By Anthony Breznican
January 10, 2013 at 03:52 PM EST
Robyn Beck/Getty Images
Robyn Beck/Getty Images

You could hear the gasp when Benh Zeitlin’s name was read. It reverberated throughout Hollywood, which has to feel good if you’re the first-time feature director.

Even he didn’t expect himself to get a nomination. “For director, I honestly didn’t think there was any possibility that that was going to happen,” he told EW’s Karen Valby this morning. “And I thought they’d finished announcing the names so I wasn’t even nervous. … I just sort of tuned out and then I just heard my name out of the back of my head and I went into a black-out.”

If you’re three particular veteran directors … it didn’t feel quite so great.

The Beasts of the Southern Wild director wasn’t considered a favorite at all for a best director nomination … And where was Argo‘s Ben Affleck, Zero Dark Thirty‘s Kathryn Bigelow, and Les Miserables‘ Tom Hooper?

The directing category provided the most shocks, differing from the Directors Guild Awards contenders not just by one (which is typical) but by three. The other two surprises in addition to Zeitlin: Silver Linings Playbook‘s David O. Russell and Amour‘s Michael Haneke.

Here’s a breakdown of how some of the top categories shook out:

Best Picture

Amour

Argo

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Django Unchained

Les Miserables

Life of Pi

Lincoln

Silver Linings Playbook

Zero Dark Thirty

The list could have run anywhere from five to 10 nominees, depending on how many films got No. 1 votes from members, and it went to nine — just like last year. There weren’t many surprises here, but what was once a four- or five-way race now seems to have a clear front-runner: Lincoln, which led the total nominations with 12. Life of Pi was right behind it with 11.

Pundits will now be reshuffling their Top 5 predictions to look something like this:

1. Lincoln

2. Life of Pi

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild

4. Silver Linings Playbook

5. Amour

Prize Fighter score: I correctly predicted eight of the nine. Django Unchained was one I suspected wouldn’t get nominated, and I had Moonrise Kingdom instead. I also thought it would go to 10 nominees, and had Skyfall in that final slot.

I accurately gauged early on that Life of Pi would be a top contender, which a lot of people dismissed. I can tug on my suspenders with pride over Ang Lee’s film being the runner-up with most nominations today, but not so fast … I should also hang my head about not having more faith in Django getting on to the list, although many pundits predicted otherwise. I heard too many conflicting reactions from anecdotal sampling of voters, and my instinct said a film about the gleeful vengeance killing of rich white folks wouldn’t resonate so much with the Beverly Hills set.

Lesson learned: Never underestimate Hollywood’s deep longing for self-destruction.

Next Page: The Best Actor category …

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Best Actor

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

Denzel Washington, Flight

To paraphrase a line from Lincoln: “This category, sir? It’s done.” Daniel Day-Lewis is the clear front-runner, and only a complete meltdown would topple him.

Otherwise … poor John Hawkes. The star of The Sessions, who brought such wit and charm to the character of a severely disabled man looking for love before his life ends, seemed like a sure thing. That was especially true after The Master‘s Joaquin Phoenix gave an interview slagging the Oscar campaign process, which many people interpreted (incorrectly) as a slam on the Academy Awards themselves. But Hawkes, who was a best supporting actor nominee for Winter’s Bone two years ago, simply didn’t woo enough voters to land a nomination.

Prize Fighter score: I got four out of the five, believing Hawkes was in. Back in October, I wrote about the controversial Phoenix interview and speculated that he may have actually improved his chances at getting a nomination because many Academy members agree — the glad-handing and electioneering that accompanies the Oscar race can be kind of soul-sucking. But his name seemed to be greeted with shrugs by many Oscar voters as the months wore on, and I came to think he had actually done himself in.

Lesson learned: Sometimes it’s better to stick with your first impression. Also, expect the new trend in campaigning next year to of the “Screw the Oscar campaign!” variety.

Next Page: The Best Actress category …

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Best Actress

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Naomi Watts, The Impossible

There seems to be a lot of movement in this category. Various voters have their favorites, but there is universal admiration for all of them. I expect a lot of Academy members will keep their choice here fluid over the next month and a half. Chastain is probably the closest thing to a leader in the category, but Lawrence has a loyal following, too, and the other votes indicate a lot of love for Silver Linings.

