'Aviator' Flies Toward Win | Sundance | Casey Affleck | Swag for Charity

Oscars: 'Aviator' Flies Toward Win

The nominees for the 77th Academy Awards contain few surprises, and one certainty: Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" and Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" are headed for a showdown.

The good money is on "The Aviator," but anything could happen as we head to the finish line.

Of course, the big winner already is Warner Bros. It's the distributor of "Million Dollar Baby'" and has an interest in "The Aviator" simply because it had the project on its development list before Miramax and Graham King's IEG came along to make it. For Warners, it's a win-win situation.

Most of the actors and actresses who were nominated closely follow the nominees put up by the Screen Actors Guild for its own awards a couple of weeks ago. But left out entirely in the Best Actor category was "Sideways" star Paul Giamatti, whose fine performance elevated that little indie movie to greater importance.

The actors' category, however, was a hotly contested one, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Don Cheadle, Eastwood and Jamie Foxx making up the final five.

Eastwood got the slot that would have gone to Giamatti, but sentiment for the Hollywood icon, and the fact that he directed "Million Dollar Baby," gave him the edge. (He was also really, really good.) Foxx is the odds-on favorite to win.

Also shut out completely was former Oscar winner Pedro Almodóvar. His "Bad Education" was not nominated for Best Foreign Film, and Almodóvar was also rejected for screenplay and directing nominations.

A nice surprise, though, was a writing nomination for the otherwise overlooked "The Motorcycle Diaries," which — though it's in Spanish — didn't qualify for Best Picture because, as an international effort, it wasn't put forward by any one country.

Nominees of note: Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake" for original screenplay. The movie was completely improvised and didn't have a screenplay. Go figure on that one.

A couple of minor nominations for Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." I predicted in this space several times that Academy favorite Caleb Deschanel would be nominated for cinematography, and he was. The strange nomination for that movie was for Best Makeup. ("Hey — more blood!")

Miramax, as usual, was the studio with the lion's share of nominees (20 total) with two Best Picture slots ("The Aviator," "Finding Neverland"), two Best Actors (Depp, DiCaprio), Supporting Actor and Actress (Cate Blanchett and Alan Alda for "The Aviator") and a Foreign-Language Film ("The Chorus," from France).

Ironically, about a minute after the Oscars are over, Miramax's co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein will be pushed out of the company they started by Disney's Michael Eisner because, as has been previously reported, he doesn't like them and doesn't seem to care whether or not they get a million Oscar nominations.

The Weinsteins — the surest bet in Hollywood — are expected to immediately start a new company with independent financing from a consortium of high-powered financiers.

Disney also picked up four nominations for their Pixar release, "The Incredibles." Eisner has also guaranteed that Pixar's association with his company will end soon.

Disney itself lucked out with one nomination in the controversial Best Score category for "The Village." That's because "The Aviator" and "Million Dollar Baby" didn't qualify in that category.

The Academy ruled that "The Aviator" had too many previously released pieces of music. The Eastwood-composed score for "Million Dollar Baby" didn't make it because someone at Warner Bros. apparently never filed the required paperwork.

Sundance: Thumbs Up, but Not Sold Yet

So: It is not a foregone conclusion that Focus Features will buy Mike Mills' wonderful debut film, "Thumbsucker."

So said Mills to me last night when I ran into him and his agent at the big IFC Films party on Main Street in Park City.

"We've had a lot of interest, but people are afraid they don't know how to market it," he said.

"Thumbsucker," adapted from Walter Kirn's novel, is about a teenage boy who is so screwed up he's still sucking his thumb. This embarrasses the heck out of his parents, who finally try putting him on Ritalin after a diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder.

Alas, since he doesn't have ADD, the Ritalin acts as speed, which leads to a series of events that will change this young man's life.

"Thumbsucker" is funny, insightful, edgy and poignant. The performances are uniformly superb. If movies like "Garden State" and "Thirteen" found devoted audiences, then "Thumbsucker" is destined for cult status.

