The deal with Oscar nominations

In the days leading up to the release of the Oscar nominations for the 80th annual ceremony, no nominee was certain — except for the critical hit No Country for Old Men, released in November and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. The film, which follows three characters chasing each other after one of them finds a suitcase of cash, is already the frontrunner for Best Picture.

But other Oscar nominations this past Tuesday were a surprise. Jason Reitman, the director of indie hit Juno, received his first nomination for Best Director on only his second film, his follow-up to Thank You for Smoking. Laura Linney, star of the family drama The Savages, also received a surprise nomination for Best Actress.

Perhaps the most surprising nomination was Tommy Lee Jones’s inclusion in the race for Best Actor for his role in the overlooked Iraq war drama In the Valley of Elah, a film penned and directed by Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning writer-director of Crash, which won Best Picture in 2006.

Elah flopped at the box office during its early fall release, despite critical praise for Tommy Lee Jones’s portrayal of a father seeking the answer to the disappearance of his soldier son. While early Oscar buzz had pegged him a nominee, as the race heated up, many trade publications assumed the slot would go to a younger or more distinguished actor, such as previous winners Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington for American Gangster, or James McAvoy for his romantic lead in Atonement. Entertainment Weekly correctly predicted four of the Best Actor nominees but gave Jones’s slot to Ryan Gosling for Lars and the Real Girl, expecting the Mickey Mouse Club alum’s second nomination in as many years.

Carnegie Mellon alumnus Stephen Schwartz received three nominations in the Best Original Song category for the live-action Disney princess flick Enchanted, leaving only two slots for other songs — one from the Irish indie musical Once and one from the kiddie flop August Rush.

Some of the bigger surprises were for what or who didn’t receive nominations. On the day nominations were announced, the haunting score of Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic There Will Be Blood was disqualified from the Best Score race for drawing too heavily on existing compositions. Joe Wright, director of the lush period piece Atonement, didn’t receive a nomination for Best Director despite a much-talked-about five-and-a-half-minute continuous shot through a battlefield.

Sean Penn’s directorial debut, Into the Wild, received only two nominations — one for film editing and one for 82-year-old Hal Holbrook for Best Supporting Actor. Many had expected a nomination for Penn’s direction, as well as recognition in the Adapted Screenplay category, especially since Penn has already been nominated for Best Director by the Director’s Guild of America.

In the Animated Feature race, the forgettable Surf’s Up!, featuring penguins voiced by random celebrities, edged out The Simpsons Movie for the third slot. Surf’s Up! will vie with Ratatouille and Persepolis for the Oscar.

For some, the most shocking list of nominees came in the Best Foreign Film category. There was drama even early in the selection process, when Israel’s original nominee, The Band’s Visit, was disqualified for featuring too much English. The Band’s Visit’s ineligibility was only brought to attention by people associated with the second choice, Beaufort, which then became Israel’s nominee for Foreign Film and which was nominated for the Oscar on Jan. 22. The Best Foreign Film race was also a source of controversy because it lacked films like Ang Lee’s erotic NC-17 film Lust, Caution and Cannes’ Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a Romanian film focusing on an illegal abortion. Persepolis, a nominee for Animated Film and France’s official candidate, did not receive a Foreign Film nomination, which was also surprising.

But for many, more important than the Oscar nominees was the question of whether the Oscars will even happen. The producer of the broadcast, Gil Cates, has said that the Oscars will occur in some form no matter what.

In the past week, strike blogs like Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily (www.deadlinehollywooddaily.com) have noted increasingly optimistic talks between the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) and the Academy of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). This news, on the heels of a deal between the Director’s Guild of America and the AMPTP diverting a future strike by that guild, is promising for a real Oscar ceremony featuring clips from the nominated films as well as stars. If the WGA does not arrive at a deal or interim agreement prior to the Feb. 24 telecast, they may picket the ceremony, which may cause other guilds, such as the Screen Actors Guild, to refuse to attend the Oscars if it means crossing a picket line.

However, the Academy insists the Oscars will go on with or without the stars that are, for many viewers, the big draw. There are only four acting categories among the Academy’s 27 total categories, USA Today notes, and thus the star power will certainly not affect the size of the Oscar audience if the Screen Actors Guild decides to skirt the ceremony.

But let’s not think about that. If talks stay positive, the strike shouldn’t be a problem by Feb. 24 anyway.