"Beasts," a polarizing film that entranced many critics and irritated many others, was expected to get a token nod from the Academy -- maybe a Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay nod, maybe even Best Actress for charming child actress Quvenzhane Wallis. But no one predicted it would get all of these, plus Best Director.
Similarly, the success of "Amour" -- the Austrian movie about an aged couple dealing with debilitating illness -- wasn't a surprise to Oscar-watchers who've been paying attention to its rising buzz in recent weeks. Its nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Language Film and even Best Actress weren't unexpected. But few would have predicted Best Picture or Best Director as well.
Another surprise inclusion: Jacki Weaver is a terrific actress, as she proved with her nominated performance a couple years ago in "Animal Kingdom." Still, her part in "Silver Linings Playbook" wasn't considered substantial enough to merit the Academy's attention. That she did earn a Best Supporting Actress nomination suggests that Academy support for the film is unusually strong. (It's one of the few films in Oscar history to be nominated in all four acting categories.) Her nomination meant a snub for Oscar perennial Maggie Smith, who'd been favored for a nod for "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."
As for snubs: They say that playing someone disabled is a surefire ticket to the Oscar ceremony. Not so, as Marion Cotillard discovered this morning. Despite the raves she earned for playing a double-amputee in "Rust and Bone," she did not find herself on the Best Actress list. Same with John Hawkes, widely touted for his performance as a sexually adventurous polio patient in "The Sessions." He, too, was snubbed, though Helen Hunt, who played his sex therapist, made the Supporting Actress cut.
Still, the biggest shockers were saved for the directing category, with its built-in game of musical chairs. Of the many directing hopefuls who expected to see their names matched up with Best Picture nominees, the likeliest were Kathryn Bigelow ("Zero Dark Thirty"), Steven Spielberg ("Lincoln"), Ang Lee ("Life of Pi"), Tom Hooper ("Les Miserables"), and Ben Affleck ("Argo"), though Quentin Tarantino ("Django Unchained"), Paul Thomas Anderson ("The Master") or Wes Anderson ("Moonrise Kingdom") might have taken Affleck's slot. In the end, however, of the directors mentioned above, only Spielberg and Lee made the final cut, along with David O. Russell (another sign of the stronger-than-expected Academy love for "Silver Linings Playbook"), "Amour"'s Michael Haneke and newbie Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts of the Southern Wild").
Affleck's omission is a moderate shocker (the competition was tough, it's only his third movie behind the camera, and there were at least three other big-name directors vying for his slot). Hooper's omission is a bigger shocker; after all, he won two years ago for "The King's Speech," he successfully wrangled a difficult adaptation, he went for broke directorially by shooting his actors singing live instead of having them lip-synch and he made the first big hit movie musical in a decade.
But the biggest shocker of all was the snub for Bigelow. The one ongoing narrative of the race so far has been whether "Zero Dark Thirty," Bigelow's dazzling, morally ambiguous thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, would echo her success three years ago with "The Hurt Locker," which earned a Best Picture trophy and made Bigelow the first woman to win Best Director. Critics have argued over whether or not the film endorses the CIA's use of torture, but there was no disagreement about the brilliance of Bigelow's execution. To see her omitted from the list throws the whole Oscar race into doubt. Was her breaking of the glass ceiling three years ago just temporary? Has the boys'-club mentality that prevailed among Academy voters reasserted itself? Is she being punished politically for the controversy over the film's depiction of torture?
Going into the nominations this morning, the race at large was expected to come down to "ZDT" vs. Spielberg's "Lincoln," a competition of two directorial visions, one with a modern stylistic approach to depicting history on screen, one with a more conventional, traditional approach. But without a Bigelow-Spielberg showdown, the Best Director and Best Picture races are suddenly wide open. That may frustrate Oscar-watchers who feel Bigelow was robbed, but it could make for a more open and exciting campaign over the weeks between this morning's announcement and the awards ceremony on Feb. 24. Fasten your seat belts, folks.