Ben Affleck, back left, and Bryan Cranston in "Argo." (Claire Folger / Warner Bros. )
Oscar-watchers with their eyes on the directing category were thrown for a loop Thursday when several big favorites were left off the list while a pair of underdogs made the cut.
Ben Affleck ("Argo") and Kathryn Bigelow ("Zero Dark Thirty") were both omitted from the group of five directors announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Each were thought a lock after their movies, both fact-based stories about an overseas U.S. mission, had drawn wide critical praise and nominations from the directors guild.
Also left off the list was Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of "The King's Speech" who had one of the Christmas season’s biggest hits with his musical “Les Miserables.” (He was also nominated for a DGA prize.)
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Instead, Oscar nominations went to Benh Zeitlin, the eccentric director of the indie magical-realist drama “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and Michael Haneke, the much-decorated European auteur, for "Amour," his story about an elderly couple trying to cope after the wife suffers a debilitating stroke.
Rounding out the list were several favorites. David O. Russell was nominated for “Silver Linings Playbook,” his dramatic comedy about a man with bipolar disorder. Ang Lee made the grade for his 3-D CGI film “Life of Pi,” based on Yann Martel’s bestseller. And Steven Spielberg nabbed a spot for “Lincoln,” his story about the 16th president's attempt to pass an anti-slavery amendment to the Constitution before the end of the Civil War.
But much of the attention Thursday morning was on the two dark horses. Zeitlin had not previously made a feature and Haneke, for all his acclaim in Europe (he has won Cannes' estimable Palme d'Or prize two of the last four years), had never before been nominated for an Oscar.
They formed a compelling pair: meticulous auteurs, separated by 40 years, each landing spots that were expected to go to Hollywood veterans. Zeitlin and Haneke each also garnered screenplay nominations and saw their movies land on the best picture shortlist.
The academy's director list deviates sharply from that of the directors guild, which is usually a strong indicator of Oscars but only had two choices overlap this year (Lee and Spielberg). In recent years, the DGA and Oscars have agreed on at least four of the five choices, though pundits speculated that the early Oscar voting this year meant the 360 or so members of the academy's directors branch didn’t have the DGA nominations to take cues from.
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Reached by phone Thursday, Lee was as taken aback as pundits and filmgoers.
“It’s shocking. Normally there’s a pattern," he said. "There’s no pattern this year.” He said he felt a month ago that he had ”no chance” and only began to feel more optimistic after receiving nominations from BAFTA and DGA this week.
Some pundits speculated that “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the nine-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden, was dinged by the controversy over its torture scenes, with lawmakers such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) saying the film misrepresents the effectiveness of Bush-era "enhanced interrogations" in the quest to find the Al Qaeda leader.
Russell said that he was most surprised by the Affleck omission, followed closely by Bigelow and Hooper. “They’re all really amazing filmmakers and I fully expected all of them to get in,” he said. “Ben the most, and then Kathryn and Tom.”
The developments Thursday could also be a tea leaf for best picture and a troubling portent for “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” — though they were nominated for best picture, it’s been more than two decades since a movie won the top prize without also garnering a director nomination.