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The Academy Likes Paul Thomas Anderson and ‘Phantom Thread’ Even More Than We Realized

Oscar nominations are read so quickly that it takes most observers a few beats to fully understand what they’ve just heard: only once you’ve absorbed who’s in, does it hit you who’s out. So it was when Tiffany Haddish and Andy Serkis announced Paul Thomas Anderson’s bolt-from-the-blue best director nomination for “Phantom Thread.” The gradual realization that he’d made it in ahead of Martin McDonagh — a presumed sure thing for helming Globes and SAG champ “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” — made Anderson’s nod the biggest twist in a morning of many.

As it turned out, Anderson’s exquisitely crafted, psychologically intense period romance was the surprise package of this year’s nominees, scoring six nominations, including one for best picture. Awards pundits had widely predicted its nominations for composer Jonny Greenwood, costume designer Mark Bridges and, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis, for what the three-time best actor winner claims is his final screen  performance; following her BAFTA nomination, Lesley Manville seemed a dark-horse prospect for best supporting actress. All were duly included by the Academy.

But after a chilly reception from the guilds, and only an occasional showing in the critics’ awards, few had been optimistic about Anderson and the film itself netting nominations in a fiercely competitive field. In the years since the Academy shortened the campaigning season by moving the nominations announcement to January, smaller holiday-season releases have often struggled gain traction in time: Notwithstanding a spate of lavish rave reviews, experts feared that “Phantom Thread,” a Christmas Day release without the tailwind of an early festival premiere, had landed too late for its cool, quiet virtues to sink in with voters.

Another late arrival, Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” proved the veracity of such thinking with its disappointing two-nomination haul Tuesday; it had also performed inconsistently in the precursors. That “Phantom Thread” bucked the odds and over-performed is perhaps a testament to the film’s immediately striking, singular qualities — it doesn’t look, move or feel like anything else at the movies this season — as well as to the event status that a Paul Thomas Anderson film is now accorded in American cinema.

Eight features into his career, a younger generation of Academy voters in particular views the 47-year-old Anderson as a modern master, and in the final stages of voting, word of mouth for his latest was spreading. “Just exquisite, an unfiltered work; a sublime object,” tweeted last year’s best picture winner, “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins; “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz was similarly wowed on Twitter, naming the “elegant and peculiar and lush” film one of the year’s top three.

Those are the kinds of endorsements that get peers to pick up their screeners, and that’s the kind of regard that will eventually get Paul Thomas Anderson, now an eight-time nominee for writing, directing and producing, in the Academy’s winners’ circle one of these days. This year? Well, the smart money still has “Phantom Thread” on the fringes in the top races, with Bridges’ glorious gowns representing its best shot at gold. Either way, Anderson’s elegant outlier has already proven it’s not a force to be underestimated.

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