E: Or at least, it’s starting to look like it might be a boring year after the complete insanity of this year’s precursor awards. For all that it’s been unsettled – who would be nominated, in which category, for which film — the uncertainty may have just settled into a typically predictable rut. This year’s race shows up pretty much everything that has always been dissatisfying about Oscar (the groupthink, the lack of racial and gender diversity, the penchant for awarding certain people because they’re due), while also managing to highlight some fantastic films.
Now, okay. A three-way race is inherently unstable, so it’s certainly possible that there could be a surprise in Best Picture, and maybe even in Best Director. The latter is particularly unlikely, but not impossible. So let’s all hope for the unexpected as we prepare for the opposite.
First, let’s do what Oscar won’t: let’s talk about the elephant in the room. For the second year in a row, all twenty acting nominees are Caucasian, an occurrence which has caused a justified, highly-overdue series of protests centered around the hashtag #OscarSoWhite. Most of the press has revolved around the lack of African Americans, but let’s take an inclusive look quickly at everything that has been left out of the Oscars when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences vote on what they believe are the best on screen achievements of the year.
For many years, the cover story was that AMPAS couldn’t award films that Hollywood just wasn’t making, and it’s certainly true that Hollywood excels at telling the stories of white men, apparently either forgetting the existence of the rest of the world, or deciding that audiences won’t attend movies about so called minorities. It’s a shame beyond conceiving, for example, that the gorgeous, supremely talented Lupita Nyong’o hasn’t seen her 2014 Oscar translate into more high profile roles; appallingly, her work since has largely been in voice overs. For the last two years, however, it’s simply not true that everyone has been excluded. Yes, last year Oscar nominated Selma for Best Picture, but it snubbed director Ava DuVernay (who would have been the first African-American woman to receive such a nomination) as well as Selma cast members with highly acclaimed performances like David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo. Gugu Mbatha-Raw gave a pair of the most critically acclaimed leading performances of the year in Belle and Beyond the Lights (both of which, almost incredibly, were also directed by women of African descent), yet was largely ignored through the entire awards season, as were her colleagues and directors. Tessa Thompson, too, wowed critics in Dear White People, but without awards notice. This year, the Academy could have honored SAG ensemble nominees Straight Outta Compton and Beasts of No Nation, with brilliant individual performances by O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Idris Elba and Abraham Attah. Instead of only picking Sylvester Stallone in Creed, they could have noticed Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson. Mbatha-Raw worked alongside Will Smith in awards-bait NFL story Concussion, along with Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (also brilliant in this year’s Trumbo). Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight, Shameik Moore in Dope, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Donald Glover in The Martian, Independent Spirit winner Mya Taylor in Tangerine. No, there aren’t as many choices as there should be, as there could be, but this year? The roles were there. The actors were there.
As John Oliver brilliantly pointed out, Hollywood even today will white-wash roles that should have brought more diversity to movie screens. The picture for Asian actors is particularly bleak; in that case, the roles really aren’t there, and the nominations don’t follow. To find an actor nominated in either the lead or supporting categories, you need to go back to Ken Watanabe and (part Indian) Ben Kingsley in 2003; for the women, it’s Rinko Kikuchi in 2006 unless you count part-Filipino Hailee Steinfeld in 2012. And only once has a partly Asian woman even been nominated for Best Actress, Merle Oberon (perhaps a quarter or eighth Maori) in 1935. According to Wikipedia, there are 9 Asians nominated this year, all of them in technical categories, as well as a movie from Jordan that’s up for Best Foreign Film. The outlook for Latinos is better, thanks to the recent dominance of Mexican-born directors, but mostly behind the camera; only Benicio del Toro has won in this millennium, and 2011 nominee Demian Bashir has had more success on television than in American films.
And that’s the thing about Oscar: there are lots of great performances every year, and it’s easy to say well, this year your favorite just didn’t make it. It’s when a pattern emerges that the industry is forced to realize there’s a systemic bias that ignores art created about and for women and minorities. Just look at the difference between the movies that the Best Actress nominees are drawn from in comparison to the Best Actors, and you’ll notice that movies about men are the ones that get nominated for more and more important awards. Look at the fact that out of this year’s eight Best Picture nominees, only three have female leads — and that’s if you consider (as I do) Charlize Theron to be the main character of Mad Max. Last year, there was only a single film out of eight, and that’s if you believe The Theory of Everything to be equally devoted to Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane; otherwise the number is zero. The year before, we saw Philomena and Gravity out of the nine nominees, with a generous case perhaps to be made for Her, the Spike Jonez flick about a man who falls in love with his computer’s (female-voiced) operating system. The year previous went as high as four out of nine, but the year before that saw only one. Think I’m exaggerating? Know this: out of 196 nominees this year, only 48 are women, and that includes the 10 actresses who have a spot saved for them.
