February 5, 2011

Oscars 2010: And the Nominees Are…

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 3:20 pm
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Complete List of Nominees

With the announcement of the Oscar nominations now nearly two weeks past, you’ve probably been aching with anticipation to hear my thoughts. My apologies for the delay, but I figured it would take this long to read my predictions piece anyway, so I had a little time to play with. Ready to get back into it?

This list shaped up pretty much as expected, with 127 Hours muscling in to replace The Town, which I thought would make the cut. I’ve got no problem with that. The Town was a fine movie and another welcome component of the Ben Affleck Career Reboot, but I was surprised it got elevated to the Best Picture conversation in the first place.

Despite the presence of eight other movies, most still see the contest as boiling down to The King’s Speech and The Social Network. Based on recent events, I have to agree. What recent events, you ask? Well, as I said previously, things can change awfully fast. And so they have. The first half of the season clearly favored The Social Network,  but in the days since the nominations were revealed, the Screen Actor’s Guild honored The King’s Speech with their top prize – for best cast – and the Director’s Guild selected Speech‘s Tom Hooper as Best Director. (I’m having trouble making sense of that one, but I’ll say a bit more below.) Taken individually, neither of these awards necessarily shore up a Best Picture win for The King’s Speech. But taken together – along with a win from the Producer’s Guild – that scenario now looks likely.

I’m about to go off on a tangent here, but longtime readers know this is nothing new. I possess no filter. The day of the nominations, this article appeared on CNN.com and promptly pissed me off. The author, one Lewis Beale, calls The Social Network an “also-ran” behind The King’s Speech and True Grit because Speech led the way with 12 nominations, Grit followed with 10 and Social tied for third with eight. He says the numbers make Speech and Grit the frontrunners.

No, Lewis. No they don’t.

Speech may well be the frontrunner now, but not because it has the most nominations. And sorry, but Grit isn’t a frontrunner at all. The number of nominations a movie gets has nothing to do with whether it will win Best Picture or with whether the Academy thinks it’s the single best movie of the year. If The Social Network is now relegated to “also-ran” status, that’s not because it doesn’t have the highest nomination tally; it’s because three major awards, voted on by many of the same people who vote for the Oscars, all went to a different film, thereby suggesting a lack of the necessary support. And at the time Beale’s article was published, two of those awards hadn’t even been announced yet. The Social Network was still sittin’ pretty.

The movies that receive the most nominations every year are the ones that hit the sweet spot of having appeal in the top races (Picture, Acting, Directing, Writing) AND the below-the-line races (crafts and technical categories). Fantasy or fanciful films (Lord of the Rings, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and period pieces (Bugsy, Titanic and yes, The King’s Speech and True Grit) are the movies that score the big numbers. A movie like The Social Network is not gonna get nominated for things like Art Direction or Costume Design. That fact has nothing to do with how good the movie is or how much people like it. Contemporary movies almost never get those nominations, fair or not. Fantasy films, science-fiction films and period pieces get those nominations. Simple as that.

There is no reliable correlation between a movie getting the most nominations of the year and then winning Best Picture. Often it happens (Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Titanic) and often it doesn’t (Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Bugsy, Benjamin Button). But guys like Beale try to draw direct lines like these all the time.

