The year 2012 may go down as the one in which Oscar went rogue. Oscarologists were working overtime during the weeks leading up yesterday’s Oscar nominations announcement, analyzing the results of the growing array of bellwether awards from critics and industry guilds and associations. Fueled by the power of suggestion (and the illusion that crowd sourcing plays a role in every important decision), Oscar watchers became smug in their assumptions about which films the Academy would anoint. And with good reason: In years past, an anticlimactic ennui would inevitably set in moments after the nominations reflected a carbon copy of Anne Thompson or Dave Karger’s predictions.
But this time, the list of Oscar nominees constituted what amounts to the Academy’s declaration of independence from the Awards Industrial Complex. Before the Academy revealed its finalists, Best Director nominations for Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow were considered a fait accompli. They had both scored DGA nods earlier this week and their respective films, "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty," had hovered in the high ninetieth percentile on Rotten Tomatoes. And the political undertones informing both films were thought to be the equivalent of an insurance policy guaranteeing a complete set of major noms, particularly given the Academy’s historic affection for Washington intrigue and movies that “matter.”
The acting races elicited the biggest gasps among the crowd gathered in the wee hours to watch Oscar host Seth MacFarlane and Emma Stone read off the nominees. The Academy did away with a few of its most longstanding traditions and codes of conduct to honor a motley crew of talented, if impolitic, contenders. After Joaquin Phoenix declared the Oscars “utter bullshit,” it came as no surprise that the actor’s highly praised performance in “The Master” was not included among the Screen Actors Guild’s nominees for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role. Those slots went to Denzel Washington (“Flight”), Hugh Jackman (“Les Miserables”), Bradley Cooper (“Silver Linings Playbook”), Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”), and John Hawkes (“The Sessions”).
If we had to choose the actor most on the bubble in this group, it might have been Hugh Jackman, who was a standout in a poorly reviewed film. John Hawkes, however, was the last person anyone might have suspected would get eighty-sixed from the Oscar proceedings. It stands in defiance of every known law of nature and Academy behavior to deny an esteemed character a nod for portraying a quadriplegic poet undergoing a sexual awakening in “The Sessions.” (Maybe Robert Downey Jr.'s character in "Tropic Thunder" was onto something when he suggested that any actor who goes "full retard" -- or, in this case, full body paralysis -- goes home empty handed.) To wit, the Academy's votes ultimately went to the black sheep of this year’s acting alphas, Joaquin Phoenix.
Conventional wisdom also went missing from the female acting categories. In years past, the Academy has behaved like a flock of God-fearing disciples of the silver screen’s elder stateswomen, unable to resist any opportunity to worship at the altar of Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, or anyone with a Dame before her name. This time around, unknown Aussie actress Jackie Weaver filled the slot expected to go to Rachel Weisz, hailed by critics for her raw portrayal of an adulterous free spirit in “The Deep Blue Sea.” And in a heretical display of indie spirit, Hollywood chose to anoint newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis, the plucky five-year-old sprite from “Beasts of the Southern Wild” over Mirren, who was considered a lock for her role as the wily wife in “Hitchcock.”
A similar dynamic played out in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, where “Beasts” bested shiny studio-bred show ponies like “Les Miserables” and a dream team of Dames living out fantasies of late-life romance in the sleeper hit, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Our only regret is that even more offbeat titles – “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Rust and Bone” -- didn’t make it into the mix.
Interestingly enough, The Best Picture race remained faithful to the script laid out in the frenzy of pre-announcement predictions. Aside from a few long-shot contenders that didn’t manage to medal – highly praised indies like “Moonrise Kingom” and “The Master” – each of the nominees has been a mainstay on critics’ year-end ten best lists. And the group, as a whole, represents a highlight reel of 2012’s finest filmmaking.
The Academy’s new outlaw sensibility may even add a welcome layer of unpredictability to the ultimate outcome on Oscar night. Though “Lincoln” looks poised for a landslide victory, we'd be surprised if the laws of entropy didn't make themselves known at the ceremony on February 24. Don’t be surprised if the crowd-pleasing “Silver Linings Playbook” pulls a “Shakespeare in Love” and upsets the presidential heir apparent to the highest office in filmdom.
Which scrappy outsider would you most like to see swoop in and topple the titans?