Are this year’s Oscars about rewarding films that have something to say about the human condition and the times in which we live, or are they rewarding their own navel gazing? How so, you ask? Simply put, the two most nominated films are really nothing more than films about other films. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo leads the pack with 11 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Hugo is this esteemed American director’s homage to the work of France’s legendary master of silent films, Georges Melies. Conversely, the second most nominated film—with 10– is The Artist, from French director Michael Hazanavicius, which actually pays tribute to American black and white silent films (with extra nods to the likes of Citizen Kane and Vertigo). I’m not making this up: an American film about French films, or a French film about American films. Golly. I’m speechless.
I’m not saying that either film is a shabby device by any stretch, but to me they both just kind of sit there on the screen in their own admiration of themselves. The horror, the horror. Luckily, there are also some wonderful movies that are actually about human beings and great big philosophical questions about the nature of life, etc. The remaining Best Picture nominees—for a total of 9–are The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and War Horse. Of these remaining seven, prospects of winning top honors are slim for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Moneyball, and War Horse. The reason is because the directors of those films have not likewise been nominated by their peers in their specific branch of the Academy, and it is next to impossible for a movie to win Best Picture without the director also being nominated. It’s been 22 years, in fact, since Driving Miss Daisy managed such a feat—and Driving Miss Daisy at least had the advantage of being the year’s most nominated film, which helped because it meant that as it was nominated in so many categories it would likely be seen by more voters. In this bunch, I would say that The Help, by virtue of being the biggest money earner, might still have a shot. The downside is that The Help boasts only 4 nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Viola Davis), and two bids for Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer). Before I move on to the films that are the seemingly stronger contenders, I will say congratulations to Scott Rudin for pushing his Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to the winners circle. All the early buzz deteriorated into mixed reviews and lukewarm box office even with the likes of marquee names such as Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Yes, it’s up for Best Picture—but that’s just about it. A whopping two nods: Best Picture (still something about which to brag I guess) and Best Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow). Rudin’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also made only a minor splash despite loads of publicity, but, indeed, snared one nomination in a major category.
Okay, so the five films most likely to win Best Picture are (alphabetically): The Artist (10 noms), The Descendants (6 noms), Hugo (11 noms), Midnight in Paris (4 noms), and The Tree of Life (3 noms). The nominated directors are Hazanavicius, Alexander Payne, Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Texas’s Terrence Malick. Of course, Scorsese and Allen already have Oscars in this category (for The Departed and Annie Hall, respectively); Payne was previously nominated for 2004’s Sideways, and Malick’s previous bid was for 1998’s The Thin Red Line. I have to say that even though I’m not a big fan of either The Artist or Hugo, there is much delight to be found in this line-up. My three favorite movies of 2011 were The Help, Midnight in Paris, and The Tree of Life, so I’m good. It’s especially gratifying to see The Tree of Life up for Best Picture and Best Director since it was overlooked by both the producers and directors guilds. Also, I’m happy for Allen’s success. His last nomination was for the Match Point screenplay; I don’t think he’s been nominated for directing since 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway, and he hasn’t had a film in the Best Picture lineup since Hannah and Her Sisters; that was way back in 1986. Midnight in Paris isn’t only Allen’s biggest hit in years and years, it’s, I don’t know, a return to form, or maybe it’s just magical. There are a few high profile omissions; Spielberg, of course, for War Horse; Stephen Daldry for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Daldry has been nominated for his every film effort up to this point: Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader. Hmmm: 4th time isn’t the charm, huh Stevie? David Fincher was a DGA nominee for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but that apparently was a fluke.
