Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Oscar Nomination Toss Up

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their annual awards nominations Tuesday, January 24, 2012 in a live ceremony at 7:30 a.m. CST. I don’t always write about my thoughts on the Oscar nominations or offer up predictions. I do this year because it’s an especially exciting year for the Oscars. That’s because other than just a couple of the big categories, this year is a difficult year to predict due to the overwhelming excellence to be found amongst the contenders.

Many of my predictions here will be tentative as I have yet to see all of this year’s contenders. The fact that the frontrunner for many of the top awards, “The Artist”, is probably still a ways away from a wide enough release to allow me to see it will greatly hinder my perceptions of just how the Oscars should play out, but not so much on how it actually will. The surprise nominations will also present a challenge for me, as they include several films that I’ve yet to see. Regardless, I will do my best to see clearly what these nominations mean and whom they might be going to on Oscar night.

Before I get into my analysis of the nominations, however, I’d like to address an ongoing debate that seems to come up every year. Do the Oscars really honor the best the film industry has to offer? There is much debate as to whether these award ceremonies are actually dedicated to honoring artistic excellence, or are they just propaganda to the capitalist machine that runs the entertainment industry?

The Grammys are often sited as an event structured only for populist and moneymaking propaganda in the music industry. This may well be true. It's hard to tell with such a large awards field as what the Grammys has to face each and every year. With the sheer volume of material to consider in the music industry, it would be impossible to fairly consider every individual artistic effort submitted each year.

The Oscars has a wide field to consider as well, with 265 films eligible for competition this year. However, I believe their track record speaks for itself. Yes, many great films are overlooked each and every year. Yes, sometimes an undeserving candidate wins out over other obviously better possibilities. On the other hand, the field is rarely filled only with mainstream drivel. Every year, people complain that too many of the nominees are independently made, harder to access movies. This is because that is where the quality filmmaking is happening for the most part.

This year the movie with the second most nominations is a black & white silent movie. Today, that could only happen with an organization that is set on awarding excellence above the dollar. Surely, the Brothers Weistein are good businessmen who will spin their movie into more of a moneymaker than anybody could’ve imagined for such a film in this special effects driven era, but they also make a point to single out quality material. So, I do believe the Oscars still award quality over whatever is driving their business.

Best Picture

There was much controversy this year over the new rules for Best Picture. For the past two years, ten films have been nominated in this category; before that five. Because some felt ten nominees presented too large a representative of lower quality films highlighted, the Academy changed the policy to allow from 5 to 10 films to be nominated for Best Picture this year. So the big question going into Tuesday’s nominations was just how many pictures would be nominated?

“The Artist”, “Hugo”, “The Descendants”, “Midnight in Paris”, and “The Help” were considered the five sure shots. The next three, “Moneyball”, “The Tree of Life”, and “War Horse” weren’t too much of a surprise either. Some figured one or two other films had a shot to replace one of these three, but I think many people were pretty sure eight movies would be it. The big surprise was “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” nabbing a ninth spot. This movie was thought to be a pretty long shot because of poor critical reception. I would’ve liked to see “Shame”, “Melancholia”, or “Take Shelter” get the extra attention, and many feel that a comedy like “Bridesmaids” would’ve made a nice change of tune for the possibly anti-comedy Academy voters.  Also, I think “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” would’ve been a better choice than “War Horse”.

The Oscar will go to “The Artist”. A month ago, I thought we might actually obtain some unpredictability in this category with a good duke out between “The Artist” and “The Descendants”, but the momentum for “The Descendants” has slowed in that time. If any film has even the slightest, dark horse, outside chance against “The Artist”, it is the movie with the most nominations, “Hugo”. However, the Academy will award the more challenging film here.

If I had my way “The Tree of Life” would get it. Even though I’ve yet to see “The Artist” and have no doubts that I will enjoy it as much as it seems everyone who’s seen it has, I can’t see it replacing “The Tree of Life” as the year’s best achievement in film in my personal opinion.

Best Animated Feature

This was one of the day’s biggest surprise categories. The fact that Pixar was snubbed for the first time ever in this category’s existence is a shock. “Cars 2” isn’t as respected as most of their output, but it wasn’t an extremely strong year for animation. The omission of “The Adventures of Tintin” is disappointing, but not quite as surprising. There is great controversy within the Academy about the veracity of the motion capture technology used to create the animation of “Tin Tin” as a legitimate form of animation. It was a surprise that the Academy allowed it into consideration, no surprise that it didn’t make the final cut. “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Puss in Boots” are fun movies, but not really award material. Their inclusion is not so much a surprise as it is disappointing. “A Cat in Paris” and “Chico & Rita” are out of the blue nominations in this category as very few people outside of the Academy’s Animation committee has seen them. “Rango” was the only sure bet here.

The Oscar will go to “Rango”. This probably would’ve been the case without the surprises. “Rango” is the only strong candidate that is likely to be seen by enough Academy members to win.

If it were up to me “Rango” would get it. “Rango” is witty and original, but I’d prefer it if “Tintin” was still eligible.

