Oscar Nominations: Lincoln Leads, Bigelow and Affleck Bleed

With 'Zero Dark Thirty' and 'Argo' wounded, is the way clear for a Spielberg sweep?

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Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures; Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros. Pictures

Directors Kathryn Bigelow (l) and Ben Affleck (r), at work

The wisest three words ever spoken about Hollywood come from screenwriter William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.” Not the filmmakers, not the oddsmakers, not the critics. This morning’s announcement of nominees for the Motion Picture Academy’s 85th Oscar race proved exactly that. Frontrunners like Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck got cut off at the knees, while tiny indie movies from Europe (Amour) and Louisiana (Beasts of the Southern Wild) completed a triumphant first lap with a fresh wind to head toward the finish line — Oscar Night, Feb. 24.

The nine nominees for Best Picture: Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty.

Lincoln, which details the Civil War President’s struggle to pass an Amendment abolishing slavery, led all films with 12 nominations, including nods for director Steven Spielberg, screen playwright Tony Kushner and performers Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, another slavery movie — but joyfully, bloodily melodramatic, as opposed to Lincoln‘s meticulous dramaturgy — blasted its way to five nominations.

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Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s visually rapturous adaptation of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel about an Indian boy stranded on a raft with a ravenous Bengal tiger, earned 11 nominations (though none in the acting categories). David O. Russell’s quirky romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook became the first movie in 31 years (since Reds) to win nominations in all four acting categories — half of its eight citations, which tied the film with Tom Hooper’s in-your-face transmutation of the international musical play Les Misérables.

Affleck’s Argo and Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, two fact-based dramas that depict resourceful CIA officers abroad trying to outwit hostile Islamic radicals, earned seven and five nominations, respectively. But the hoped-for six-week siege, which promised to pit this pair of films against the Spielberg movie in a battle of giant wartime docudramas, lost some of its plausibility and sex appeal when Bigelow, who won Best Picture and Director Oscars three years ago for The Hurt Locker, and Affleck were denied nominations in the Director category. Each movie was cited for its screenplay and for one performance.

Zero Dark Thirty, documenting one CIA’s analyst’s eight-year search for Osama bin Laden, had come under not-so-friendly fire from liberals, especially Washington politicians and CIA staffers, who charged that the movie connected waterboarding of terror suspects with the divulging of information leading to the al-Qaeda leader. This afternoon, the Center for Constitutional Rights, which says it represents “Gitmo lawyers,” condemned “a film that glorifies one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history…. We hope that members of the Academy will vote their consciences and withhold their votes from this film.”

The members of the Directors contingent already did just that. With Affleck and Bigelow out, Beasts’ 30-year-old Benh Zeitlin and Amour’s 70-year-old Michael Haneke emerged into startling and richly deserved limelight as Oscar nominees. The Academy’s Actors branch also made Beasts’ Quvenzhané Wallis, 9, and Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva, who will be 86 on Oscar night, the youngest and oldest performers ever be to nominated for Oscars. Both films were shortlisted in four important categories: Picture, Direction, Screenplay and Actress. Amour was also a finalist for Best Foreign Language Feature — which seems a lock, since the movie that was thought to be its main competition, the French comedy The Intouchables, got left out of the final five.

Day-Lewis, a sure shot for his third Oscar, is joined in the Best Actor category by Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook, Hugh Jackman for Les Miz, Joaquin Phoenix for The Master and Denzel Washington for Flight. Wallis and Riva shared the Best Actress category with the two putative favorites — Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings) — and Naomi Watts (The Impossible). The full list of this year’s nominees is here.

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Finalists for Animated Feature were four sure things — Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman and Wreck-It Ralph — plus one mild jolt: Aardman’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits in the slot that had been saved for DreamWorks’ Rise of the Guardians. For Documentary feature, the front-running musical mystery film Searching for Sugar Man will try fending off the military-rape exposé The Invisible War, the AIDS film How to Survive a Plague and two takes on Holy Land tension: the Israeli spy testament The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras, the story of a Paslestinian farmer’s nonviolent resistance to Israeli incursion. In the quintet of foreign-language dramas, Amour is joined by the Danish A Royal Affair, the Norwegian Kon-Tiki, the Chilean No and the French-Canadian War Witch.

You may be obliged to win your Oscar pool by acing these more exotic categories, because some of the big races could be over. Chastain and Lawrence could fight to the wire for Best Actress; and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master may be neck-and-neck with Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln for Supporting Actor. But the smart money was counting on a race of three thoroughbreds — Spielberg, Bigelow and Affleck — for Best Director.

If that category had followed form, bettors in the Oscar Sports Book could have argued for the next six weeks, since the Director winner is usually the Picture winner, and the three seemed so very close. Now Director, and possibly Picture, could boast a prohibitive favorite — Lincoln — against a bunch of scrappy colts.

To switch athletic metaphors, this year’s Academy Awards could be like an NCAA tournament in which a couple of the top teams are knocked out early, leaving one behemoth to destroy the upstarts. So, for the moment, Lincoln is the film to beat. But today’s nominations proved that Oscars can always pack astonishments. And, as the man said, nobody knows anything.