Okay, the nominees for Best Actress are Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Viola Davis (The Help), Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), and Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn). I must say, I think there’s something almost perverse about Williams being nominated for playing cinema’s most legendary blonde bombshell who never earned an Oscar nod in her own right. Still, Williams’s nod is hardly a surprise. If there is a surprise in this bunch, it is that Rooney Mara is “in,” and Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk about Kevin) is not. That noted, I still think the heavyweights are Close, Davis, and Streep—even so, Close will needs lots of sentiment to help her outshine Streep and Davis. I haven’t yet seen We Need to Talk about Kevin, mainly because as far as I know it has not yet opened in Dallas, so I can’t say whether Swinton was robbed. Well, she already has an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress: Michael Clayton, 2007), so she’s not hurting, exactly. Since this race seemed all but solidified two months ago, any disappointment seems moot. That noted, I have to say that I would have loved for Charlize Theron to have been recognized for her work in Young Adult. Her performance as a deluded, self-centered writer who tries to get past the train wreck her life has become by breaking up the marriage of her high school sweetheart—if they were ever really sweethearts in the first place—packed a wallop, and it was the one performance by anyone of either sex that most surprised me in 2011. Theron had to make do with a Golden Globe nod as did Swinton, and like Swinton, Theron already has an Oscar (for the no holds barred Monster), so, again, it’s hard to feel too badly for her except that I do because I think her role in Young Adult as a different kind of monster (from the serial killer in the earlier film) could have gone so badly without just the right mix of talent, brains, and good looks that Theron personifies. I’d also like to give a huge shout-out to The Help’s Emma Stone. With all the hoopla for Davis, Chastain, and Spencer, Stone has somehow gotten lost in the shuffle as the character who makes a lot of things happen in The Help. This is the second year in a row in which Stone has done knockout work (such as Easy A) without scoring with the Academy. Well, with a career such as the one she’s building now—and she’s only 23—Stone is due to make something award worthy sooner or later.
George Clooney (^) received his third Best Actor nomination for The Descendants. Interestingly, Clooney has only ever been nominated for movies released during odd-numbered years. He won Best Supporting Actor for 2005's Syrianna; he was nominated as Best Actor for 2007's Michael Clayton, followed by 2009's Up in the Air, and now 2011's The Descendants. Frankly, I would have nominated him for 2000's O Brother Where Art Thou and 2010's The American, but I guess the timing wasn't right.
The Best Actor race is between Demián Bichir (A Better Life), George Clooney (The Descendants), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and Brad Pitt (Moneyball). Okay, so there are two major upsets in this race. The first is Leonardo DiCaprio (J.Edgar). I frankly thought DiCaprio was brilliant—brilliant, I say—as the legendary and legendarily shady, apparently demon plagued—chief of the FBI. On the other hand, the film was, in a word, laughable. In two words it was laughably horrendous. Plus, it was a bit of a box office disappointment (mainly I would say because the reviews just didn’t match the hype, save for Leo’s performance specifically). I’m also thrilled that I can now safely decline to watch Michael Fassbender impersonate a sex addict in Shame. My position was that I would watch the film if Fassbender were nominated. My reluctance has nothing to do with sexual addiction, per se, but with the idea of spending two hours with an addict of any kind. I’ve done it so much in my own lifetime that I no longer find it fascinating. Plus, the two performers that slipped by DiCaprio and Fassbender are pretty worthy: Bichir in the perfectly realized A Better Life and Oldman in an unflinchingly cold look at the intricacies of Cold War paranoia. Since Oldman has been shut out of much of the year end hoopla, his nomination is a welcome surprise, and I’ll go so far as to add that it is a triumph of substance over hype. That noted, the other three actors are the heavyweights–Clooney, Dujardin, and Pitt—and look closely: Clooney is also nominated for co-writing The Ides of March (Best Adapted Screenplay), and Pitt is listed as not only one of the producers of Moneyball, he is also one of the producers of The Tree of Life (though a final determination about which of that film’s many producers’ names will appear on the next ballot is pending ; I believe Academy rules only allow three per picture). The last casualty worth mentioning is Ryan Gosling who starred in Drive and The Ides of March. I think Gosling did strong work in two well-liked and/or lauded films, but I don’t think either was enough of a breakout hit to generate the momentum to make a nomination a certainty; therefore, he likely suffered from split voting.
If there is a surprise in the Best Supporting Actress race, it’s the appearance of Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids, and even she isn’t that big of a surprise since she’s already earned a SAG nomination—and why not, she’s a regular scene stealer and an absolute delight in the role of an assertive female with a healthy appetite for romance. I guess what makes it somewhat surprising is that after weeks, if not months, of speculation that Bridesmaids would sneak into the Best Picture race, it was cast aside, leaving only nominations for McCarthy and the screenplay by SNL ‘s Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumola. McCarthy is vying for the Oscar against the likes of the aforementioned Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer (the latter seemingly poised to win) in addition to Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs). McTeer is a previous Best Actress nominee for 1999’s Tumbleweeds. You should also check out her Songcatcher (from 2000) if you have not yet done so. Some Oscar insiders would likely argue that Shailene Woodley (playing George Clooney’s teenage daughter in The Descendants) was unjustly overlooked. I would not be one of those people. I thought she was good; I did not think she was great. As I noted on my blog, I would have been happy if this category were full of nothing but women from The Help: Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Bryce Dallas Howard, and even Cicely Tyson (a strong performance in a role that is barely more than a cameo).
