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A pretty good set of nominees

The Oscars are the most important way the American film industry can honor what it considers the year's best work. But for millions of movie lovers all over the globes, they are something else: A show.

That's why I suspected last June that Quvenzhané Wallis might win a nomination. The pride of Hounduras Elementary School in Houma, LA, has now become, at nine, the youngest nominee in history for Best Actress. Her story is even better: She was five when she auditioned for the role, and six when she performed it.

What Quvenzhané provides for the Oscarcast is what every ceremony needs: A compelling human interest story on the side. Her film, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," plays the same role in the overall field. A first film, shot on location in the Louisiana Bayou , it shows us a small community surviving in poverty in the years after Hurricane Katrina, and expecting another storm still more devastating.

It's the sort of film Oscar used to ignore. Made for $1,800,000 by first-time director Benh Zeitlin, himself now an Oscar nominee, it shouldered past many blockbusters not only because it deserved to, but because some Oscar voters might have thought Quvenzhané would add great human interest to the show. She utters an incredible scream in "Beasts," a cry like an elemental force of nature, and if that cry echoes through the Dolby Theater on Feb. 24, it will be a moment for history.

Not that it is likely to. Let's face it: The nomination is the award, and Best Actress this year is more likely to go to Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty"), Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook"), Naomi Watts ("The Impossible") and Emmanuelle Riva ("Amour"). Riva, a French legend, is 85, which creates story interest of its own. She'll soon be asked to pose for publicity photos with a child from Houma, La., more than she could ever have anticipated.

I offer these musings because they reflect the way I think of the Oscars. Ever since one of my earliest Oscar experiences, when "Bonnie and Clyde" failed to win, I've learned that the gold statuettes are unlikely to go to my personal favorites. I feel snubbed.When the nominees were announced Thursday at the crack of dawn, indeed, all of the coverage led with the "snub" to Kathryn Bigelow, director of "Zero Dark Thirty."

To be sure, her film was nominated as Best Picture, but she did better with her previous nominee, "The Hurt Locker," and so this year she has been snubbed, you see. Also "snubbed" were Ben Affleck ("Argo") or Quentin Tarantino ("Django Unchained). Yes, but they also got Picture nominations, and who won one of the five nominations instead of them? Michael Haneke ("Amour") and Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts of the Southern Wild"). That shows the voters did a little thinking outside the box.

The field was led with 12 nominations by Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." It's a great film, in my opinion, but in the context of Oscar nominations it also represents the kind of film the Academy loves to nominate: An important drama on a big subject by an industry veteran. The industry spends all year churning out product like last weekend's box office winner "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D," and then puts on its evening wear and poses as humanitarians.

If "Lincoln" was a worthy front-runner, however, consider that it barely escaped being tied with Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," which had 11 nominations. 'Lincoln" is drawn from history. "Pi" is a film created entirely from the imagination. Both presented daunting challenges for their makers.

Now consider the range of the other Best Picture nominees: "Silver Linings Playbook," a dark comedy about a father and son who are both obsessed sports fans, and "Les Misérables," based on the hit musical set before the French revolution. Right behind them are "Argo," about a scam to free some Americans from Iran under cover of a fake movie production, and "Amour," a French-language film about a long-married couple now facing death together, and "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino's violent epic about slavery in the pre-Civil War South.

For years, movie critics would mount on their soapboxes and decry the Academy's deplorable taste. Then we critics started writing about how the Academy membership was growing younger, and more "independent" films were being nominated. Then the rules were changed to allow up to 10 Best Picture nominees, which had the effect of allowing a broader range of nominees.

Looking at this year's list, I can say: The Academy did pretty well by itself. Yes, I can find room for complaints ( Boo! No best actor for Richard Gere!). But the fact is, the members of the Academy did a pretty good job this year.

My taste is only personal, but it's all I have. Looking at the nine films nominated for Best Picture, I find only one that I flatly don't believe was a good film, the near-unbearable "Les Miserables." Victor Hugo's superbly entertaining novel has been transformed into a lumbering musical of dirges that rise and fall, with the occasional relief of a little rinky-dink tune. Not only do you fail to come out humming the songs, you almost don't realize they are songs. Hugo's set piece about the escape through the sewers of Paris is one of the great passages in fiction, and although the film indeed shows it, it doesn't bring it to life.

A small hip fracture prevented me from reviewing "Les Mis" on its opening date. Now I suppose I'll do my duty and write a review. That elephantine film aside, this year's list is a good one.

I met young Quvenzhané Wallis and heard her explain how at her audition she released her famous scream without even being asked to. It is now in the film, a cry for her absent mother.

"They didn't even know about it; they were kinda surprised," she said.

"What did they say?"

"They said, 'WOW, YOU ARE VERY LOUD!' And I was just like, 'I know, that's why I didn't do it.' And when they came to the scene where I had to burp, I had to secretly act like I drank some water and I burped and then they asked me, 'how did you burp?' And I said, 'cause I know how to do it on command,' and they said, 'do it,' so you know? I burped and they was like, 'WOW, you should have told us before.' So it was really funny to see them react to what I did and they didn't even know about it."

"They learned more about you every day."

"Thank you. Anybody calls for Quvenzhané, I know they're calling me, cause that's one of a kind."

So is she. And so are this year's Oscar nominees.

My video and text interviews with Quvenzhane:

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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