If it had happened one year, it would be unremarkable, a fluke of the popular vote. The problem is that it happens every year. And it’s not that movies don’t get made about women, even though there are certainly fewer movies made about women than men. But this year Carol, Sicario and Inside Out were plausible, in some cases expected Best Picture contenders that got snubbed. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Academy had the chance to nominate a critically acclaimed mega-blockbuster with a cast lead by a woman and two minority men. I don’t need to remind you that they didn’t.
Weirdly, this didn’t used to be the case, but as we supposedly become more enlightened and progressive, so-called liberal Hollywood propagates a bro culture that cuts women and minorities out of the story (both behind and in front of the camera) and then ignores them even when they’ve managed to claw their way into the conversation. All in all, it’s pretty shameful, and I really hope that the attention called to the lack of black nominees this year will extend to artists of every color and gender.
Okay. From outrage, let’s move on to the actual nominees, and remember that what’s happened isn’t their fault, even if their good work has been in part obscured by this controversy.
Best Supporting Actor:
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
How Sure Am I?
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Just Here For the Party:
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
If I Could Vote:
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Slightly Less Painful Snubs:
O’Shea Jackson,Jr., Straight Outta Compton
Michael Keaton, Spotlight
Every year Entertainment Weekly gets a bunch of Academy members to comment, off the record, on who they’re voting for. This year one of their polling subjects rather hilariously commented that they weren’t voting for Sly because he’s the sentimental choice; oh no, it’s because his acting was so brilliant and subtle! Personally, I think it only appears subtle because it comes after so many years of Sly over-acting in bad action movies. Don’t get me wrong; the man was an icon of my childhood, and his performances in the first few Rocky movies were truly moving. Rocky Balboa is surely one of the great characters of American cinema. I wouldn’t class this recent turn in the same category, let alone as the best of the year (and frankly, I also wouldn’t consider this in the supporting category at all; it’s a co-lead), but Hollywood has come together around the aging star. Sure, he hasn’t won every precursor award, but he’s won every time he’s been nominated, and what’s more, he’s ascended the stage to thunderous applause. I think he’s got this on his second acting nomination in nearly 40 years of playing the same character.
The SAG supporting actor award was won by Idris Elba, whose exclusion from the Oscar shortlist was the feather that broke the camel’s back, so to speak; if he’d been nominated, as anticipated, there would be no #OscarSoWhite campaign and outcry. Since he’s not here, he can’t beat Stallone (and considering that Elba lost the Golden Globe before the controversy erupted, you could argue that he wouldn’t even have won the SAG without both the absence of Sly and the need to rectify the racial imbalance). I’m not implying that he didn’t deserve it (from what I can tell, Elba’s was a far more impressive performance and certainly more critically lauded than Stallone’s), but that the controversy gave SAG a reason to single him out. The suave Brit’s controversial absence at the Oscars means that relatively unknown BAFTA winner Mark Rylance is the only real alternative to Stallone, if an unlikely one. The television and theater star has had a banner year, winning accolades for his work on Wolf Hall and capped off by his first Oscar nomination for his turn as the rueful, mild Russian spy in Steven Spielberg’s under-appreciated cold war thriller. His work is genuinely subtle, and as such probably lost under the bluster of Stallone’s reluctant trainer who’s all but given up on the world that’s passing him by.
Former supporting actor winner Christian Bale picked up his third nomination for playing a peculiar, socially awkward yet brilliant hedge fund manager in the financial crisis themed Big Short. First time Tom Hardy picked up the nomination expected to go to Elba. Like veteran character actor Rylance, this young Brit picked up his first Oscar nomination for his work as The Revenant‘s dastardly villain, riding Leonardo DiCaprio’s coattails after failing to gain a nomination at most of the precursor awards. His strange monologue about God being a squirrel seems a sure bet as his Oscar clip. Three time nominee Ruffalo’s passionate, angry reporter won the actor his third nomination since 2010, all three in the supporting category. His performance electrified critics (indeed, early on it looked like Ruffalo and costar Michael Keaton would battle it out for the win), but didn’t retain enough buzz to overwhelm the Stallone tidal wave with industry professionals. No one can beat Stallone for name recognition or career longevity, and those things can matter, too. Tune in to see if he thanks Rocky Balboa again as he did during his Globe acceptance speech; he’s likely to be mildly funny and self-deprecating, probably the most entertaining of the four acting speeches unless there’s an upset.
