Jackson's 'King' the one to beat, as is helmer

It took not one ring but three for Peter Jackson to rule the race.

The Kiwi director has won most of the directing kudos to date, including the Golden Globe and the DGA, and is the front-runner to take home the Oscar for the final installment in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Jackson says “Return of the King” is his favorite film because the exposition had already been established, allowing him to focus on the characters. “I think the whole point of a trilogy is to get to the third chapter, which actually puts the first two into a context that you haven’t (seen) before,” he says.

Not referencing other epic films, Jackson stuck closely to the book and the intentions of its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, for inspiration in visualizing Middle-Earth, with its intimations of Norse and Greek mythology.

Remember when . . . 1990
It was a battle of the directing titans, when Oliver Stone, Woody Allen and Peter Weir faced off against newcomers Kenneth Branagh and soon-to-be-veteran Jim Sheridan.

Branagh made his strongest bid, getting noms in this category and for playing the lead in “Henry V.”

Sheridan, got the first of two helmer noms, both for pics he made with thesp Daniel Day-Lewis: “My Left Foot,” and, four years later, “In the Name of the Father.”

“Crimes and Misdemeanors” moved Allen even further up the Oscar ladder. The veteran had three previous director noms and one win. Weir earned the second of his four noms to date with “Dead Poets Society.”

The Oscar, however, went to Stone, a previous winner for “Platoon,” for “Born on the Fourth of July.”

“It felt like we were giving the world some authenticity even though it never really existed,” Jackson says. “I think that level of detail helps ground the movies in reality.”

Three years of prep gave him time to plan every aspect of the grueling 15-month shooting schedule and post-production. He even had the luxury of being able to go back and shoot pickup scenes after making his first cut. “It’s the way all films should be made, with the ability to refine and craft the movie,” he says.

Jackson’s not getting a free ride, however. The competition this year is extremely stiff, featuring such commercial and critical heavyweights as Tim Burton, Jim Sheridan, Anthony Minghella, Gary Ross, Ed Zwick and Nancy Meyers.

That these and talented newcomers such as Vadim Perelman were passed over to select “City of God’s” Fernando Meirelles shows just how much that film appealed to the Acad. Boosted by campaigning in last year’s foreign-lingo category, “City of God” enjoyed a run starting in January that qualified it for all other feature categories this year.

Sofia Coppola took a more personal route to the final five, pointing to the influence of her father, Francis. “My dad always talked about writing, and he thought personal work was good,” says Coppola. “He thought that was a noble thing.”

She also says it’s a genre she’s happy to be a part of. “I definitely like the tradition of having the film alter ego — ‘All That Jazz,’ the Bob Fosse film, and ‘8½,’ Fellini’s character that Marcello (Mastroianni) played. I like that kind of structure.” On Coppola’s part, she seems to embrace the element of real memory as her subject matter — and has created a film that looks like a memory itself. Coppola, a largely intuitive artist, says part of her inspiration for the impressionistic style came from “snapshots and stuff … of being in Japan. So shooting it on film just conjured that more.”

Previous Oscar winner Clint Eastwood shares Coppola’s reverence for character-driven drama. “Mystic River” made a splashy debut at Cannes and built on it through the year, accumulating the best reviews of Eastwood’s career.

If Eastwood as an actor became known as a man who extracts justice at any price, “Mystic River” signals the kind of nuance and dimension heretofore not associated with Eastwood’s work, save for, say, “Bird,” which dealt with the filmmaker’s passion for jazz.

“The story was a combination of an emotional tragedy with a parallel investigative piece,” Eastwood says.

The bookend to the epic fantasy of “Lord of the Rings” is the historical epic of Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” Weir, who wrote the screenplay with John Collee, adapted two novels in the Patrick O’Brian series to create a big-studio rarity: an adult blockbuster.

Recognized as a master at exploring the inner lives of men, Weir created an epic devoid of formulaic action sequences, overblown special effects and misplaced romance.

“I was aware perhaps more than with any other film I’ve done I was putting together something of an expedition,” he says. “I was looking for people who not only had experience for the part but had compatible personalities.”

Oscar pedigree

Three films, two directing noms and one win is the equation many are predicting for Peter Jackson. The Kiwi helmer’s achievement with “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is in many ways unprecedented in film history, and no one would be surprised if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences gave him the Oscar for it.

Even though he’s not a Hollywood insider, Jackson’s bold moves in shooting three films at once and the handsome payoff has won the admiration of nearly everyone in and out of the business.

The scope of Jackson’s achievement may be a factor in keeping Clint Eastwood from getting his hands on a second directing trophy. The Irving G. Thalberg Award recipient made one of his best films with “Mystic River” and the Acad could decide one Oscar is not enough to honor Eastwood’s career.

Were he not to win for “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” it would be Peter Weir’s fourth missed opportunity, and that may not sit well with voters. For a director whose work is so well admired and having delivered such an Oscar-worthy cerebral epic, the feeling that Weir is due might come into play.

To say her first nom makes Sofia Coppola an Oscar neophyte comes with a proviso. Her father, Francis, has one trophy and three further noms in this category. While her lineage may be a small factor compared to the distinct style on display in “Lost in Translation,” it doesn’t hurt.

The directing nom for “City of God” is the latest in a long line of kudos for Fernando Meirelles. The film’s success abroad may prompt some to think an Oscar so long after the film’s completion to be unnecessary, but the film wouldn’t have been nominated in the first place without some serious support in the Academy.

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