By Owen Gleiberman
Updated January 10, 2013 at 12:00 PM EST
Credit: Claire Folger

The Academy Awards wouldn’t be a tenth as much fun if they held no surprises. After the endless and expert prognosticating of a thousand media odds-makers, there’s virtually no such thing as an Oscar night without at least one medium-size upset. And by the time the nominations themselves are read aloud on Tuesday — now Thursday — morning, they have inevitably coughed up their share of dark-horse nods, out-of-the-blue eyebrow-raisers, and “snubs.” This morning, however, even when the smoke had cleared, the dust had settled, and the surprises had been dutifully digested, one category looked so different from what everyone thought it was going to look like that a lot of people simply couldn’t wrap their heads around it.

You know that cliché joke that always gets hauled out in reference to the Academy’s omission of any prominent filmmaker — “So, did they think [insert name of movie] directed itself?” Today, that line applied to the directors of not one but four Oscar-ready über-heavyweights: Argo, Les Misérables, Zero Dark Thirty, and Django Unchained. (I’m mixed on Django myself, but to nominate a Tarantino film without nominating Tarantino seems a contradiction in terms. As much as any filmmaker you could name, he is his movies.) Often, there is one such “snub,” but not four, and usually, there will be one maverick taking up the slack. This year there are two: the veteran Austrian director Michael Haneke (Amour) and the stylishly idiosyncratic hipster newbie Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild).

Let’s be clear from the outset that I’m not complaining. Amour was my second favorite film of the year, and I was thrilled to see Haneke get a Best Director nomination for it. I’m a nay-sayer on Beasts (to me, it was the emperor’s new primitive-chic wallpaper), but I acknowledge that it took tremendous audacity to make that film, and I’m happy, on some level, to see that it can be an Oscar movie. (It says a lot about the adventurousness of this year’s audiences.) What I am doing, however, is taking note of a radical shape-shift in Oscar politics. It used to be that for directors, once you were in the Oscar Club…you were in the Oscar Club. Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee are in The Club, Kathryn Bigelow is in The Club, and Tom Hooper is in The Club. And Quentin is such a giant that even though he’s been nominated twice and never won, he’s in The Club, too. Just as important, the five Oscar nominees for Best Director almost always mirror, with maybe one exception, the five nominees of the Directors Guild of America. This year, the DGA nominees are: Steven Spielberg, Kathryn Bigelow, Ang Lee, Tom Hooper, and Ben Affleck. Speaking of Ben: He hasn’t been invited into The Club, not yet, but having done his most intricate and dazzling work in Argo, and having seen that work draw huge audiences across the country, surely this was the year when he’d be invited in. Why would he be displaced by a Benh who spells his name with an “h” and directs a typical scene in Beasts like the John Cassavetes of the gnat-infested Delta?

Okay, here’s why. Obviously, it’s not a conspiracy. A lot of people in Hollywood must have gone to Academy screenings of Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild, and loved one or both films, and ended up voting for them. Simple math, simple movie love. But that still begs a question: If simple movie love is now the guide, then why, in the past, have the roster of Best Director nominees always followed such a proscribed acclaim-meets-industry-prestige-meets-box-office format? Why, given the sway of the guilds, not to mention the power of collective conventional wisdom in Hollywood, have they always been more or less predictable…until now?

The answer, my friends, has nothing to do with any change in judgment about directors, and everything to do with the fact that the number of Best Picture nominees has expanded from five…to more than five. To nine or even 10. Sure, that change first occurred three years ago, but it took a while to get used to. That’s why, in 2009, the first year (at least, since the days of Old Hollywood) with 10 Best Picture nominees, you could easily break the roster down into the five hallowed titles that would have been there anyway (Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, Precious, and Inglorious Basterds) and the five “added” nominees (The Blind Side, An Education, District 9, A Serious Man, and Up) which, though worthy in their own ways, felt more like the recipients of a group consolation prize.

But now, there have been enough fluky expanded Best Picture slates, and enough “small” winners, that the larger roster of films feels much more organic than it once did. And that means that the potential Best Director nominees are being culled from a dramatically more vast and varied pool. Because if you work in Hollywood, and you think of a movie as a Best Picture nominee, it changes what you think about the filmmaker. He or she is now the artist-as-star. And when you’re allowed to pick only five directorial stars out of a possible gold-headlined nine or 10, there will be blood, if not actual snubs. It’s the nature of what happens when the beasts of the filmmaking wild multiply in number and then duke it out.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman