Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and say this for the Academy’s recent-years decision to monkey with the five-movie exclusivity of the Best Picture category: it has made Picture and Director much more difficult to predict. This year, eight movies were nominated; let’s just list them out here, ranked by how much I liked them:
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Bridge of Spies
4. The Big Short
6. The Revenant
8. The Martian
No Hateful Eight, nor a group you could sneeringly refer to as the hateful eight. No outright embarrassments, really, unless you count The Martian, which is not an embarrassing movie—it never risks nearly enough to flirt with that—but isn’t a very interesting one, either. I’m not surprised that The Force Awakens didn’t rate inclusion here (I don’t think anyone seriously expected that), but if you were selecting a space-set crowdpleaser, at least that one has a sense of mystery and discovery, even when it’s retracing the steps of A New Hope.
In terms of pure nomination numbers and maybe eventual winners, the race feels like a square-off between intense survivalist action-dramas, with poor Tom Hardy caught in the middle: His supporting nomination for The Revenant allows it (alongside with its inevitable lead winner DiCaprio) to get a leg up on his starring role in Fury Road. It’s hard to picture Fury Road winning big on Oscar night; it’s a sequel (has a Part 4 ever been nominated for anything before? Even special effects movies tend to get shunted aside by the time they wheeze past trilogy territory), it probably has less actor support than some of its less-nominated competition.
In fact, it’s hard not to see the heavy hand of the actors in several of the Best Picture nominees: Room, a respectable adaptation of a great book, got in unexpectedly (by me, anyway), largely on the back of Brie Larson’s strong performance. Brooklyn has the kind of quietly powerful ensemble of that-guy and that-gal actors and a gentleness that I imagine endear it to the acting branch (the largest in the Academy). The Big Short has noisier movie-star fireworks.
Then again: Room and The Big Short both scored unexpected (again, by me) directing nominations. As delighted as I am that Adam McKay, who has made some of the best broad comedies of the past decade-plus, is now Oscar Nominee Adam McKay, and as much as I look forward to seeing that distinction employed in the trailers for his hopefully inevitable reunion with Will Ferrell, and as much as I enjoyed The Big Short, I can’t say it strikes me as one of the major directing achievements of the year. But then, I’ve bitched about the tendency to look at directing, and pretty much any other category of filmmaking, as an Iñarritu-style endurance test, and McKay delivered a really good movie, so I guess I should lay off and/or consider this a make-up for his lack of nomination for Step Brothres.
Similarly, I’m kind of a fan of Lenny Abrahamson; I thought his Frank last year was pretty terrific. I can’t say, though, that he knocked me out with Room. It’s the kind of adaptation that proceeds with tasteful care and never really breaks out of filming a well-regarded book, nor solves all of the problems inherent in translating such a voice-specific book into a visual medium. But maybe the nomination strikes a blow for solid, respectable work that doesn’t rely on showy directorial flourishes (though if that’s what we’re doing, let’s get Leslye Headland in there).
Indeed, the inclusion of McKay, Abrahamson, and Tom McCarthy (for the quietly gripping Spotlight) divides the Best Director category into respectable craftsmen versus crazed visionaries George Miller and Alejandro G. Innaritu—leaving no room for Ridley Scott, a respectable craftsman often mistaken for a crazed visionary. A lot of people seemed to think Scott was (a.) due for a career win (eh, not really; in terms of batting average, just give an honorary Oscar to his late brother Tony) (b.) going to make it happen this year, and maybe take The Martian along with it, barring the picture/director splits that have become more common in the past decade.
