The announcement of the Oscar nominations each year is a dramatic and sometimes surprising event. Without fail there is someone who everyone was sure would score a nod but who, for whatever reason, was left out in the cold. Every year also contains the opposite sort of surprise. Some star of a minor indie flick is sleeping in their warm, cozy bed (the nominations are announces at the ungodly hour of 5:30 AM on the west coast) and is surprised to be awoken by a flood of calls congratulating him on his surprise Oscar nomination. This year was no exception; the crop of nominees for the Oscars contains its fair share of surprises and interesting tidbits.
At some point, we'll talk about who and what got snubbed, but today, I'd like to focus on the surprising nominations.
Raise your hand if you've seen (or even heard of) The Messenger. Anyone? Yeah, me neither. I keep pretty up to date with movies even if I'm not going to see them, and this one was completely out of left field as far as I was concerned: Woody Harrelson picks up his first nomination in 13 years for this film that I'm going to have to drive like 150 miles to find playing somewhere.
There are several other Where-the-Hell-Did-They-Come-Up-With-That-One nominees this year. The Secret of Kells, which is nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, is a little-known film out of the UK. The only US release it had was the requisite week in LA to qualify for the Academy Awards (which obviously paid off), so the chances most people have ever heard of it are pretty slim. The film has a very 2-D animation style, with bright contrasting colors that remind me of the art style in The Triplets of Belleville (another out-of-nowhere Academy favorite). The surprise here is mostly in the fact that a relative unknown beat out the more popular Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (which was nominated for the Golden Globe in this category) and the art-house favorite Ponyo (directed by past winner for Spirited Away and past nominee for Howl's Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki) in what is becoming an increasingly contentious category. Speaking of animated films, Up is now only the second animated feature film ever to be nominated for Best Picture (the first was Beauty and the Beast in 1991). This is actually not really a surprise, as Up has been hailed by many critics as the best film of the year.
The Best Picture category this year is an interesting new experiment the Academy is trying in making the Oscars more accessible to the average movie-goer. Over the past decade or so, the Academy has faced criticism for continually nominating indie films no one had seen or heard of. Last year's awards were a perfect example: the highest grossing film of the year, and one of the most highly-regarded, The Dark Knight, was shut out of the Best Picture/Director categories, despite a fan campaign to earn it a nod. The Academy attempted to remedy the situation this year by doubling the number of Best Picture nominees to 10. This, they reasoned, would allow more popular fare a chance to directly compete with the Academy-darling indie flicks which have done so well in the past. Their gamble seems to have paid off, at least on the surface. This year's crop of Best Pictures includes the popular (Inglorious Basterds, Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Up), the indie flicks (The Blind Side, Precious, A Serious Man, An Education) and the just plain surprising (District 9). District 9 is not what one necessarily thinks of when they think of excellent filmmaking. A science fiction film has NEVER won Best Picture, and the last one nominated was E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial in 1982.
While this year's nominations didn't hold as many surprises as last years' (Richard Jenkins in The Visitor? Melissa Leo in Frozen River? Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder? Really?) the winners are still anybody's guess.