Best Supporting Actress
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
How Sure Am I?
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
Woohoo, Free Drinks!:
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
If I Could Vote:
If There Were True Supporting Roles on This List:
Joan Allen, Room
Helen Mirren, Trumbo
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Let’s be honest here: this category is a mess. Oh, don’t get me wrong – it’s full of brilliant performances. Each one is a gem, but they don’t all belong in this category. Even more than Sylvester Stallone, Alicia Vikander is indisputably a lead in The Danish Girl, the story of a marriage as much as it is of her husband’s transition as a transgender pioneer. Rooney Mara, too, plays the heart-breakingly subtle point of view character who carries the audience through Carol. If you’ve read this site before (or any Oscar watching blog this season) you know that these two women were nominated as leads by the Hollywood Foreign Press, Vikander by BAFTA and several other bodies, and trying to work out where they would land was the challenge of the year.
That might have made the nominations difficult to predict, but far less so with the award itself. Yes, the major awards have been divided between Vikander (SAG and Critics Choice) and Kate Winslet (Golden Globe and BAFTA), but in every case where Vikander went up against Winslet for her work in The Danish Girl, Vikander won. Seven time nominee and one time winner Winslet (who is the conscience of Steve Jobs, and delivers Aaron Sorkin’s ringing speeches with a pitch perfect accent) took the Golden Globe and the BAFTA against Vikander’s performance as an artificially intelligent robot in Ex Machina. It’s her work in The Danish Girl which strikes the deepest chord, a beautiful performance by turns confident, powerful, sexy, despairing, open-minded, vulnerable, loving and broken. Frustrated artist Gerda Wegener feels like a real human being, which is all the more striking because the movie fails to really get inside enigmatic husband Einar’s head. Swedish Vikander, previously unknown in America, has exploded onto the scene in a very similar way to Jessica Chastain in 2011, logging tour-de-force diverse performances in The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Testament to Youth. Put all of that together, and you have an actress who cannot be denied. In addition to going home with an Oscar statuette, Alicia will arrive with amazing arm candy; boyfriend and fellow nominee Michael Fassbender.
Rooney Mara received her second nomination for her work in Carol, a truly beautiful turn as a reserved, even prickly young woman falling in love for the first time. The more I think about it the more I appreciate her skill and the deep emotional arc she showed us. I think if there weren’t so much range to Gerda Wegener, she’d be the one winning this award — or at least, that’s what I’d have guessed if Winslet wasn’t picking up so many awards. I’m happy to see 80s fixture Jennifer Jason Leigh picking up her first nomination for her snarling, nasty Daisy Domergue, a true stand out in Quentin Tarantino’s bloody Who Dun It, an Agatha Christie-style locked room tale set during a blizzard in the Wild West. I’m not thrilled I had to see the movie itself (by turns too slow and much too gross), but it’s still a nice turn of events for the veteran actress. And Rachel McAdams, better known for her work in romances like The Notebook and romantic comedies like About Time (the sort of films Oscar refuses to acknowledge) found recognition and her first nomination playing Sasha Pfieffer, the Boston Globe reporter who helped break the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. (The real Sasha reports for my local NPR station, so it’s genuinely delightful both to see Rachel nominated and to have Sasha publicly acknowledged for this incredibly important work.)
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
How Certain Am I?
Wracking Up Lifetime Nomination Totals:
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
If I Could Vote:
Matt Damon, The Martian
Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies
Here are a few things you should know about the Oscars, just in case you don’t. First, Oscar loves the bright young thing — just as long as that bright young thing is female. If you happen to be a good looking young guy, well, the Academy full of jealous bros seems to consider you’ve already won your reward by just being there. It’s incredibly difficult to get a leading actor Oscar even in your thirties. Yes, near-unknown Eddie Redmayne did it last year for his brilliance as a disabled historical figure just as Daniel Day Lewis did in 1990, and Adrian Brody in between, but none of them were matinee idols. And perhaps more importantly, none of them played characters who dazzled audiences with their physical beauty or prowess. In case you’re wondering, you’re certainly not going to see a kid the age of Qvenzhane Wallis or Keisha Castle-Hughes nominated for Best Actor, even if they’re the lead in a highly acclaimed Best Picture nominee like Room or The Sixth Sense (the latter of which did manage to snag Haley Joel Osment a nomination by punting him over to supporting). No, Oscar likes its men without the bloom it finds so appealing in women.