Best Actor

There are two pointed surprises in this category, although both were predicted as possible nomination stealers. Demián Bichir for “A Better Life” has been highly praised for his work in the little seen movie and Gary Oldman for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” was thought to be a likely spoiler. The two major snubs are Leonardo DiCaprio for “J. Edgar” and Michael Fassbender for “Shame”. “J. Edgar” didn’t make the impressions most thought it would, but DiCaprio was still expected to get some recognition. The Academy voters, whose average age is about 60, might’ve shied away from the sexual NC-17 nature of “Shame”.

That leaves Brad Pitt for “Moneyball”, George Clooney for “The Descendants” and the favorite, Jean Dujardin for “The Artist”. Pitt’s nomination will be enough to honor him for his two strong performances this year, the other coming in “The Tree of Life”. Clooney might have a fighting chance against Dujardin just because of his likeability and the opportunity to give a little more attention to the fine work in “The Descendants”.

The Oscar will go to Dujardin. Although Clooney’s been biding his time, he’ll have to wait a little longer because the Academy can’t resist the chance to watch a foreigner ham it up, ala Roberto Benigni’s win for “Life is Beautiful”.

If I had my way it would go to Brad Pitt, but more so for his work in “The Tree of Life” than “Moneyball”.

Best Actress

Now, we’re really getting into surprise and snub territory as this category really threw some curve balls. Meryl Streep, Viola Davis and Michelle Williams were all expected to get their nods, but there were three other strong candidates with Charlize Theron for “Young Adult”, Tilda Swinton for “We Need To Talk About Kevin”, and Kirsten Dunst for “Melancholia”, who all got locked out. While one of these women had to lose out, all three is a shock. I’m not surprised that Rooney Mara stole one of these spots for her superb work as the titular “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, but “Albert Nobbs” made a surprising last quarter score with Glenn Close’s nomination (and another). With very little buzz going into awards season and less than impressive notices, “Albert Nobbs” is one of the biggest surprises of these nominations, but the Academy does love cross-gender roles.

Those two long shots leave Streep, Williams, and Davis poised for one of the least predictable awards of the lot. Conventional wisdom might suggest that with the most nominations of any on screen performer ever and without a win since 1983’s “Sophie’s Choice”, this would be the year that the trophy would finally go back to Streep for her work in “The Iron Lady”. Williams, on the other hand, is a sentimental favorite for several reasons. She’s been nominated twice before and has a knack for picking challenging roles, her personal hardships have been lived in the Hollywood tabloids having lost the father of her child, posthumous Oscar-winner Heath Ledger, in a surprising overdose, and the Academy loves to see an actor play another acting icon as Williams gives them with her nominated role in “My Week with Marilyn”. Davis burst onto the Academy’s radar a couple of years ago, however, with her less than ten-minute nominated role in “Doubt”. This one is up for grabs.

The Oscar will go to Davis. Williams, with her smart choices, will surely make another award worthy film and Streep’s “Iron Lady” hasn’t received the greatest notices beyond Streep’s performance as Margaret Thatcher. Davis also gives the Academy a chance to honor the most popular Best Picture nominee “The Help”.

If I had my way it would go to Mara for her amazing performance as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. I can’t emphasize enough how much I feel this is the best female performance of the year. She improved upon an already amazing performance by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish original just two years ago.

Best Supporting Actor

This category held some of the biggest surprises of the nominees. Kenneth Branagh’s nomination as Sir Lawrence Olivier in “My Week with Marilyn” was expected and falls within the Academy’s love for actors playing other actors. Christopher Plummer’s nod for his work as a retired widower who announces his homosexuality in “Beginners” is also a no-brainer. I thought Jonah Hill’s excellent work in “Moneyball” was a sure nomination, but news reports of shock from the audience during the live announcement suggest otherwise. I’ve watched the footage a couple of times, and it seems the reports are exaggerated. The real shocker is Nick Nolte’s bid for the completely un-hyped “Warrior”. I will eagerly await my disc from Netflix now. Max von Sydow’s role in “Extremely Loud” was a critical favorite and many were pleased by this surprise inclusion.

The biggest omission here is Albert Brooks for his unlikely turn as a gangster in “Drive”. Many feel that the comedian has been over praised for his work in this film, but I feel the final two scenes of the movie, where he confronts the Driver in the restaurant and the parking lot, set this character apart from typical villainous performances. Also Armie Hammer’s work as Hoover’s confidant and would be lover in “J. Edgar” is one of the year’s best supporting performances. His absence from the list of finalists is a shame. Finally, the Academy’s non-stance on motion capture performances also manifests itself here with the omission of Andy Serkis for his role as Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. The Academy faces a necessary debate in determining just where motion capture lies within their parameters as the practice becomes ever more popular and has greater influence over the artistic and commercial success of our movies.

The Oscar will go to Plummer. The Academy loves actors taking risks playing homosexuals and Plummer has dominated this category all awards season. Sydow could steal it in order for the Academy to honor his more than 60 years in the business performing in some of the greatest movies ever made.

