Beyond epic: ‘Simple but profound’ movies contend for 85th annual Oscars

Photo by Fox Searchlight.com/Fair Use exemption

The character-driven "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a contender for Best Picture, as well as Best Actress for 10-year-old Qu'venzhane Wallis, the youngest-ever actress to be nominated.

Louise Newlin, Staff writer

Most years, post-nomination Oscar buzz is all about “snubs,” or the deserving movies and moviemakers not honored for their work with an Oscar nomination.

But while the list of nominees for the 85th Annual Academy Awards includes some omissions — most notably the director of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow, and the director of “Argo,” Ben Affleck — the real surprise is not who got ignored, but who got acknowledged. If there’s a theme to this year’s Best Picture nominees, it might be “variety.” The Academy’s new system for nominating Best Pictures has opened the door to new genres and created a more interesting race than normal.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Benh Zeitlin’s first full-length film, earned him both a Best Picture and Best Director nod, impressive for a directorial debut. The romantic comedy “Silver Linings Playbook” is the first movie since 1981 to win a nomination in every acting category, and got the third most nominations of any movie despite its genre. These films are notable for being smaller scale looks at our lives — accessible and simple tales that are profound in ways that epics sometimes aren’t.  The surprising inclusion of these two sweet and unpretentious movies defies expectations, makes predictions more difficult, and proves that the Oscars are still capable of surprise.

Only a week before the nominees were announced, the Best Picture category was generally expected to become a three-way race between “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “Argo.” In his nominee predictions, First Showing blogger Ethan Anderton went so far as to call “Argo’s” Ben Affleck and “Zero Dark Thirty’s” Kathryn Bigelow “the only locks for Oscar nods.” The fact that both films were snubbed for Best Director and are competing against each other due to similar, political subject matter means a Best Picture win for either film is a long, long shot. With two of the front-runners out of the way, the Best Picture category has become anyone’s game.

The overblown studio vehicle “Life of Pi” picked up 11 nominations, mostly technical, for its admittedly jaw-dropping 3-D special effects.

“Silver Linings Playbook’s” acting sweep makes it another attractive contender. Actors adore this movie, and they make up a significant voting bloc of the Academy itself. But the superb acting in “Silver Linings Playbook” doesn’t fully explain the unlikely presence of this quirky, decidedly middlebrow romantic comedy in the film industry’s most prestigious award ceremony.

Though “Playbook” is a crowd-pleasing studio vehicle, it’s refreshingly alive in a way most Hollywood movies aren’t. According to Salon.com’s Andrew O’Hehir, “it’s a rom-com that succeeds in revitalizing that discredited genre where so many others have failed, injecting it with the grit and emotion of realist drama.” Though it lacks high-brow artistic flourishes, the film’s leads, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, bring emotionally genuine performances to “Silver Linings Playbook” that allow the film to transcend its genre. As Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers put it, “Silver Linings Playbook” “raises the bar on romantic comedy.”

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” also benefits from the emotional honesty and authenticity of its actors. The leads of “Beast,” Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis, are first-time actors under the direction of a first-time filmmaker, and the results are refreshingly believable. Like “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is an unpretentious and exuberant examination of life’s joys. By framing “Beasts” with the perspective of a child, Zeitlin has created a whimsical and frank movie that TV Guide’s Movie Guide called “the antithesis of Hollywood’s summer mind set.” Zeitlin’s boldness and unconventional approach to filmmaking are what earned him a Best Director nod at the expense of popular front-runners.

Both “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Silver Linings Playbook” were character-driven, audience-adored movies that were never expected to get major acknowledgment from the Oscars. Their recognition shows us that the new system for selecting Best Picture Winners, which allows any film with 5 percent or more of the vote to be nominated, has shaken up the award show in a good way. By allowing movies with a small but passionate fan base to be included in the mix, the list of Best Picture nominees has gone from an exclusive club to a celebration of the diverse range of movies that can be considered good, and should be acknowledged as Oscar-worthy.