Saturday, 7 February 2015

Impressions on the Oscar Nominations

The nominees for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards

We’re in the throes of award season once again – the Golden Globes were handed out a few weeks ago, followed shortly by the Critics Choice Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Producers Guild of America Awards – and any self-respecting film blogger has something to say, vehemently, about the way things are turning out. The most important thing to Hollywood is, as we all know, turnover: the bigger, the better. But next in importance to the businessmen of cinema is prestige. The film releases in coming years are determined, for most of the year, by the box office grosses of the studio’s product and, right at the end and beginning of the calendar year, by the acclaim and accolades a production can rake in. We would like the Oscars to award our favourite movies, because then studios and independent producers will endeavour to make something similar in the upcoming years.

Ellar Coltrane drives his girlfriend to college in "Boyhood"

I haven’t seen all, or even most, of this year’s nominated films, and so cannot comment comprehensively on the academy’s selection (the full list of which can be found here). Perhaps you’ve seen more, or at least something I haven’t, and can show your appreciation or disdain for its nomination in the comments.

Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum captivate in "Foxcatcher"

Immediately noticeable among the nominees is the prevalence of biopics, or biographical dramas, even more than in recent years. These are the (often middling) productions the academy likes to honour, probably because it feels it’s honouring the films’ heroes in doing so. To be sure, those heroes are worth mentioning and commending, but their magnificent achievements are not to be mistaken for the film’s, and the venerability of a film’s subject does not automatically make it a venerable film. This year’s assortment of biopics, some of them indeed excellent creations, is made up of American Sniper, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Mr Turner, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Unbroken, and Wild.

Timothy Spall at work in "Mr Turner"

I’d like to begin with a few notes on Ava DuVernay’s Selma, one of the best films of 2014 I saw (and reviewed on this blog). It has only been nominated in two categories. One is the main competition, Best Picture, but the other is minor compared to the film’s significant achievements: Best Original Song (“Glory”, by John Legend and Common). Internet commentators suppose that the lack of love for Selma has to do with its late release date, the failure by its producers to send out screeners to all the members of the academy so that they can watch it at home instead of having to go out to see it, and the wild polemics flying around on the internet debating whether or not the film is fair to Lyndon B. Johnson. For one thing, I was fairly confident David Oyelowo would be nominated for Best Actor, and now having seen the film, I’m convinced he deserved it. As it happens, this year is the fourth year since 2000 that all the acting nominees are white, an issue of inequity and misrepresentation brought up in the film itself. Ava DuVernay, who has shown herself to be a director of remarkable skill and shrewdness, was passed over for Best Director, when she could have been the first black woman nominated in that category. I, for one, would much rather see her there than Morten Tyldum, the director of The Imitation Game, another biopic at the Oscars this year. Another issue voters were aware of before the final ballots were posted is that Paul Webb, the co-writer of Selma, whose contract entitled him to sole credit, took that privilege, even though it was reported that DuVernay rewrote up to 90% of the script. It’s alleged that Selma lost out on its writing nomination due to Webb’s presumptuousness, but that seems rather like cutting off her nose to spite his face.

Protestors pray on a march in "Selma"

Now for Gone Girl, David Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of her frenziedly bestselling novel – a fine film, and as glaring and misanthropic a comment on modern marriage and relationships as you’ll find anywhere. It has a single nomination: Best Actress, for the English beauty Rosamund Pike. Her Amy Dunne gives off an eerie, personality-chilled glow, impossible to forget for anyone who watched it. Somewhat underappreciated, though, is Ben Affleck, whose softness and weaselling charm made him a perfect fit for Nick, Amy’s husband. He should have been in the running for Best Actor. Other Oscar-worthy aspects of the film are Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s spine-chilling, electric score, the brilliant and uncanny composition of shots throughout the film (in the category of Best Cinematography), and, as always, Fincher’s masterful pacing and placement in apposition of images to precisely and stylishly create not only an exhilarating movie-going experience, but also a thoughtful social document (Best Editing). The major disappointment, though, arose when Gillian Flynn was not nominated for her screenplay, leaving not a single female nominated writer this year.

