'Praise' follows close with 9

SYDNEY — Tales of the unexpected scooped the bulk of this year’s nominations for the 41st annual Australian Film Institute Awards, with quirky black comedy and off-kilter passion plays replacing last year’s crop of gritty, bleak pics in the race for critical and industry kudos at Oz’s answer to the Oscar and Emmy awards.

Leading the pack, breakout Oz box office smash “Two Hands” scored 11 noms with its crude, energetic mix of brash gangster comedy, including nods for film, direction and screenplay (Gregor Jordan), actor (Heath Ledger), supporting actor (Bryan Brown), supporting actress (Susie Porter), cinematography, editing, sound, original score and costume design.

“Praise,” a black dramedy of urban romance, followed with nine noms for film, direction (John Curran), actress (Sacha Horler), cinematography, editing, sound, original score, production design and costume design.

Epic period romancer “In a Savage Land,” controversial Percy Grainger biopic “Passion” and the poignant comedy “Soft Fruit” all tied with seven noms each, followed by Cannes comic hit “Siam Sunset,” which bagged five.

The Rufus Sewell starrer “Savage Land” was passed over for a film nom, but received nods for direction (Bill Bennett), actress (newcomer Maya Stange), cinematography, sound, original score, production design and costume design.

On the other hand, first-time helmer John Polson was bypassed for his Linus Roache vehicle “Siam Sunset,” which nevertheless managed nods for film, supporting actor (Roy Billing), screenplay, editing and production design.

Nominations for “Soft Fruit” included film, direction (first-timer Christina Andreef), actor (Russell Dykstra), actress (Jeanie Drynan), supporting actress (Sacha Horler) and score.

Despite a critical and box office drubbing, “Passion,” with its tortured relationships and S&M overtones, earned an actor nom for Richard Roxburgh, with Claudia Karvan and Emily Woof both nominated for supporting actress. Pic also scored nods for cinematography, sound, production design and costume design.

The foreign film category also proved interesting, featuring four noms with only one foreign-language release among the pack, Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful.” The rest, although all international English-language productions, have ties to Oz, including “Elizabeth” with Antipodean star Cate Blanchett, “The Thin Red Line,” which was filmed Down Under and Oz ex-pat helmer Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show.”

The Nov. 13 awards will be broadcast live from the new Fox Studios Australia on pubcaster SBS-TV, with a simultaneous live Webcast at http://www.sbs.com.au/afi99.

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