(Reuters) - If I could remove any word from Oscar conversations, it would be "snubbed." It's catchy and makes good headline fodder, but it implies that a cabal of Academy members sat in a room and consciously decided to ostracize this actor or that moviemaker. These ballots are filled out by 6,000 to 7,000 voters, ranging from visual effects experts to screenwriters to studio chiefs. I can't envision secret meetings to decide the fate of each candidate.
Jamie Foxx ("Django Unchained") and veteran French star Jean-Louis Trintignant were both considered serious contenders for a Best Actor nomination; neither made the final cut, even though Trintignant's co-star in "Amour," Emmanuelle Riva, was nominated for Best Actress. At one point, the gifted John Hawkes was touted as a shoo-in for his brilliant performance in "The Sessions." But I've learned never to use the word "shoo-in" where the Oscars are concerned.
There were fewer surprises in the Best Actress category, although some pundits had predicted Helen Mirren for "Hitchcock," Marion Cotillard for the French import "Rust and Bone" and Rachel Weisz, who won the New York Film Critics' award, for "The Deep Blue Sea." As it happens, they took a collective backseat to the youngest female ever nominated in this category, 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis ("Beasts of the Southern Wild") and the oldest, 82-year-old Riva.
The always-crowded Supporting Actor and Actress rosters excluded such prominent figures as Nicole Kidman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and Maggie Smith, while admitting Philip Seymour Hoffman for what is clearly a leading role in "The Master."
But the biggest buzz concerns this year's Best Director lineup. Experienced Oscar watchers could see this brewing, as the current Oscar setup has a built-in dilemma. To understand it, one need only do the math: With the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences now enabling nine films to compete for Best Picture -- in fact, they allow as many as 10 -- but retaining only five slots for Best Director, at least four world-class filmmakers are guaranteed to be left out in the cold. How those four happened to be Kathryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck, Tom Hooper and Quentin Tarantino this year is anybody's guess.
Only members of the director's branch get to nominate directors; that's an elite group of fewer than 400 people. The same constituency didn't cite Affleck for his terrific movie "The Town" a few years ago but did support Bigelow and Hooper, who went on to win for "The Hurt Locker" and "The King's Speech," respectively. They were early boosters of Tarantino, who won an Oscar for Best Screenplay for "Pulp Fiction" in 1994 and was nominated for Best Director for his last film, "Inglorious Basterds." It may be true that they've undervalued Ben Affleck, but there is no logic to the omission of the three other Best Picture directors.
What's more, the Academy's director lineup doesn't coincide with that of the Directors Guild of America, which historically, and almost invariably, has forecast the Oscar winner. But that was before the Academy opened up the Best Picture category beyond its traditional five slots, so now all bets are off. (For the record, this year's DGA nominees are Affleck, Bigelow, Hooper, Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg.)
WHAT ABOUT 'TED'?
Every round of Oscar nominations brings its share of surprises and disappointments. Many people I know were counting on Judi Dench to be up for Best Supporting Actress, which would have made her the first person to be singled out for a performance in a James Bond movie in that series' 50-year history. There was also great enthusiasm for Javier Bardem's performance as the movie's colorfully sinister villain. Both Dench and Bardem are former winners, so the Academy actors' branch clearly appreciates them … just not enough to make this year's finals. Even so, "Skyfall" earned a record five nominations, including one for Thomas Newman's rousing music score and one for cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has been nominated 10 times and never taken home one of those gold statuettes. (It's the first time around for Adele, who sang and co-wrote the movie's theme song.)
Over the course of the year, a handful of other films elicited critical notice that might have led to Oscar recognition: Richard Linklater's "Bernie" offered Jack Black an unusually juicy part as a real-life Texas character who may or may not have murdered his older female companion. Novelist Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his best-selling book "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" earned warm reviews for its deeply felt look at high school outcasts. Co-star Ezra Miller has been singled out in particular amid a talented young cast. Two of the best performances of the year were given by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña in David Ayer's vibrant L.A. cop drama "End of Watch," but their work has been largely overlooked. Fortunately, Peña is in the running for an Independent Spirit Award as Best Supporting Actor.
Christopher Nolan loyalists are still miffed that the filmmaker has been nominated for two of his screenplays ("Memento" and "Inception") but never recognized as Best Director -- and that the finale in his Batman trilogy, "The Dark Knight Rises," did not earn a Best Picture nod this year.
Omissions don't come only in the boldface categories that attract the lion's share of attention. It's understandable that "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," "Life of Pi," Marvel's "The Avengers," "Prometheus" and "Snow White and the Huntsman" are competing for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. But if you stop and think about it, was there a more convincing or persuasive use of "movie magic" this year than a teddy bear come to life sharing the screen with Mark Wahlberg in Seth MacFarlane's "Ted"? To me, that's the most amazing kind of trickery, because you're forced to believe what your brain tells you can't be true. Yet "Ted" didn't even make the Academy's short list before the final five contenders were chosen.
For my money, there is one 2012 release that has truly been robbed. It happens to be a box-office blockbuster, which offers its creators (and backers) some consolation, I'm sure. Still, "The Avengers" is the best comic book superhero movie of this, or possibly, any year, in large part because of Joss Whedon's sensationally smart, funny screenplay. There is none of the self-seriousness that mars "The Dark Knight Rises" or the hollowness of earlier Marvel efforts like "Thor." It doesn't run out of steam like "Captain America" or simply repeat itself like "Iron Man 2."
Whedon pulls off the formidable feat of assembling an all-star cast of characters and giving each a purpose. He takes a two-dimensional villain from "Thor" and makes him truly menacing. He breathes new life into the lumbering Hulk. He makes us care about all these characters and gives them a cause worth fighting (and rooting) for. On top of that, he infuses his screenplay with a welcome dose of humor, including some of the funniest moments ever found in an ostensibly serious superhero saga. (Here's a sample exchange. Bruce Banner: I don't think we should be focusing on Loki. That guy's brain is a bag full of cats. You can smell crazy on him. Thor: Have a care how you speak! Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard and he is my brother! Natasha Romanoff: He killed 80 people in two days. Thor: He's adopted.)
Moviegoers around the world loved the result, and even critics sang its praises. But aside from a nomination for its excellent visual effects, the movie was shut out. Normally, this wouldn't be shocking, as the Academy tends to shun popcorn movies except in the technical categories, but "The Avengers" is no ordinary popcorn movie.
Then again, if the Oscars followed a predictable path -- mine or anyone else's -- they wouldn't be the Oscars. The final surprises will be unveiled on February 24.
Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin is perhaps best known for his annual paperback reference book, "Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide." He hosts "Maltin on Movies" for Reelz, introduces films on Comcast and teaches as the University of Southern California School for Cinematic Arts. He has written many books on film and holds court at www.leonardmaltin.com.
(Editing by Kathy Jones, Arlene Getz and Douglas Royalty)