To address some of his other points:
  • If voters disliked Social‘s main character so much, they wouldn’t have nominated the actor who played him.
  • If voters didn’t appreciate Aaron Sorkin’s script, they wouldn’t have nominated it. And Sorkin is the favorite to win this award by a wide margin.
  • The film’s supporting actors got dissed because that category is super-competitive and some good work is inevitably left out (like Matt Damon in the more-nominated-than-Social-Network-so-it-must-be-a-frontrunner True Grit).
About the only thing Beale gets right is that The King’s Speech – as enjoyable, well-crafted and audience-friendly as it is – is a bigger-budget Masterpiece Theatre installment that constitutes safe, traditional filmmaking. Although I thought the movie was great, I’d like to see something more interesting singled out by the Academy. But like Ma Kelly in Johnny Dangerously, it goes both ways. Let’s use Benjmain Button again. In 2008, it led the field with 13 nominations, and it was the more traditional, classical movie in the year’s race. But the big winner – taking Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and five others – was Slumdog Millionaire, which displayed a bolder, more modern-style. (Benjamin Button – directed, ironically, by The Social Network‘s David Fincher – won three awards.) To the Academy’s credit, in recent years they’ve been more often swinging away from their traditional safe zone, giving Best Picture to darker, violent movies like The Departed and No Country for Old Men that they have traditionally not annointed. (The Departed, incidentally, was the fourth most nominated film of its year. I guess that was an also-ran too.) So the pendulum may well swing back this year, with The King’s Speech taking Best Picture. But if it beats The Social Network, it will have nothing to do with the latter having received fewer nominations.

Tangent over.

I’m not sure what compelled me in the pre-nomination write-up to mention the potential of Christopher Nolan being overlooked, because I really didn’t think it was likely. But there it was. That was easily the biggest shock and disappointment for me. I don’t get it. What does this guy have to do to earn an Oscar nomination for directing? Three citations from the Director’s Guild of America over the past decade, and still not a single nod to match from the Academy. Eight nominations for Inception, so certainly an impressive showing for the film, but I don’t understand the lack of appreciation for Nolan’s undeniable vision and skill. The five nominees (six actually, with the Coen Brothers) all did impressive work, but c’mon – from a directorial standpoint, The King’s Speech is hardly the equal of Inception. Nolan continues to be one of the most exciting directors on the scene right now, and I look forward to the day when the Directing branch of the Academy will wake the fuck up and acknowledge it.

With that out of the way, at least there wasn’t a total rejection of bold, original filmmakers. Darren Aronofsky’s first nomination is cause for celebration, and it’s nice to see David O. Russell embraced by the establishment as well.

Although I still haven’t seen Biutiful, something I’ll soon be able to rectify now that it’s playing at a theater near me, I was happy to see Javier Bardem make the list. Just based on what I’ve heard of the film, it seems like the right move. And it gave the announcement a nice jolt of surprise since his inclusion was by no means a sure thing. Unfortunately, the voters blew it with their omission of Blue Valentine‘s Ryan Gosling. I love Jeff Bridges and enjoyed him in True Grit, but there’s no way that performance belongs here over Gosling’s, whose portrayal of a husband trying to save his marriage is raw and electrifying. The guy literally acted without a net. His absence stings all the more given that his equally impressive co-star Michelle Williams did get nominated. This is a case of two actors truly doing a dance, relying on each other in every way, each one’s amazing work due in part to drawing amazing work from the other. To nominate only one is an act of blindness.

The fact that Michelle Williams was nominated while Gosling wasn’t speaks, perhaps indirectly, to the disproportionate number of strong roles for women to strong roles for men. There almost always seems to be stiffer competition for the five Best Actor nominations than for the Best Actress slots. I’d argue it’s at least partly the reason Kate Winslet was nominated for both Titanic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind while her co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jim Carrey, respectively, were slighted. Williams absolutely deserves her nomination; I’m not trying to imply she only made it in because the field was weak. It’s more the point that Gosling didn’t make it because that field had more contenders, which comes back around to the dearth of great roles for women in film. But I digress. My final comment on the subject is that Williams’ nomination thrills me, but also disappoints me because I can’t help but see her recognition as one half of a whole.

Though it was no surprise to see Christian Bale nominated – indeed, his win is as close to a sure thing as we have – it still needs to be said that this recognition from the Academy is long overdue for such a committed and versatile actor. It’s hard to believe this is his first nomination. And while we’re at it, congratulations are also in order for Mark Ruffalo finally making it into the club, over a decade after You Can Count on Me put him on the map. And it’s really nice to see a great working actor like John Hawkes get this level of recognition. Anyone familiar with his work in films like The Perfect Storm and American Gangster and TV shows like Deadwood and Eastbound and Down will surely be happy for him, and will be impressed by his lived-in performance in Winter’s Bone.

