Oscar punditry isn’t an exact science, but it’s close. As the years go by, nearly two months of precursors are more and more accurately distilled into predictions, removing most of the suspense on the morning of Oscar nominations. Some of this year’s choices were more surprising than others (Javier Bardem in Biutiful, John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone), but every single one was mentioned at at least one stop on the Oscar campaign highway. These days, the Oscars feel more like the victory lap than the race.

"The Social Network," 8 nominations

Are the Oscars guilty of a certain amount of group-think? I’m not sure that’s the case. I believe it’s more an unintentional myopia. A combination of studio campaigns, precursor awards (BAFTA, the Golden Globes, the critics’ awards, the guild awards), and amateur pundits like me tend to narrow the focus to a dozen or so titles. Those are the DVD screeners Academy voters will be sure to watch before marking their ballots, and those are the films that usually divide the lion’s share of nominations. It’s possible there were pockets of strong support for films like The Ghost Writer or Shutter Island, but far more voters were watching The Fighter, The Social Network, and The King’s Speech.

But predictability is only a complaint for over-thinking Oscar-watchers like me. What matters is, were the nominees any good?

"Inception," 8 nominations

Yes, I think so. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights:

  • The ten Best Picture nominees included no real surprises. But it was gratifying to see Winter’s Bone sneak onto the list instead of Ben Affleck’s competent but uninspiring action thriller The Town.
  • After The Dark Knight was controversially snubbed in the Picture, Director, and Screenplay races two years ago – which partly prompted the Oscar expansion to ten Best Picture nominees – Christopher Nolan seemed like an obvious choice this year, if only to make up for the slight. His Inception received eight nominations, including two for Nolan (for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay), but he was conspicuously absent from the Best Director race. This marks the third time Nolan has been nominated by the Directors’ Guild – usually a reliable predictor – only to be left off of Oscar’s list. A guy might start to take it personally. A likely factor in his unfortunate luck is his tendency to make genre films (science fiction, fantasy, and superhero epics, as opposed to Elizabethan dramas, Holocaust movies, and inspirational true stories), for which the Academy has always had a notorious blind spot. The director has reason to celebrate, today earning his second and third career nominations (he was previously nominated for co-writing his breakthrough film, Memento), but he’s overdue to be recognized for his work behind the camera.
  • Michelle Williams earned a well-deserved nomination for her searing work in Blue Valentine, in that fifth Best Actress slot that might also have gone to Julianne Moore for The Kids Are All Right, or Lesley Manville for Another Year. It’s a shame, though, that her co-star Ryan Gosling didn’t make the lineup for Best Actor.
  • I was thrilled to see John Hawkes make the cut for his supporting turn in Winter’s Bone, one of the best performances of the year, but it’s a shame it had to be at the expense of The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield. I would sooner have omitted The Town’s Jeremy Renner.
  • "The King's Speech," 12 nominations

    Best Supporting Actress may be a four-woman race. Melissa Leo is the tentative favorite for playing the mother from hell in The Fighter, but I don’t think she’s a lock. Her co-star Amy Adams has now been nominated three times and is the kind of sexy starlet playing against type that Oscar adores. Helena Bonham Carter could benefit from the strong wave of support for The King’s Speech despite her understated performance. And Hailee Steinfeld, nominated in the supporting category despite having more screen time than any other actor in True Grit, could benefit from the film’s surprising popularity with voters (it earned ten nominations overall) and from Oscar’s occasional fondness for awarding child stars in this race (Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, Anna Paquin in The Piano). Sadly, Animal Kingdom’s Jacki Weaver, who I think gave this category’s best performance, is probably on the outside looking in.
  • The dominance of The King’s Speech (twelve nominations, more than any other film), following its victory at the Producers’ Guild Awards, makes it the possible frontrunner for Best Picture. Until now, The Social Network had dominated the awards season, sweeping the critics’ prizes and the Golden Globes. The Facebook-inspired drama is now up for eight Oscars and thus at a disadvantage (the film with the most nominations usually, but not always, wins), but I think it’s still the frontrunner in the directing race, which makes it a force to be reckoned with in the top category. If Fincher wins the DGA Award, it’s game-on! But if The King’s Speech wins, it’s probably game over. Symbolically, it’s a contest between distinct filmmaking styles: the kind of old-fashioned, traditional storytelling the Academy used to award in bunches (A Beautiful Mind, The English Patient) versus the kind of edgy, forward-thinking, auteurist style Oscar voters have preferred in recent years (The Hurt Locker, No Country for Old Men).

"Winter's Bone," 4 nominations

Below is the list of nominees in the top eight categories, including what I had to say about each of the ten Best Picture nominees.


Black Swan – “To achieve true perfection might be to lose yourself completely in your creation. The result, as represented by Black Swan, can be as fearsome as it is beautiful.”

The Fighter – “The Fighter … could be the name of any number of films on similar subjects, so what makes this one different from the others? I don’t think Russell finds an answer to that question.”

Inception – “Inception is so full of imagination, of visual and narrative invention, of filmmaking verve, and yet with a strong emotional thread that pulls us through its labyrinth of consciousness, that I want to luxuriate in it for hours.”

The Kids Are All Right – “It’s a good sitcom and a good melodrama, bolstered by terrific performances and a few scenes of genuine reflection, but sometimes it feels like a missed opportunity.”

The King’s Speech – “The King’s Speech isn’t as dry as [Tom] Hooper’s earlier period pieces. It’s looser and more at ease, and with his camera he creates visually interesting, off-center compositions and tableaus.”

127 Hours – “[Danny] Boyle’s flourishes work when they evoke Ralston’s mental state, but did we really need POV shots from inside his water bottle?”

The Social Network – “[David] Fincher, instead of extravagant, is pared down, efficient, methodical — chilly to match his protagonist. In its depiction of an obsessive personality, it bears closest resemblance to Fincher’s best film, 2007’s Zodiac.”

Toy Story 3 – “If we’re lucky, and diligent, our childhoods never really die, but adulthood comes just the same. Toy Story 3 is a bittersweet acknowledgment of that.”

True Grit – “It’s well-crafted, as we’d expect, with excellent cinematography by frequent Coen-collaborator Roger Deakins. If my recommendation is a bit soft it’s because it also seems like a creatively safe film.”

Winter’s Bone – “In its unadorned naturalism it bears more than a passing resemblance to Frozen River, another drama about the desperate lives of the hand-to-mouth poor, except this film is even better.”

– Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
– Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, True Grit
– Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
– David Fincher, The Social Network
– David O. Russell, The Fighter

– Javier Bardem, Biutiful
– Jeff Bridges, True Grit
– Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
– Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
– James Franco, 127 Hours

– Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
– Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
– Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
– Natalie Portman, Black Swan
– Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

– Christian Bale, The Fighter
– John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
– Jeremy Renner, The Town
– Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
– Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

– Amy Adams, The Fighter
– Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
– Melissa Leo, The Fighter
– Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
– Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

– Mike Leigh, Another Year
– Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington, The Fighter
– Christopher Nolan, Inception
– Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg, The Kids Are All Right
– David Seidler, The King’s Speech

– Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours
– Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
– Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3
– Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, True Grit
– Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini, Winter’s Bone