The contenders in this year's Academy Award sweepstakes are a fairly respectable bunch. It's hard to argue with eight nominations for ``A Room With a View,'' the witty screen translation of E.M. Forster's romantic novel, or seven nominations for ``Hannah and Her Sisters,'' the most sophisticated of Woody Allen's recent offerings.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences even drew a subtle distinction in one category when it nominated David Lynch as ``best director'' without naming his ``Blue Velvet'' in the ``best picture'' slot - as if to cite the filmmaker's technical skill without endorsing the excesses of the movie itself.
But savvy nominations like these don't tell the whole story of the Oscar race.
How does one account for an overblown space opera like ``Aliens'' racking up as many nominations as ``Hannah'' got? How did ``The Mission,'' a ponderous adventure-cum-travelogue, do the same? Who can cheer when a video-game epic like ``Top Gun'' gets more attention than ``Round Midnight'' and pulls even with ``Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,'' one of the year's happiest surprises?
The answer isn't hard to find. As in past years, the academy nominations are swayed more by box office clout than by deep meaning or enduring value.
The movies I've mentioned have something in common: They all made big money, and could rake in still more if Oscar smiles on them when the final choices are announced. Even an exception like the eccentric ``Salvador'' can be explained in these terms - since it was written and directed by Oliver Stone, and rode the coattails of his wildly successful ``Platoon.''
But an ideal list of Oscar contenders would look only to quality, without a sideways glance at the ticket seller's tote sheet. Herewith my own nominations for the best achievements of 1986.
Best picture: ``On Valentine's Day,'' directed by Ken Harrison from Horton Foote's screenplay.
Few moviegoers got to see this gentle drama, which didn't last long on the commercial circuit. But it's one of the most resonant films of the decade. The setting is a small Texas town in 1917, and the main characters are a young married couple. Shunned by the wife's powerful family, they live in a boardinghouse that's frequented by some of the community's less savory inhabitants - an environment that tests the depth of their love and the strength of their marriage, both of which come through splendidly. At once intellectually tough and profoundly moving, this is a dazzler even by the lofty standard Foote established in such earlier films as ``Tender Mercies'' and ``1918.'' Runner-up: ``Hannah and Her Sisters.''
Best actress: Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and Dianne Wiest for ``Hannah and Her Sisters.''
That's right, all three of them. And why not? Each gives a delicious performance on her own, and together they make an ensemble of rare skill and sympathy - clearly outpacing the three-way teamwork in ``Crimes of the Heart,'' for instance. Of the three actresses, only Wiest has made it to the real Oscar race, in the ``supporting actress'' category. The fine performances of ``Hannah'' deserve more hosannas than that, and it seems stingy to single out just one member of such a tightly knit trio. Each actress ``supports'' her partners. Three - count 'em - cheers! Runner-up: Deborah Kerr in ``The Assam Garden.''
Best actor: Dexter Gordon in ``Round Midnight.''
Oscar gets his priorities right sometimes, and I join him in saluting Gordon's moody portrayal of a jazzman with a gift for friendship as well as music. Gordon may lose the award to a superstar like Paul Newman or William Hurt - my guess is Newman at the finish line - or even to Bob Hoskins or James Woods, the more offbeat contenders. But the academy is right to recognize the skill, subtlety, and discipline he brings to the difficult job of ``just being yourself'' in a dramatic film. Here's hoping he gets many more chances, both with and without his celebrated saxophone. Runner-up: Jon Voight in ``Desert Bloom.''
Best supporting actress: Laura Dern in ``Blue Velvet'' and ``Smooth Talk.''
Both of Dern's 1986 movies have stirred up controversy on moral as well as cinematic grounds. But her magical performances soar even when their surroundings seem sordid or sick - and it's worth noting that youthful trust and innocence, which she exemplifies in each picture, are just the qualities those movies have the greatest need of. (Imagine either of them without her integrity to uplift the atmosphere at least a few degrees!) Her career is sure to rocket far beyond its early launching pads. Runners-up: Helen Mirren in ``The Mosquito Coast,'' Cathy Tyson in ``Mona Lisa.''
Best supporting actor: Daniel Day Lewis in ``A Room With a View'' and ``My Beautiful Laundrette.''
Variety is the spice of cinema, but few experienced stars - much less young character actors - have Daniel Day Lewis's knack for transformation. A year ago he showed up in ``My Beautiful Laundrette'' and won high praise for his powerful portrait of a strutting punk. Within a month he showed up again in ``A Room With a View,'' this time as an insufferable snob who wouldn't enter a laundrette if his priggish life depended on it. A master of the scruffy and the supercilious alike, Day Lewis is a talent to watch closely. Runners-up: Steven Hill in ``On Valentine's Day,'' Ray Liotta in ``Something Wild.''
Best director: Andrei Tarkovsky for ``The Sacrifice.''
The late Andrei Tarkovsky's last movie, made in Sweden after his emigration from the Soviet Union, tells the dreamlike story of an intellectual who longs to save the world from nuclear destruction through an act of pure faith. It isn't as haunting as ``Nostalgia,'' as visionary as ``The Mirror,'' or as epical as ``Andrei Rublev,'' to name three of Tarkovsky's proudest achievements. Like them, however, it looks bravely at philosophical subjects that narrative film rarely explores. And it carries on Tarkovsky's ambitious search for a flowing, almost hallucinatory style that could unite the seen, the unseen, and the unseeable into a seamless cinematic unity. Runners-up: Woody Allen for ``Hannah and Her Sisters,'' Jonathan Demme for ``Something Wild.''
