Michael Haneke, Amour
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
The list of Best Picture nominees may include as many as 10 titles — this year there are nine — but the Best Director category still holds only five slots, so it’s a more exclusive club. All five nominees directed movies that are short-listed for Best Picture, but after that: Wow! and huh? At the risk of burying the lede, we’ll save the shocks for the Snubs section, at bottom.
Zeitlin was the biggest, happiest surprise, snagging a nomination for a hallucinogenic movie with no professional actors and a budget under $2 million. The Austrian auteur Haneke became the first non-English-language director (excluding Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) of a non-English-language film (excluding Alejandro González Iñárritu for Babel) to be nominated in this category since Pedro Almodóvar for Talk to Her a decade ago. The two predictable nominees: Lee, a winner for Brokeback Mountain, who brought to vivid life the improbable tale of an Indian boy and a Bengal tiger on a raft; and Russell, whose film about a troubled dad and his bipolar son mirrored the director’s fraught relationship with his own son.
The Best Director’s race, like that for Best Picture, was widely predicted to pit three acclaimed docudramas against one another. That may still happen for Best Picture, but in this category two of the three (Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck) got killed in a vote-tabulating cage match. That leaves Spielberg, whose expert handling of a complex political drama helped make Lincoln a popular hit ($144 million domestic), as the indisputable front runner.
Snubs: There are a carload. It’s nice to see that the directors of TIME’s top 3 movies of 2012 each received a nomination, but Jeez Louise, look who’s missing! Bigelow, the first woman to win Best Director (The Hurt Locker), dominated the awards of critics’ groups for Zero Dark Thirty. But she got stiffed by the Academy, not because she lost her masterly storytelling skills and muscular visual style but, we’re guessing, because a campaign concocted by Washington liberals and conservatives charged that ZDT saw a link between the U.S. government’s torture of terrorist suspects and the discovery of Osama bin Laden. To Senator Feinstein and to the Academy directors who voted in this category, we say, It’s only a movie — and a brilliantly directed one.
Second among the critics’ choices for Best Director was the affable Affleck, whose Argo earned reviewers’ cheers and solid box-office returns ($110 million domestic). But the Academy, which hasn’t acknowledged Affleck since 1998, when he shared the Best Original Screenplay award with Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting, ignored him again. Maybe the voters never forgave him for Gigli.
Quentin Tarantino, previously nominated in the Best Director and Original Screenplay categories for Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds (both Best Picture nominees), got the sop of a writing nod to salve his rejection as Best Director for Django Unchained. Sam Mendes, an Oscar winner for American Beauty (which was also Best Picture), went big in a smart way with Skyfall but came up short on the short list; the movie was also ignored in the Best Picture and Supporting Actor categories. Tom Hooper’s big gamble in shooting much of Les Misérables with the actors singing “live” and in single-shot closeup, paid off in a nomination for Best Picture but not Best Director. And if your last name is Anderson — Paul Thomas (The Master) or Wes (Moonrise Kingdom) — you could have slept late on Thursday morning. Neither movie received a nomination for either Best Director or Picture.
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