^ Nick Nolte has earned his third Oscar nomination for playing the father/coach of two brothers who compete in the thrilling world of martial arts. When the movie first came out, skeptics zeroed in on the superficial similarities between it and 2010's The Fighter, which was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (David O. Russell); it won Oscars for Best Supporting Actress (Melissa Leo) and Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale). Though Nolte is up against legend and sentimental favorite Christopher Plummer, his nomination is still a nice touch and might generate interest in a film that never found its audience while playing in theaters.
The Best Supporting Actor race is a mixed-bag. Oh sure, there’s frontrunner Christopher Plummer (Beginners), but where is presumed candidate number 2 Albert Brooks as one of the baddies in Drive, a Ryan Gosling vehicle—so to speak—that was shut out in almost every category (it snagged a nod for Sound Editing)? How that happened is beyond me, but I guess the problem wasn’t necessarily with Brooks; it appears the Academy just didn’t like the movie on almost any level. Instead, Plummer will duke it out with Kenneth Branagh (as Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn), Jonah Hill (Moneyball), Nick Nolte (Warrior), and the aforementioned Max von Sydow. Well, isn’t this one grizzled looking batch of veteran nominees? 82 year old Plummer received his first nomination two years ago for The Last Station; Max von Sydow, also 82, was previously nominated for 1988’s Pelle the Conqueror; Nolte, 60, has two Best Actor nominations to his credit (The Prince of Tides, 1991; Affliction, 1998). I would say that the third time might be the charm for him, but Plummer looks unstoppable at this point. Next to those guys, Kenneth Branagh, a mere 51, is practically a toddler. He has a batch of nominations for directing and starring in Henry V (1989) and for scrupulously adapting Hamlet for the big screen in 1996. The newcomer here is 28 year old Jonah Hill, who’s only been working professionally in movies since 2004. Not bad. I don’t know that any of these nominees is a surprise because they’ve all been getting buzz in one form or another, but the omission of Brooks still comes as a bit of a shock. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I was disappointed that Corey Stoll’s brilliant reckoning of Ernest Hemingway in Allen’s Midnight in Paris was overlooked. Although Stoll received plenty of early buzz—including an Independent Spirit nomination—it was hard to sustain against a lineup of esteemed vets. Too bad. Stoll really delivers the goods as he serves up a slice of what moviegoers expect Hemingway to be like. It’s both seemingly dead on while also being a bit of a put-on. How is that possible? Also SOL: Andy Serkis, who generated a huge goodwill campaign for his motion capture performance as the central ape figure in the Planet of the Apes reboot. Also forgotten: Patton Oswalt as the not so hapless schmoe who becomes Theron’s backup buddy in Young Adult.
Okay, that’s what’s up in the major categories. Hugo and The Artist dominate the technical categories though Emmanuel LubezkI (The Tree of Life) will be hard to beat for Best Cinematography. The Conspirator, another 2011 film that I truly loved, was also ignored, but I’m not surprised at this point. I just don’t think it was flashy enough either for most filmgoers or the Academy. Here are a few more items of note: there are only two Best Song nominees (“Man or Muppet from The Muppets and “Real in Rio” from Rio), so why bother? The latter is by none other than Sergio Mendes, yes, that Sergio Mendes from back in the day (with the Brazil 66 outfit). There are five nominees for Best Feature Length Animated Film, a rarity—but one of the five isn’t Cars 2, which famously lost to Happy Feet back in 2006. Of course, the sequel to Happy Feet is also not on the list, but Rango, Puss in Boots, and Kung Fu Panda 2 are—along with Chico and Rita and A Cat in Paris. Sounds fun. I’m saving my last shout-out for writer-director J.C. Chandor. His Margin Call, starring Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Zachary Quinto, among others,a taut piece of filmmaking about the 2008 banking crisis, was a hit with critics, but a hard sell with moviegoers. Luckily, Chandor was not forgotten among screenwriters, but who wants to compete against a legend like Woody Allen or a powerhouse like Wiig whose film was a blockbuster, but, hey, that’s what makes the Oscars so much fun.
Thanks for your consideration…
Printable List of Oscar nominees:
Variety.com Oscar scorecard of films with multiple nominations: