Quvenzhané Wallis headlines a good year for family movies in Oscar nominations

When little Hushpuppy picked up her baby-chick-phone this morning in The Bathtub, she got a surprise: Oscar calling!

Young Quvenzhané Wallis made Academy Award history this morning, earning a Best Actress nod for her role Hushpuppy in the much-loved indie film Beasts of the Southern Wild, a dystopian post-Katrina tale about a community of poor people living in "The Bathtub," a flooded region of the Louisiana Gulf. At age nine, she's the youngest performer to earn a Best Actress nomination; even more astonishing, she was only six when the movie was filmed—and by that yardstick, she's the youngest nominee ever.

Wallis steps into a wildly diverse category that also includes the oldest-ever Best Actress nominee (edging out Driving Miss Daisy's Jessica Tandy): 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva, a French performer who gives a devastating portrait of a woman at the end of her years in Amour. Battling them both is one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the moment, Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Katniss in The Hunger Games (although she scored her nomination for the romatic drama Silver Linings Playbook).

The nomination is obviously a coup for young Wallis, who was the center of some controversy over whether or not a six-year-old can really act. (She found herself with passionate defenders on that score, as well as arts journalists who were openly rooting for her name to be announced this morning.) In the past, when young performers such as The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment and The Piano's Anna Paquin won a nomination, it was for the supporting-acting categories. (Osment lost, btw, although Paquin scored a famous upset to win.)

The love for Beasts extended beyond her magnetic and haunting performance. The film itself is in the mix for Best Picture, while Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, who co-authored the screenplay, scored a writing nomination. In a result no Oscar pundits had predicted, Zeitlin also entered the Best Director race—for his feature-film debut, no less. (The audience for the live announcements, hosted by Seth MacFarlane and Emma Stone, reacted with audible gasps of surprise.)

As expected, our favorite film of the year, Life of Pi, scored some major nominations—11 in all, including Best Picture and Best Director for Ang Lee. On the other hand, its lead performer, 19-year-old Suraj Sharma, didn't make it into the Best Actor mix, which is a shame. Sharma didn't have strong buzz coming into the race, even though he anchors the film, spending the bulk of it trapped in a lifeboat with a tiger. For Best Picture and Director, Pi must contend with a much-admired front-runner in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which got 12 noms (and which, for the record, we also like). Neither are films for young kids, but both could be family outings if you've got precocious tweens. There's plenty of valuable history in Lincoln (although some kids will still find it stuffy), while the action-packed Life of Pi offers lots of brain food about life, death and spirituality.

And in case you're one of the thousands of people who are now adding Beasts to your Netflix queue, you should know that it's not a film for little ones either, despite its six-year-old star. The semi-surrealistic movie follows the motherless Hushpuppy as she copes with a dying father and a hurricane-prone environment.

As for one of our favorite categories, Best Animated Feature, the nominees didn't contain any big surprises like last year. Then again, 2012 was a very strong year for American animation, as witnessed by this Oscar list: The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Brave, Paranorman, Frankenweenie and Wreck-It Ralph. If you're counting, that's two noms for Disney, one for Pixar (which is owned by Disney), one for Aardman and one for Laika—a "who's who" of animation studios. Thrillingly, three of those features are old-school stop-motion animation achievements, compared to two CGI works. We actually think Brave and Frankenweenie, while gorgeous to look at it, suffered from mediocre scripts, so it'll be interesting to see which film walks away with the trophy when the Oscars get handed out February 24. 

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)