Let’s throw “conventional wisdom” out the window regarding this morning’s Oscar nominations. In a year when there are so many genuine contenders for the Oscars‘ Best Picture, the Academy has thrown a wrench into the proceedings, instantly cementing early frontrunner status for Lincoln and Life Of Pi along with the “little engine that could” Silver Linings Playbook while dampening prospects of winning the big prize for three other perceived major contenders Zero Dark Thirty (the controversial critical darling), Les Miserables and Argo. All three of those films’ directors were snubbed after winning DGA nominations earlier this week. Did these Best Picture nominees direct themselves?
The biggest shock waves at the Academy this morning were clearly over the omission of Ben Affleck‘s direction of Argo and Kathryn Bigelow‘s absence for Zero Dark Thirty. Both are still nominees as co-producers of their Best Picture-nominated films, but this has to sting. Instead, Silver Linings’ David O. Russell reversed his snub at DGA and BAFTA with a strong showing where it counts, and wildcard Michael Haneke of Amour (which did exceptionally well for a foreign-language film including a Best Picture and Foreign Language nod) got those spots along with the true shocker of the directing nominees, Beast Of The Southern Wild’s Benh Zeitlin. His tiny Sundance sensation and offbeat film defied expectations earning key Directing, Picture, Screenplay and Actress (for youngest nominee in the category ever, Quvenzhane Wallis). Some people were sure they were mistaken when they heard Zeitlin announced instead of Affleck after the first name Benh was called out. But the Oscars are always known for throwing surprises into the mix. Much like that Wizard of Oz, Oscar has spoken. As Academy COO Ric Robertson (who is also an Academy voter) told me, “I guess we really, really liked Beasts Of The Southern Wild’!” With Zeitlin’s directing nod, that’s an understatement. It is his first movie, by the way, so congratulations Benh, and sorry Ben.
Related: OSCARS: Who Got Snubbed By Academy?
But with six weeks now instead of the usual four between nominations and the show, I have a feeling that even for those movies without directing nominations several players remain in the mix thanks to wide constituencies — wider open than any Oscar race in years. It is a thought that was echoed by Academy president Hawk Koch when I talked to him right after the announcement. “I try not to have any expectations, but what I do know is there were so many good movies this year that everybody got excited and wanted to make sure to vote for their favorite. I think again it foreshadows the race this year. I don’t think there is a clear-cut winner, a clear-cut favorite anywhere. I think we are all gonna be on the edge of our seat at the end of the Oscars saying ‘Who’s going to win?’,” he said.
Who is going to win? It makes the upcoming various guild awards — tonight’s Critics Choice Movie Awards and Sunday’s Golden Globes — all that more interesting since all of them have been fairly reliable indicators in the past. If they all come up with different choices, it will make this year’s Oscar show all that more suspenseful and Koch’s prediction could come true. As one Oscar strategist told me, “I think this is an extraordinary year for the Oscars. It is one race we will be talking about for years to come”.
The field is so competitive that many so-called snubs were inevitable. In terms of pure Oscar “vital signs”, though, most pundits will now drift to Lincoln, Life Of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook as first-position Oscar players in the Best Picture race. Of the latter, I am told by a Weinstein consultant that Harvey Weinstein listened to the announcement and said he was more excited by this Oscar morning than any since the first Miramax movie was nominated nearly 25 years ago. He has reason to be excited by the performance of Silver Linings, which becomes the first film since Reds in 1981 to have Picture, Screenplay, Directing and acting nominations in four categories. Quite a feat. Throw in the Film Editing nod (a category every Best Picture winner since 1980 has at least had to be nominated in) and you have the blueprint for a classic potential Weinstein-style upset. With the last two Best Picture winners in a row, Weinstein is now in a sweet seat for a three-peat, which no distributor has done since United Artists pulled it off in 1975-1977 Oscar years with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky and Annie Hall. And you can bet Harvey is licking his chops over that prospect. With another Best Picture nominee in Django Unchained, three more acting nods for The Master and a foreign-language film nominee in Kon Tiki (although the company’s higher-profile French entry, The Intouchables, was shut out), Oscar day once again means good times for Weinstein. But you can also bet his major studio competitors are going to pull out all the stops — and money — to make sure Oscar doesn’t go indie again this year. The majors have more horses in this race than in the past several years.
For 20th Century Fox, it was also an incredible day. Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi scoring 11 nominations without the benefit of any acting nods was something only 2003′s Best Picture winner Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King pulled off. That film ended up sweeping all 11 categories. This across-the-board strength bodes well for Lee’s technical triumph, and it becomes the instant frontrunner to rack up the most below-the-line wins at the very least — but suddenly, it should also be regarded as a real Best Picture threat. The film is nearing the $100 million mark domestically and has $400 million worldwide, making it Lee’s biggest hit ever and his most-nominated picture. His previous Best Picture nods were for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, but neither won. He has a foreign-language Oscar for Crouching and a Best Director statuette for Brokeback .
Disney-DreamWorks’ Lincoln, though, has now been set up as the one to beat — perhaps the consensus choice with its 12 nominations including all the key categories a Best Picture winner needs (according to that tricky conventional wisdom). Though he has three Oscars including two for Directing and every other imaginable award, some in the industry think Steven Spielberg has been underappreciated considering the scope of his remarkable career. This could be a crowning achievement.
Related: OSCARS: Nominations By Picture
But can we count out Argo? Its 7 nominations are formidable and there may be tremendous sympathy now for Affleck after his directing shutout. Plus, the movie is widely loved within the industry. And will controversy and the directing snub of Bigelow KO Zero Dark Thirty’s ultimate chances? It’s possible, but the Academy could decide to make a statement about the rights and freedom of artists to make movies their way — and not the way the government or CIA might like. And is the season’s smash-hit musical out of it completely? Without writing, directing and editing nominations, or at least one of those categories, no film has won Best Picture since Grand Hotel in 1931-32, Oscar’s 5th year. Will Les Mis, which has passionate followers, be the one to break this precedent in Oscar’s 85th year?
And finally Amour. Among so many high-profile Academy members to whom I have spoken, this is the film that has moved them the most. That kind of emotional vote can create winners especially in a landscape where votes are being widely split as I imagine this year’s race will see. The Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or winner is tough to watch, but it speaks to many. Though it is a foreign-language film (and nominee), it might be so universal that a surprise Best Picture win is not completely foreign to this year’s upside-down Oscar race. And let’s face it, in a year that has provided the oldest ever Best Actress nominee in Amour’s 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva along with the youngest in the same category, anything can happen despite conventional wisdom.
This thing is far from over. It begins again today.