Like some Zen master clandestinely operating in the heart of Hollywood, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has perfected the art of offering surprises without being surprising. Though specific Oscar nominations can be unexpected, the overall picture remains the same: The academy will always be the academy, doing the things it has traditionally done since what seems like the dawn of time.
Some years, however, certain trends get more emphasis than others, and the nominations offered Thursday did say one thing loud and clear: Reacting to one of the bleakest years in recent American history, the academy shunned the dark side and stayed away, as audiences have traditionally done in hard times, from films that emphasized doom and gloom.
So the buoyant "Slumdog Millionaire," a rags-to-riches film that nearly went straight to video, had 10 nominations, including best picture, and the optimistic animated feature "Wall-E" walked off with six, including screenplay. And it can't be forgotten that the partisans of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which topped the chart with 13 nominations, insist against considerable evidence to the contrary that the film is a positive emotional experience.
That avoidance of melancholy is perhaps the best explanation for why two very different films, "The Dark Knight" and "Revolutionary Road," both considered serious Oscar contenders, were all but shut out of the eight categories major enough to be announced on national television.
Superlatively made and considered a strong possibility for best picture and director, "The Dark Knight" did get eight nominations, but its only major nomination was the all but inevitable nod to the late Heath Ledger for supporting actor for his remarkable work as the Joker, the villain who comes with his own personal hell. "Dark Knight's" phenomenal commercial success might have hurt it -- academy voters like their films to do well but not too well -- but its dark tone was likely the coup de grace.
Similarly, the unremitting bleakness of the well-crafted "Revolutionary Road" probably worked against it, scoring only for Michael Shannon's breakthrough supporting actor performance as the lunatic who speaks the truth.
In fact, the feeling against "Revolutionary Road" was so strong that the acting branch stiffed what was likely the better of Kate Winslet's two excellent performances and nominated her for lead actress for "The Reader," a role many pundits thought would be placed in the supporting category. Anything to stay away from "Revolutionary Road."
"The Reader" benefited most from this exclusion, getting nominations for best picture, director and adapted screenplay that might have gone to its rival. Although on the face of it hardly a happy story, "The Reader" benefited from a trio of academy-friendly factors that traditionally push films over the top.
For one thing, "The Reader" was tangentially about the Holocaust, a subject the academy has always embraced. For another, it took the precaution of tacking on an uplifting there's-hope-for-the-future ending that the book it's based on did not have. And finally it had the benefit of the gifted hand of Oscar mastermind Harvey Weinstein, someone who covers so many bases so assiduously he even called me with the news that Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel was a fan of the film.
The other Oscar traditions this year's nominations followed include:
* Making time for independent films. The two nominations for Sundance prize winner "Frozen River," including lead actress for Melissa Leo, and an act- ing nod for "The Visitors" star Richard Jenkins, would not have been possible before the rise of academy screeners for home viewing.
* Rewarding veterans it admires. That situation not only fits Leo and Jenkins, it accounts for Robert Downey Jr.'s nomination for "Tropic Thunder," definitely not an academy-type film, and Josh Brolin's nomination for "Milk." Both men helped their cause by being strong in other well-liked 2008 films, Downey in "Iron Man" and Brolin in "W."
* Relishing the diversity of the original screenplay category. The choice of "Milk" aside, the writers really outdid themselves this year, taking not only Britain's iconoclastic Mike Leigh for "Happy-Go-Lucky" but also Courtney Hunt's exceptional independent film "Frozen River." Emphasizing that screenwriting is more than dialogue, Pixar's "Wall-E" was also picked despite being all but wordless for its first 40 minutes. Perhaps the most unexpected nod went to British writer-director and playwright Martin McDonagh for his little-seen "In Bruges."