The category’s big disappointments are the exclusions of True Grit‘s Matt Damon and The Social Network‘s Andrew Garfield. I made my case for Damon in the previous write-up, so I won’t repeat myself. Except I’m totally going to repeat myself. What the hell happened this awards season to Matt Damon?!? Barely a mention for his essential performance even as True Grit became one of the most acclaimed and honored films of the year. 10 nominations in total, two of those for the acting, and yet no recognition for Damon? These are the same people who nominated him last year for a competent but unremarkable turn in Invictus, yet here overlook the colorful, captivating work he does in what is practically the classic definition of a great supporting performance. The Invictus argument may be unfair, given that a film or performance must be judged against the competition it faces in the given year. Last year’s Supporting Actor field was unusually lacking, whereas this year’s was typically overcrowded. Still, Damon’s work stands among the year’s best.

As for Garfield, I had him pegged last fall as the most likely acting nominee from The Social Network‘s excellent ensemble, but in the end it was Jesse Eisenberg who dominated the awards circuit and gets to carry the flag for the film’s cast at the Oscars. I wish Garfield could be there with him. The role isn’t as showy as, say, Christian Bale’s, but he brings a compelling dynamic to it. I’d even say that much like Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling’s performances work in true sync, so do Garfield’s and Eisenberg’s.

I enjoyed Jeremy Renner’s live-wire work in The Town, but I would absolutely push him to the side in favor of Damon or Garfield. His recognition throughout the season has been a bit of a puzzle to me. But it is nice to see him doing so well of late, nominated (along with Jeff Bridges and Colin Firth) for the second consecutive year and landing a big gig like The Avengers, where apparently he’ll be filling Alan Alda’s shoes in the role of Hawkeye.

Three cheers for the two ladies of The Fighter, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo, both of whom were also nominated in 2008 (Leo as Best Actress for Frozen River, Adams in this category for Doubt). Each did excellent work, all the more impressive considering how easily they could have been dominated by Christian Bale. And although she didn’t quite make my personal list, I was pleased to see Jacki Weaver get the nod for Animal Kingdom…not just because it proved a correct prediction (ten points to Gryffindor, thank you very much), but because it’s nice to see a small movie like this and an actress not well known in the U.S. get such high profile attention. Apparently she is well known in her native Australia, with a long career in films, television and theater (she was recently onstage in Sydney opposite Cate Blanchett in Uncle Vanya). I hope her nomination draws more viewers to the film, which I only saw recently but consider one of the year’s best.

Hailee Steinfeld’s nomination was another quasi-success in my personal Oscar game. I felt she belonged in the Best Actress category, but correctly figured that voters would keep her in the Supporting race, as she was campaigned. As long as she got nominated, that’s what matters. And there’s no doubt that, as a Supporting nominee, she has a much better shot at the prize than she would have had as a Best Actress nominee.

And then there’s Helena Bonham Carter, whose nomination for The King’s Speech was both completely expected and completely unnecessary. I loves me some Bonham Carter, and she does nice work in The King’s Speech (if nothing else, it’s refreshing to see her come out from under the make-up and crazy wigs that she seems to live in onscreen lately). But this is a total auto-pilot nomination (a trend that definitely benefitted The King’s Speech as we work our way down through the categories). She’s being recognized for appearing in a beloved film, and nothing more. Watch the movie and tell me that Bonham Carter really does anything worthy of being singled out for one of the five finest supporting performances of the year. Even the actress herself thinks the attention is misplaced, saying in this Variety article, “I thought it was a boys’ film. Sometimes you get nominated for the wrong things. I’m not knocking it, because I want the good roles, so if it helps me get another really good part, that’s great. For that moment, when you’re nominated, you get offered parts you wouldn’t otherwise be offered. After Wings of a Dove, I got Fight Club. When you are up for awards, they remember you’re still alive.”