But the Academy has another relevant habit; deciding (sometimes inexplicably) that it’s a particular actor’s year. Do you vote for the actor, or for the role? Now, this can happen because a perpetual critical favorite finally got the right role and can’t be denied, as it did with the brilliant Julianne Moore last year for her heart-breaking work in as an Alzheimer’s patient in Still Alice, one of the year’s best films. Though she’d only been nominated 4 times before, Moore had wracked up 8 Golden Globe nominations for her brilliant body of work, and it was generally considered a question of when it might be her turn, rather than if. It happened to Al Pacino back in 1993 on his eighth nomination in 20 years, but his win came for playing a blind bon vivant in Scent of a Woman rather than one of his iconic roles in Serpico, Scarface or The Godfather trilogy, and is routinely looked back on as a lifetime achievement award, rather than a true reward for a great role.
So what can we say about Leonardo DiCaprio, ready to finally ascend that platform after his own 20 plus year wait? He was first nominated in 1994 for his role as a developmentally delayed teen in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He’s been nominated six times in total, but famously not for his most iconic role, that of doomed artist Jack Dawson in Titanic. It’s striking to see him nominated nearly 20 years later with his costar, Kate Winslet, especially when you consider that the movie took in nominations in nearly every possible category – 14, tied with All About Eve as the most nominated film ever. It won 11 awards (tied with Ben Hur and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King for the most ever), though none for acting, but Leo famously skipped the ceremony in protest over his snubbing. This year, there’ll be no snub. Is it the arduous nature of the shoot that did it, or Leo’s nearly silent performance as Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and guide left for dead in the wilderness whose single-minded determination to avenge his son lets him survive unbelievable challenges? I can’t say. I find it all rather puzzling, frankly, given the character’s lack of an emotional arc (not least because the real story on which the film was based is more nuanced than the film). It wouldn’t have done it for me (just as I wouldn’t have voted for my adored Winslet’s winning performance in The Reader), but the physical challenges have apparently made it a plausible opportunity for the awards community to honor DiCaprio now that he’s no longer a fresh faced young heart-throb.
No, I’d have voted for Matt Damon as the resourceful, wise-cracking astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian, a role he was born to play. He brought Andy Weir’s character to life in a way no other actor could have. As things stand, however, I’m left to be pleased that he received the nomination. Michael Fassbender, too, has struggled to receive nominations for his critically acclaimed roles (he was famously snubbed for his searing work as a sex addict in 2011’s Shame) , so I’m pleased to see him make this list even though I found Steve Jobs more of an bombastic theater piece than a satisfying film; his turn as the vitriolic, mercurial Jobs showed both the Apple CEO’s hard edges and his soft underbelly.
Over and over, Bryan Cranston has proved his range, first as the wacky dad on Malcolm in the Middle, then as Breaking Bad‘s terrifying and iconic high school teacher turned meth king Walter White; now he adds Communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to his repertoire. As my brother M argued vociferously this fall, Hollywood loves movies about making movies. In a year where there’s little to celebrate as far as diversity, it’s a sign of the blurred lines between the big and small screens that the Academy honored Cranston with a nomination for his emotional, prickly work as the blacklisted screenwriter who truly stood for both American excellence (Roman Holiday!) and First Amendment freedoms. There used to be a much stronger division between the mediums of television and film, though the current golden age of television has proved an irresistible lure particularly to actresses shut out of film, as well as actors of color. It’s nice to see that the open door is working in both directions, at least for some people.
Finally, there’s Eddie Redmayne, last year’s winner, for another high profile role that feels very of the moment. After the summer of the Ice Bucket challenge, Redmayne showed us physicist Stephen Hawking; this year, after Caitlin Jenner’s very public transition, he brings us transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, leading some pundits to speculate on a back-to-back, Tom Hanks style win. The two roles certainly felt timely. Hampering this dream was the character of Lili, at least as written in the film; it just didn’t strike the same chord with modern audiences and critics. I rather suspect this is why Vikander’s performance resonates so deeply, because her confusion is easy to relate to in comparison. Despite the film’s disappointing box office and critical reception, however, Redmayne picks up his second nomination.
