nominations, including best supporting actress for Rachel Weisz.

"These are films that are holding up a mirror to contemporary culture," Weisz said. "I don't think films should edify. First and foremost, they're to thrill and entertain. But if they can also make you think, then great."

The most notable exclusion from the best picture contenders was the Johnny Cash biography "Walk the Line," a $100-million-grossing success that Oscar prognosticators had assumed would make the cut. The film was, however, not overlooked, with a best actor nomination for Joaquin Phoenix and best actress for Reese Witherspoon.

Despite a pricey, end-of-the-year push, the boxing drama "Cinderella Man" also failed to receive a best picture nomination. The film's star, Russell Crowe, was blanked in the best actor race, but Paul Giamatti was named in the best supporting actor race for his role as Crowe's boxing manager.

"Memoirs of a Geisha" earned six nominations — tying it with "Crash" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" — but none in a major category. The year's two highest-grossing films, "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith" and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," received one minor nomination each.

"Brokeback Mountain," which chronicles the love affair between two cowboys, was nominated in almost every prominent category for which it was eligible: best director for Ang Lee, best actor for Heath Ledger, best supporting actress for Michelle Williams, best supporting actor for Jake Gyllenhaal, and cinematography, original score and adapted screenplay.

Joining Ledger and Phoenix in the best actor competition were "Capote's" Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Hustle & Flow's" Terrence Howard and "Good Night, and Good Luck's" David Strathairn.

Nominated for best actress in addition to Theron and Witherspoon were Judi Dench for "Mrs. Henderson Presents," Felicity Huffman in "Transamerica" and Keira Knightley of "Pride & Prejudice."

Facing McDormand, Williams and Weisz in the supporting actress category were "Junebug's" Amy Adams and "Capote's" Catherine Keener. In addition to Clooney, Giamatti and Gyllenhaal, the best supporting actor nominees were Matt Dillon for "Crash" and William Hurt for a single, memorable scene in "A History of Violence."

For the first time since 1981, all five of the best picture nominees also saw their directors honored with a best director selection: Lee, Clooney, Spielberg, "Capote's" Bennett Miller and "Crash's" Haggis, who suffered a heart attack during production.

Nominated for original screenplay were the writers of "Crash," "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Match Point," "The Squid and the Whale" and "Syriana," the last of which originally had been submitted for best adapted screenplay. The picks for adapted screenplay were "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," "The Constant Gardener," "A History of Violence" and "Munich."

The academy's rules allowed for only three movies to be considered for animated feature. Despite the industry rage for computer-generated animated movies, all of the nominated films used the old-fashioned techniques of either hand-drawn, two-dimensional animation ("Howl's Moving Castle") or stop-motion animation ("Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride").

For best foreign-language film, the academy nominated Italy's "Don't Tell," France's "Joyeux Noel," Palestine's "Paradise Now," Germany's "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" and South Africa's "Tsotsi."

The 78th annual Academy Awards are scheduled to be presented March 5 in a ceremony broadcast on ABC from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" will host the show for the first time.

Times staff writers Robert W. Welkos and Rachel Abramowitz and special correspondent Chris Lee contributed to this report.

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