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck as a restless couple in "Gone Girl"

Another film I rather admired, and very much loved, of 2014, that was mentioned nowhere at any awards ceremony, was Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight, starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone, and a critical disappointment compared to Allen's other films. I was thoroughly charmed by it, and interested in its musings on whether there is magic to be found in the world, and, most importantly, swept away by the star-making lead performance of Emma Stone, someone I would most definitely like to have seen competing for Best Actress. Without her, the film would have been far less worthy a work than it is, but for some reason, critics and the academy had no love for it. I also think the photography here (by Darius Khondji) was also among the best this year, and should have been nominated for Best Cinematography.

Emma Stone beguiles Colin Firth in "Magic in the Moonlight"

The announcement of the nominees for the 81st Academy Awards in 2009 resulted in much indignation at the exclusion of Christopher Nolan’s colossal hit superhero film, The Dark Knight. Criticism was flung at the academy for its elitism and snobbery, mostly ignoring large studio productions such as action films and hit comedies for more serious fare like the smaller dramas nominated that year (all independent releases): The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonFrost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, and Slumdog Millionaire. The next year, the number of Best Picture nominees was lifted to ten, so that a larger variety of films could be included, and the rules were changed once more in 2012 so that now, the nominees can number anywhere from five to ten. This year, there are eight, and, yet again, not a single studio production is to be found there, not even Nolan’s sci-fi hit Interstellar, which was rather well received by audiences and critics. Most people choose to pick a top ten of each year, though, and this is what is compared to the nominees. I have never heard of anyone’s picks tallying up with the academy’s: everyone always disagrees with something. I would have the ingratiating The Imitation Game removed from the list, and probably Birdman as well, and add Gone Girl, Foxcatcher, and then have to decide between Mr Turner, a strange and magnificently crafted biopic of the great English painter, and The LEGO Movie, the pinnacle of animated features of 2014. Are there any films you’d add to the Best Picture list? Any you’d rip from its numbers?

Michael Keaton blowing up stuff in "Birdman"

The Imitation Game (reviewed on this blog last week) succeeds because of its actors. Its script is annoyingly sycophantic, and should never have been considered in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, which is where it is nominated. To be sure, its music, production design, costume design and editing give a sense of the very troubled times Turing was living and working in, and those nominations I will not dispute, but this film is far too loved for its limited merits (though not uncharacteristically – remember that The King's Speech won the top prize four years ago).

Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush charm voters in the "The King's Speech"

Another of the nominees I could have done without is Into the Woods. I am grateful it didn’t get a Best Picture nod, like many thought it would, but I don’t think it much deserves its acting nomination either, even though it’s for Meryl Streep. This performance lies well within her transformative powers, and shows us nothing we haven’t seen before any number of times at the movies. The academy seems to have fallen into a rut of nominating Streep whenever she gives a passable performance, and, frankly, this running gag is turning very dull.

James Cordon and Meryl Streep in the woods in "Into the Woods"

There are things I was very glad to see, particularly the honour afforded Wes Anderson’s delightful The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Richard Linklater’s intimately epic Boyhood. Anderson’s film is tied with Birdman as having the most nominations (nine), every one of them deserved, but I would like to have seen it represented in one additional category: Best Supporting Actor for Tony Revolori as the devoted lobby boy. And perhaps also Best Actor for Ralph Fiennes, an extraordinary talent, who seems to have gone pretty much unnoticed by the academy since his work in Schindler's List and The English Patient, twenty years ago.

Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan as the young lovers in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Other things that pleased me are Bennett Miller’s Best Director nomination for Foxcatcher, Ethan Hawke’s Supporting Actor nomination for Boyhood, in particular Patricia Arquette’s Supporting Actress nomination for Boyhood, Mr Turner’s nods for its Score and Cinematography, and some love for Maleficent (for its Costumes, though I would’ve preferred it were for Angelina Jolie).

Any contentions or indefensible errors you’d like to add? Or any disputes with anything I’ve said? Do add them in the comments.

Angelina Jolie, the single most important merit of "Maleficent"


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