The most striking feature of this year's Oscar ceremony will not be the presence of assorted starlets in designer frocks, but the virtual absence of two movies that, for millions of viewers and critics, were the most significant releases of 2004. Mel Gibson's insanely violent religious epic The Passion of the Christ and Michael Moore's hyperbolic political documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 jointly represented the schismatic character of modern America in which fundamentalist Christians and outraged liberals battled for the White House last year. Neither movie could sensibly be called "great". Moore's rambling anti-Bush polemic descends too often into rank self-aggrandisement and wide-of-the-mark melodramatics, while Gibson's passion play substitutes ecstatic physical agony for theological depth. Yet to ignore the impact that both films had on American audiences (and, to a lesser extent, movie-goers around the world) is to overlook one of the most important cinematic title-fights of the year. So why is neither The Passion of the Christ nor Fahrenheit 9/11 adequately represented at the Oscars?
In the case of The Passion, the answer is clearly political. Having funded the film without the assistance of the usual Hollywood studio backers, Gibson went on to break every rule in the How to Win an Oscar handbook. His first sin was to release his movie in time for Easter - perfect for the Christian calendar, but absolutely lousy for the Academy judges, who regularly favour films released in the final months of eligibility. It's no surprise that all the nominations for this year's Best Motion Picture opened in America in the latter part of 2004, proving that the Oscar voters really can't remember anything more than four months old. Worse still, Gibson's company announced it would not be pouring money into the trade adverts which usually "remind" Academy members of the eligibility of a particular movie come Oscar time, stating that the film should "speak for itself" - always a risky policy.
Nor should one overlook the residual smear of inflaming anti-Jewish sentiments which dogged the film's release and which drove protesters to picket screenings while dressed in concentration camp uniforms. Although the Academy loved Gibson when he was bashing the Brits in the Best Picture winner Braveheart, the allegations of anti-Semitism may have contributed to The Passion of the Christ's absence from all this year's significant Oscar categories (Best Picture, Best Director, and so on), leaving it with only a handful of nominations for music, make-up and cinematography.
As for Fahrenheit 9/11, the villain of the piece seems to be none other than Michael Moore himself. Having won an Oscar for the uneven but none the less insightful Bowling for Columbine, Moore apparently decided that Fahrenheit 9/11 should not be put forward in the Best Documentary Feature category, believing it to be a more worthy contender for Best Picture, with his own name perhaps being put forward for Best Director. Yet despite becoming a phenomenal financial success and garnering the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Fahrenheit 9/11 has wound up with no nominations at the Academy Awards.
Some people suspect that Moore's impromptu anti-Bush rant from the Oscar podium a couple of years ago made him unpopular with the Academy members, who are now relishing the chance to get their own back by snubbing Fahrenheit 9/11. A more likely explanation is that people simply became sick of the sound of Moore telling everybody how his film was going to change the course of history - a hollow claim indeed since George W Bush romped back to the White House for a second term. As things now stand, the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature will probably go to Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, which is both funnier and more politically astute than Fahrenheit 9/11 - so perhaps justice has been served after all.
Other shocking omissions from this year's Oscar nominations include House of Flying Daggers from the Best Foreign Language Film category and, unforgivably, both Paul Giamatti and Liam Neeson from the Best Actor category. The absence of Giamatti, who lends such a baleful charm to the Best Picture outsider Sideways, seems particularly harsh given that co-stars Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen are recognised in the Supporting Actor/Actress categories, with Madsen a shoo-in to win.
As for Neeson in Kinsey, in a category dominated by biopics (Johnny Depp as J M Barrie in Finding Neverland; Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator; Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda; and firm favourite Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray), his crime seems to have been playing a real-life character whom the Oscar judges don't like very much. While Hollywood may love to cheer for a blind musician who overcame poverty, racial prejudice and heroin addiction, or a multimillionaire who sank a fortune into making movies at the same time as battling for the skies, Academy members seem less keen on giving the thumbs-up to a weird academic who accidentally kick-started the sexual revolution.
With abstinence on the rise in America, the legacy of Alfred Kinsey (who first laid bare the mundane truths of "normal" human sexuality) has become a source of heated controversy. In this reactionary climate, Neeson's sympathetic portrayal of a man who was openly bisexual, who interviewed paedophiles for his research, and who revealed that most Americans were enthusiastic masturbators, has provoked some less than warm responses among those who view Kinsey as the Antichrist. The lesson here is simple: if you're going to play a real person, choose someone the Oscar voters admire - Mahatma Gandhi, for example.
Finally, there's no surprise that the very best film of the year, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has failed to make an appearance among the nominees for Best Picture. This is business as usual. If one thing is certain about the Oscars, it's that the best movies of the year almost never win the award for best film. Remember, this is the category in which Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, The Exorcist, It's a Wonderful Life, Raging Bull and ET were all deemed to be losers, while Shakespeare in Love and Driving Miss Daisy were winners. On this evidence, there's a terrifying possibility that the Best Picture Oscar will this year go to Finding Neverland, on the basis that the more insipid the movie, the greater its chances of success.
My money, however, is on The Aviator, with the 62-year-old Martin Scorsese finally being rewarded in the Best Director category, largely because the Academy members are terrified that if they don't give him a statuette now, he may end up joining Alfred Hitchcock in the ranks of great directors they forgot to honour in their lifetime.