More distressing to a lot of cinephiles is the snub of Carol and Todd Haynes. I was pretty sure that not only would the movie make the final cut, Haynes would sneak in for Best Director. But that was also based on my mistaken assumption that he already got nominated for Far From Heaven without his movie making it in for picture. Faulty memory: it was Almodóvar who got the auteur-without-best-picture slot that year. I’m not a huge Haynes guy, and kinda feel bad about it. He’s obviously smart and talented, but I often detect at least some degree of Film Theory Final Project in his work. With the very sad passing of David Bowie this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I wish I liked Velvet Goldmine, but I confess despite loving the actors and the subject, it’s put me to sleep at least twice. I caught up with Safe a year ago and admired its ideas more than actually enjoyed it. Far From Heaven felt like an academic pastiche. I do really like I’m Not There—Haynes accesses a playfulness there that I never saw in his other films—and Carol does feel like a step away from pastiche, while still maintaining the aesthetic pleasures of immaculately designed polka-dot pajamas that Rooney Mara wears at one point.
Ultimately, though, the movie mixes stylization, quiet realism, and Film Studies in a way that doesn’t always completely gel for me (and I’m as surprised as anyone to say that), despite the skill of the filmmaking and the wonderful performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, both nominated today. Though they’re clearly co-leads, with Mara having just as many scenes from her point of view if not more, the Academy respected the strategic category fraud designating Mara and The Danish Girl‘s Alicia Vikander as supporting actresses. Also weird: Vikander gave a better performance that could be categorized as supporting in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, so why not just nominate her there? The movie was well-liked enough to garner visual effects and writing nominations, and how often does that happen, by the way, that a movie’s only two Oscar nominations are in those categories? I haven’t done the deep-dive research on that, but my offhand recollection of what gets effects nominations suggests that maybe that never happens. I guess Vikander getting in for her strong work in that film (or Oscar Isaac for his, for that matter) would violate that weird bit of trivia.
Anyway: I imagine The Revenant is about to become a film-snob punching bag of the season, and I get it; I’m not a big Iñarritu guy, either, though I got a kick out of Birdman. Really, I have to admit I “enjoyed” The Revenant just as much if not more than Carol, although I realize that sounds like an odd distinction for a movie so often described as an endurance test—to watch and (accounting for some of the awards love, I imagine) to make, too. But The Revenant doesn’t have a whole lot on its mind; it’s sort of the opposite of Birdman, where a lot of on-the-nose yammering was supposed to add currency and depth to the spellbinding visuals. The Revenant has very little talking at all, but silence doesn’t always signify depth. Honestly, I found this gory, intense movie about a guy dragging himself across the frozen earth looking to avenge several terrible wrongs… kind of fun. I doubt that was the intent, but the movie used its Malickian camerawork to show me a bunch of horrible survival shit that wouldn’t be quite so heightened in one of Malick’s tone poems. It’s not better than a Malick movie; actually, it’s very arguably Aggro Malick. But I was pretty into the gauntlet of horror that DiCaprio’s character goes through, and how pitiless Tom Hardy’s character is in general. The teenage-minded gawker in me really enjoyed seeing DiCaprio ride a horse off a cliff, and then cut it open to sleep inside its guts. As with Birdman, I’m kind of tickled that this weird movie somehow acquired the veneer of Academy respectability.
Anyway, if you’re looking for auteur love, you ought to head for Best Cinematography, which looks on its own like an alternate-universe Oscars of its own. Fury Road and The Revenant are still there, but you’ve also got your Carol, your Tarantino movie (The Hateful Eight seems to have struck Oscar voters as it seems to have struck a lot of audience members: worth checking out, but not really their thing. Big ups to Jennifer Jason Leigh, though!), and Denis Villanueve’s Sicario. Carol excepted, it all skews a little more violent and punishing than Best Picture as a whole, and features a lot of Film Nerd Celebs: Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki (please don’t call him “Chivo”; you’re not pals with him), Robert Richardson. Maybe this will only boil up the film-snob blood, though: evidence that Carol is considered one of the best-shot movies of the year along with one of the best-written and best-acted and best-scored and best-costumed, but not one of the eight best movies. Realtalk, though: they need to award that Costume Design prize directly to Rooney Mara’s pajamas.