Oscar Nominations: Sure Things, Close Calls and Wild Cards (Analysis)

'Beasts of the Southern Wild' - Story Featurette Thumbnail - L 2012

Lincoln didn't end up tying the record for most Oscar nominations ever received by a single film: 14, which is shared by All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997). But with a field-leading 12 nominations, including three for acting and a bunch for crafts, Steven Spielberg's profile of the 16th president still had one of the strongest showings of all time and solidified its standing as the film to beat in the best picture Oscar race. (The best picture nominee with the most nominations -- which in this case is also the best picture nominee with the biggest box office -- usually prevails.)

Lincoln's and Spielberg's personal prospects were boosted further by the fact that three films regarded as comparably strong contenders, Argo, Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty, were shockingly denied a nom for best director. Only three films without a best director nomination have managed to win best picture -- and only one in the past 80 years, Driving Miss Daisy (1989).

Ben Affleck (Argo), Tom Hooper (Les Mis) and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) all received nominations from the Directors Guild of America. The directors union, which has about 15,000 members, usually is a great predictor of the behavior of the Academy's 369-member directors branch. This year, however, the DGA and the Academy found more disagreement than agreement. Maybe Academy voters have residual bad feelings about Affleck's tabloid days or don't really like musicals or were deterred by the torture debate. But one Academy member spoke for many when he reacted to these snubs by telling The Hollywood Reporter, "I am beyond embarrassed by this," adding that he found it to be "bizarre shit" in what clearly "ain't no conventional year."

Spielberg ended up joined in the best director category by the filmmakers responsible for four other best picture nominees: Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook, the latter two of which might have the best shot besides Lincoln to win best picture.

PHOTOS: Academy Awards 2013: The Nominees

Compelling best picture cases can be made for and against both: Pi scored a nom from all the technical branches, which indicates that it has a large base of support. But the fact that it received no acting nominations is not helpful, as few films have won without at least one nom from the Academy's largest branch. Playbook has the opposite problem: It scored a nom in all four of the acting categories -- something that hasn't happened in 31 years and only 13 other times in history, indicating huge support from actors. However, the film scored only one nomination in a "below the line" category, best film editing.

A best film editing nomination is considered to be pivotal, though, as only nine movies have won best picture without one since the category was introduced in 1934, the most recent of which came 22 years ago with Ordinary People (1980). Another nom that is nearly essential to have a realistic shot at winning best picture is for screenplay, in either the best adapted or best original category. Only two films in the past 57 years have won best picture without one, the most recent being Titanic (1997).

The fact that Les Miserables failed to register a nom in either of those two categories -- and that all other best picture nominees showed up in at least one of them -- or for best director essentially puts the nail in the coffin on that film's best picture chances. Its supporters must be pleased with the fact that it did score eight nominations overall and almost certainly will win at least one of them, best supporting actress, for which Anne Hathaway is the prohibitive front-runner.

PHOTOS: Academy Awards 2013: The Nominees

Meanwhile, the fact that Argo and Zero Dark Thirty joined Lincoln and Life of Pi in securing both screenplay and film editing noms -- and wound up with a respectable total of seven and five noms, respectively -- has to give their supporters hope that the best director snub is an aberration and nothing more.

Lincoln's most assured win probably is Daniel Day-Lewis for best actor -- which is really saying something, considering that the 55-year-old already has two best actor Oscars on his shelf, and no man in history has won a third. It's always possible that the Academy might opt to honor to a first-time acting nominee from another best picture-nominated film, such as Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook) or Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables). This happened a decade ago when the perceived front-runners Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson, both previous winners, were upended by rookie Adrien Brody. Or voters could choose to reward another veteran, such as previous two-time nominee Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) or two-time winner Denzel Washington (Flight), even if there isn't much reason to believe that the full Academy loved their films. (The Master's three noms all came from the actors branch, and Washington's and screenwriter John Gatins' are the only two afforded to Flight.) But my clear sense is that most voters regard Day-Lewis' performance as being in a different league than the others.

Lincoln could win best supporting actor, too, thanks to the colorful performance by Tommy Lee Jones, the category's winner 19 years ago for The Fugitive. But he faces some stiff competition: The other four nominees are previous Oscar winners, as well -- an Oscars first! Robert De Niro might be the sentimental choice, as it's been 21 years since he was even nominated, and his emotional performance in Silver Linings marks a return to form for him after a lot of years of mostly comedic schlock. Argo's Alan Arkin, who won just six years ago for Little Miss Sunshine, could emulate Jason Robards and win supporting actor twice in a short span of time -- his best argument is his longevity, and with this nom he sets a record for most years between the first and (potentially) last nomination of a male actor, 46 -- but some may feel that his role in a true ensemble film is not large or substantive enough to merit that. And The Master's Philip Seymour Hoffman certainly plays a memorable part in his film, but he might not go over as well with the Academy at large as he does with its actors branch, which nominated him even for Charlie Wilson's War (2007).

