Jan. 26 2011 12:00 AM

Oscar nominations: A tale of prizes and surprises

It happens every year: Once the cheers die down and everyone gets a closer look at the annual Academy Award nominations, the questions begin popping up. The latest crop of honorees, which were announced Tuesday morning, is no exception.

As expected, Annette Bening got a best actress nomination for “The Kids Are All Right,” in which she plays a lesbian mom trying to deal with her adolescent kids and the surrogate father (Mark Ruffalo) who has suddenly resurfaced in their lives. But Julianne Moore, who some might argue had the more challenging role as Bening’s conflicted partner, was overlooked in both the lead and supporting actress categories.

Similarly, Michelle Williams garnered a deserved best actress nomination for “Blue Valentine” (opening Friday at Celebration!Lansing), in which she sears the screen as a woman who gradually realizes her marriage is beyond salvation. Unfortunately, Ryan Gosling — who is equally astonishing as her erratic husband — did not make the cut in the best actor field.

Tilda Swinton, thought to have a strong shot at best actress for “I Am Love,” didn’t make the final five. Andrew Garfield, who was touted as a string supporting actor candidate for “The Social Network,” was overlooked, as was Matt Damon’s colorful comic role in “True Grit.”

Although the mind-bending dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream thriller “Inception” landed a best picture nomination and a nod for Christopher Nolan’s screenplay, Nolan was locked out of the running as best director; so was previous winner Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), even though his nerve-wracking “127 Hours” — a director’s film if ever there was one — also got a best picture nomination and a slot in the adapted screenplay category.

Aside from a few minor surprises, such as Javier Bardem getting into the best actor category for the heavy-duty drama “Biutiful” and Australian actress Jacki Weaver landing a supporting actress nomination for “Animal Kingdom,” the nominees were more or less what industry observers had expected. A few contests seem as if they’ve already been decided. Is anyone likely to steal the supporting actor Oscar from Christian Bale after his mesmerizing performance in “The Fighter”? Would voters dare deny Colin Firth the best actor prize for “The King’s Speech” after disappointing him last year for his superb work in “A Single Man”?

But other races are more difficult to call, such as supporting actress, in which Weaver faces Amy Adams and Melissa Leo (both nominated for “The Fighter”), as well as Helena Bonham Carter (as the future Queen Mum in “The King’s Speech”) and 14-year-old firebrand Hailee Steinfeld, who arguably stole the show from Bridges and Damon in “True Grit.” It will also be fascinating to see who goes home with the best director prize, considering this is one of the very rare occasions in which all five of the nominated movies — “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Social Network” and “True Grit” — are certifiable critical and commercial hits.

For the second year in a row, the Academy has honored 10 best picture contenders: “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “Inception,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “The King’s Speech,” “127 Hours,” “The Social Network,” “Toy Story 3” (also nominated as best animated feature), “True Grit” and “Winter’s Bone.” It’s a stronger selection than last year, in which the battle quickly boiled down to “Avatar” vs. “The Hurt Locker.” While “Social” and “Speech” may have the most gusto as of now, support has been building for “Swan,” “Fighter” and even “Grit,” which is one of the few remakes ever to be showered with Oscar nominations.

Expect the picture to become considerably clearer by the time the Academy Awards are presented Feb. 27.

The Academy Awards will be presented Feb. 27.