The biggest surprise of the 2011 Oscar nominations was the love shown to two films that have barely figured in the various critics' award lists and other award shows since the beginning of December: True Grit and Winter's Bone.
Winter's Bone, a Sundance 2010 film that earned ravishing critical response but barely caused a ripple outside of the arthouse circuit, is the bigger surprise, earning nominations for best picture, best actress (Jennifer Lawrence), best supporting actor (John Hawkes) and adapted screenplay. It's a deserving nominee, a film whose audience could now widen considerably, given that it's already available on DVD.
True Grit is less of a surprise, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the film is a hit - and a critically acclaimed hit. For another, it's a damn good movie -my favorite film of 2010.
So why was it overlooked in most of the previous awards presentations for 2010? A couple of theories: First of all, by the time True Grit came out, critics already had anointed The Social Network and The King's Speech as the films to beat. Second, while critics liked it, it was neither edgy in the way Social Network was not as easily defined as The King's Speech, as a heartfelt drama.
Instead, it was a western -- never a particularly cutting-edge genre -- and it was, in a sense, a traditional film. Indeed, it was an exceptionally traditional film for the Coen brothers -- so that might have worked against them as well.
What else did Oscar get right? It found its way to Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, despite the fact that it underwhelmed at the box office, and gave it several nominations, including best picture and best actor.
It spotlighted Javier Bardem in the little-seen Biutiful (also a foreign-language nominee) and gave him a nomination. It was hip enough to nominate Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop.
Sure, there were a lot of films that were ignored. Most egregious: Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, a savvy thriller from early in the year. Davis Guggenheim's overrated Waiting for Superman didn't get a nod for best documentary (but neither did Madeleine Sackler's much better The Lottery). And the foreign-film category overlooked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and almost anything else that wasn't dark and downbeat. And, thankfully, it also ignored Carlos.
But really -- the Oscars come around so late in the process that it's like electing a prom queen, after the seniors have graduated and moved away to college. It's probably fruitless -- actually, no probably about it -- to hope that the Academy will one day find a way to announce nominations and distribute Oscars within the month of January, thus upstaging the wholly bogus Golden Globes and the other award-of-the-week exhibitions that clog the airways from New Year's until the end of February.