Riva, at 85, and Wallis, at 9, set an interesting simultaneous record — they are the oldest and the youngest people ever nominated for the lead actress award. I had heard some grumbling from voters in the acting branch that a lively performance from a kid so young — Wallis was 6 when Beasts was shot — is more of a directorial achievement than an acting one. After all, these voters often spend more time learning their craft than she was even alive. But the energy of that performance won them over, and good for her. She’s a sweetheart.

The loser here: Marion Cotillard, who previously won for La Vie En Rose, shut out for her performance as an orca trainer who suffers a terrible accident.

Prize Fighter Score: Four for five. I thought Cotillard, a Screen Actors Guild Awards contender, was in and Wallis was out, but that wee girl came through.

Lesson Learned: Don’t bet against the pint-sized, and remember that actors hate, hate, hate to make a big deal about age.

Next Page: The Best Supporting Actor category …

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Best Supporting Actor

Alan Arkin, Argo

Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master

Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

The front-runner is Jones, whose abrasive, eloquent, and fearsome anti-slavery congressman is one of the great joys of Lincoln, a movie that is now the clear Oscar leader. The main question before the announcement was whether Waltz would get in, or whether one of his Django co-stars — Leonardo DiCaprio or Samuel L. Jackson — might take it. That fifth slot seemed destined for one of the colorful supporting players in Quentin Tarantino’s slave western.

Prize Fighter Score: Five for five! Yay. I shall reward myself with a fistful of gummi bears.

Lesson Learned: The key to a supporting actor nomination — surliness. This group of guys define cantankerous — although Waltz does his with a wink.

Next Page: The Best Supporting Actress category …

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Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, The Master

Sally Field, Lincoln

Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

Helen Hunt, The Sessions

Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

Hathaway is out ahead, an award season juggernaut who seems to win every competition. But Field is close on her heels and has a 2-for-2 record of winning her Academy Award nominations. Even if Academy affection for Les Mis seems to be wanting, there is near universal acclaim for Hathaway’s performance. She’ll be tough to beat, but if anything, this is a two-way race between them.

Prize Fighter Score: Ugh. Only three for five. (All right, have the gummi bears back … I have lost my taste for them.) Instead of The Master‘s Amy Adams and Silver Linings Playbook‘s Jacki Weaver, I had Maggie Smith for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and ultra-underdog Ann Dowd for Compliance. Some voters I spoke to felt Weaver and Adams had underwritten roles, but Weaver has been an active campaigner and actors’ branch affection for both Silver Linings and The Master runs deeper than I expected.

Lesson Learned: There’s a fundamental question about the job of an Oscar writer: Is it our job to merely repeat what’s in the echo chamber, or should we occasionally shout a name out into it, and hope others hear? If you perpetually go shooting your mouth off for advocacy’s sake, you have no credibility. But if you never take a stand, never spend a little of that credibility to champion a deserving contender who doesn’t have a lot of campaign resources … what good are you?

Dowd gave a stellar performance in Compliance, as a fast-food manager who gets duped into doing some terrible things by a man pretending to be a cop. It’s a tough movie because it strikes at something ugly about human nature — our fealty toward authority. If I had to be wrong about something, I’m happy to have been wrong about her. A little rebellion is good for the soul.

However, I should have at least seen Adams coming instead of Smith. I’ll take a knuckle smack over that.

Next Page: The Best Director category …

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Best Director

Michael Haneke, Amour

Ang Lee, Life of Pi

David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Here’s where a lot of pundits hit the skids and flew off the road. Few, if any, correctly predicted Zeitlin’s nomination — and you have to assume that after so much praise, and Directors Guild Award nominations, Argo‘s Ben Affleck and Zero Dark Thirty‘s Kathryn Bigelow are in the market for new television sets after hurling coffee mugs at theirs this morning. (At least, that’s what I would have done in their place.)

Les Miserables‘ Tom Hooper …? Even though he also had a DGA nod, he was the one contender who seemed most vulnerable. The lack of directing nominations for those three films downgrades their likelihood of getting Best Picture wins.

The directing front-runner now: Spielberg for Lincoln. Although … I would say Lee is a close second. The Academy clearly loves Life of Pi, which followed Lincoln‘s 12 nominations with 11 — despite having no acting nominees. Pi is considered one hell of a directorial achievement, and with Brokeback Mountain, Lee has a history of winning Best Director even if Best Picture goes elsewhere.

