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Lars von Trier, Kirsten Dunst, A SEPARATION, John Hawkes: Online Film Critics Surprise Nominees

The Tree of Life, Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Laramie Eppler, Tye SheridanLike just about every US-based critics group — year in, year out — the Online Film Critics Society has placed its focus on English-language productions this awards season. True, critics' fave The Artist, a French-made production, is in the running in several categories, including Best Film, but Michel Hazanavicius' comedy-drama is a) silent (which makes it seem less "foreign") b) set in Hollywood c) features several American/British actors in supporting roles.

In any case, Terrence Malick's family drama The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain, topped the Online Critics list of nominees, with a total of seven nods. Those include Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (Malick), and supporting nominations for Pitt and Chastain (photo, with Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan). [Full list of Online Film Critics Awards nominations.]

Nicolas Winding Refn's thriller Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Albert Brooks, was next with six nods. The film itself, Refn, and Brooks were shortlisted, but Gosling and Mulligan were left out. (Mulligan was, however, included in the Best Supporting Actress shortlist for her performance as Michael Fassbender's sister in Steve McQueen's Shame.)

Most of the other nominees are the usual suspects: Martin Scorsese as a Best Director contender for Hugo; George Clooney and the aforementioned Michael Fassbender as Best Actor contenders for, respectively, The Descendants and Shame; and Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams as Best Actress contenders for, respectively, The Iron Lady and My Week with Marilyn.

Surprising nominations included Lars von Trier as one of the five shortlisted directors for his work on the apocalyptic family drama Melancholia, which also earned star and Cannes Best Actress winner Kirsten Dunst an equally "unusual" Best Actress nod (from US critics, that is); John Hawkes as Best Supporting Actor for Sean Durkin's thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, which also earned Elizabeth Olsen a Best Actress nod; and Asghar Farhadi's Berlin Film Festival winner A Separation, a Best Foreign Language Film nominee that also found its way onto the list of Best Original Screenplay nominees.

Now, most shocking of all was Jessica Chastain's special award as Breakthrough Performer of 2011. Crime doesn't pay, so they say, but having a good agent, however, can work career-making miracles.

The Online Film Critics' winners will be announced on January 2, 2012.

The Tree of Life photo: Merie Wallace / 20th Century Fox

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