The big news was supposed to be that The Dark Knight got shut out of the best picture category. But it did get eight nominations, including best supporting actor for the late Heath Ledger. Was the academy being snobby toward a comic-book movie or merely discerning about its limits? The movie's exploration of all-out nihilism in the character of Ledger's Joker might have brought a new level of viciousness to the form, but in the cool crisp light of a January morn, the movie now looks like the last gasp of a doddering and self-serious old Zeitgeist. It seems so Departed, so No Country for Old Men (two Oscar winners I'd rather see again in an L.A. minute than The Dark Knight).
For once, even if you disagreed with individual choices, the roster did make sense. Most of the key creative talent for all the top nominees - the directors and writers and stars - earned nominations also. So did the exuberant Taraji P. Henson, in the supporting category, for her pivotal role as the hero's adoptive mother in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Of course, because of the film's spurious prestige, the entire above-the-line cast of Doubt won nominations, though only the two supporting actresses, Viola Davis and Amy Adams, earned them. But, refreshingly, so did the star and writer-director of the chilling indie about immigrant-smuggling on the New York-Canada border, Frozen River: Melissa Leo (for best actress) and Courtney Hunt (for best original script). Let's hope Leo or Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married can withstand Kate Winslet (The Reader) and two previous Oscar winners, Meryl Streep (Doubt) and Angelina Jolie (The Changeling).
Other unexpected and welcome picks include the audaciously funny Robert Downey Jr. as the Russell Crowe-like actor bringing all his intensity to impersonating an African-American warrior in the Vietnam-movie parody Tropic Thunder. Marisa Tomei and Penelope Cruz spice up the best supporting actress ranks with their superb performances as a pole-dancer and an artistic spitfire in, respectively, The Wrestler and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And Richard Jenkins simply proved too talented and empathetic to forget as the closed-up academic who befriends two illegal immigrants he finds in his New York apartment in The Visitor.
Several categories are exceptionally strong, notably best actor (besides Jenkins, there are Brad Pitt for Button, Sean Penn for Milk, Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler) and best adapted script and best original script (including Button, Frost/Nixon and Slumdog Millionaire, in the former, and WALL-E and Happy-Go-Lucky, in the latter).
Based on previous craft and critical awards, Slumdog Millionaire has the momentum. But with its lead in nominations, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button may bring home the top prize on Feb. 22 - and deservedly so. Slumdog Millionaire presents a thrilling drama of triumph over adversity, but Button captures something rarer - the mingled beauty and hardship to be found in all our individual freedoms.
Happy-Go-Lucky: Mike Leigh won a best screenwriting nomination for this one-of-a-kind portrait of a smart, sympathetic, irrepressible optimist, yet it was his direction of the magnificent performers Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan (as her driving-instructor antagonist) that made the movie such an unpredictable marvel. They deserved to be cited and the movie, too (with Leigh as best director).
Greg Kinnear: There was no way he would get nominated for a box-office failure such as Flash of Genius, the story of the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. But in a year of flashier feats, his Willy Loman-esque portrayal, followed by a suave, barbed turn in the romantic comedy Ghost Town, was for my money the acting one-two punch of the year. (Only Robert De Niro reached similar variety and control as the harried movie producer in Barry Levinson's underrated What Just Happened.)
WALL-E: No movie was more deeply or widely loved than Andrew Stanton's masterpiece in which the last trash-compactor on Earth becomes both a romantic leading man and the little child who leads the way to a renewed Earth. It won six nominations, including best animated feature and best original script, but it deserved its props in the best picture and best director categories.