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Rene Rodriguez: Bold picks for Oscar nominations, along with the expected

The complaints that have long dogged the Oscars — too safe, too predictable, too staid — do not apply to the list of nominees for the 85th Academy Awards, announced Thursday morning.

Look past the expected big dogs — Steven Spielberg’s historical drama Lincoln, which leads the pack with 12 nominations and is the early favorite, or Ang Lee’s visually spectacular Life of Pi, which follows with 11 — and it appears that unlike previous years, Academy members actually watched all of the eligible films.

For example: Beasts of the Southern Wild, a scrappy, low-budget (under $2 million) fantasy set in the Louisiana bayou, earned four huge nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (for first-timer Benh Zeitlin) and Best Actress for 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest nominee in the category in Oscar history.

Michael Haneke’s Amour, the heartrending portrait of a married couple in their twilight years, snagged five nominations, including Best Picture (only the ninth foreign-language movie to break into the category), Best Director and Best Actress for 86-year-old Emmanuelle Riva, the oldest nominee in the category in Oscar history.

Silver Linings Playbook, director David O. Russell’s rough-and-tumble romantic comedy about two manic depressives in love, scored the rare feat of nominations in all four acting categories (for Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver). Russell, who was shut out of the Directors Guild of America nominations on Wednesday, made the Best Director cut with Academy members. The film garnered a total of eight nominations in major categories — a strong indication that Oscar voters love the film. With the marketing muscle of the Weinstein Company behind it, the modestly budgeted movie has a chance to steal the spotlight from its bigger competitors.

Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, earned five nominations, but none for Bigelow. Ben Affleck’s beloved Argo, about a secret rescue mission during the Iran hostage crisis, earned seven nominations, but none for Affleck. And Les Misérables, the lavish adaptation of the smash hit musical, earned eight nominations, but none for director Tom Hooper. All three films are Best Picture nominees, but the lack of an accompanying nomination for their respective directors suggests Oscar may favor other films ( Driving Miss Daisy is one of the few movies in Oscar history to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination).

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a violent western set in the slave-era South, landed five nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz, who previously won the award for Tarantino’s last film, Inglourious Basterds. He won’t be the only one competing for a second Oscar: All of the other nominees in the category — Alan Arkin ( Argo), Tommy Lee Jones ( Lincoln), Philip Seymour Hoffman ( The Master) and De Niro ( Silver Linings Playbook) – are previous Oscar winners.

In the Best Documentary category, Searching for Sugar Man, about the legend behind 1970s folk singer Rodriguez, is the early favorite. Adele should start making room on her trophy shelf for Skyfall, which is a lock for Best Original Song (the James Bond picture earned a total of five nominations, including Best Cinematography for the brilliant Roger Deakins, who has never won).

Although Pixar traditionally owns the Best Animated Feature category, this year may be different. Their film Brave faces strong competition from Frankenweenie, ParaNorman and Wreck-It Ralph, all of which have staunch supporters. The fact that even Pixar isn’t a safe bet is proof that this year’s Oscars won’t be as easy to handicap as usual. This year, they may actually be fun.

The 85th Academy Awards will air at 8:30 p.m. Feb. 24 on ABC.