Oscars 2014 Editorial: How Could They Have Forgotten [Fill in the Blank]!?
I'll repeat it, as I have to every year: The Academy Awards are no meaningful gauge of actual film quality. Look over the year-end recaps from any critic from any year, and you'll find that none of their lists match the Best Picture nominations from any year. There will always be a few films that overlap (which is actually the case in 2013, an extraordinarily strong year for film), but the nine films up for Best Picture this year aren't necessarily the best pictures of the year. Ditto with performances.
That said, The Academy Awards are still typically followed by all critics and movie fans alike as perhaps the one codifying institution that actually does bother to put a definition on what films are the best in many given year. I follow them closely, bet on them, gab about them, and love trash-talking celebrities during the telecast. I even get misty during the annual “In Memoriam” reel. The choices and nominations may be based on popularity and politics, but at least they're doing something.
So what do they mean this year? Well let's take a look at what was nominated this year and what wasn't, and see what we can glean, what lessons we can learn, and perhaps predict who will win.
Let's start with omissions. The biggest oversight: the omission of James Franco in the acting categories for Harmony Korine's controversial and sleazy Spring Breakers. Acting awards typically go to performances that are “meaningful” in some way. Performances that reflect the film they're in. Sandra Bullock was nominated only partly because she was very good, but moreso because the part itself was about hope and survival – the themes of Gravity. I do not impugn Bullock's performance in the least, but I feel any number of capable actresses could have done exactly what she did because the part itself was so strong. Franco's Alien was perhaps representational of Spring Breakers' philosophy of brainless and violent Mephistophelean excess, but that film was so deeply filthy that the role turned off Academy voters. Even though Franco was energetic and idiosyncratic and created a character that will, I think, becomes something of a pop cultural touchstone.
Greta Gerwig was not nominated for her performance in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha. Indeed, the sublime Frances Ha received no Oscar nominations. And The Coen Bros.' Inside Llewyn Davis – one of my favorite films of 2013 – only received two nominations, both in technical categories (cinematography and sound editing). It seems to me that the Academy has been skewing further and further away from any film that could be described as “quirky.” Frances Ha was about overcoming the immaturity of your 20s, as seen through the struggles of a twee and adorable lead character who has been spelling out her own misery with the comforting loop of hoping for a better job, and perhaps spending too much time working up a rapport with a best friend rather than developing new relationships. I think people thought Frances was too twee for her own good, and Gerwig – who co-created the character – was not nominated as a result.
Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis, endlessly punished and trapped by his own sarcastic cynicism, was a great characters, but, like Spring Breakers, many viewers and critics were a little baffled by his film's overall peculiarity. It's rare that the Academy gives acting awards to the only anchors in bizarre movies, unless there's some sort of palpable message. Again, the acting itself was sort of divorced from the part and from the film.
I'm guess Tom Hanks was not nominated for Captain Phillips just because the docket was too full. Of the five men in the Best Actor category (Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern, and Christian Bale), I can think of none I could easily replace.
Monsters University, Pixar's delightful and funny prequel to Monsters, Inc. was rather good, containing crisp humor and a message about moving past the initial version of your dream job, instead learning to utilize your talents more constructively, and perhaps learning that you make a better teammate than an exceptional person. Perhaps a dry message for a kid film, but certainly an unconventional one. Instead the Academy nominated The Croods, a bland-looking mainstream family flick about cavemen that I didn't see, and Despicable Me 2, a fine and funny film, but hardly worth writing home about. Although I do like to see obscurities invade the nominee lists, and the inclusion of the largely unknown Ernest & Celestine gets me excited. Now this film (another I haven't seen – and neither have you) will be seen by a greater number of people.
I was deathly afraid that Saving Mr. Banks would be included in any category, as I kind of loathed the movie and its shameless self-promotion of the Disney conglomerate as being a primary cathartic factor in people's lives, especially those who hate Disney the most. It was insulting to P.L. Travers, and it was a corporate-sponored pat-on-the-back for Disney's overwhelming saccharine might. The Academy Awards broadcast on the Disney-sponsored ABC, and Disney has been very much in the public eye over the last few years, what with their well-moneyed acquiring of both Marvel comics and Lucasfilm. Perhaps Academy voters, however much they love the company, weren't willing to kowtow to this onanistic bout of self-congratulation.
Nine films are up for Best Picture, although the Best Director category is still limited to five. This means that – in most people's minds – there are still only five real nominees. Since Paul Greengrass, Spike Jonze, and Jean-Marc Vallée, and Stephen Frears were not included in the director category, you can bet real money that their films will most certainly not win Best Picture. That means the real nominees are Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, and Her. Films about hope, slavery, economic malfeasance, personality, and technology, respectively.
Keep in mind, when choosing a Best Picture, the Academy usually likes to select a film that is both topical, but will also look good on a roster of films – they are trying to build up a canon of sorts. And while I would love to see energetic and enjoyable films like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street actually win (I also happened to adore both movies), I think 12 Years a Slave is the clear front-runner here. Gravity – my pick for winner – will likely offer it real competition because of how bloody cinematic it was; a film that finally used all the newest cinema tricks and used them to impeccable effect – it's a film that is better on a bigger screen in a public place in 3-D.
And as for critical darling Blue is the Warmest Color, well it wasn't actually eligible for anything due to a bizarre rule regarding release dates. But for a film like that, I don't think an Oscar will get it many more noticed. It's already widely lauded by critics everywhere.
Also this: Bad Grandpa is an Academy Award nominee. Just like Norbit!
More Notable Oversights:
Robert Redford for All is Lost
Thelma Schoonmaker for The Wolf of Wall Street (editing)
Man of Steel for Visual Effects and/or production design
Miles Teller for The Spectacular Now
Before Midnight only got a screenplay nomination
The Coen Bros.
"Please Mr. Kennedy" for Best Song
Joaquin Phoenix for Her
Daniel Bruhl (or really anything) for Rush
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.