Couldn’t voters have expanded their horizons just a little? Where’s Greta Gerwig, who gave a beautiful, should-be breakout performance in Greenberg? How about Marisa Tomei for the conflicted girlfriend and mother in Cyrus, or Imogen Poots as a sexually confident teen with a hidden agenda in Solitary Man? If those are too outside the box, there were choices in the safety zone too. Hello? Julianne Moore for The Kids Are All Right? (A lead role, but hey, it worked for Steinfeld.) Or Marion Cotillard for her balance of tragic and creepy in Inception? And if they were set on Bonham Carter, why not honor her for Alice in Wonderland? She was one of the few good things about that movie, evoking both laughs and sympathy as the cranially-challenged Red Queen. A nomination for that performance would have been a good reminder that even work which appears to be pure fun can earn accolades (after all, it’s been a couple of years since Robert Downey Jr.’s Tropic Thunder nomination).

Here was one case where I was perfectly happy to get a prediction wrong. I thought Black Swan would make the list, but also made clear that I didn’t think it should. I’m glad the Writer’s branch agreed with me. In its place, they nominated Mike Leigh for Another Year, which I still have yet to see, but which I mentioned as a possible spoiler given the Academy’s fondness for Leigh’s work. I’m not the biggest Leigh fan in the world, and I’ve always found his screenwriting nominations to be frustrating given that his movies are largely improvised and do not follow the traditional screenwriting path. (This article from The Hollywood Reporter briefly describes his process.) But who’s to say there’s a right way to write? I chose Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine script as one of my personal picks to be nominated, and although he worked on that piece for roughly 12 years, he’s the first to admit that much of the end result was born out of improvisations he executed with Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. So I guess I’ll just take my hypocrisy and get myself to Another Year.

Other than that, the category shook out as I expected. At least Christopher Nolan got nominated here.

Nolan’s snub in the Best Director race was definitely the day’s biggest WTF omission, but equally inexplicable to me, if not as high profile, is Inception not getting nominated for Editing. Are you fucking kidding me?!? Lee Smith’s achievement should be the clear winner in this category. The rules of Nolan’s story may have confused some audiences, but thanks to the crisp editing, we always knew where we were even as the film was shuttling between multiple levels of dreams and reality. It was masterful visual storytelling, yet it’s nowhere to be found here while a straightforward film like The King’s Speech makes the list? Editor friends, if you’re reading this, please explain that to me.

I commented previously that I had no opinion about the contenders in this race, as no song had stuck out for me all year. The Academy couldn’t even find five songs they liked enough to nominate, selecting only four. But I was a bit surprised that they ignored Burlesque (not that I’ve seen it) and “Shine”, from Waiting for Superman. I do like Dido a lot, so I’m pleased to see her get an Oscar nomination, even if her song from 127 Hours didn’t stick with me after my initial viewing of the film.

Alexandre Desplat composed scores for four films released in 2010, and of course he earned his Oscar nomination for the least interesting one. Actually that’s not fair; I haven’t seen Tamara Drewe. But Desplat’s compositions for both The Ghost Writer and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I were far more deserving of nominations than his adequate work in The King’s Speech, which proved to once again be selected as if voters were just sleepwalking through their ballot. At least Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross made it in for The Social Network, along with Hans Zimmer’s indispensible contribution to Inception.

Okay, that’s all the commentary I have to offer until the big night looms closer and I weigh in with my predictions. You may have been expecting opinions about every category, but there’s not always much to say at this stage. You can use the hours it would take you to read more of my commentary to instead go catch one of the nominated films you have yet to see. In the meantime, here are two brief gimpses of your hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco getting primed.

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