Unexpected nods define new awards agenda

The first run of the American Film Institute Awards nominations has succeeded in presenting a comprehensive and eclectic mix, especially for film, where 10 movie of the year bids spread the wealth.

Of course, there were omissions and underdog selections that piqued award watchers’ interests.

Nicole Kidman was nowhere to be found while Stockard Channing took one of the four lead actress slots for her role as a weary corporate exec in “The Business of Strangers.”

Brian Cox, who played a pedophile in the little-seen indie “L.I.E.,” was nominated as a featured actor.

“He played a character who by contemporary standards is loathsome,” says Michael Nesmith, vice chair of AFI’s board of trustees and who served on the 13-member film nomination panel. “We debated it. What were its strengths and weaknesses? From this process emerged consensus.”

Over at Columbia, there must have been mixed reaction as “Black Hawk Down” scored well but “Ali” failed to land any punches.

“The biggest surprise is that ‘Ali’ isn’t there,” says New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick. “It’s a shock for (Columbia). It confirms that there are problems with the film.”

With more accolades going to smaller films rather than big-budget studio fare, these noms indicate that the upcoming kudos season could be more of a “Bedroom” affiar.

However, both Miramax’s “In the Bedroom” and Columbia’s “Black Hawk Down” led the field with a total of five noms apiece. “Bedroom” nabbed two acting mentions for Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson while the majority of “Black Hawk Down’s” kudos were for the crafts (cinematography, editing and production design). The directors of both films (Todd Field and Ridley Scott, respectively) were also lauded.

On the future of “In the Bedroom,” New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick sees the pic gaining ground.

“The spin doctors have said it can’t go the distance but nothing else seems to have a real broad constituency at this point,” he contends.

Consistent choices

Besides “Bedroom,” two other films scored well in the acting categories: “A Beautiful Mind,” Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connolly, and “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Shalhoub.

“Monster’s Ball” landed a pic nom while co-star Halle Berry was praised for her work as a waitress who suffers through several tragedies. Like “Bedroom,” the film looks to be gathering momentum as award season gathers steam.

“It’s been wonderful,” says Lions Gate prexy Tom Ortenberg on “Monster’s” reception by critics. “The film is picking up all kinds of heat and we orchestrated its late release to try and give it the recognition we think it deserves. We did feel we needed the critical boost to take it to the next level.”

Ortenberg is quick to add, however, that though the AFI noms are a great boost, it’s still a long journey to the morning of Feb. 12, when Academy Award contenders are announced.

“My feeling is there’s no one precursor to the Oscars,” Ortenberg continues. “It doesn’t exist. Award season is about building consensus. That said, the recognition by the AFI is wonderful.”

On the television side, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” finally found an ally outside the Golden Globes.

Forever snubbed by the Emmys, “Buffy” snared a drama series of the year nom alongside heavyweight competish “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under.”

“As the demarcation between film and television continues to blur, it’s a true honor to have a body that understands filmed entertainment so well recognize our show alongside the others,” says “Buffy” creator Joss Whedon. “I can’t speak for everyone on my show – but I can fire them if they disagree with me – so let me say for all of us that this is a critical accolade for which we are truly grateful.”

On the network side, pay cabler HBO was the big winner. Besides “Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” “Sex and the City” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” were tapped for best comedy, and “Band of Brothers,” “Boycott” and “Conspiracy” got mentions in the movie or miniseries category.

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