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For Better (and Worse), the Academy Went Beyond the Obvious

Analysis: Oscar nominations proved that the Academy sometimes goes beyond the obvious in search of the best

They got it right.

Not all of it, but a lot of it, starting at the top.

The first line on the first page of the press release announcing Oscar nominations, under the Performance by an Actor in a leading role category, reads like this:

Javier Bardem"Javier Bardemin "Biutiful" (Roadside Attractions).

With that nomination, the Academy's actors branch not only fulfilled my biggest wish going into nominations morning, but proved that they sometimes go beyond the obvious in search of the best.

(Also see: The Full List of Nominees)

Between Bardem for Best Actor, John Hawkes (for a small movie, "Winter's Bone") as a surprise Best Supporting Actor nominee over someone from the inescapable "The Social Network," and Jacki Weaver winning a Best Supporting Actress nod for a great performance in a tiny film, "Animal Kingdom," the acting nominations were for the most part smart and solid.

Sure, you could argue rightfully that Lesley Manville should be in there for "Another Year," and so should Ryan Gosling for "Blue Valentine," and so should Robert Duvall, who was likely bumped to make room for Bardem, for "Get Low."

But the actors, I think, did their job – and on the rest of the ballot, despite the inexplicable (and unjust) omission of Christopher Nolan from the Best Director category, Academy voters made some fun, interesting choices.

The small, tough "Winter's Bone" landed a Best Picture nod, while the big, popular "The Town" did not. Mike Leigh's "Another Year," which deserved more nominations than it got, was at least honored in the Original Screenplay category by the Academy's writers branch, generally one of its most adventurous.

And in the categories that rely on special committees, things were equally offbeat. "Exit Through the Gift Shop," the weirdest and most imaginative film on the shortlist, got a nod for Best Documentary (while "Waiting for 'Superman,'" two days after it won the Producers  Guild Award, did not).

"Dogtooth," even weirder and tougher and more imaginative, made it through a Foreign-Language process once thought to favor the safe and conventional, and emerged as one the final five.

As usual when it comes to the Oscars in recent years, independent films — or films released by major-studio indie arms like Fox Searchlight — dominated. The Independent Film & Television Alliance says that 35 independent films were nominated in the major categories, as compared to only 18 major studio productions.

And Celine Rattray, one of the producers of Best Picture nominee "The Kids Are All Right," says that 14 nominations — including the four for her film — come from films that showed at the Sundance Film Festival last year. 

The nominations, in which "The King's Speech" landed the most mentions with 12, followed by "True Grit" with 10 and "The Social Network" and "Inception" with eight, did not materially alter the awards picture. We knew going in that "King's Speech" would probably lead in nominations, and that "Social Network" would not. 

We knew that "The Fighter," "Black Swan" and "True Grit" were also major players – and that strength was reflected in the directing nominations, the single most surprising category with Nolan's absence.

But that was one of the lessons of Tuesday morning: the rap we've occasionally been hearing about "Inception," that all of its support comes from the below-the-line categories, might in fact be true (though it did land an Original Screenplay nod, in addition to its Best Picture citation).

In fact, the fact that "Inception" didn't get a nomination for Film Editing is another indication that despite the eight nominations, the film fell short with key Academy constituencies.

Other lessons: "The Social Network" does not have the easy road to the Kodak that it seemed to have after sweeping the critics awards. One sign of the film's vulnerability was its no-show in the Supporting Actor category, where Andrew Garfield once seemed a sure nominee and Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer possible contenders as well.

"True Grit" came out looking better than expected, while the six nods for "The Fighter" and the five for "Black Swan" (which missed in the screenplay category) were heavily weighted toward the marquee categories.

Quibbles will abound with this group of nominees, as they always do. Here's one: in "Hereafter," Clint Eastwood's visual effects team created a remarkable tidal wave that makes the film's opening sequence absolutely harrowing. But in "Tron: Legacy," the effects team created an entire world and everything in it. "Hereafter" got a nomination, "Tron" didn't. Go figure.

Meanwhile, the Academy may love Martin Scorsese, but they didn't love — or maybe they just forgot about — "Shutter Island," which came out early in the year and got lost along the way to zero nominations. 

But on the whole, I'd say we have an interesting race – and when I look back at my predictions and see that I went 10-for-10 in best picture and five-for-five in Actor, Actress and Supporting Actress after voting with my heart in several crucial instance, I can't complain.

Congratulations, Academy. You did a pretty good job.