Handicapping the Oscars

For several long and suspenseful minutes this morning, it didn't look as if "Atonement"—the World War II epic long considered the Oscar front runner—would even be nominated for best picture. As Academy president Sid Ganis and Kathy Bates announced the top nominees at a press conference, it was snubbed in almost all the major categories. Both its stars, James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, were left off the roll call. Its director, Joe Wright, wasn't nominated either. But just when "Atonement" looked to be out of the fight, it landed a surprise slot as a best picture nominee, a victory as unexpected as Hillary Clinton's presidential primary win in New Hampshire.

And like the race for the White House, this year's Oscar showdown has been full of split votes and divided loyalties. The Golden Globes gave their top prizes to "Atonement" and "Sweeney Todd." But neither movie received a single nomination from the Screen Actors Guild of America, which is considered a better predicter of the Academy's tastes. The directors' and producers' guilds also ignored both movies, preferring "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." But the nominations today showed that in this year of writers' strike uncertainty, the Academy played it safe and didn't run wild—and, unfortunately for Sean Penn, that didn't help his movie, "Into the Wild."

Besides "Atonement" the nominees for best picture include "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood," "Michael Clayton," and "Juno," which is in the unique position of being the scrappy underdog despite the fact that it has grossed more money, $85 million, than any other nominee. "Juno"'s chances of winning best picture looked substantially brighter with the unexpected inclusion of its director, Jason Reitman, a sign that the movie has the Academy's support. The other best director nominees are Julian Schnabel for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Tony Gilroy for "Michael Clayton," Joel and Ethan Coen for "No Country for Old Men" and Paul Thomas Anderson for "There Will Be Blood." On Oscar night it will likely be a three-way race between the Coens, Schnabel and Anderson.

In the best acting categories, Tommy Lee Jones and Laura Linney pulled upset nominations for, respectively, playing a grieving war father in "In the Valley of Elah" and a neurotic daughter in "The Savages." Jones is joined by George Clooney for "Michael Clayton," Johnny Depp for "Sweeney Todd," Viggo Mortensen for "Eastern Promises" and Daniel Day-Lewis, the front runner, for "There Will Be Blood." Linney is up against Cate Blanchett for "Elizabeth: the Golden Age," Marion Cotillard for "La Vie en Rose," Ellen Page for "Juno" and Julie Christie, the front runner, for "Away From Her." The biggest snub of the day: Angelina Jolie wasn't nominated for playing Mariane Pearl, the wife of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, in "A Mighty Heart."

The supporting nominees wound up pretty much as you would expect. The men: Casey Affleck ("The Assassination of Jesse James"), Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men"), Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Charlie Wilson's War"), Hal Halbrook ("Into the Wild") and Tom Wilkinson ("Michael Clayton"). The women: Blanchett again ("I'm Not There"), Ruby Dee ("American Gangster"), Saoirse Ronan ("Atonement"), Amy Ryan ("Gone Baby Gone") and Tilda Swinton ("Michael Clayton").

Best animated film included "Persepolis," "Ratatouille" and "Surfs Up." But—d'oh!—no "Simpsons Movie." "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" tied for the most nominations, at eight a piece. On Feb. 24 millions will tune in to see what wins—if there's an Oscars telecast at all.