Thursday's Oscar nominations favored brooding films over blockbusters. The billion-dollar James Bond global blockbuster "Skyfall," which enjoyed considerable buzz as a possible best picture entry, was jilted, as were longshots "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Avengers."
No blockbusters were honored with significant nominations. Overall, "Lincoln" earned the most nominations with 12, followed by "Pi" with 11. The Spielberg biography has earned $145 million domestically -- solid, but no runaway hit, while "Pi's" $91 million U.S. take is dwarfed by the $300 million it has earned internationally.
In contrast, the microscopically budgeted "Beasts" with just $11 million in domestic ticket sales, won nominations in all major categories, from best actress contender Quvenzhané Wallis's turn as a tough sprite, to best original screenplay, best directing and best picture.
While there were no bombshells in the competition lineup, the best actress category was one-of-a-kind, presenting the largest age spread ever among nominees. In addition to Jessica Chastain (as a CIA tracker in "Zero Dark Thirty"), Jennifer Lawrence (playing an off-kilter widow in "Silver Linings Playbook") and Naomi Watts (a mother endangered by a tsunami in "The Impossible"), there were nods for the oldest nominee ever, 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva ("Amour"), and the youngest, 9-year-old Wallis.
There was a wide spread in age and experience among best director nominees as well. Benh Zeitlin, the 30-year-old first time director of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is pitted against the controversial, critically lauded Michael Haneke, 80, whose "Amour" earned a best picture and best foreign film slot. Also in the best director mix are two-time winner Steven Spielberg, 66, for "Lincoln," "Life of Pi's" Ang Lee, 59, who won for "Brokeback Mountain;" and "Silver Linings Playbook's" David O. Russell, 54, a 2010 nominee for "The Fighter." Ben Affleck, director/star of the best picture nominee "Argo," did not make the final cut, but the biggest snub in this category must be "Zero Dark Thirty's" Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win a best directing Oscar for 2010's "The Hurt Locker."
In keeping with a ranked-choice voting system that tallies best picture nominees by how many first-place ballots they receive, members of the Motion Picture Academy chose nine nominees, down from 10 last year. From box-office hits to art-house delicacies, they all share intense themes of struggle and courage. Even the lightest among them -- "Argo," with sly Hollywood satire leavening its suspenseful Iranian spy story, and "Silver Linings Playbook," a love story starring Bradley Cooper as a mentally ill man -- are fraught with anxiety.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild," a fresh-as-morning tale of an endangered Gulf Coast community struggling to survive a Katrina-like storm, and "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino's high-caliber slave revenge epic, offer harrowing yet hopeful visions of African-American life from the antebellum South to the present day.
The historical entries, "Les Misérables," "Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty" highlight epic struggles to overthrow royalist tyranny in 19th-century France, emancipate American slaves, and track down Osama bin Laden. "Life of Pi," the story of an Indian youth adrift on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, and "Amour," chronicling the physical decline of a long-married elderly couple, grapple with eternal issues of the human condition.
As expected, Daniel Day-Lewis's towering performance as Abraham Lincoln was honored. A win this year would make him the first three-time best actor. Also in the running were Oscar winner Denzel Washington as an alcoholic airline pilot in "Flight," Bradley Cooper's revelatory work as a crackpot optimist in "Silver Linings Playbook," Joaquin Phoenix's electroshock gyrations in "The Master" and Hugh Jackman's wrenching, all-singing performance as the persecuted Jean Valjean in "Les Misérables." Though his performance as a paralyzed man seeking to lose his virginity in "The Sessions" won widespread praise for Minnesota native John Hawkes, it didn't make the grade. (In another local connection, Minneapolis native Drew Kunin is nominated for sound mixing on “Life of Pi.” )