Sunday, January 25, 2015

Oscar Nomination Reactions: Many middle-fingers (and one high five) to Academy Voters

In the wee hours of Thursday morning last week, Oscar nominations for the best in cinema in 2014 were announced.

And with one glorious exception the academy voters either checked off expected boxes, or worse, made angering, stupefying omissions. Were it that they had only checked off the expected boxes, we would have shrugged our collective shoulders, never expecting much adventurousness from this group. But this year, there is reason for outrage. The nominations tell more about the academy voters than they are probably willing to publicly admit.

I hate to jump in with the pitchfork carrying mob, but there really is cause for ire. Below are five truly angering nominations:

  1. Best Director: Besides BIRDMAN, BOYHOOD, THE IMITATION GAME, and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, the biggest, most shameful of all Oscar nominations this year revolves around the fifth pick. It went to
    Ava Duvernay, director of SELMA. The Academy will have to wait for another time to nominate its first Female Director of color.
    Ava Duvernay, director of SELMA. The Academy will have to wait for another time to nominate its first female Director of color.
    Bennett Miller for FOXCATCHER, which in itself is mildly shocking considering the lack of critical consensus for this film, or how little steam the movie has gathered at the year-end awards circuit. But the biggest shock is that the FOXCATCHER nomination came at the expense of snubbing SELMA. And most egregiously, for passing on the opportunity to create history by the first-time nomination of a female director of color (which would have been the case with Ava Duvernay, who helmed SELMA). I am not suggesting that SELMA should have been picked just to please our liberal political sensibilities. No, SELMA has been consistently and universally considered a front-runner in this year’s race and it is difficult to argue against its worthiness; it’s a magnificent, heartfelt film. I acknowledge that one shouldn’t read deliberate political intent with the Oscar nominations. But both FOXCATCHER and SELMA are based on real-life events, and wouldn't it be irresponsible not to read something into the fact that a cold film about White male privilege gone awry unexpectedly derails a film about an important chapter in the African American history in America.  Now that we can have up to ten best picture nominees, those with the Best Director nominations have generally been considered an indicator of the top five films in the eyes of voters. But what is perplexing about the FOXCATCHER director nomination for Bennett Miller is that it comes without a corresponding Best Film nomination. When ironically, SELMA picked up a Best Film nomination but had no love for its director, go figure. Is this a reflection on the predominantly older, predominantly white and predominantly male demographic of Oscar voters?
  1. Best Male Actor: Here’s the other stinker. No one is going to contest nominations picked up by Benedict Cumberbatch (THE IMITATION GAME), Eddie Redmayne (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), and Michael
    No love for Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHT CRAWLER
    No love for Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHT CRAWLER
    Keaton (BIRDMAN). But check out the remaining two selections: STEVE CARELL (again, for that troubling FOXCATCHER) and Bradley Cooper (AMERICAN SNIPER). Effectively leaving out Jake Gyllenhaal. Really? Honestly, forget personal allegiances or favoritism. But what objective person can watch Gyllenhaal in NIGHTCRAWLER and pick Carell or Cooper over him. Even if voters were clueless that Gyllenhaal is doing career-best work right now (coming off his underappreciated stints in PRISONERS last year and also ENEMY this year), that many voters watched FOXCATCHER, AMERICAN SNIPER, and NIGHTCRAWLER and picked the first two films for acting nods boggles the mind. Gyllenhall plays the title character in NIGHTCRAWLER as a person of troublingly intensifying moral disarray; he is off-kilter from the start but one of the joys of the film is to recognize the trecherous shrewdness of a person for whom, we realize too late, that no line is too far to cross. His work in this film is achingly wry, at once hostile and funny. But there was no love for Gyllenhaal from the voters.  I am generally a fan of Steve Carell, but his performance in FOXCATCHER is so cold and stylized and deliberately impermeable that one wonders if he was picked simply for the prosthetic transformation of this face. And what is with Bradley Cooper and the Academy? Listen, he is a capable enough actor who works very hard and his screen presence is always likeable, but he has never demonstrated the gleam of genius in anything he has done to date. In AMERICAN SNIPER he put on weight and threw himself into the role of real life soldier Chris Kyle with admirable passion. But his rendition does not bring particular insight into the pathology of this character who remains rather one-dimensional. Cooper’s third consecutive nomination (SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, AMERICAN HUSTLE and now AMERICAN SNIPER) is frankly befuddling; Daniel Day-Lewis, he is not. So what gives with all this love? And honestly, what more does Gyllenhaal have to do to get recognized?
  1. Best Female Supporting Actor: Meryl Streep nabbed a record 17th nomination in this category for INTO THE
    Jessica Chastain in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, bereft for being left out of the Best Female Supporting Actor race, at the expense of an undeserving Meryl Streep nod.
    Jessica Chastain in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, bereft at being left out of the race ?
    WOODS. No one is going to deny that Streep is the legend amongst our living acting legends. But can we all agree, please, for the love of all that is good in cinema, that she cannot become a de facto Oscar nominee just for showing up in a film. INTO THE WOODS is not without its charms and is a respectable adaptation of the Sondheim Broadway musical. But it is an ensemble film and there is nothing in Streep’s performance that elevates her from the remaining cast members. If she is recognized for that film, then so should have Anna Kendrick. Or Emily Blunt. But no, the academy voters appear to put a tick against the Streep name every year,with collective zombie minds. Last year it was for AUGUST, OSAGE COUNTY, and this year for INTO THE WOODS. I will be the first to defend Meryl Streep’s 25th nomination when it happens, but provided it is for a film where her work is stellar. The Streep nomination this year came at the cost of Jessica Chastain’s remarkable work in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. Or the opportunity to recognize the late-career revitalization of Rene Russo in NIGHTCRAWLER. This laziness on the part of voters is beyond frustrating. You are Academy voters. Watch the films. It’s your job. Be discerning.

