In this wide-open year, alternatives are emerging for recognition in both major and minor categories.
Not only are animated films, foreign-language films and a documentary aiming at best picture recognition, but any number of new techniques and technologies have contributed to the achievements being perused by voters.
Herewith, a look at some of the more unusual elements in this year’s race.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (Lions Gate Films)
Makers of this documentary phenom have skipped the docu derby and are placing their bets on a best picture nom. Such an outcome would mark the first time a doc has been recognized in the category — but, given the pic’s record-setting box office ($120 million), historic Palme D’Or and cultural impact, no one is discounting its chances. Still, when Moore last faced Academy voters — at the 2003 Oscars — he was booed by some for castigating the president.
The Sea Inside (Fine Line)
This Spanish-language drama from director Alejandro Amenabar (“The Others,” “Open Your Eyes”) is considered a strong contender for key nods, from best picture to screenplay (Amenabar and scribe Mateo Gil) and actor (Javier Bardem, starring here as real-life Spaniard Ramon Sampedro, who fought a decades-long battle to die with dignity).
Team America: World Police (Paramount)
The satire from “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone won’t be winning any acting awards — its cast consists of marionettes. But thanks to impressively designed puppets, sets and costumes (all painstakingly created on a one-third scale), the film could earn nominations for costume design, production design and art direction. On the downside, it has already been declared ineligible in the toon race.
The Motorcycle Diaries (Focus Features)
Another Spanish-language film that seems poised to shine on Oscar night, this drama based on the journals of a youthful Che Guevara records an epic journey he took with a fellow medical student across South America. It could ride away with nominations for director (Walter Salles), screenplay (Jose Rivera), and actor (Gael Garcia Bernal). Note: Due to mixed financing sources, the film was ineligible in the more typical foreign-lingo category.
Bad Education (Sony Pictures Classics)
Yet another of the Spanish-language films expected to compete in mainstream categories, this Pedro Almodovar entry, also starring Gael Garcia Bernal, could be looking at a slew of nods, including director, cinematography, art direction and editing. (But again, rule out foreign-language film — Spain picked “The Sea Inside” as its official selection.) “‘Bad Education’ is being spectacularly well-reviewed out of Toronto and New York,” notes Michael Barker, president of Sony Pictures Classics. Almodovar’s no stranger to gold — his “All About My Mother” won the foreign-language Oscar in 1999, and “Talk to Her” nabbed the original screenplay statue in 2002.
Maria Full of Grace (Fine Line)
The winner of this year’s audience award at Sundance and the first film prize at Berlin could score an actress nom for Catalina Sandino Moreno, who portrays a young Colombian woman smuggling drugs into the U.S., and a screenwriting nod for its writer-director, Joshua Marston. Modestly budgeted and shot with an almost documentary attention to realism, this isn’t typical Academy fare, but the times are a-changing.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Paramount)
First-time filmmaker Kerry Conran used new Hollywood techniques to capture an old Hollywood feel in this 1930s-set adventure starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. It’s the first feature film shot entirely against bluescreen, in a groundbreaking process with stylistically savvy results that may earn noms for production design, visual effects and cinematography.
Oscar-nominated helmer Michael Mann (“The Insider”) broke new cinematic ground by shooting this urban thriller with the Viper Film Stream Camera, the first that can store images as data on a hard drive. The technology allowed Mann to capture visual and tonal elements of nighttime Los Angeles in powerful new ways — setting the film up as a contender for cinematography and perhaps directing noms.
Polar Express (Warner Bros.)
Can Oscar pedigree overcome mega-stakes B.O. struggles? Helmer Robert Zemeckis’ reteaming with his “Forrest Gump” and “Cast Away” star Tom Hanks teems with visual innovation.
The $300 million-plus it took to make and market this holiday behemoth far outpaced its $30 million five-day bow. The question now is whether key segments of the Acad will champion the pic as the way of the future, rather than shrugging it off after it fades from saturation release.
The effects team at Sony Pictures Imageworks was led by Ken Ralston, who has served Zemeckis as visual-effects supervisor since “Back to the Future.” Hanks’ every facial expression was digitally recorded (a process known as “performance capture”) and converted into seven onscreen characters (including a young boy who’s losing faith in Santa Claus, and St. Nick himself).
Ralston could earn a visual effects nod. If he wins, it would be his fifth Oscar.