Coming off a year of surprisingly big box-office and a season of movies that has generated a fair share of controversy, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opted for unpredictability in its list of nominations for the 85th annual Academy Awards, announced Thursday. No doubt there were a lot of unexpected smiles and curses across Hollywood as the names of the lucky were read.
Sure, as expected, Steven Spielberg's Civil War saga, "Lincoln" (which received 12 nominations), Kathryn Bigelow's chronicle of Osama bin Laden's takedown, "Zero Dark Thirty," and Ben Affleck's Iranian-hostage thriller, "Argo," are three of the nine films up for best picture. But they're competing against the low-budget indie "Beasts of the Southern Wild" - the first feature from director Benh Zeitlin - and the French-language drama about old age and decline, "Amour," from Austrian director Micheal Haneke.
And, while it's not a shock that Ang Lee's colorful tale of survival at sea, "Life of Pi," is also a contender, that it is nearly running neck-and-neck with "Lincoln" by nabbing 11 nominations, is noteworthy.
Then there's "Silver Linings Playbook" which was expected to receive some praise but it's up in all the major categories including best picture, best actor (Bradley Cooper), best actress (Jennifer Lawrence), best supporting actor (Robert De Niro), best supporting actress (Jacki Weaver), and best director (David O. Russell).
"Beasts" not only shocked with its best picture inclusion - its 9-year-old star Quvenzhane Wallis is up for best actress and Zeitlin is now in the running to pick up a best director statue on Oscar night. In other years, a film like "Amour" might have just been relegated to the Foreign-Language category, where it is indeed nominated. Yet it's also up for Emmanuel Riva for actress.
Just as eyebrow-raising was what was left out. No best director mentions for Affleck, Bigelow, or Tom Hooper ("Les Miserables") even though their films are in the running for best picture. No acting nomination for John Hawkes in "The Sessions" as many thought he would be a lock. No best picture or director acknowledgment for "The Master," only an original screenplay nomination for "Moonrise Kingdom," and zilch for "The Dark Knight Rises." It was even shut out in the technical categories. That's gotta hurt.
The Academy didn't let the racial controversy over Quentin Tarantino's slave-era revenge action-movie, "Django Unchained," deter it from nominating it for best picture but excluded it from most of the other major categories except for Christoph Waltz for supporting actor.
Other nominations went just as expected: Daniel Day-Lewis for best actor, Sally Field for best actress and Tommy Lee Jones for supporting actor in "Lincoln"; Joaquin Phoenix for best actor and Philip Seymour Hoffman for supporting actor in "The Master"; and Naomi Watts as a traumatized tsunami survivor in "The Impossible."
When it comes down to it, it's doubtful that the Academy will be quite as adventurous when it names the winners. This seems to be the year for "Lincoln." It's a big, stately Spielberg film, steeped in historical importance yet having relevance to what's going on today. It's already been named the film of the year by the National Board of Review and AFI. Let's see how it fares Sunday at the Golden Globes.
As wonderful as "Lincoln" is, it's a safe choice, free from the raging political debates surrounding "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Django Unchained," the depressing inevitability of "Amour," and the confounding magical-realist fever dreams of "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
We'll see if the Academy still has the ability to surprise when the statues are handed out Feb. 24.