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It turns out that if you ask the Academy at large who are the best directors, you get a very different answer from the one you get if you ask the Directors Guild of America (DGA). The DGA nominations a couple of days ago went to Ben Affleck for Argo, Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty, Tom Hooper for Les Miserables, Ang Lee for Life Of Pi, and Steven Spielberg for Lincoln.
But when the Oscar nominations came out Thursday morning, of those five, only Lee and Spielberg made the cut. Hooper's failure to be nominated wasn't entirely unexpected, given that not everyone bought his super-close-up-dominated direction of Les Mis, but Bigelow and Affleck were widely considered locks. Included in place of the three who didn't make it were David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, Michael Haneke for Amour, and Ben Zeitlin for Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Silver Linings has long been an Oscar favorite and had a very strong showing across top categories, but Beasts is an offbeat cinematic fantasy from a first-time director, and Amour is a very sad movie in French. Both of those can make for uphill battles.
Nevertheless, Amour and Beasts excelled elsewhere as well: both of their screenplays were nominated, and they contributed both the oldest and youngest actresses ever nominated in the lead category: Amour's Emmanuelle Riva is 85, and Beasts' Quvenzhané Wallis, nominated for her first movie role, is 9 years old now but was 5 when she auditioned.
When the number of Best Picture nominees was expanded to allow up to ten nominees, many expected it might make space for crowd-pleasers or blockbusters that were especially well made. The Dark Knight, at the time, was often mentioned. What seems to have happened instead is a little more room for movies like Beasts and Amour that have narrower releases (Amour has yet to be open in more than three theaters, and Beasts was never open in more than 318, while Lincoln is currently in almost 2300). There was some concern that this year's earlier nominations announcement, which shortened the nominating season, might hurt films that played narrowly, but it certainly doesn't look that way. Alongside Amour and Beasts were Argo, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life Of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.
While Lincoln received the greatest number of nominations — 12 — Silver Linings may have received the most impressive endorsement, with eight nominations that included nods in every big category: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress (the other was in Film Editing). That kind of a sweep is hard to pull off, and while leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and Supporting Actor Robert De Niro weren't surprises, Jacki Weaver in the Supporting Actress category is a little more of a surprise, edging out folks like Judi Dench in Skyfall and Maggie Smith in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
The question coming out of today's nominations, though, will be the decision not to nominate some of the most widely discussed directing jobs of the year — Affleck for Argo or Tarantino for Django or, most especially, Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty. The film has been bogged down in controversy for its portrayals of the CIA in general and of detainee interrogations in particular, and given how capricious the Oscars can be, it's hard not to wonder whether those arguments hurt Bigelow. They didn't prevent the film from nabbing Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nominations, or Jessica Chastain from being nominated for Best Actress. But Bigelow is a respected director — she's the only woman who's ever won the Oscar for Best Director, for The Hurt Locker — and while not every alleged snub has a specific explanation, this one is going to inspire a lot of speculation.
The Oscar nominations are, invariably, a mix of the films you could have guessed would make the cut before anybody even saw them — Lincoln, Life Of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty — and ones that you might not have even known to bet on until they got out into the world and started impressing people, in which category Amour and Beasts certainly fall. There aren't any obvious howlers in the list of nine Best Picture contenders; if you saw those nine movies, you'd see a pretty solid group of films that run the gamut from sweeping historical biopics to tense thrillers to semi-comic love stories to a heartbreaking love story in French. And if you look at the complete list of nominations, you'll find fine documentaries like How To Survive A Plague and The Invisible War, too.
Everybody has complaints, but ... it's actually a pretty solid list.