Topsy-turvy nature of Academy's choices signals surprises ahead

This image released by DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation shows Sally Field and Daniel Day-Lewis appear in a scene from 'Lincoln.'  Fields was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress and Lewis was nominated for best actor on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, for their roles in “Lincoln.“  The 85th Academy Awards will air live on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013 on ABC. (AP Photo/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, David James)

This image released by DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation shows Sally Field and Daniel Day-Lewis appear in a scene from "Lincoln." Fields was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress and Lewis was nominated for best actor on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, for their roles in “Lincoln.“ The 85th Academy Awards will air live on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013 on ABC. (AP Photo/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, David James)

If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences moved up its nominations this year to combat the sense that the Oscars were becoming an awards-season afterthought, then Thursday's slate of nominees certainly accomplished that goal. That was good news for one Benh (Zeitlin, director of "Beasts of the Southern Wild"), and a bummer for another ("Argo" helmer Ben Affleck), and who's to say the surprises will stop there. What to make of these topsy-turvy noms? Here are five take-aways:

1. Throw out conventional thought this year.

There wasn't nearly as much overlap between the academy's choices and those of the various guilds, most of whom announced their picks after Oscar voters had turned in their ballots. And even with the Screen Actors Guild, which announced its picks last month, the split was significant. The last two years, academy voters and SAG members agreed on 17 out of 20 nominees. Three years ago, it was 19 out of 20. This year: Just 14 overlapped.

The divide among voters deciding the directing races was even more extreme, with the academy matching just two of the Directors Guild of America nominees. One can argue with the quality of the choices - Oscar voters selected David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook"), Michael Haneke ("Amour") and Zeitlin over Kathryn Bigelow ("Zero Dark Thirty"), Tom Hooper ("Les Miserables") and Affleck - but beyond dispute is that for the first time in many years, the academy has put its own distinctive stamp on the awards-season landscape. When Oscars are handed out Feb. 24, there will be more suspense. That's a good thing.

2. That said, "Lincoln" is still the movie to beat.

Steven Spielberg's noble historical drama led the field with 12 nominations. About 75 percent of the time, that distinction translates into a win, though it didn't help "Hugo" last year. "Lincoln" has also racked up nominations from every major awards indicator and its commercial success would seem to make it a popular choice for just about everyone. Of course, the last time Spielberg had a presumptive favorite, "Saving Private Ryan" came up short, bested by "Shakespeare in Love." Can Harvey Weinstein pull off the same feat again this year and persuade voters to choose the lighthearted "Silver Linings Playbook" over Spielberg's weighty drama? Probably not. But it's sure going to be fun to watch him try.

3. The directors branch remains a boy's club.

How else to explain Bigelow's shocking omission? "Zero Dark Thirty" screened plenty, so it's not like the critically acclaimed thriller wasn't seen. And it scored a best picture nomination, as well as nods for actress Jessica Chastain, screenplay, editing and sound editing, indicating that those voters who saw it found much to admire. The directors branch, however, withheld its approval, even though the one-time Oscar winner has been lauded extensively elsewhere.

The academy is giving the director's award for the 85th time but has nominated a woman on just four occasions. Bigelow's snub stands as the latest example that, three years after her win for "The Hurt Locker," industry sexism remains alive and well.

4. And speaking of the directors branch, they don't like interlopers either.

The directors branch has also been known to nominate movie stars making their directorial debuts (Kevin Costner, Robert Redford), but take a more cautious route with actors seen as encroaching on their territory. Ron Howard won the DGA Award in 1995 for the popular "Apollo 13," but the academy's directors branch didn't even bother to nominate him. That might be good news for the DGA-nominated Affleck, who could well win that guild's feature film award next month. Had Affleck won an Oscar nomination, as nearly everyone expected, he could well have taken the Oscar too, because the huge actors branch would have been eligible to vote. For now, Affleck can take solace in the fact that Howard eventually won a nomination - and the Oscar - for his work on "A Beautiful Mind."

5. Outside of Daniel Day-Lewis losing, anything remains possible.

Oscar ballots are due 40 days from now, i.e. the same amount of time, as the story goes, it rained on Noah's ark. Look for Oscar campaigners to inundate academy members during this long, long chasm of time, attempting the neat trick of keeping their films in the conversation without making voters utterly sick of hearing about them.

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