  1. Best Foreign Film: Apart from the SELMA debacle, the snub that stung me the most was the unexplainable
    The head-scratching omission of FORCE MAJEURE from the Best Foreign Film category
    The head-scratching omission of FORCE MAJEURE from the Best Foreign Film category
    omission of FORCE MAJEURE from the Best Foreign Film nominations. I watched many films in 2014, close to a hundred I believe. And FORCE MAJEURE holds the top spot on my personal list of the best films of the year. This film crackles with so much confidence and wit and anger and intent in every one of its scenes. Just the technical prowess of the film is something to behold, as one incredible episode follows another with wonder. The incredible cinematography, the grand score, the churning, squeaking, disquieting Sound Design. But set the technical aspects aside. Just watching the film take a minor natural disaster and have that detonate the marital bliss of what appeared until then, a strong family, is one of the giddiest pleasures to be had at the cinemas all year. Granted I haven’t seen LEVIATHAN, TIMBUKTU, TANGERINES or WILD TALES, also nominated in this category (and they all come with remarkable critical lauding) and I am keeping an open mind until I have watched these other films. But IDA (which did get an Oscar nomination) and FORCE MAJEURE were leading the pack with all other Foreign Film nominations (The Golden Globes, BAFTA, Independent Spirit Awards, Jury prize win at Cannes). To have FORCE MAJEURE suddenly fail to pick up recognition at the Oscars seems particularly cruel.

  1. Best Animated Film: I love animated films. On their own terms. Within the confines of their intended goals.
    THE LEGO MOVIE: Academy voters deem its commercial success recognition enough for this film.
    THE LEGO MOVIE: Academy voters deem its commercial success recognition enough.
    Some of the greatest films of all time in my mind are animated films. And they often show up on my list of the best films of the year. But 2014 was surprisingly tepid. There wasn’t a single film in this category that came close to greatness. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON-2 took the deft internal struggle from the original film - of a teen trying to do right and giving the benefit of doubt to a long considered enemy – and traded it in for grandeur and spectacle in the sequel, losing most of its emotional purity in the bargain. THE BOXTROLLS and BIG HERO 6 have their heart in the right place, but no one is going to rush to call either one a classic any time soon. If those three films are to earn nominations, I do not understand why the similarly accomplished (but not great) films THE LEGO MOVIE and THE BOOK OF LIFE got left out. Was the tremendous commercial success of THE LEGO MOVIE held against it?

The nominations this year unfortunately did nothing to detract from the common narrative that Academy voters are lazy, do not see too many films, are racially disconnected from the rest of the nation, and are overeager to recognize the same individuals repeatedly, often sight unseen.

At least they did not nominate Amy Adams blindly again this year (for the mediocre BIG EYES) for which we should be thankful. Which brings me to the one silver lining in all of the nominations this year. The one instance in which I raised a pumped fist up in the air with delight. The one instance where the Academy voters demonstrated uncharacteristic flair. Which is with the nominations for Best Female Actor. Yes, Rosamund Pike (GONE GIRL), Reese Witherspoon (WILD), Felicity Jones (THE THEORY
Hurray for the recognition of Marion Cotillard's transcendent performance in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
Hurray for the recognition of Marion Cotillard's transcendent performance in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
OF EVERYTHING) and Julianne Moore (STILL ALICE) are deservedly the top contenders this year and got the expected nods. But it was the fifth spot that was open for the taking, and many had assumed it would go to Jennifer Aniston for CAKE. But thank our lucky stars, Academy voters did the right thing and picked Marion Cotillard for her remarkable, heartbreaking turn in the French film TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT. IFC films which is distributing this film, did little to push this movie so Cotillard could be considered for this category, and it was mostly through word of mouth that interest in her performance got around. To see this film is to recognize why Cotillard is one of our great living actors. Under the direction of the Dardennes brothers, likely the more humanist of all filmmakers working right now, Cotillard plays a character who has to, over a weekend, convince her ten coworkers to give up their annual bonus so that she can keep her job. And the wonder of her performance - and it is hard not to grasp at hyperbole when talking about it - is how contrary it is to expectations. Where one might have expected this character to be angry, or belligerent, or panicked, or indignant, Cotillard plays her instead as broken and fragile, and deeply aware of the troubles of others. And thereby single-handedly brings the audience in her corner. And we never leave her. Not after we have lived those two days with her. Not after the film is over. Not for weeks afterward. How great that amongst all their unexplainable, infuriating snubs, the Academy voters found the grace to recognize Marion Cotillard for her great work in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT. And I will choose to be grateful for this one right amongst many wrongs.