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Maybe turning the Oscars voting marathon into a sprint works after all.

This year's voting was moved up one month to make the Oscars seem like something more than an afterthought following a half-dozen other awards. Winners will be revealed Feb. 29, the earliest date ever.

Tuesday's announcement of nominees for the 76th annual Academy Awards suggests that reducing the exposure to other awards and to zealous studio publicists leads to smarter, more imaginative voting, and the starting point is the five best picture nominees.

Best picture races have traditionally overlooked epic fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, but the final movie in the Rings trilogy could become the first in a genre stretching back to The Wizard of Oz to win the top prize. Modestly budgeted "art house" cinema such as Lost in Translation hasn't always been treated kindly, but that movie, too, scored a best picture nod.

Voters' memories typically don't reach back to July, the month Seabiscuit broke from the gate, but the true drama made the list of nominees. And voters aren't easily convinced by ambitiously mature takes on established genres, such as nominees Mystic River and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Good for voters who recognized that Cold Mountain is a molehill of a movie, no matter how loudly Miramax Films screams otherwise in our ears. They nominated actors Renee Zellweger and Jude Law but ignored Nicole Kidman. And the film, although it scored seven nominations, is conspicuously absent from the best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay races. The Golden Globes fell for the hype, offering eight nominations, then wised up: Zellweger scored the only win.

Good for the academy for noticing smaller films, the kind whose creators feared would be slighted if DVD screener copies for voters were banned for fear of video piracy. The ban was aborted, allowing voters to obtain screeners of such offbeat nominees as Dirty Pretty Things (nominated for best original screenplay), thirteen (Holly Hunter's best supporting actress nomination) and 21 Grams (acting nods to Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro).

Tuesday's most surprising nomination, the best actress nod for 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes (she played the aspiring leader of a Maori tribe on the New Zealand coast in Whale Rider), probably benefited from the film's home video release nearly three months ago. Castle-Hughes is the youngest to be nominated in a leading role.

Good for the academy to set up a family drama to spice up the show. If Sofia Coppola _ the first American woman and only the third female ever nominated as best director _ gets a win from any of her nominations as writer, director and producer of Lost in Translation, her family would be only the second with three generations of Oscar winners.

Her grandfather, Carmine Coppola, won for the musical score to The Godfather Part II, and her father, Francis Ford Coppola, won screenwriting Oscars for The Godfather and Patton, and three for writing, directing and producing The Godfather Part II.

The only family with three generations of winners is the Hustons: Walter (best supporting actor, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), his son John for writing and directing that 1948 film, and John's daughter Anjelica, the best supporting actress winner for Prizzi's Honor in 1986.

The Godfather connection also figures into The Return of the King's nomination. Peter Jackson's trilogy becomes the second to have all three films nominated for best picture, after Coppola's.

Practically all the Oscar categories have a tantalizing factor. It could be as populist as Johnny Depp's best actor nomination for the hit Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl or as relatively obscure as best director and adapted screenplay nominations for City of God, a Brazilian film set in the slums of Rio de Janiero. Although released in 2002, City of God wasn't eligible for the best foreign film competition last year because Brazil didn't nominate it. Yet academy voters remembered, and included it.

There's the intriguing animated film contest between Finding Nemo, the wonderfully slick, computerized Pixar/Disney release, and The Triplets of Belleville (opening locally Feb. 6), a grandly old-fashioned hand-drawn adventure that may be the most clever production among all nominees. Should the third nominee, Brother Bear, split Disney's voting base with Finding Nemo, then The Triplets of Belleville could strike a blow for the kind of animation Disney is shutting down at its Orlando studio.

Also interesting is that the leaders in total nominations, The Return of the King (11) and Master and Commander (10), didn't score a single acting finalist. The only film in the last 25 years that has won a best picture Oscar without an acting nomination is The Last Emperor in 1988.

The most culturally diverse acting category is best supporting actor, with nods for Del Toro (born in Puerto Rico), Djimon Hounsou for In America (he's from Benin, in Africa) and Japan's Ken Watanabe of The Last Samurai.

Castle-Hughes is the daughter of a Maori and a Pakeha (New Zealander of European descent), and supporting actress nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) reportedly left Iran for England when movie theaters were closed after the 1979 revolution against the Shah. City of God director Fernando Meirelles and adapted screenplay nominee Braulio Mantovani are from Brazil, and another original screenplay nominee, Denys Arcand (The Barbarian Invasions), hails from Canada.

These are the stories that will become special about this year's Oscar chase, after the hubbub dies down about Kidman, Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe's snubs; the shunning of Miramax's Cold Mountain tactics; and whether best actor nominee Sean Penn (Mystic River) will show up for the ceremony at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.

Then we can anticipate what Penn or his nominated co-star, Tim Robbins, might say about American politics in acceptance speeches and speculate if conservative academy members want to give them the chance. And if voters will stimulate debate on U.S. military actions by honoring Errol Morris' autopsy of Vietnam mistakes in the nominated documentary The Fog of War.

Whatever happens, Tuesday's announcement got Oscar's proceedings off to a fascinating start and headed toward an unprecedented speedy finish. Of course, the awards show itself will be anything but speedy, likely making The Lord of the Rings trilogy seem like a short subject.

_ Information from the Associated Press, Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) and the academy's Web site (www.oscars.org) was used in this report.

Want to see the nominees?

Movies that had disappeared from theaters often reappear when they get Oscar nominations, so keep an eye on the movie listings for updates. As of Tuesday night, here's how you can catch the major nominees:

In theaters:

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Mystic River

Lost in Translation (on DVD Feb. 3)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

House of Sand and Fog (on DVD March 30)

Cold Mountain

Something's Gotta Give (on DVD March 30)

In America

Monster

21 Grams (on DVD March 16)

The Cooler

The Last Samurai

The Triplets of Belleville (opens Feb. 6)

Girl With a Pearl Earring (opens Friday)

Big Fish

Available on home video/DVD:

Seabiscuit

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Whale Rider

thirteen

City of God (Feb. 17)

Pieces of April (Feb. 24)

American Splendor (Feb. 3)

Finding Nemo

Dirty Pretty Things (March 23)

Brother Bear (March 30)

A Mighty Wind

Capturing the Friedmans

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