PHOTOS: Oscars 2013: Records Broken for Oldest, Youngest Nominees

And then there's Christoph Waltz and Django Unchained, a performance and film that are true wild cards in this year's race. Waltz was this category's winner for his prior collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, three years ago. Django, meanwhile, seems to have a diverse base of backers -- in addition to Waltz's acting nom, it received noms for best picture, best original screenplay, best cinematography and best sound editing. And, if anything, that support -- and voters' support for him -- probably only will grow as the film, which was released very late in the season, gets seen by stragglers and as the controversy over its depiction of extreme gun violence (right in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy) and the N-word (which prompted some vocal opposition to the film) inevitably dies down. For Django, I think anything is possible.

Supporting actress seems like Hathaway's category to lose. Even though she has very limited screen time, she nails the one big song that she has to sing -- just as Jennifer Hudson did en route to her Oscar for Dreamgirls (2006), albeit in a bigger part -- and she also does a lot of other things that historically have impressed the Academy, such as losing a lot of weight and altering her appearance for her part, in this case giving up her long hair. I can't imagine her losing to either of the two previous Oscar winners Sally Field (Lincoln) and Helen Hunt (The Sessions), perennial nominee Amy Adams (she now has four noms in this category in the past seven years) or Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook), who rode the goodwill felt toward her film to her second nom in this category in three years -- a victory in and of itself.

Finally, at least for our purposes, we come to best actress, a race that is truly too close to call with any degree of confidence prior to Thursday night's Critics' Choice Awards, Sunday night's Golden Globe Awards and the SAG Awards on Jan. 27. My gut feeling is that it will be won by Jennifer Lawrence for her dramedic work in Silver Linings Playbook -- she has a showy part, her fellow actors can't say enough good things about her, and she really makes the movie -- but I think strong arguments can also be made for each of her competitors.

STORY: Oscars 2013: Records Broken for Oldest, Youngest Nominees

In Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain conveys so much by doing so little in the way of "acting," at least until it comes to its climactic end and she can finally let loose a little emotion, and this ultimately could work for or against her. Naomi Watts is every bit as beautiful as Lawrence and Chastain (important, sadly, when voters are predominantly male), but she's also a little older and more experienced and has an impressive body of work under her belt with which the other two cannot compete (all relevant, as many voters look to reward the career as much as the performance). So she might be seen as the "grown-up option" for her heart-wrenching work in The Impossible. Of course, if voters are looking for the most grown-up of the grown-ups, they could do a lot worse than Amour's Emmanuelle Riva, who has been appearing in important films for a half-century and breaks hearts as an elderly woman who becomes a shell of her former self.

And then there is Beasts of the Southern Wild's Quvenzhane Wallis, who at 9 becomes the youngest best actress nominee in history but was 6 when she filmed her performance at the center of a tiny $1.8 million movie made by a first-time feature director and featuring not a single household name. In spite of all that, voters loved it enough to reward it with noms for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best actress. Some fellow actors have suggested that a child performance like hers can be put together by feeding the actor lines and then doing a lot of work in the editing room. But actors will account for only about one-sixth of the people who will decide the outcome of this category, and many of them, as well as most other voters, will be hard pressed not to succumb to the charm and beauty of this performance and film. Any one of these women would be a worthy winner.

It might be too soon to confidently predict winners in many categories -- a testament to the quality of filmmaking this year -- but it's not too soon to note that, as always, the Oscar nominations demonstrate that life is not always fair.

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History will record that the following films were not nominated for a single Oscar: Arbitrage, with a career-best performance by Richard Gere, still seeking his first nom; Bernie, which reveals that Jack Black can be a truly first-rate actor; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, with its great ensemble of veteran British actors; Compliance, with a great performance by Ann Dowd; Cloud Atlas, not my personal cup of tea but a massively ambitious effort with incredible craftwork; The Dark Knight Rises, the brilliant final chapter of a landmark trilogy; The Intouchables, the most financially successful French film in France and abroad in history; Magic Mike, a movie people can't help but like; Middle of Nowhere, an indie that introduces us to the next great actress of color, Emayatzy Corinealdi; and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, one of the sweetest films about adolescence ever made).

Meanwhile, when our grandchildren Google The Avengers, Hitchcock, Mirror Mirror, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Prometheus, Snow White and the Huntsman and Ted, they will read that they were deemed worthy of the Academy's stamp of approval.

That's frustrating, but it's also OK. Nobody, least of all the Academy, can please everyone. And, as we film buffs like to profess, the one list that is arguably even more impressive than the list of films and performances embraced by the Academy is the list of films and performances that were not.