BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Steven Spielberg had a great day at the Academy Awards nominations, where his Civil War saga "Lincoln" led with 12 nominations.
It was not so great for Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper and Ben Affleck, whose films did well but surprised — dare we say shocked? — Hollywood by failing to score directing nominations for the three filmmakers.
"I just think they made a mistake," said Alan Arkin, a supporting-actor nominee for Affleck's Iran hostage-crisis tale "Argo."
"Lincoln," ''Argo," Bigelow's Osama bin Laden manhunt thriller and Hooper's Victor Hugo musical "Les Miserables" landed among the nine best-picture contenders Thursday.
Also nominated for the top honor were the old-age love story "Amour"; the independent hit "Beasts of the Southern Wild"; the slave-revenge narrative "Django Unchained"; the shipwreck story "Life of Pi"; and the lost-souls romance "Silver Linings Playbook."
A mostly predictable bunch. But it's baffling how Bigelow — the first woman to earn the directing Oscar for her 2009 best-picture winner "The Hurt Locker" — missed out on a nomination for one of last year's most-acclaimed films.
"Yes, it was a surprise," Spielberg said of Bigelow. "But I've been surprised myself through the years, so I know what it feels like."
Spielberg was snubbed for a directing slot on 1985's "The Color Purple," which earned 11 nominations, including best picture. He also was overlooked for director on 1975's "Jaws," another best-picture nominee.
"I never question the choices the academy branches make, because I've been in the same place that Kathryn and Ben find themselves today," said Spielberg, who finally got his Oscar respect in the 1990s with best-picture and director wins for "Schindler's List" and another directing trophy for "Saving Private Ryan." ''I'm grateful if I'm nominated, and I've never felt anything other than gratitude even when I'm not — gratitude for at least having been able to make the movie. So I never question the choices."
Especially this time, when "Lincoln" has positioned itself as the film to beat at the Feb. 24 Oscars. Its nominations include best actor for Daniel Day-Lewis for his monumental performance as Abraham Lincoln, supporting actress for Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and supporting actor for Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist firebrand Thaddeus Stevens.
Oscar directing contenders usually are identical or at least line up closely with those for the Directors Guild of America Awards. But only Spielberg and "Life of Pi" director Ang Lee made both lists this time.
The Directors Guild also nominated Affleck, Bigelow and Hooper, but the Oscars handed its other three slots to David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook" and two real longshots: veteran Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke for "Amour" and newcomer Benh Zeitlin, who made his feature debut with "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Zeitlin, whose low-budget, dream-like film about a wild child in Louisiana's flooded backwoods won the top honor at last year's Sundance Film Festival, said he never expected to be competing "alongside the greatest filmmakers alive."
"I'm completely freaking out," Zeitlin said. "Those guys taught me how to make films. The VHS pile that was on the VCR when I was born was past Spielberg movies, and that's why I started wanting to do this, was watching them thousands and thousands of times."
Other nominees were caught off guard over how the category shook out.
"I would be lying if I didn't say I was surprised," Russell, a past nominee for "The Fighter," said about Bigelow.
Lee, who won the directing Oscar for "Brokeback Mountain," agreed that there were surprises — but pleasant ones, particularly for Zeitlin's inclusion.
"Newcomers, veterans, a European," Lee said. "It's great company, and it's an honor to line up with them, and encouraging because there is a newcomer."
Colleagues of snubbed filmmakers were not so happy.
"That put a damper on my enthusiasm," ''Argo" co-star Arkin said of Affleck, an A-lister who's arguably proving himself a better director than actor. "I thought his work was the work of an old master, not somebody with just two films under his belt. I thought it was an extraordinary piece of directing."
"I would have loved him to have been recognized in this," Hugh Jackman, a best-actor nominee as Hugo's tragic hero Jean Valjean for "Les Miserables," said of director Hooper. "But no one will be able to take away the achievement, nor really that the eight nominations that 'Les Miz' has are more shared with him than with anyone."
Composer Alexandre Desplat, who wrote the music for "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Argo" and earned a best-score nomination for the latter, said he was puzzled over Affleck and Bigelow's exclusion.
"I think they both deserved to be nominated," Desplat said. "Unfortunately, I don't decide."
"Zero Dark Thirty" has had backlash in Washington, where some lawmakers say it falsely suggests that torture produced a tip that led the U.S. military to Bin Laden. It's hard to imagine that affecting the film's Oscar nominations, though, given Hollywood's history of playing loose with facts in depicting true-life stories.
The academy's directing snubs virtually take "Argo," ''Les Miserables" and "Zero Dark Thirty" out of the best-picture race, since a movie almost never wins the top prize if the filmmaker is not nominated. It can happen — 1989's "Driving Miss Daisy" did it — but a directing nomination usually goes hand-in-hand with a best-picture win.
The nominations held other surprises. "Amour" won the top prize at last May's Cannes Film Festival but mainly was considered a favorite for the foreign-language Oscar. It wound up with five nominations, the same number as "Zero Dark Thirty," which came in with expectations of emerging as a top contender.