Accomplished actors Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Vince Vaughn, Benjamin Bratt and Keanu Reeves (the last in a daffy comic turn that recalls his early pre-action films) all make "Thumbsucker" a joy to watch.

But 19-year-old Lou Taylor Pucci absolutely shines. He makes the movie as essential as "Rushmore," "Igby Goes Down," "Roger Dodger" or any of the other recent great coming-of-age films. Pucci is likely to be awarded many times next winter as the breakthrough star of 2005.

But first the movie needs a distributor. Miramax? Fox Searchlight? Let's hope one of these classy studios steps up to the plate. Soon.

Casey Affleck: Lonesome No More

While we waded through Noah Baumbach's complex but incomplete "Thumbsucker," the Australian slasher film "Wolf Creek" and Tim Kirkman's "Loggerheads," the memory of Steve Buscemi's "Lonesome Jim" is still keeping us afloat.

Also in the coming-of-age category, "Lonesome Jim" is a quiet but engrossing wry comedy about a perpetual loser (Casey Affleck) who is forced to return home.

His parents (Mary Kay Place and Seymour Cassel), and brother (Kevin Corrigan) are no help, but in short order he meets a single mom (Liv Tyler) who may or may not be the answer to his problems.

Buscemi is the great character actor known for eccentric characters in movies by the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino. He's also directed a couple of films — "Trees Lounge" and "Animal Factory" — which you should rent or buy immediately.

Maybe because he's such a good actor, Buscemi knows how to get great performances out of his own actors. In "Lonesome Jim," he gets the best work yet out of Tyler and Affleck, although he told me he did little to direct them. (Bull, I say. All good directors always say this.)

But the real revelation of "Lonesome Jim" is Mary Kay Place, one of our favorite actresses. Place made her debut as the wacky, clueless aspiring country singer Loretta Haggers on the faux soap "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" almost 30 years ago.

Since then, she's given dozens of memorable performances in movies like "Manny & Lo," "Citizen Ruth," "Being John Malkovich" and "Girl, Interrupted" — the list goes on and on. No one works harder or turns in more consistently fine work.

As Affleck's mother, Place uses her unerringly accurate comic timing like a laser — and gives the movie a weight it might not otherwise have. Bravo!

Swag for Charity

It's an acronym — "Stuff We All Get" is one way of putting it.

Swag, which used to be confined to little things such as shampoo, CDs and candy, has now been ratcheted up to include gift certificates for expensive trips and spa treatments, shoes, jewelry, luggage and hot appliances.

All over Park City, there are merchandising opportunities for Swaganistas. The biggest one is set up at the Village at the Lift, where Hollywood boutique Fred Segal is the anchor store.

They're giving away all sorts of very high-priced cosmetics and clothes to anyone who can promise the exchange of free publicity. The Hilton sisters, who have nothing to do with the film business (except for Paris' porn video and upcoming movie appearance), have been loading up their borrowed Volkswagen with lots of goodies.

But a more rarified swag situation is a hidden gem in an obscure corner of the Park City Marriott. That's where celebrities can get much more high-end items and contribute to charity in the process.

When celebs pick up their customized gifts from the Ultimate Comfort Bag, money is automatically donated to a foundation called A Place Called Home, an organization that offers shelter to runaway teens (www.apch.org ). It's the brainchild of Julie Kenney, Maria Lyons and Hollywood PR guy Jim Dobson.

Kenney's company, Jewels and Pinstripes, gathers together all the different items — and they are much more luxurious than the stuff you usually find in a gift bag.

Included in the mix are Lyons' handmade leather goods (a regular feature on "Oprah"), Ike Behar customized shirts, Sleepyheads chenille robes (with the stars' names already on them), Mustard Sprout backpacks and a $15,000 experience learning to drive at the Indy 500 and an $11,000 yacht trip from Sea Dream.