Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
Two movies about the love of movies lead the field in the 2012 Academy award derby. Both look back at formative years for the art form. Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," about a young boy who makes a friend of the inventor of the cinema, led the field with 11 nominations. And Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist," set when Hollywood was making the transition from silent pictures to the talkies, placed second with ten.
Scorsese's triumph was not unexpected, but the scope of it was. And for a silent film in black and white to do so well in 2012 is gob-smacking. By leading the field, "Hugo" essentially upset "The Artist," even though the Scorsese film did only moderately well in year-end awards which "The Artist" dominated.
There were other surprises, in a year when many predictions, including mine, were far from exact.
* Bennett Miller's "Moneyball," about a computer geek who knows nothing about baseball but upstages professional scouts, was third with six nominations.
* Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," which was expected to do better, was fourth with five.
* Even though many loved Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" passionately, it was named for best picture, director and cinematography only.
* Woody Allen, who the Academy likes even though he rarely attends the Oscar ceremony, had a good year with "Midnight in Paris," the most successful picture of his career; its four mentions including best picture and director.
* The Iranian film "A Separation" was named in the best foreign language film category, as expected, but was a well-deserved surprise choice for Asghar Farhadi's original screenplay.
* After much speculation about how many best picture nominees there would be with the Academy's new weighted voting system, there were nine: "The Artist," "The Descendants," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," "The Help," "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball," "The Tree of Life" and "War Horse." The surprise title is "Extremely Loud," which got disappointing reviews and a score of 48% on the Tomatometer.
* "The Help" scored three of its four nominations in acting categories: Viola Davis as best actress and Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer as supporting actress. There must be a story there; Chastain was nominated in a supporting role after a year in which she appeared in many leading roles, including "The Tree of Life" and "Take Shelter."
* Demián Bichir was nominated for best actor for "A Better Life," for a powerful performance as a immigrant gardener in Los Angeles. He deserved it, and so did another unexpected best actor nominee, Gary Oldman in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." But many were looking for nominations for Leonardo DiCaprio in "J. Edgar," or perhaps Michael Fassbender in "Shame" (2011), Ryan Gosling in "Drive," or Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter."
* In a year where the theme seemed to be nostalgia for the cinema's past, one especially surprising and welcome nomination was for Max von Sydow, who plays the older companion on the young hero's journeys around Manhattan in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." Von Sydow, who is 82 and has 145 acting credits, was instrumental in many Ingmar Bergman masterpieces, including "The Seventh Seal" and "The Virgin Spring." There was also a popular nomination for Christopher Plummer, also 82, for "Beginners," who played an old man who belatedly but happily comes out as gay.
* The surprise in the best actress category was Rooney Mara for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2011). She possibly replaced Tilda Swinton in "We Need to Talk about Kevin" or Charlize Theron in "Young Adult." No surprise in this category was Meryl Streep, whose nod for "The Iron Lady" was her 17th -- a record.
* All in all, it was a great day for Brad Pitt. Not only was he nominated for best actor for "Moneyball," but he starred in another best picture nominee, "The Tree of Life." He had a producer's credit on both pictures, so he could make more than one trip to the podium.
* There are snubs every year, but a few stood out. As Patton Oswalt ("Young Adult") tweeted at dawn: "Join me for a drink at The Drawing Room, Albert Brooks? Me and Serkis have been here since 6am." Oswalt received much praise in "Young Adult," Brooks was wonderful as a gangster in "Drive," and the Academy never seems to know what to do about Andy Serkis, who specializes in being the actor inside motion capture; he was Capt. Haddock in Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin."
* For that matter, "Tintin" itself was snubbed in all major categories, after winning the Golden Globe for best animation. This year's animation category was also notable for the rare absence of a Pixar film; "Cars 2" was shut out, probably for the animated Spanish film “Chico and Rita." So it doesn't have a lock on the category after all.
This year Oscar will save the greatest suspense for the end of the ceremony, as the two popular leaders, "Hugo" and "The Artist," shoot it out.
This year's Oscarcast will take place on Feb. 26, with Billy Crystal as the emcee.