As you can see above, I was a huge fan of Tom Hanks’ matter of fact portrayal of lawyer James B. Donovan, who applies his talent for negotiating insurance claims to a bewildering hostage and prisoner exchange negotiation. In the hands of a lesser actor, this character could have appeared too saccharine, too saintly to be real; the fact that Donovan feels real should have brought Hanks more awards attention than he received. And yes, I know that the film is nominated for best picture, but it ought to have been in contention for the win. If you haven’t seen this taut thriller, do yourself a favor and rent it.
Brie Larson, Room
It’s An Honor Just To Be Nominated:
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Saorise Ronan, Brooklyn
Rooney Mara, Carol
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
This is the award that ought to belong to Alicia Vikander. I’m genuinely not sure why this category confusion persisted; often an leading actor or actress is campaigned in the supporting category because their publicists think they have a better chance of beating the competition, but Brie Larson isn’t any better known than Vikander. Sure, Larson’s had a few good roles in recent years — she had minor Oscar buzz back in 2013 for a tiny indie called Short Term 12 — but none of them have been very high profile unless you count the love interest in 21 Jump Street, the kind of role that’s the opposite of Oscar bait. I can understand Mara showing up in supporting a little better because she has a much more famous costar, and the Academy has a weird prejudice against the idea that a movie could have two female leads or two male ones. (Larson’s co-lead was an unknown 9 year old boy, and we’ve already discussed the problems up against him.) But Vikander? It’s a puzzle. One that’s probably going to win her an Oscar, and there you have the oddness of the awards process.
At any rate, here’s the category as it is and not as better logic might have made it. Brie Larson touched hearts as a kidnapping victim locked up in a shed with the young son she bore her kidnapper/rapist; her character’s maturity, sacrifice and resilience impressed audiences and critics alike. She spent the first half of the movie without make up, something the Oscars respect almost as much as acting out a disability. She made a beautiful world for her son, cushioned him as much as possible from the strange dangers of his life, and the Academy has a gift for her in return.
If AMPAS picked their nominees a little bit later, Jennifer Lawrence’s presumed gaff (where she chastised a reporter for not making eye contact) might have scuttled her chances of making this list. Frankly, though, I think Hollywood was looking for a reason to be annoyed with her, first because America’s love affairs with movie stars can only last so long before the press goes hunting for their clay feet, but second because of her high profile decision to stop trying to be adorable and to care about how much she’s paid. She’s taken a lot of flack for wanting to be paid as much as her male costars; how could a millionaire dare complain about such a thing? Ungrateful girl! Happily for her, Oscar nomination voting closed two days before the Globes were announced, so the still adorable J.Law was able to walk away with her fourth nomination in five years for playing real life inventor and business magnate Joy Mangano. I don’t count it among her greatest roles to date, and like many critics found the tone of Joy uneven (another issue that could have kept her off the nomination list) but I enjoyed the real rags to riches story and her grit; many of her characters have in common that refusal to quit when life is at its worst, and it’s one of her (and Joy’s) most appealing characteristics. I’ll be curious to see in future if her refusal to play the docile girl has repercussions within the awards community.
Six time nominee Cate Blanchett already has two Oscars; there’s a decent number of two time winners out there, but the Academy is extraordinarily picky about letting anyone pick up a third. It took Meryl Streep 19 years and 12 nominations to make that leap. Chameleon Blanchett could eventually join the exalted company of Streep, Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day Lewis, Walter Brennan and Ingrid Bergman with three Oscars — she might even be the person to join Katherine Hepburn (who she won her first Oscar for playing) with four — but it’s no guarantee. And either way, it won’t be for her portrayal of a complicated, glamorous, closeted 1950 housewife. She hasn’t won any precursor awards, though she’s been nominated everywhere.
Also universally nominated is two time nominee Saoirse Ronan, who first came to Oscar’s attention as a child in the Kiera Knightley adaptation of Atonement. Her work in coming of age story Brooklyn is a triumph of subtlety and honesty, and beautifully watchable. I was absolutely thrilled to see Brooklyn on the Best Picture list; the classic tale of an immigrant’s journey speaks of the American experience in a way that’s truthful and hopeful both. See this movie. It’s serious but also funny and romantic, and heaven knows we don’t get a lot of either of those things at the Oscars these days.
