So despite all the pundits, guild nominations and critics awards already pontificating and pronouncing, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters decided to throw a few curve balls into the race this year. This morning’s nominations were not shocking, but they were surprising in many ways. Yes, the key films that were expected to do best did indeed do best. All 11 of those Hugo nominations and all 10 of those The Artist nominations were expected, as were the nods for The Descendants and Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris with 5 and 4 noms, respectively. Granted they were much further down the list but right up there in terms of key writing, directing, picture and in the case of Descendants acting mentions.
But in recent days just about every prognosticator had written off the Best Picture fortunes of War Horse, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and The Tree Of Life. Everyone that is except the Academy, which threw Best Pic noms at all three. And this in a year where there was a tweak to the rules that now say instead of a fixed number of 10 nominees (as has been the case for the last two years) there could be anywhere from 5 to 10 films chosen. Most were predicting around 7 picks, but the Academy apparently decided it liked a wider diversity of movies this year than anyone imagined by crowning 9 films — the first time in the 84-year history of the Oscars there is that particular number of Best Picture nominees. In terms of precursor awards only the Broadcast Critics Association’s Critics’ Choice Movie Awards managed to match all 9 Oscar nominees (the org’s 10th went to Drive, which received only one Oscar nod for Sound Editing).
Nevertheless this year there also seems to be a wider gap than ever between the various peer groups voting in their individual categories and the wider Academy who all vote on Best Picture. War Horse, The Help, and Extremely Loud were all deemed good enough to be Best Picture, but apparently the Academy thinks those films wrote and directed themselves as all three were snubbed in those key screenplay and directing categories. (In fact, outside of acting categories the latter two were AWOL in other races. Which means they are all but dead as realistic contenders for the actual Best Pic Oscar).
Of course there are always discrepancies. Moneyball scored 6 nominations including well-deserved nods for Best Picture, Actor (Brad Pitt), Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill) and Screenplay but saw its director Bennett Miller left out in the cold — just as he was at the DGA. And although Malick snagged a directing nod for The Tree of Life, his original screenplay was not recognized by the writers branch. Incidentally Malick’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, if victorious in its long shot Best Pic bid, would be the first film since Marty in 1955 to win the top prize from both Cannes and the Academy.
Speaking of Cannes, if anyone thinks this year’s Oscar race didn’t start early last May on the Cote d’Azur think again. Three of that festival’s major premieres — Tree of Life, Midnight In Paris and The Artist — are all now Best Picture nominees. That’s a remarkable showing since the common wisdom is most serious contenders aren’t unveiled until the last three months of the year. Cannes usually has its biggest impact in the foreign film race but ironically only Cannes competition entry Israel’s Footnote managed to make the list of foreign language nominees (or even last week’s shortlist of nine).
In the scheme of things this season there were also surprises in the acting categories. Although George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Jean Dujardin were widely expected to be on the Best Actor list, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s Gary Oldman proved that doing a wide ranging campaign can pay off. (Though he has largely been ignored except by BAFTA, critics and SAG. And despite his SAG nod, Mexico’s A Better Life star Demian Bichir (who also has been widely seen on the campaign circuit) was still a bit of a long shot to make Oscar’s final five since his film was not widely seen and came out last June. Snubbed were J. Edgar’s Leonardo Di Caprio (who also received a SAG nod) and Shame’s Michael Fassbender. They both were expected to be in play but the love for their films was clearly not evident as both movies were entirely skunked by the Academy. Overall, though, the SAG nominations proved to be a good indicator for Oscar acting nods with 17 out of 20 matches (and five for five in Best Supporting Actress).
In the other actor race, for Supporting, it’s a real battle of the vets with youthful Jonah Hill forced to face old pros Christopher Plummer (the odds-on favorite at this point), Max von Sydow, Nick Nolte, and Kenneth Branagh. Plummer and von Sydow are both 82, the oldest of all nominees this year and among the oldest acting nominees in Academy history. Incredibly both are receiving only their second nominations ever. It should be noted that you also don’t need dialogue to get Oscar’s attention. Von Sydow along with The Artist co-stars Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin got their invite to the Academy Awards by staying silent (except for one word Dujardin utters at the end of his film). Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda and John Mills in Ryan’s Daughter are among those actors who have actually won for similar feats in the past.
Among the women, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo‘s Rooney Mara managed to do what Noomi Rapace, her predecessor as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version, couldn’t do by landing a Best Actress nod in a race that promises to be really tight. There’s also Meryl Streep, Viola Davis and Michelle Williams, not to mention another veteran, Glenn Close, returning to the Oscar ring for the first time since 1988. Among the supporting actress contenders The Help’s Golden Globe and CCMA winner Octavia Spencer is the current front runner. But this is a category ripe for upsets so watch out for her co-star Jessica Chastain who with Tree of Life was in two Best Picture nominees. Also Bejo stands a chance for pulling off a difficult role and long shot Melissa McCarthy of Bridesmaids should not be counted out even though broad comic roles are rare sights at the Oscars. Janet McTeer who stole Albert Nobbs also merits attention but is also a real long shot.
For Steven Spielberg, though, this must be a bittersweet day. He received his remarkable 13th Oscar nomination (against three wins) for producing War Horse with Kathleen Kennedy. She now also shares with Spielberg the distinction of having the most Best Pic nominations by an individual producer. They have seven each. But Spielberg was bypassed for War Horse in the Best Director category and in the Best Animated Feature category for his first toon, The Adventures of Tintin. The fact that Tintin is motion capture will inevitably be blamed. Mo Cap has not been popular with those who vote for Animated Feature nominees. Nominations of obscure French toon A Cat In Paris and the Spanish Chico And Rita over Tintin and Pixar’s Cars 2 might raise eyebrows, but the branch often likes to support underdogs. In fact tiny distrib GKIDS which picked up both those little films has the same number of noms as DreamWorks Animation (with Puss In Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2) and two more than perrenial winner Pixar which this year has to settle for a animated short nomination for La Luna.
Among other quirks in this year’s roundup of nominees was the omission of just about every eligible tune in the Best Song category. Due to their complicated voting system the music branch saw fit to nominate only two songs, Rio’s “Real In Rio” and The Muppets’ “Man or Muppet,” ignoring better known artists like Elton John, Mary J. Blige, and Sinead O’Connor who all had terrific songs in the mix. I don’t get it.
But the fact remains that at the end of a long season the Academy was still able to throw a few surprises into the mix even after all the talk and other awards that have come before. As for the show itself the fact that only one movie of the nine Best Picture nominees, The Help, has made over $100 million so far at the Box Office could prove problematic as far as ratings are concerned. This is also a very international list of contenders, probably helping the foreign viewership but possibly not here in America. It is somewhat ironic that the ONLY movie on the Best Picture list that actually was shot entirely in Hollywood is The Artist and it’s French!
With a paucity of blockbusters and the presence of a black-and-white silent movie and another love letter to early cinema leading the way — and neither exactly burning up the box office — the Academy is blowing a kiss to its own history. Whether TV viewers will care is another question.