Perspective: In a day of surprises, Acad voters went with their gut

Those who tend to complain about the lack of surprises during awards season received a major tonic — one both delicious and unsettling — in Thursday morning’s Oscar nominations.

In parsing the many unexpected developments, one could begin with the absence of French megahit “The Intouchables” from the foreign-language film category, or such inclusions as Jacki Weaver for supporting actress, giving “Silver Linings Playbook” a rare grand slam in all four acting races.

Yet nothing drew more gasps than the omissions of presumed locks Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”) and Ben Affleck (“Argo”) from the director category, and the inclusions of Michael Haneke (“Amour”) and Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”). Factor in the appearance of “Playbook” helmer David O. Russell, himself considered something of a long shot for a nomination, and you have an astounding number of upsets for one category.

Almost immediately, pundits launched into much-heated analysis of whether Bigelow’s prospects were or weren’t torpedoed by the torture debate and political wrangling surrounding “Zero Dark Thirty.” There were fewer coherent theories as to how Affleck, widely expected to reap the show-of-respect nod the Academy loves to bestow on actors-turned-directors, was left off the list, allowing a far less famous “Benh” to sneak in. Or, for that matter, why voters didn’t opt for Tom Hooper (“Les Miserables”), Quentin Tarantino (“Django Unchained”) or Paul Thomas Anderson (“The Master”), all of whom seemed like more realistic alternatives before this morning.

My own generalized and highly unscientific theory: Despite their significant precursor victories and studio backing, “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” are smart, fact-based geopolitical thrillers stronger on nuts-and-bolts suspense than on the sort of gut-clutching emotion the Academy traditionally prefers. And voters ended up responding more powerfully to a pair of low-budget, specialty-division pickups — one of them a first feature, the other in a foreign language — which nonetheless delivered that sort of emotion in spades.

The Academy’s extraordinary show of support for Haneke and Zeitlin spread well beyond the director category, and it’s hard to look back at their respective, much-laureled journeys on the 2012 festival circuit — “Beasts of the Southern Wild” scored the grand jury prize at Sundance and went on to win the Camera d’Or at Cannes, where “Amour” copped the Palme d’Or — and not feel that these two pictures are, in a real sense, artistically and perhaps even spiritually linked.

My colleague Jon Weisman suggested as much when he noted that ” ‘Amour’ and ‘Beasts’ became partners of sorts, not only earning screenplay nominations (original and adapted, respectively) but also setting marks for the oldest and youngest lead actress nominations ever, Emmanuelle Riva and Quvenzhane Wallis.”

That last fact is more than an amazing statistic. It crystallizes the extreme breadth of filmmaking style and experience represented by these two films, one a work of youthful exuberance and crazy, do-it-yourself ingenuity, the other a classical, precision-honed chamber piece infused with the bitter wisdom of old age. As a matter of taste, my own preference runs toward “Amour,” whose compassionate chill has haunted me since I saw the film in Cannes, but I’ll concede that “Beasts” is no less primal in its emotional force.

In either case, it’s thrilling to behold the power of the passion vote in action, to see stubborn, independent-minded movie love triumph over the rigid, rubber-stamping voting patterns that strike me as more standard Academy operating procedure.

And I would argue that a similar level of passion and emotional response accounts for not only the quiet success of “Life of Pi,” truly the crouching tiger of the season with 11 nominations, but also the resurgence of “Silver Linings Playbook,” which, with eight nominations (including an all-important editing mention), must be deemed a formidable contender in a race led by “Lincoln” with 12 nominations.

The passion votes I was personally rooting for — picture and director nominations for the intensely challenging and polarizing “The Master” — didn’t materialize. At the same time, nothing short of genuine passion could explain the lead-actor nomination for Joaquin Phoenix, whose inclusion was not a complete shock but also far from a sure thing, given the disparaging awards-season comments the thesp had made a few months before.

“I think it’s total, utter bullshit,” Phoenix told Interview magazine, “and I don’t want to be a part of it.”

Whether or not he’s thrilled to be nominated now, it’ll be awfully hard for anyone to argue that he didn’t earn it.

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