This year’s Oscar nominations featured a unicorn: genuine surprise

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When the nominations for the 95th Academy Awards were announced on Tuesday, most of the names called had been disabled for months. Few were shocked that such theatrical hits as “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Elvis” made it. Ditto Cate Blanchett’s fierce lead performance in “Tár” or Brendan Fraser’s heartbreaking comeback in “The Whale”.

Even this year’s little-movie-that-could, the kaleidoscopic martial-arts-meets-existential-fear-adventure “Everything Everywhere at Once,” lived up to the expectations of conventional wisdom. With the most nominations of the day (11), the art house sensation continued its stealth campaign for world domination, launched by Midas-touch indie studio A24 last April and transformed into a cult phenomenon over the summer because you have to see this word of mouth and obsessive repeat viewings.

The devotion of “Everything Everywhere All at Once’s” fans helped make it a huge hit: The film – directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known as “the Daniels” to the cognoscenti – became the first A24 film to receive 100 million dollars at the box office. And the sheer sympathy of the creative team has made it award catnip of the season. Even viewers who find the film overly mysterious, repetitive and undisciplined have had a hard time resisting Daniels’ seriousness and go-for-broke vision. And no one is immune to the charms and compelling narratives of its stars: martial arts doyenne and lead actress nominee Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, best known for playing “Short Round” in 1984’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” now nominated for Best Supporting Actor after a largely quiet career.

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So far so predictable. But just as seasoned Oscar watchers came up with new ways to say “usual suspects,” they were dazzled by genuine surprises. Although Tom Cruise fans were disappointed that the “Top Gun” star didn’t get a nod to carry the film that was credited with bringing audiences back to theaters last year, Bill Nighy fans were thrilled that it consistently drew attention , subtle actor finally got his due, for his characteristically understated lead performance in “Living”. And admirers of Paul Mescal — until now best known for starring in the Hulu series “Normal People” — were pleasantly surprised to be recognized for “Aftersun,” an impressionistic coming-of-age drama in which he plays a troubled father takes his little daughter on a Turkish vacation. Ditto Brian Tyree Henry, whose supporting turn in “Causeway” opposite Jennifer Lawrence has been widely praised for his soulful confidence.

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“Living,” “Aftersun” and “Causeway” are just the kind of small, little-seen films ready to get a boost from moviegoers curious to see what the fuss is about (“Living” and “Aftersun ” is still in theaters; “Causeway” can be seen on Apple TV Plus). They also exemplify how important constituency building can be in an Oscar campaign, even when it’s relatively late in the game.

While a designated dark horse like “Everything Everywhere All at Once” developed its constituency over the better part of a year, at least two latecomers have proven that finding your people and bringing them out can still work on the fly. Andrea Riseborough, who delivers a searing, no-nonsense turn as a gut-wrenching alcoholic in the naturalistic drama “To Leslie,” was virtually nowhere to be found in the official Oscar conversation in October when the film was released in a few theaters and video-on – demand. But Riseborough had been gaining support for his performance in powerful areas since “To Leslie” premiered at South by Southwest the previous spring.

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According to recent reports in Variety and IndieWire, the film’s first-time writer-director Michael Morris and his wife, actress Mary McCormack, began recruiting backers over the summer. Their friend Howard Stern raved about Riseborough and the film on his Sirius XM radio show, as did powerful allies including Charlize Theron and Edward Norton. (Morris has directed episodes of such TV series as “Better Call Saul,” “Shameless” and “Bloodline.”) When Riseborough received an Independent Spirit Award nomination in November, organic advancement among her co-stars — the largest department in the Academy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — began building, with headliners like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jane Fonda, Kate Winslet and Mia Farrow boarding her grassroots campaign, calling her out on social media and hosting tastemaker screenings.

The last time an actor played something similar was in 2011, when Melissa Leo released her own commercials for her supporting turn in “The Fighter.” (Let the record reflect that it worked.) But Riseborough’s campaign, while no doubt facilitated by her management and PR team, is the result of her colleagues seeing her performance and advocating for it – in a way the system is supposed to function. The same could be said for “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which received a surprising nine Oscar nominations, including for best picture.

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Edward Berger’s adaptation—the first German-language version of Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel—is a Netflix film, but its nomination wasn’t the result of one of the streamer’s notoriously aggressive awards campaigns. It built on the thoughtful and strategic use of the steady support the film has garnered with viewers, especially in the craft guild, where it has been recognized for its excellent cinematography, sound design and visual effects.

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“All Quiet on the Western Front” has certainly also benefited from changes in the academy over the past five years, which have seen a dramatic increase in the organization’s non-American membership. The results of the internationalization of the academy have already been seen in such groundbreaking victories as “Parasite’s” best picture victory in 2020. (“All Quiet on the Western Front” received 14 BAFTA nominations).

This year, strong showings from “All Quiet on the Western Front” and the modern class satire “Triangle of Sadness” — nominated for best picture, director and screenplay — suggest the Oscars’ constituencies are powerful and global within reach. And the success of actors like Nighy, Mescal, Henry and Riseborough raises the encouraging prospect that inevitability lies not in big corporate spending, but in something as nuanced and fundamental as a great performance, period.

“The idea that you need infinite resources, I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” Riseborough told Variety’s Marc Malkin on Tuesday. “The people who made it happen are our community.”

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