Did Academy voters just clear a path to the stage for Steven Spielberg and "Lincoln?"
Or did they indicate that Spielberg's historical drama has unexpectedly serious challengers not in the two CIA-themed dramas expected to be best-pic contenders, but in David O. Russell's delicious bipolar comedy "Silver Linings Playbook" or Ang Lee's visionary "Life of Pi?"
With a stunning set of nominations highlighted by a Best Director category that almost no one could have envisioned, Oscar voters upended conventional wisdom and placed a huge obstacle in the way of Ben Affleck's "Argo" and Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," as well as Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables."
Those three directors were left out of the Best Director category in favor of Spielberg, Russell, Lee and two surprises, Michael Haneke for "Amour" and Benh Zeitlin for his first feature, "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Also read: Oscar Nominations: The Complete List
And that means that "Argo," "ZDT" and "Les Miz" won't be the last film standing on Oscar night unless they pull off the extraordinarily rare trick last performed by "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1989, winning Best Picture without getting a directing nomination.
The shocking selections by the AMPAS Directors Branch seemingly put Spielberg in the driver's seat, particularly since the rest of the Academy agreed and gave "Lincoln" 12 nominations, more than any other movie.
Still, one shouldn't overlook the fact that "Silver Linings Playbook," which took a hit earlier in the week when Russell failed to receive a nomination from the Directors Guild, came back with a vengeance on Thursday morning, landing picture, director and writing nominations as well as noms in all four acting categories: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the lead categories, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver in supporting.
The last movie to pull that off: Warren Beatty's "Reds," in 1981.
(Not to put a damper on the high that the "Silver Linings" crew is no doubt feeling, but "Reds" lost Best Picture to "Chariots of Fire" -- a film, it must be said, that bears no resemblance whatsoever to "Lincoln.")
If "Silver Linings" showed unexpected strength, particularly with the huge Actors Branch, "Life of Pi" also proved to be a formidable contender. Written off by some as the last of the Big Six (behind "Lincoln," "Argo," "ZDT," "Silver Linings" and "Les Miz"), it captured picture, director and screenplay nomination, and came in second to "Lincoln" with 11 overall noms.
So instead of "Lincoln," "Argo" and "ZDT" leading the charge, is it now "Lincoln," "Silver Linings" and "Pi?"
That's the way it looks, but Oscar-watchers shouldn't forget that this has been a strange season indeed. The combination of earlier nominations and a move to online voting caused confusion and may have depressed the level of voter participation (we'll never know, but it's safe to assume that AMPAS has asked for the figures from PricewaterhouseCoopers).
And voters are now settling in for a long stretch in which they can catch up on movies they might have missed, re-watch ones they've already seen, and change their minds.
After rushing to have their ballots in by Jan. 4, Academy members now have almost a full month before they can even cast their final ballots; those polls don't even open until Feb. 8, four long weeks from now.
That's a lot of time for things to change, a long time for "Lincoln" to hold onto its lead or for "Silver Linings" or "Pi" to mount a rally.
And it may even be time enough for "Argo," "Zero Dark Thirty" or "Les Miz" to use "we wuz robbed!" as a rallying cry for a Best Picture surge.
The first stretch of this truncated Oscar season has been strange and chaotic, culminating in some startling nominations. The homestretch might be dull and endless, or it might be spirited and scrappy.
And speaking of scrappy, what is one to make of the unexpectedly strong showing for "Beasts of the Southern Wild?" That ragged indie, a Sundance sensation that managed to stick around all year, not only got the writing nomination that was expected by most and the Best Picture nod that was expected by some, but a Best Director slot for the 30-year-old Zeitlin and a Best Actress nomination for nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, who became the category's youngest nominee ever and will be up against the oldest, 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva from "Amour."
A year ago this month, Zeitlin brought Wallis onstage at the Sundance Film Festival, where the pint-sized thespian introduced herself thusly: "I'm Quvenzhane Wallis, and I like to party!"
She'll have ample opportunity to do just that now -- and if she does, she'll fit right in with the vibe of a nominations announcement that was part announcement, part comedy routine between Oscar host Seth MacFarlane and actress Emma Stone.
The first sign that this wasn't your father's Oscar announcement might have been the fact that Academy President Hawk Koch had turned the usual prez duties over to MacFarlane. The second was MacFarlane's minute-or-so of standup before he introduced Stone. The third was the fact that Stone's introduction included a plug for her new movie, "Gangster Squad" – this from an organization that until recently didn't even allow movie ads on the Oscar show because they thought it would be unseemly.
Other surprises, shocks, snubs and significant head-scratchers:
The Academy showed a complete lack of affection for Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises," which didn't get a single nomination. A few years after Nolan's last Batman movie, "The Dark Knight," was largely responsible for the Best Picture category expanding to 10, Nolan's final chapter was shut out completely, even in visual effects and sound categories.
Also not quite making a mark on Academy voters was Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," which received an expected screenplay nod but missed out on the Best Picture spot that seemed within its grasp after a good showing with critics' and guild awards.
On the other hand, voters showed lots of amour to "Amour," which landed the expected Best Foreign Language Film nomination but also got into the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay fields.
In more good news for "Amour," the select committees that narrowed the foreign-language category down from the nine-film shortlist to the five nominees did not choose "The Intouchables," the French box-office hit and Weinstein Company release that might have had a chance to upset "Amour" in the final voting.
In the acting categories, voters failed to recognize John Hawkes ("The Sessions") and Marion Cotillard ("Rust and Bone"), both of whom were thought to be in line for nominations.
In the Best Animated Feature category, the giant-slayer wasn't one of the usual foreign-language entries from GKIDS, but Sony Animation's "The Pirates! Band of Misfits." That film took a spot seemingly waiting for DreamWorks Animation's big-budget "Rise of the Guardians." "The Pirates!" now joins Focus' "ParaNorman," the season's critical favorite, in a category otherwise owned by Disney/Pixar, which landed the three other noms with "Brave," "Frankenweenie" and "Wreck-It Ralph."
And getting back to that wild Best Director category, earlier this week we wrote about how it would likely feature four former winners squaring off against each other. But by snubbing two of those past champs, Bigelow and Hooper, Academy voters came up with a slate that only includes two past winners, Spielberg and Lee, plus one former nominee, Russell, and two newcomers, Zeitlin and Haneke.
That left Best Supporting Actor as the category where everybody in the running (Tommy Lee Jones, Christoph Waltz, Robert De Niro, Alan Arkin and Philip Seymour Hoffman) already has an Oscar at home.
As for what all this portends for the Oscar show a month and a half from now, who knows? But it's safe to predict, based on MacFarlane's performance in announcing the nominations, that the show will be loose and jokey.
And maybe even, if these nominations are any indication, a little surprising.