Prize Fighter Score: Not too bad, considering the curveballs here — three for five. Spielberg was obvious — anyone could have gotten that. But I also correctly had Lee, even though some pundits were saying he was out. And I’m glad I chose Haneke instead of Quentin Tarantino or Hooper, which was a tough decision. Like many, I was surprised by Russell and would’ve said you were crazy yesterday if you’d suggested Zeitlin was in the race.

Lesson Learned: The directing branch has a history of skewing a little art-house with its nominations, and that really came through this time. Filmmakers know how challenging it is to get a film made, especially with limited resources. That’s why the admired Lee, for pulling off a project that three other major directors had abandoned, and probably why they went with Zeitlin, who made a surreal, elegant fantasy fable with an ultra-low, do-it-yourself budget.

Next Page: The Best Animated Feature category …

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Best Animated Feature

Brave

Frankenweenie

ParaNorman

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Wreck-It Ralph

Rise of the Guardians can’t catch a break. The DreamWorks Animation movie underperformed at the box office, and was the contender most pundits (including me) thought would make this list.

If there’s a front-runner, I’d say it’s Wreck-It Ralph, although Brave and Frankenweenie are just as likely. (Each one comes from a subsidiary of Disney, so the Mouse House has a Sophie’s Choice on its hands.) Sometimes the Academy votes for older fare, which would favor ParaNorman. The leader is a bit hazy at this point.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits? Few expected the Sony Animation movie to score a nod. Maybe it’s lucky to be here, or maybe more voters will now see it and fall for the wacky seafaring adventure.

Prize Fighter Score: Four out of five. I didn’t see Pirates coming — and, honestly, haven’t seen Pirates, period. (I’ll fix that this weekend.) My guess was Rise of the Guardians but … there you go.

Lesson Learned: Well, it’s not the first time a “band of misfits” caused upheaval for Santa.

Next Page: The Best Original Screenplay category …

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Best Original Screenplay

Amour, Michael Haneke

Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino

Flight, John Gatins

Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola

Zero Dark Thirty, Mark Boal

A week ago, I’d have said Boal was leading the group for his original reportorial work crafting the script for Zero Dark Thirty, but that film has come under attack from so many quarters — often unfairly — that it may be capsizing him. The lack of a Best Director nod for Kathryn Bigelow is a very obvious bad sign.

This category would seem to be very much up in the air.

Prize Fighter Score: Four for five. This is a tough category, since writers tend to vote outside the mainstream of films being widely considered for best picture. In my mind, it was a toss-up between Gatins for Flight and Rian Johnson’s time-travel mindbender Looper, which each had a lot of fans among writers in the Academy. I went with Looper, but hey … good on Gatins. He’s a great guy, and worked for a decade to get Flight made. He deserves this nomination, and even though I was wrong, I was cheering for him.

Lesson Learned: Academy writers aren’t typically down with sci-fi, and that doesn’t seem to be changing.

Next Page: The Best Adapted Screenplay category …

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Best Adapted Screenplay

Argo, Chris Terrio

Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin,

Life of Pi, David Magee

Lincoln, Tony Kushner

Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell

The winner here: Tony Kushner for Lincoln. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Angels in America took just a section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and crafted it into an epic historical and political thriller. He found a way to immerse us in the language of that era without losing us, and the achievement here is undeniable. He faces a list of worthy rivals, but I would be shocked if he doesn’t win on Feb. 24.

Prize Fighter Score: Four for five. While I admired David Magee’s script for Life of Pi, it felt like writers considered that film more of a directorial achievement. But Magee deserves credit for capturing the elegant narration of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel. I had heard a lot of praise from writers for Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which he also directed. He probably came close, but fell just short.

Lesson Learned: Sometimes it pays to play it safe. If I’d done that, I’d have gone with Life of Pi — a movie I loved. But there was also a lot of vocal support for Perks — another movie I loved. So which way was playing it safe? If your humble Oscar prognosticator weren’t a Pittsburgh kid (which is where Perks was set) and hadn’t gone to high school in the early ’90s (which is when Perks was set), and didn’t have a soft-spot for rebellious teenagers (what can I say, I was trouble back then), might I have chosen differently? But that’s why this is an art not a science. If I’d played it safer overall I might have missed a few others (which is where I went wrong for director and actress — two categories where I should have taken more chances.)

In the end, I average about four for five correct picks. Now … the guessing begins for who will win.

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