Loud and clear, Oscar salutes the silents

It's been almost as many years as there have been Academy Award ceremonies since a silent film was nominated for best picture. And here comes The Artist, making a lot of noise.

The nearly entirely silent black-and-white homage to old Hollywood nabbed 10 nominations, including best picture, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominees for the 84th Academy Awards Tuesday morning in Beverly Hills.

Hugo, another tribute to the Silent Era, eked out the most nominations, with 11.

In all, nine films are vying for the top prize. With The Artist and Hugo are: The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and War Horse. Hugo, Martin Scorsese's effects-driven 3-D adventure, also landed a director nomination, but failed to gain recognition for its cast. (A procedural change to the nominating rules allows five to 10 best-picture nominees, determined by a percentage of first-place votes cast by the 6,000-plus Academy members.)

The Help, the Southern-fried story of black domestics and their white employers during the civil rights movement, received three acting nods: Viola Davis, for best actress, and Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer for actress in a supporting role.

Joining Davis in the highly competitive category: Meryl Streep, for her decades-spanning portrait of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (it's Streep's 17th Oscar nomination); Michelle Williams, who channeled mid-century sex bomb Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn; Glenn Close, for the title role - a woman masquerading as a man - in Albert Nobbs; and newcomer Rooney Mara, for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Mara's nomination was perhaps the most surprising, helping to elbow out Charlize Theron (Young Adult) and Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia).

In the best-actor race, George Clooney (also a nominee in the adapted-screenplay category, for The Ides of March) is the odds-on favorite for his turn in The Descendants, as a family man trying to reconnect with his daughters as his wife lies comatose. Clooney's best-bud Brad Pitt was nominated for his portrait of real-life Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane in Moneyball. The other nominees: Frenchman Jean Dujardin, as the silent-screen star struggling to transition to talkies in The Artist; Gary Oldman, as the taciturn MI6 man George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; and Demián Bichir, who plays an undocumented Mexican gardener in East Los Angeles in A Better Life. A beautiful performance in a little-seen film, Bichir's nod likely turned Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar) and Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March) into no-gos.

In the supporting-actor slots, veterans Christopher Plummer (Beginners) and Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) are on the list with Kenneth Branagh (as Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn), Jonah Hill (as a nerdy sports statistician in Moneyball), and Nick Nolte (a sad-sack wrestling coach and estranged dad in Warrior).

In addition to the twin nominees from The Help, the supporting-actress picks are Bérénice Bejo, who beams as the starlet in The Artist; Melissa McCarthy as the gross-out gal-pal of Bridesmaids; and Janet McTeer for her gender-bending turn in Albert Nobbs.

Joining Scorsese for Hugo and Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist, the best-director contenders are Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris, Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life, and Alexander Payne for The Descendants.

And in the best animated feature race, three giant-sized studio productions - Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, and Rango - will duke it out against two virtually unseen foreign-made 'toons: A Cat in Paris, about a night in the life of a French feline, and Chico & Rita, a bolero-driven romance about a Cuban pianist and the jazz-singing girl of his dreams.

There's a local connection in the documentary feature race: Hell and Back Again, about a wounded U.S. Marine's transition from Afghan combat to Stateside rehabilitation. It was edited by Fiona Otway, in the graduate program at Temple University's film school.

Since it has won every other award of note, and since it's also nominated in the original-screenplay department, look for the Iranian drama A Separation to take the foreign-language prize. Its competition is Bullhead, from Belgium, a crime drama pivoting around black-market bovine growth hormones; Monsieur Lazhar, a French-language entry about an Algerian emigre teaching at a Canadian school; Footnote, from Israel, about the rivalry between father and son Talmudic scholars; and Poland's In Darkness, the story of Jews hiding in the sewers of Lvov during the Nazi occupation.

So, some random musings about the nominations:

No Adventures of Tintin in the animated-feature field? Does this mean "performance capture" doesn't really count as cartooning? . . . John Williams, Spielberg's go-to music maestro, received a best-original-score nod for Tintin, and a second for his work on Spielberg's best-picture nominee, War Horse.. . . Only two original-songs contenders? One, the impossibly catchy "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets, comes from Flight of the Conchords' genius musical parodist, Bret McKenzie. The other? "Real in Rio," a Sergio Mendes ditty from the animated macaw movie Rio. . . . J. Edgar totally snubbed - not even best makeup, probably because the aging effects on Streep in The Iron Lady were superior in every way. . . .

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris lands four Oscar noms, including best picture and director. His biggest film ever, released last summer, and still going strong! . . . Kristen Wiig gets Oscar cred for cowriting Bridesmaids, the femme buddy/bodily-function farce. To quote Maya Rudolph's character: "Why can't you be happy for me and then go home and talk about me behind my back like a normal person?"

Trivia note: The last silent film to be nominated for best picture? The Patriot, Ernst Lubitsch, 1928.

The Academy Awards

The Oscars with host Billy Crystal will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Feb. 26 on ABC.

For the complete list of nominees, go to: http://www.oscars.org

For more coverage, go to www.philly.com/movies

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.