Along with best-picture, director and foreign-language film, "Amour" picked up nominations for Haneke's screenplay and best actress for Emmanuelle Riva as an ailing, elderly woman tended by her husband.
"It's the last stage of my life, so this nomination is a gift to me, a dream I could never had imagined," Riva said. "Michael's talent is to make the film real. ... That's why it touched the world. We are all little, fragile people on this earth, sometimes nasty, sometimes generous."
Riva is part of a multi-generational spread: At 85, Riva is the oldest best-actress nominee ever, while 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis is the youngest ever for her role as the spirited bayou girl in "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Spielberg matched his personal Oscar best as "Lincoln" tied the 12 nominations that "Schindler's List" received.
Two of Spielberg's stars could join the Oscar super-elite. Both Day-Lewis and Field have won two Oscars already. A third would put them in rare company with previous triple winners Ingrid Bergman, Walter Brennan, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. Katharine Hepburn holds the record with four acting Oscars.
A best-picture win would be Spielberg's second, while another directing win would be his third, a feat achieved only by Frank Capra and William Wyler, who each earned three directing Oscars, and John Ford, who received four.
"Lincoln" also was the ninth best-picture nominee Spielberg has directed, moving him into a tie for second-place with Ford. Only Wyler directed more best-picture nominees, with 13.
"I think Steven is a full-fledged genius. I think he has transformed the motion-picture industry more than once, and he's constantly pushing the envelope and changing," Field said. "He stands alone. And he has the most profound respect, and he's a scholar of John Ford and William Wyler and many others. ... He's a scholar of all of this because he's so endlessly curious."
'Lincoln,' 'Les Miz' look for big Oscar haul
Crusaders for good, old-fashioned Western democracy look to be the key figures vying for this year's Academy Awards.
Best-picture favorites for Thursday morning's Oscar nominations include "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's portrait of the great emancipator who abolished slavery and reunified the United States; "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow's chronicle of the hunt for U.S. public enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden; and "Les Miserables," Tom Hooper's musical epic set against an uprising of freedom fighters in 19th century France.
Among other prospects are "Argo," Ben Affleck's thriller about a CIA scheme to save Americans from Iran amid the 1979 hostage crisis; "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino's bloody revenge saga about a former slave hunting white oppressors just before the Civil War; and "Life of Pi," Ang Lee's story of a free-thinking Indian youth cast adrift on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger while traveling to a new life in North America.
This year's nominations come earlier than usual in Hollywood's long awards season, leaving the awards picture a bit murkier. By the time Oscar nominations come out most years, the Golden Globes already have given their trophies, helping to sort out prospective front-runners for show business' biggest night.
The nominations this time precede the Golden Globes ceremony, which follows on Sunday.
The Globes and other honors presented in late January and February by directors, actors, writers and producers guilds will clear up the best-picture race for the Oscars. Right now, "Lincoln," ''Les Miserables" and "Zero Dark Thirty" appear the most likely contenders for the top prize.
All three films come from directors who delivered best-picture winners in the past: Spielberg with 1993's "Schindler's List," Bigelow with 2009's "The Hurt Locker" and Hooper with 2010's "The King's Speech." Bigelow also won the directing Oscar, the first woman ever to earn that honor, Hooper earned the same prize a year later, and Spielberg has received the directing trophy twice, for "Schindler's List" and 1998's "Saving Private Ryan."
"Lincoln" also has good chances on acting nominations for three past winners: two-time Oscar recipients Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, and supporting actor recipient Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist firebrand Thaddeus Stevens.
"Zero Dark Thirty" star Jessica Chastain, a supporting-actress nominee last season for "The Help," is in the running for a best-actress slot this time as a CIA operative relentlessly pursuing bin Laden.
Two past Oscar ceremony hosts have strong shots at nominations for "Les Miserables": Hugh Jackman for best actor as Victor Hugo's tragic hero Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway for supporting actress as a doomed single mother forced into prostitution.
Other acting possibilities include Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro for the oddball romance "Silver Linings Playbook; Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz for "Django Unchained"; Affleck and Alan Arkin for "Argo"; John Hawkes and Helen Hunt for the sex-surrogate story "The Sessions"; Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams for the 1950s cult tale "The Master"; Bill Murray for the Franklin Roosevelt comic drama "Hyde Park on Hudson"; Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren for the filmmaking chronicle "Hitchcock"; Marion Cotillard for the French-language drama "Rust and Bone"; and Denzel Washington for the airliner-crash saga "Flight."
Winners for the 85th Oscars will be announced Feb. 24 at a ceremony aired live on ABC from Hollywood's Dolby Theatre.
"Family Guy" creator and vocal star Seth MacFarlane — a versatile performer whose work includes directing and voicing for the title character of last summer's hit "Ted" and a Frank Sinatra-style album of standards — is the Oscar host.
Thursday's nominees will be announced at 8:40 a.m. EST by "The Amazing Spider-Man" star Emma Stone and MacFarlane, the first time that an Oscar show host has joined in the preliminary announcement since 1972, when Charlton Heston participated on nominations day.