Oscar Nominations Analysis: Contradictory, and Good for ‘The Artist’

With its larger-than-expected slate of Best Picture nominees, the Academy sent Hollywood a whole lot of mixed signals

Nominations for the 84th Academy Awards painted a wild, confusing, contradictory picture of the Academy.

Oscar voters agreed with the critics, giving "The Tree of Life" (below) an unexpected berth in their surprisingly large group of nine Best Picture nominees.

The Tree of LifeThey ignored the critics, putting "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" in the lineup as well.

Also read: Oscar Nominees: The Complete List

They loved actors playing real characters (Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, Brad Pitt as Billy Beane) — and they didn't like actors playing real characters (Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover).

They went for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" in a big way, giving it five nominations and making Rooney Mara the most surprising entrant in the Best Actress category, but left the film out of the Best Picture lineup.

They liked "The Help" enough to put it in that lineup, but they didn't like "The Help" enough to give it a single nomination outside the picture and acting fields.

They really loved Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," making it the most-nominated film of the year, with 11 – but not one of those 11 came in a category voted on by the Actors Branch, by far the Academy's biggest.

Also read: The Snubs (Slideshow)

They shunned Steven Spielberg (no nomination for his animated film "The Adventures of Tintin," which won the Producers Guild Award three days ago), they loved Steven Spielberg (six nominations for "War Horse," tied for third among all films), and they shunned Steven Spielberg again (no director nomination).

They gave actors' actor Gary Oldman the first nomination of his long and celebrated career, but couldn't find room for actors' actor Tilda Swinton.

To go from the occasionally ridiculous to the sublime, the Oscar nominations put me in mind of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," a title Hollywood can surely relate to:

"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

The Academy contained multitudes on Tuesday morning, as epitomized by a nine-film slate of Best Picture nominees that was at least one or two films bigger than most observers had expected.

But with those multitudes of conflicting messages – with a lineup that includes "The Artist" and "War Horse," "The Tree of Life" and "Extremely Loud," "The Help" and "Hugo" and "The Descendants" and "Midnight in Paris" and "Moneyball" – have they given us any signs that the first of those films won't have an easy march to the stage at the end of the show on Feb. 26?

I've said in the past that the key to challenging "The Artist" is to find a film that can firmly assume the number-two slot, that can be the go-to vote for Academy members who aren't enamored with the black-and-white silent film. And with its 11 nominations, maybe "Hugo" has become that film – though it's hard to think it can mount a serious challenge without a single acting nomination.

The other potential challenger, "The Descendants," wasn't exactly hurt in its quest to upset "The Artist" – it was recognized in most of the key categories, minus cinematography – but it wasn't enormously helped, either. (Leaving Shailene Woodley out of the Best Supporting Actress category stings, I'm sure.)

In the animated feature category, meanwhile, voters probably removed the biggest obstacle "Rango" had faced by not nominating "The Adventures of Tintin," Spielberg's motion-capture extravaganza and a film that could well have won if the skeptical animators had given it a nomination.

Also a casualty: "Cars 2," which gives Pixar chief John Lasseter the unpleasant distinction of being the first Pixar director whose film was not nominated for Best Animated Feature during the 10-year existence of the category.

And once again, voters in the Music Branch showed that that branch's nominating process is hopelessly skewed in favor of songs that are performed onscreen, ignoring a large number of very effective end-credits songs in favor of a paltry two nominees: "Real in Rio" from "Rio" and, thankfully, the year's best movie song, "Man or Muppet" from "The Muppets."

And here's a stat worthy of the Golden Globes: Jason Reitman's "Young Adult" and Steve McQueen's "Shame" weren't nominated for anything, but Madonna's "W.E." was.