Sunday night's Academy Awards telecast began spectacularly, with a priceless montage by documentarian Errol Morris, and ended even more spectacularly, with richly-merited awards bestowed upon Martin Scorsese and his film, The Departed.

So what the hell happened in the middle?

Reader issue #622What, exactly, is going on this year?

When the Academy Award nominations were announced in January and Dreamgirls found itself shut out of the Best Picture race, the news was something of a surprise, as the film was widely considered a shoo-in. The bigger shock, though, came from realizing that the snubbed musical still received more nominations than any other film - eight in all - and the last time a film led in Oscar nominations without a corresponding Best Picture nod was ... well, never.

But the Oscar weirdness didn't end there.

The following are the nominations for the 2007 Academy Awards, scheduled to air on ABC affiliate WQAD-TV at 7 p.m. on Sunday, February 25. If all goes the way I think it will (ha ha!), the winner of the most Oscars - a whopping three - will, for the first time ever, be a foreign-language film, and the Best Picture winner will have received the same amount of Oscars as the Best Documentary Feature winner. (That this is even a possibility marks this as a zany-ass year.)

Most people think that documentaries are dull. And when they're environmental documentaries? Forget it.

That perception changed a lot last summer, when An Inconvenient Truth showed that even a lecture delivered by Al Gore can be compelling and urgent.

The box-office and critical success of An Inconvenient Truth provided a lot of guidance to the organizers of the second Environmental Film Festival, which will run from 2 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, February 24, at Davenport's Unitarian Church (3707 Eastern Avenue). The free event is co-sponsored by the church and the Eagle View Group of the Sierra Club. Food will be available from Greatest Grains.

Babel (R, Great Escape Theatre) - In a year that saw a spectacularly inclusive roster of nominees, the seven citations for Alejandro González Iñárritu's globe-trotting drama - Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi), Original Screenplay (Guillermo Arriaga), Editing, and Original Score - seemed not only inevitable, but just. But where is Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography nod?

Blood Diamond (R, not in local release) - Never underestimate the Academy's susceptibility to liberal guilt. Leonardo DiCaprio received a Best Actor nod for his South African patois; Djimon Hounsou received a Supporting Actor nomination for screaming really loudly; and the film's Sound, Sound Effects, and Editing were cited because, I dunno, Blood Diamond struck voters as a fun movie about genocide, or something.

Reader issue #614Most of my friends have all but given up on going to the movies, and considering the quality of most movies nowadays, it's pretty hard to blame them. But what's alarming is that the people I talk to don't seem to be boycotting the cineplex in protest of what they're showing; they're protesting the audiences. And in that case, it's really hard to blame them.

Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith in "Clerks II"It's awkwardly paced. It's often indifferently acted. The composition is remedial, the humor is juvenile, and for every scene that soars, another one crashes.

When all is said and done, though, you know which summer movie was my favorite? Clerks II. And do you know why? Because it isn't cynical.

JunebugTed Priester, the new president of Open Cities Cinema - formerly the Open Cities Film Society - knows he has a fight on his hands.

He admits that Open Cities, as it nears its 30th anniversary, is widely considered "rather a grandfatherly organization."

He's aware of the difficulty in marketing a weekly film series - one featuring titles readily available to home viewers - to a modern audience, saying, "Anymore, in our society, people work themselves into a frazzle. They want to go home at night and maybe watch a little TV and then lights out."

And he understands that when the organization opens its new season on September 22 - beginning with the Oscar-winning Danish film Babette's Feast - cinephiles may balk at the group's decision to screen DVDs as opposed to 16- or 35-millimeter prints, ceding that "there's a certain richness of sound that can't be replicated" with DVD.

Priester knows all of this.

In the minutes following the announcement of this year's Academy Awards nominations, media outlets were abuzz about the downbeat nature of the major contenders, and it was widely predicted that this year's Oscar telecast - which aired on Sunday, March 5 - would be the lowest-rated one in ages.

The following are the nominees for the 2006 Academy Awards telecast, scheduled to air on ABC affiliate WQAD-TV at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 5. (Note: Boldface denotes Mike's projected winner in each category.)

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