Best adapted screenplay: Horton Foote for ``On Valentine's Day.''
I'd like to vary my list by giving just one ``award'' per movie. But there's no dodging the talented Foote in this category, since he (and not Ken Harrison, the director) is incontestably the auteur of the year's best movie - having written the script from his own original stage play, and worked with the actors on their performances, as well. Foote deserves a lion's share of attention in any case, since his return to the movies after years of stage work has coincided with a rebirth of honest, literate screen drama after years of semidrought. Surely that's no coincidence. Runner-up: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for ``A Room With a View.''
Best original screenplay: Woody Allen for ``Hannah and Her Sisters.''
This screenplay was reportedly proposed for last year's Pulitzer Prize for drama, but it couldn't win since it wasn't produced on stage. If you think about it, there's no reason why such an intelligently crafted comedy-drama shouldn't be taken as seriously as its theatrical cousins. ``Hannah'' isn't ``Long Day's Journey into Night,'' of course, but it's as smart and rich and funny as most new stage works you'll find nowadays. It's also more ambitious than recent Woodyisms like ``Radio Days'' or ``Broadway Danny Rose,'' which seem like miniatures (sparkling ones, though) in comparison. Flesh out the script with splendid performances (see above), and you have a memorable accomplishment by any measure. Runners-up: Eugene Corr for ``Desert Bloom,'' Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes, Harve Bennett, and Nicholas Meyer for ``Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.''
Best foreign-language film: ``Summer,'' written and directed by Eric Rohmer.
The subject is modest as can be: A young woman named Monique doesn't have plans for her summer vacation. Rohmer makes this the starting point of a tone poem on loneliness and the longing for love - quietly filmed (in 16 mm) but rendered captivating by gentle performances, insinuating images, and a recognition that if you look hard enough, you'll find that even the simplest life is tinged with magic and mystery. It's a lovely addition to the ``Comedies and Proverbs'' series that has occupied this gifted French filmmaker for the past few years. Runner-up: ``Spring Symphony,'' written and directed by Peter Schamoni.
A few other categories deserve at least quick attention. The past year was a rich one for documentaries, and I'd give Oscars to a passel of them: the hilarious ``Sherman's March,'' by Ross McElwee; the ingenious ``Marlene,'' by Maximilian Schell; the meditative ``Forest of Bliss,'' by Robert Gardner; the compassionate ``Mother Teresa,'' by Ann and Jeanette Petrie; the revealing ``We Were All So Beloved...,'' by Manfred Kirchheimer; and the jazzy ``Ornette: Made in America,'' by Shirley Clarke.
In the animated-feature department I'd name a smartly written Claymation epic, ``The Adventures of Mark Twain,'' over such stylish but familiar-looking entertainments as ``The Great Mouse Detective'' and ``An American Tail.''
My choice for best color cinematography is a tie between Sven Nykvist's work in ``The Sacrifice'' and Jordan Cronenweth's in ``Peggy Sue Got Married.''
For black-and-white imagemaking the winner is Robby M"uller for ``Down By Law,'' hands down. The most evocative editing was done by Dov Hoenig in the otherwise disappointing ``Manhunter.''
And some sort of honorary prize should go to a couple of young women who shone like rising stars in underrated movies: Annabeth Gish in ``Desert Bloom'' and Margaret Langrick in ``My American Cousin.'' With youngsters like these warming up on the sidelines, the future of film looks mighty promising.
The Academy's 1986 Oscar nominations: Best picture: ``Children of a Lesser God,'' ``Hannah and Her Sisters,'' ``The Mission,'' ``Platoon,'' ``A Room With a View.'' Best actress: Jane Fonda, ``The Morning After''; Marlee Matlin, ``Children of a Lesser God''; Sissy Spacek, ``Crimes of the Heart''; Kathleen Turner, ``Peggy Sue Got Married''; Sigourney Weaver, ``Aliens.'' Best actor: Dexter Gordon, ``Round Midnight''; Bob Hoskins, ``Mona Lisa''; William Hurt, ``Children of a Lesser God''; Paul Newman, ``The Color of Money''; James Woods, ``Salvador.'' Best supporting actress: Tess Harper, ``Crimes of the Heart''; Piper Laurie, ``Children of a Lesser God''; Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, ``The Color of Money''; Maggie Smith, ``A Room With a View''; Dianne Wiest, ``Hannah and Her Sisters.'' Best supporting actor: Tom Berenger, ``Platoon''; Michael Caine, ``Hannah and Her Sisters''; Willem Dafoe, ``Platoon''; Denholm Elliott, ``A Room With a View''; Dennis Hopper, ``Hoosiers.'' Best director: David Lynch, ``Blue Velvet''; Woody Allen, ``Hannah and Her Sisters''; Roland Joffe, ``The Mission''; James Ivory, ``A Room With a View''; Oliver Stone, ``Platoon.'' Best adapted screenplay: Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff, ``Children of a Lesser God''; Richard Price, ``The Color of Money''; Beth Henley, ``Crimes of the Heart''; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, ``A Room With a View''; Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans, ``Stand by Me.'' Best original screenplay: Paul Hogan, Ken Shadie, and John Cornell, ``Crocodile Dundee''; Woody Allen, ``Hannah and Her Sisters''; Hanif Kureishi, ``My Beautiful Laundrette''; Oliver Stone, ``Platoon''; Oliver Stone and Richard Boyle, ``Salvador.'' Best foreign-language film: ``Decline of the American Empire'' (Canada), ``Betty Blue'' (France), ``My Sweet Little Village'' (Czechoslovakia), ``The Assault'' (the Netherlands), ``38'' (Austria).