Tolkien's epic is set to lord it over the Oscars

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The race for this year's Oscars was over almost before it started yesterday, as The Return of the King, the final instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, leapt to the front of the Academy Award nominations list.

The race for this year's Oscars was over almost before it started yesterday, as The Return of the King, the final instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, leapt to the front of the Academy Award nominations list.

It looked as close as Hollywood would ever get to a dead certainty for the best picture prize. Certainly, other worthy films are in contention. Yesterday's nominations list included multiple mentions for the Russell Crowe swashbuckling adventure Master and Commander - its 10 nominations falling just one behind The Return of the King's 11 - the moody Boston thriller Mystic River, Sofia Coppola's lavishly praised, intimate study of cultural dislocation, Lost in Translation and Seabiscuit, the story of a racehorse made good which was George Bush's favourite film of the year.

But The Return of the King is almost certain to emerge, as the film newspaper Variety put it a few days ago, as the one film to rule them all. Not only does it have the unmistakable characteristics of an Oscar winner - epic sweep, literary pedigree, a star-studded cast, great visuals and cutting-edge special effects - but it cries out to be recognised, at least in Hollywood, for the extraordinary roll of the dice its backer, New Line Cinema, took in financing it.

The best picture Oscar is about rewarding producers, and no producer this year looks more prescient than New Line's Bob Shaye, who back in 1996 laid out $180m (£100m) for three inordinately lavish films at a time when fantasy epics were about as fashionable as 19th-century German operetta.

True, the trilogy made its money back on the first instalment, The Fellowship of the Ring, which came out two years ago. But the fact that the series has so far been overlooked by the Oscars is another reason to assume it will reap its full rewards this time around. It also will not go unnoticed that The Return of the King looks like becoming the most profitable film of the three, with more than $800m in worldwide box-office receipts and still counting.

Beyond best picture, the field looks a lot more diverse, not least because The Return of the King was not mentioned in any acting categories. Best actor looks like a toss-up between Sean Penn in Mystic River and Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, with the smart money on Penn if only because of the Academy's track record of preferring dramatic performances over comic or tragicomic ones.

Likewise, best actress is probably between a scintillating Diane Keaton in the romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give and Charlize Theron as a white-trash lesbian serial killer in Monster, with the smart money on Theron.

Yesterday's list, read out by Sigourney Weaver in the pre-dawn gloom - so nominees would have time to be booked by the breakfast television shows - also offered a few surprises, including a very strong showing for the Brazilian film City of God, ( Cidade de Deus) set in a Rio slum.

It picked up mentions for best director (Fernando Meirelles), best adapted screenplay, film editing and cinematography. Another strong foreign entrant is Sylvain Chomet's quirky animated film Belleville Rendez-Vous (known in the States as The Triplets of Belleville), which stands a good chance of stealing the animation Oscar from Finding Nemo and is also nominated for best original song.

The biggest snub was arguably for Cold Mountain, Anthony Minghella's adaptation of the best-selling Civil War novel by Charles Frazier. Although it garnered a respectable seven nominations, these did not include mentions for best film, best director, best adapted screenplay or best actress - all categories in which the film desperately needed attention to make back its $110m price tag.

Jude Law was nominated for best actor, but is unlikely to win. And while Walter Murch may be regarded as one of the best film editors in the business, his Oscar nomination is not going to do anything for Cold Mountain's box-office receipts.

The film's disappointing showing - two days after it came away almost empty-handed from the Golden Globes despite a shower of nominations - will be a particular blow to the man holding Cold Mountain's purse strings, the Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein. Miramax usually dominates the Oscars - last year it had three best picture nominees including the winner, Chicago - and there are some who see this year's awards season as an effort by the Academy to "screw Harvey".

The Academy Awards are being held three weeks earlier than usual - on 29 February - making it harder for Mr Weinstein to pull off his usual trick of parlaying the awards process into amarketing opportunity. And dirty campaigning, of a kind that Miramax has frequently been accused of, is also under increased scrutiny thanks to a new Oscars code of conduct.

Mr Weinstein, known for his explosive temper and willingness to stand up to even the most respected film makers, has made many enemies over the years, as chronicled in Peter Biskind's newly published exposé of 1990s independent cinema, Down and Dirty Pictures. Despite some bright spots - notably the success of City of God, which Miramax distributed - it could be that 2004 goes down as the year when Mr Weinstein lost his magic touch.

One further frustration for Mr Weinstein is that he was originally in charge of Lord of the Rings and spent $10m on its early development in 1995-96. At that stage the plan was to make two films, not three, with a budget cap of $75m. When it became clear, after 18 months, that the budget was going to be closer to $140m, Miramax balked. According to Mr Biskind's book, Mr Weinstein allowed Peter Jackson, the director, to shop his project around to other studios but imposed such harsh conditions that he expected the whole thing to fall apart. "I gave Peter the worst turnaround in the history of turnarounds," Mr Weinstein is quoted as saying.

The fact that New Line snapped it up regardless now makes Mr Shaye at New Line look even more audacious. Still, Miramax has been left with some small consolations, notably 5 per cent of the trilogy's gross receipts, which might just be enough to offset the losses on Cold Mountain.


Best picture:

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (New Line)

Lost in Translation (Focus Features)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (20th Century Fox)

Mystic River (Warner Bros) Seabiscuit Universal/DreamWorks/Spyglass)

Best leading actor:

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Ben Kingsley in House of Sand and Fog

Jude Law in Cold Mountain

Bill Murray in Lost in Translation

Sean Penn in Mystic River

Best supporting actor:

Alec Baldwin in The Cooler

Benicio Del Toro in 21 Grams

Djimon Hounsou in In America

Tim Robbins in Mystic River

Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai

Best leading actress:

Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider

Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give

Samantha Morton, above, in In America

Charlize Theron in Monster

Naomi Watts in 21 Grams

Best supporting actress:

Shohreh Aghdashloo in House of Sand and Fog

Patricia Clarkson in Pieces of April

Marcia Gay Harden in Mystic River

Holly Hunter, right, in Thirteen

Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain

Best director:

Fernando Meirelles, City of God

Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Peter Weir, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World ,

Clint Eastwood, Mystic River

Best adapted screenplay:

American Splendor , Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman

City of God , Braulio Mantovani

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King , Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson

Mystic River , Brian Helgeland

Seabiscuit , Gary Ross

Best original screenplay:

The Barbarian Invasions, Denys Arcand

Dirty Pretty Things, Steven Knight

Finding Nemo, Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson and David Reynolds

In America, Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan and Kirsten Sheridan

Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola

Best foreign language film:

The Barbarian Invasions (Canada)

Evil (Sweden)

The Twilight Samurai (Japan)

Twin Sisters (The Netherlands)

Zelary (Czech Republic)

Best animated feature:

Brother Bear (Buena Vista)

Finding Nemo (Buena Vista)

The Triplets of Belleville (Sony Pictures Classics)