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The King Rules

A look at the Best Picture nominees. Doesn't take a ''Mystic'' to figure them out: The ''Lord'' and ''Master'' dominate the proceedings. But those hopelessly ''Lost'' in picking a winner can place a bet on a long shot, a thoroughbred named ''Seabiscuit''

Sigourney Weaver began the early-morning announcement of the 76th Annual Academy Award nominations on Jan. 27 with a quick warning: ''Hold on to your hats.''

She wasn't kidding. In a matter of minutes, what was shaping up to be one of the more predictable Oscar races in recent memory turned into a blindsiding jumble of names and numbers that left every seasoned awards prognosticator shredding his cheat sheet.

Of course, some results were completely expected. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King scoring the most nominations with 11? Check. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, and Seabiscuit close behind? No shock there. Golden Globe winners Sean Penn, Bill Murray, Charlize Theron, and Diane Keaton? All present.

But amid the obvious came a handful of true surprises. Nowhere to be found were touted A-listers like Master and Commander's Russell Crowe and The Last Samurai's Tom Cruise. Among the names read instead: Fernando Meirelles, a little-known feature director from Brazil whose Portuguese-language City of God scored four nominations in all (see sidebar); House of Sand and Fog's Shohreh Aghdashloo, an Iranian-born actress with only a handful of American film credits on her resume; and In America's Djimon Hounsou, who was virtually excluded from all the earlier awards (except the San Diego Film Critics, who must be feeling quite important right now).

Then there was the cold shoulder for Cold Mountain. Despite seven nods, including ones for Jude Law as Best Actor and Renee Zellweger as Best Supporting Actress, the film failed to win nominations for star Nicole Kidman, director-screenwriter Anthony Minghella, or Best Picture -- putting an end to Miramax's phenomenal 11-year streak in the top category.

But wait: Miramax actually financed around 25 percent of Master and Commander. So is the run really over? ''Two people today have asked me that question,'' says Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein. ''One said that the streak continues because of Master and Commander. And the other one said it doesn't. So I'm going to the Dick Cheney school on that.'' Aha! More election-year waffling.

Weinstein blames the new shortened awards season for Cold Mountain's snub, saying voters didn't have enough time to see all the films before the earlier deadline. ''That's the story of this year's Oscars,'' he says. But not everyone is decrying the cramped calendar. ''I don't think it's a good idea to draw it out,'' says Best Actress nominee Diane Keaton, who braved another round of interviews just 36 hours after winning a Globe. ''It's interesting for a while, but then we've gotta move on. I mean, we're gonna elect a president, aren't we, this year? Isn't that a little more important?''

Not when there's Oscar history to be rewritten. As some analysts predicted, the benchmark for youngest Best Actress nominee was broken, but not by Lost in Translation's 19-year-old Scarlett Johansson or Thirteen's 16-year-old Evan Rachel Wood, but by Whale Rider's 13-year-old New Zealander Keisha Castle-Hughes, who had to be awakened in the middle of the night in Auckland to get the news. ''At about 3 o'clock, my mum came running into my room and said, 'Keisha, you've been nominated for Best Actress!''' Castle-Hughes says. ''I thought I was still dreaming. I was just like, 'Ah, yeah. I'll be happy about it in the morning.'''

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