If I had my way it would go to Hill as surely as I would give Actress to Mara. Hill’s is easily the best supporting performance in a film this year. He accomplishes a thing on screen that is the essence of great acting, but usually ends up on the editing floor. He listens.

Best Supporting Actress

Again a category with more than one surprise. “Albert Nobbs” lands its second take away here for Janet McTeer’s work. McTeer was nominated once before for her leading work in 1999’s “Tumbleweeds”. Melissa McCarthy is a welcome surprise for the funniest role in one of this year’s funniest movies, “Bridesmaids”. There was some question as to whether Bérénice Bejo would be nominated here or in the Actress category for her role in “The Artist”. This is the right place for her, since the race for Actress is so tight.  “The Help” is represented as expected by both Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer. The Supporting category is a great place for an ensemble film like “The Help” to flourish.

The Oscar will go to Spencer, if for no other reason than the fact that hers promises to be one of the better speeches. Bejo has a good chance to steal this one away though if “The Artist” sweeps.

If it were up to me it would go to Shailene Woodley for “The Descedants”, but since hers represents the most egregious snub of all the nominations I’ll have to pick again. Picking from the field that was nominated, I’d go with Jessica Chastain. She appeared in no less than seven feature films this year, including critical darlings “The Tree of Life” and “Take Shelter”, and is scheduled to appear in another five movies in 2012. Her work in “The Help” is her most memorable.

Best Director

Here’s this year’s category with the least amount of surprises.  Michel Hazanavicius for “The Artist”, Martin Scorsese for “Hugo”, Terrence Malik for “The Tree of Life” and Alexander Payne for “The Descendants” are all to be expected. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” doesn’t rely so much on his director’s hand as it does on his writing, but the nomination is still no surprise. Many have listed Steven Spielberg, Tate Taylor, Bennet Miller and George Clooney as surprise omissions, but there are only five slots to fill. “War Horse” is not Spielberg’s finest effort. “The Help” is helped more by its casting than Taylor’s overall direction. And, Clooney doesn’t need attention for “The Ides of March”; he already got a nod for acting. Only Miller’s omission for “Moneyball” is truly a shame, since his invisible hand is one of the director’s greatest illusions.

The Oscar will go to Hazanavicius, unless it goes to Scorsese.

If I had my way it would go to Malik for forging one of the most complete cinematic experiences I’ve ever witnessed.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The adapted screenplay category doesn’t carry a lot of surprises as the five contenders come from great books (and one play) that made for solid screenplays. “The Descendants”, “Hugo”, “The Ides of March”, “Moneyball”, and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” are some of the year's best in terms of screenplays. “The Girls with the Dragon Tattoo” missed out, especially considering that the movie is much better than its source material. “The Help” is another snub, which is probably for the better, since it was the film’s ensemble cast that made it worthy of awards more so than the strength of its story.

The Oscar will go to Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash for “The Descendants” from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. It’s a good place to honor the descending “Descendants”.

If I had my way it would go to Steve Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, and Stan Chevrin for “Moneyball” from the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis. The script wonderfully balances characters with the business of baseball, never drawing upon cliché and wrapping you up in a simple story told in a simple way with no flare just for the show of it.

Best Original Screenplay

Original Screenplay has some great entries, surprises or not. “The Artist” continues its dominance here. “Bridesmaids” gets its much deserved recognition here for a gross out comedy that is truly funny and actually has a brain. It’s good to see the greatly overlooked “Margin Call” get noticed here for its story that calls the stock market crash of 2008 as it really was. It’s no surprise at all that the Academy loved Woody Allen’s ode to Paris and artists in his whimsical fantasy “Midnight in Paris”. “A Separation”, however, created another welcome surprise in a rare foreign language original screenplay nomination. It would’ve been nice for Tom McCarthy to get some love for the smaller film “Win Win”, and Kevin Smith wrote one of the most intelligent screenplays of the past several years in his universally overlooked “Red State”.

The Oscar will go to Allen for “Midnight in Paris” because it’s been a while since Woody’s been this good and the Academy misses him.

If I had my way it would go to Allen. Hey! Look at that! It looks like I’m going to agree with the Academy for once.

Just a few other observations about the remaining categories. I haven’t seen any of the Foreign Language nominees because they are more often released in the U.S. after the Academy nominations. I wish they Academy could fix their voting procedures on this and other specialty categories in a way that could allow the public a chance to keep up. The Feature Documentary field is particularly strong this year after major changes were enacted in their nomination process, although I’ve only seen one of them. John Williams was nominated for both of his Spielberg scores this year while last year’s winners, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, found themselves left out of the Music Score category despite their excellent score for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. Finally, only two Original Song nominees, what’s up with that? And, the nominated song from “The Muppets” is perhaps the strangest song of the movie. Not that I’m complaining, but… weird.

Of course, the awards ceremony is more than a month away, so all these predictions could change by then. Check back with me later for a complete and final list of predictions. The Oscars will air live on ABC Sunday, February 26 at 6 p.m. CST.

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