‘Lincoln’ leads, ‘Pi’ and ‘Silver Linings’ surge as the Academy serves up a few surprises

When the Academy announced it was moving up the announcement of its nominees to an unprecedently early date, we knew the ensuing precursor scramble could result in a few surprises. We just didn’t know quite how many. With this morning’s nominations, they may have played by the book in some respects — pretty much everyone saw that field-leading haul of nods for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” coming — but in many others, they were on excitingly independent-minded form, freed from the lockstep of Guild thinking.

Nowhere was that more evident than in the gasp-inducing Best Director category, where — for the first time in Oscar history — the Academy’s directors’ branch only matched two of the five Directors’ Guild nominees. One of those; of course, was Spielberg; the other was Ang Lee, whose magical-realist survival story “Life of Pi” exceeded expectations by nabbing 11 nominations to a dozen for “Lincoln,” establishing itself in one fell swoop as a sneaky Best Picture threat to the presumed frontrunner.

But the Best Director announcement — made especially, disorientatingly suspenseful as Seth MacFarlane and Emma Stone announced all the nominees in non-alphabetical order — spelled crushing news for Ben Affleck, whose political thriller “Argo” had widely been viewed as “Lincoln”‘s chief competition until this morning. As the directors shockingly excluded the popular actor-turned-filmmaker, “Argo,” despite a healthy total of seven nominations, appears to be out of the race: no film since “Driving Miss Daisy” has taken the Academy’s top prize without a nod for its helmer.

Still, Affleck is in good company on the sidelines: the omission of recent winner and critical favorite Kathryn Bigelow for her controversial military thriller “Zero Dark Thirty,” which managed five nominations overall, was almost as surprising. Could the media fuss over what some see as the film’s pro-torture stance have cost her a nod for what is nothing if not a director’s film? The third DGA nominee to miss the cut was another recent champ, “Les Miserables” helmer Tom Hooper — though his miss, given Globe and BAFTA snubs and the polarizing nature of his unorthodox directorial approach to the beloved musical, is less unexpected.

But, of course, where one contender falls, another rises, and the three films to benefit from the Academy’s bold shake-up were “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Amour” and, most remarkably, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” all three of which secured nominations for their directors, and joined “Lincoln,” “Life of Pi,” “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Mis” and “Django Unchained” in the nine-strong Best Picture lineup.

We saw the nominations for “Amour” and Michael Haneke coming, but this outcome still represents a major coup for the French-Austrian Palme d’Or winner, especially when you consider that no foreign-language film from a non-US director has entered the Academy’s top race since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” 12 years ago. With five nominations, including Best Actress for veteran New Wave icon Emmanuelle Riva and, of course, Best Foreign Language Film, this is the nominee that should have the most critics cheering.

But if we can claim bragging rights on “Amour,” we certainly can’t say we anticipated a nomination for Benh Zeitlin, the 30-year-old first-timer who brought “Beasts of the Southern Wild” so dynamically to the screen. Most pundits thought the indie darling would be lucky to secure a Bicture nod in the expanded field, but with three extra nods, including Best Actress for the film’s other precocious wunderkind, nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, it was clearly higher up the ranks than we’d been thinking. In a neat bit bit of symmetrical trivia, meanwhile, Wallis and 85-year-old Riva now enter the record books as, respectively, the youngest and oldest Best Actress nominees in the category’s history.   

“Silver Linings Playbook” arguably joins “Pi” as the morning’s biggest overperformer — a Best Picture nod was always a given for David O. Russell’s scrappy, acid-laced romcom, as were acting nods for stars Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. But the Weinsteins’ prize pony wasn’t about to be content with that. Not only did Russell, widely seen as on the bubble, nab his second directing nod, but in perhaps the biggest upset of the morning, Australian character actress Jacki Weaver broke into the Best Supporting Actress category, elbowing out big-name SAG nominees Nicole Kidman and Maggie Smith, and making “Playbook” the first film since “Reds” 31 years ago to receive nods in all four acting races. Add an all-important Best Film Editing nod to bring its tally to eight, and the film is very much back in the game.   

Once more, then, Harvey Weinstein did the trick with Oscar voters — though the famously savvy campaigner didn’t have it all his own way, as his other hopefuls enjoyed mixed fortunes. With five nominations, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz, “Django Unchained” clearly overcame the obstacles of bloody content and a late release to impress a significant amount of voters, though it didn’t perform as well below the line as might have been expected.

“The Master,” meanwhile, secured three acting nominations — with the famously prickly Joaquin Phoenix overcoming a SAG snub to edge out John Hawkes in a tight Best Actor field — but that was all she wrote for Paul Thomas Anderson’s chilly critics’ favorite, as even Anderson found himself frozen out of the Best Original Screenplay race.

And there was worse news for the Weinsteins’ French crowdpleaser “The Intouchables,” seen not only as a shoo-in for a Best Foreign Language Film nod, but even as a potential Best Picture nominee. As it turned out, the film received nothing at all — even losing out to “Amour,” “War Witch,” “No,” “A Royal Affair” and “Kon-Tiki” in the foreign field. (Of course, “Kon-Tiki” is a Weinstein title too — so, you know, swings and roundabouts.) With this news, “Amour” can now pretty much rest assured that it has at least one award in the bag.

Weaver’s nod aside, the acting nods brought fewer eyebrow-raising talking points: both Best Actor and Best Actress were hotly contested, each featuring a few too many names for five slots. That SAG nominee Hawkes made way for Phoenix wasn’t as surprising it would have been a month or two ago; buzz for “The Sessions” had been quietly fading, and eventual nominees Hugh Jackman, Denzel Washington, Bradley Cooper and, of course, comfortable front-runner Daniel Day-Lewis had strong support.

Over in Best Actress, something similarly had to give, and it was SAG nominees Helen Mirren and Marion Cotillard, whose performance in “Rust and Bone” simply hadn’t attracted many eyeballs, who made way for Wallis and Cotillard’s compatriot Riva. In Best Supporting Actor, Christoph Waltz overcame internal competition from “Django Unchained” co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson to knock “Skyfall” villain Javier Bardem out of SAG’s supporting actor lineup. (The 007 juggernaut, meanwhile, had to be content with a quartet of technical nods.)

Between Waltz, Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tommy Lee Jones and Alan Arkin, I think this may be the first time the Academy has composed an acting field entirely of former winners, though I haven’t had time to check the records.  

The Best Animated Feature category, as usual, brought one major surprise. While holiday flop “Rise of the Guardians” failed to join fellow studio titles “Frankenweenie,” “Brave,” “ParaNorman” and “Wreck-It Ralph” in the lineup, the beneficiary wasn’t, as might have been expected, one of the foreign GKIDS titles, but Aardman’s quirky British comic adventure “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.” Perhaps some of that seafaring good fortune from “Life of Pi” rubbed off on it.