While eagerly watching the televised Oscar nominations this morning, I was struck dumbfounded by perhaps the most egregious selection in the revered awards recent history. Tuba Atlantic got nominated for best live action short?!? This is an outrage!
In all seriousness, when Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was announced for the Best Picture award, it was a surreal moment. With the change to this year’s Best Picture format, leaving the number of nominees up in the air (the category may now have anywhere between five and ten contenders), the television presentation gave a false sense of finality. The cream of the year’s crop had been announced, with a symmetrical four nominees displayed on each half of the TV screen. Eight it would be! After a prolonged pause, though, the announcer read one more name, stupefying everyone who follows these awards with one fell swoop.
To be clear, ELIC was not a ballyhooed film. Missing the awards screening deadline, it failed to appear in any of the major circuits. In addition, fans and critics alike had a rare moment of agreement in their derision of the film (ELIC’s IMDB rating is a very mediocre 6.2, while Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 48% positive review aggregate). If there has ever been a time to call foul for this award, it’s now.
Perhaps the second biggest shocker is the decided lack of surprises for all of the other categories. Absent were the outlandish choices that have become the Academy’s signature in years past, marking transparent efforts to distinguish themselves from other, lesser awards programs. With a collection of contenders reflecting the most beloved films of the year, the Oscars finally have their thumb firmly on the pulse of critical culture, which is a very pleasant surprise.
As far as performances, there were a few curious choices. Demian Birchir’s nomination for A Better Life over Ryan Gosling’s work in The Ides of March is surprising, mostly because no one has any idea who Birchir is.
The continued recognition for Jessica Chastain’s ditsy housewife in The Help remains a bit of a head scratcher (Daryl Hannah must be furious that Chastain stole her shtick from Steel Magnolias). Chastain’s nomination seems to be moreso a year-long achievement award (The Tree of Life, Take Shelter) for 2011’s breakthrough star.
Any respect for an R-rated comedy is notable from the stuffy Academy, so the fact that Bridesmaids was honored with nominations for screenwriting and for acting (Melissa McCarthy) is a minor miracle. While McCarthy’s raunchy performance was one of the most talked-about of the year, the fact that she knocked out Shailene Woodley (who was the only thing that made The Descendants bearable) is a bit hard to defend.
Perhaps the grandest surprise of the acting categories is that Albert Brooks’s turn in Drive went unnoticed. Despite the shock, though, this was the Oscar’s brightest moment, putting a merciful end to the three-month madness, which was his unfathomable critical acclaim.
As far as technical work, the absence of both Newton Thomas Sigel (Drive) and Hoyte Van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) from the cinematography category was disappointing, despite the fact that they would have been slaughtered by Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life).
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts announced its nominations this morning, confirming its predominantly conservative view on film art, in spite of a few notable surprises.
The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, and War Horse are films tailor-made for the Academy, trafficking in cinematic nostalgia, overt sentimentalism, and historically relevant issues. Of course, this observation does not necessarily invalidate their inclusion on the shortlist. But it speaks to an inherent agenda which recrudesces throughout the Oscars’ history. Most of these films, with the exception of Hugo and, to a lesser extent, The Artist, are good and of high production quality. But they do not, in my opinion, represent the pinnacle of last year’s art in film. But the academy, rather unexpectedly, equally included Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life on the list, an audacious and quite controversial choice, considering the traditional voting pattern. And Malick received a Best Director nomination as well – and rightfully so. The Tree of Life is the dark horse – a small indie film that displays a grandeur and scale unequaled by any other film from last year.
Terrence Malick produced the most personalized work in his canon, embracing – and, at times, even exploding – his arthouse sensibilities. It’s indeed surprising that his fly-on-the-wall exercise in Hegelian philosophy would mark his entrée into the Hollywood mainstream. His work is unrivaled, yet it does not devalue the efforts of his fellow nominees, of which verteran Martin Scorsese emerges as the most accomplished this year, proving irrefutably that 3D stereoscopic imagery lends itself to more than just visceral spectacle. Michel Hazanavicius may be the frontrunner, and The Artist is, in my opinion, superbly directed and much denser in its texture as it appears on first sight.
There are two major omissions that I feel obligated to point out: David Fincher’s direction in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Tomas Alfredson’s work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Fincher again demonstrates his versatility and technical ingenuity in a work that updates and enriches pulpy source material, while Alfredson tackles a complex espionage narrative with Kubrickain precision and mastery.
Best Actor and Best Actress:
Brad Pitt’s performance is Moneyball is subtle and contemplative, a truly inspiring display of restrained machismo, which I truly appreciated. Jean Dujardin (The Artist) is energetic, witty, and charming, a slapstick performer reborn, with modernist mannerisms. But the truly outstanding actor for me was Gary Oldman, whose work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is simply transcendent, completely rewriting the actor’s characteristic over-the-top performances and continuing a phase of inner-emotional reflection, which was already evident in his work in the Batman series.
Best Animated Feature:
The Adventures of Tintin is the notable omission from the list. Since it appeared on other awards lists, even earning a Golden Globe recently, The Adventures of Tintin will indubitably engender interesting debates about the nature of animation. As for the list, the Best Animated Feature of the year, in my opinion, is the wickedly constructed Western pastiche Rango, which enshrines the frontier in an aesthetic of lush and vivid colors hitherto unseen in animated features.
Janusz Kaminski’s Fordian 1940s’ aesthetic will undoubtedly appeal to many voters. And it’s an accomplished effort, certainly. But I feel that Emmanuel Lubezki’s roaming camera in The Tree of Life was simply astonishing, revealing, in spite or because of its unrestrained, spontaneity-driven mobility and images, which are typically buried in the unconscious. This is an aesthetic that is truly eye-opening. Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography seems deeply informed by Kubrick’s and Sven Nykvist’s camerawork – it’s eerie, atmospherically dense, and visceral.
It’s a pleasure to see that Bridesmaids earned a writing nomination, a deserved honor for an ostensibly minor and trivial, yet quite profund comedic exercise. And, personally, I’m pleased to see that German arthouse director Wim Wenders received a nomination for his marvellous documentary Pina, which displays a magnificent use of 3D aesthetics.