'Rings' looks for Oscar tonight

— They defeated the evil lord Sauron. They won legions of fans. There's just one hurdle left for the people of Middle-earth.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is expected to claim the best-picture crown at today's Academy Awards, ending filmmaker Peter Jackson's seven-year march toward serious critical acceptance of the fantasy genre.

"The Return of the King" leads the field with 11 nominations and looks like an easy winner over the other best-picture nominees, "Lost in Translation," "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," "Mystic River" and "Seabiscuit."

Jackson seems assured of winning the directing prize -- technically, for "Return of the King," but in reality for the monumental achievement of bringing all three installments of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic to life with such depth, drama and visual flair.

Other Oscar front-runners include Charlize Theron as best actress for "Monster," Tim Robbins as supporting actor for "Mystic River" and Renee Zellweger as supporting actress for "Cold Mountain."

Sean Penn, long considered the best-actor favorite for "Mystic River," found fresh competition after Johnny Depp of "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" took the lead-actor honor at last weekend's Screen Actors Guild Awards, boosting his Oscar prospects. Bill Murray also is a strong best-actor rival for "Lost in Translation."

The story of the night, though, is "The Lord of the Rings." The three films came out just a year apart, building into a nearly 10-hour saga that has grossed $2.8 billion at theaters worldwide. A best-picture win Sunday would make "Return of the King" the first fantasy film ever to win the top Oscar.

The first two parts -- "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers" -- both were nominated but lost.

This awards season, the cast and crew of "Lord of the Rings" have resembled a real-life fellowship on an emotional farewell tour, traveling from awards show to awards show.

"We've all had a long time to anticipate the coming of the end," Sean Astin, who played sturdy hobbit Samwise Gamgee, said backstage at the SAG awards, where he and his cast mates were honored with the best-ensemble performance prize. "So we've all experienced moments of sadness and pain and relief and glee that it's over."

Liv Tyler, who played the elf princess Arwen, said "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy was a life-changing experience.

"I've learned a lot about patience and endurance and, I guess, what it really is to make a movie. And I'll be different forever," Tyler said.

Today's Oscars also end an awards season fraught with early drama and machinations that pitted studio flicks against low-budgeted rivals. Ultimately, a healthy mix of big and small films earned Oscar nominations.

Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to move the awards to late February, three weeks earlier than usual, hoping to boost sagging TV ratings by shortening the awards season. The academy also implemented tougher rules to scale back aggressive campaigning as studios court Oscar voters through special events and ads in Hollywood trade papers.

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