A funny thing happened to "Zero Dark Thirty," "Argo" and "Les Miserables" on their way to being major Oscar contenders: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters forgot to follow the script.
As expected, "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's epic historical drama, led the field with 12 when the Oscar nominations were announced Thursday. But the directors of the three films considered its main competition -- Kathryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck and Tom Hooper -- failed to receive nominations for best director, even though the movies got best picture nods.
That may not seem like a fatal blow to the films' chances. But ever since the Academy went to an expanded best picture field of as many as 10 movies three years ago, the five directing nominations have pointed toward the top best picture contenders. And no movie has won the top prize without having its director at least nominated since "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1989.
"Lincoln," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Argo" and "Les Miz" will compete for best picture with an eclectic group of films: the visually stunning "Life of Pi"; Quentin Tarantino's bloody "Django Unchained"; the powerful "Amour" (the Austrian-made, French-language film also is nominated for best foreign language movie); the magical, low-budget "Beasts of the Southern Wild"; and the dark romantic comedy "Silver Linings Playbook."
In addition to two-time Oscar winner Spielberg, the other director slots went to Ang Lee ("Life of Pi," with 11 nominations) and three surprise nominees: Michael Haneke ("Amour"), Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts") and David O. Russell ("Playbook"). The inclusion of Haneke and Russell has turned "Amour" and, in particular, "Playbook" into legitimate contenders for the top prize.
Even before the awards are handed out Feb. 24, some history already has been made.
The best actress field includes both the oldest nominee ever (85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva of "Amour") and the youngest (9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, so delightful in "Beasts"). "Amour" is the first foreign language film to battle for best picture since Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000. And "Playbook" is the first film to get nominations in every major category -- scoring a best adapted screenplay nod and acting nominations for all four of its stars (Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) -- since "Reds" in 1981.
While Thursday's directing nominations were enough of a shocker to keep Hollywood talking for days, there were other snubs and surprises.
In the best actor category, prohibitive favorite Daniel Day-Lewis ("Lincoln"), Cooper, Hugh Jackman ("Les Miz") and Denzel Washington ("Flight") all got nods as expected. But John Hawkes -- who seemed to be a lock for "The Sessions" -- was bumped for Joaquin Phoenix ("The Master"), who appeared to be out of the running after he publicly dissed the Oscars late last year.
For best actress, Wallis and Riva are joined by Lawrence, Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark") and Naomi Watts ("The Impossible"). Notably absent: Marion Cotillard, whose performance in "Rust and Bone" had made her an early favorite.
In the best supporting actor field, a fistful of previous Oscar winners -- De Niro, Alan Arkin ("Argo"), Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Master") and Tommy Lee Jones ("Lincoln") -- all got nods, as most predicted. But Leonardo DiCaprio, who had been considered a top contender for "Django," was bumped for cast mate Christoph Waltz.
The big surprise in the best supporting actress category was Weaver, who grabbed a spot that appeared to belong to Maggie Smith ("The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"). Weaver's potent competition: Anne Hathaway ("Les Miz"), Helen Hunt ("Sessions"), Sally Field ("Lincoln") and Amy Adams ("The Master").
Even with all the surprises, the best picture field is considered particularly strong, probably the best group since the Academy went to the expanded field.
Not only were most of the nominees critical favorites -- the reviews of "Les Miz" were mixed -- but most have also shown strong audience appeal. "Argo," "Life of Pi," "Les Miz" and "Django" all are box office hits, earning at least $90 million. "Playbook" has earned $34.6 million in relatively limited release. "Amour" and "Zero Dark" have done well in very limited release. Only "Beasts" has been little seen, earning just $11.2 million since coming out in the summer.
The biggest box office hit of them all, at $144 million, is "Lincoln" -- and now it's viewed as ahead of the pack for best picture Oscar. But Spielberg himself knows all too well, it is a slippery slope from nomination to win.
In 1998, Spielberg's World War II epic "Saving Private Ryan" looked a lock for best picture. But when the prize was handed out, it went to "Shakespeare in Love" in what is considered the biggest upset in Oscar history.
For all things Oscar, follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.