The most surprising person on this list is certainly first time Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling, who had a little Oscar buzz for Swimming Pool back in 2003, and whose little indie 45 Years barely made 3 million dollars in its theatrical run. It’s a movie worth seeking out, however; it follows a couple in their 70s through the week before their 45th wedding anniversary celebration, when secrets come out that shake not only their comfortable but wife Kate’s understanding of those 45 years. It’s a lovely, lived performance in a movie that feels not like a documentary but like video footage of real lives. Yes, it’s slow, and Rampling’s costar Tom Courtenay mumbles all his lines, but the gorgeous acting and the questions the film raises about relationships stay with you. If you’ve ever had to smile through heartache, this movie will resonate with you. Though she was nominated solely for the Critics Choice among the major precursor organizations (SAG picked Helen Mirren and Sarah Silverman, BAFTA Maggie Smith), Rampling’s inclusion is a terrific one. And it’s nice to see a woman singled out at 70 after a long and respected (if somewhat obscure) career.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, The Revenant
How Certain Am I?
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Seriously, What Happened To These Movies:
Adam McKay, The Big Short
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Primed to Network at the Governor’s Ball:
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Sigh. Okay. Back in the days of 21 Grams, I adored Inarritu. The heart he showed, and the understanding of the human spirit and our deep need for connection seemed to me touching and incredibly beautiful. But recently, the macho, self-indulgent movies that have so captured the Academy’s attention have lessened my interest in his work instead of increasing it, showing vanity without heart.
Hollywood, however, does not agree. Last year they picked Birdman over the truly extraordinary Boyhood (surely a decision that will live in historical infamy), and this year they seem to be picking The Revenant over everything else. The Globes picked him, the Directors Guild picked him; it’s really only the Broadcast Film Critics who gave their Critics Choice award to his main rival, George Miller.
Now, six time nominee Miller’s a fascinating case; he directed the first Mad Max movie back in 1979, and the two sequels in the 80s. This is his first nomination as a director: the others come from producing and writing the delightful family film Babe, as well as the one he won for producing the animated feature Happy Feet. Yes. The same man created Mad Max and Happy Feet. Miller’s career is full of completely fascinating dichotomies. While I enjoyed Fury Road for the gonzo adventure it was, I’m at a complete loss to understand its inclusion not only as an Oscar nominee but as a contender. As a satirical, absurdist adventure, it’s just not the type of film Oscar has ever gone for before.
As for the others, Abrahamson was the requisite big surprise; what he gains from this is name recognition and interest in his next project, not a win. McCarthy and McKay should have been in the hunt, but barring a surprise surge for one of their films, don’t appear to be.
If he wins, Inarritu would be the first director in the modern era to win two years in a row. Only Joseph L. Mankiewicz (the director of the aforementioned Oscar favorite All About Eve) and John Ford have managed this before. It would also mark three years in a row for Latino directors, and in this year of #OscarSoWhite that’s at least an achievement worth noting.
How Sure Am I?
The Big Short or Spotlight
There For the Party:
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
I’d Have Voted For:
The Martian or Brooklyn
I’d Have Nominated:
Bridge of Spies
Most Egregious Snub:
Ah, now we get to the really meat of this meal. Every other category I feel quite solid about, but in Best Picture I still hold out the hope that the waters are perhaps the tiniest bit murky, mostly because the idea of a Revenant win sits in my stomach like curdling milk, heavy and sour.
First, let’s admit that rescue epic The Martian, tense spy exchange thriller Bridge of Spies, Irish American immigration story Brooklyn and kidnapping drama Room have no shot. They’re all excellent movies, better even than several of the frontrunners. See them; that, and the right to put “winner of 6 Oscar nominations!” on their blu ray overs will be their reward.
Let’s quickly recap the awards season. Pundits favored festival darling Spotlight going into the season. The Golden Globes chose The Revenant and The Martian; while the Hollywood Foreign Press’s picks don’t always match up with Oscar, those wins can be a good base to build momentum. SAG only had two ensemble nominees in common with Oscar, The Big Short and Spotlight; pundits assumed the winner had to be one of the two, since no movie has ever won an Oscar without being nominated for a the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award. The SAG went to Spotlight. The Critics Choice went to Spotlight. The Producers Guild picked The Big Short. And then BAFTA went back to The Revenant.
In other words, it’s a more than a bit of a mess. Most years, you either have one film that wins everything (Schindler’s List, The Artist), or two films duking it out with the tide shifting progressively from one to the other (say, when The Social Network won all the critics prizes but The King’s Speech snapped up all the guild awards on its way to Oscar). This year that’s obviously not so. Complicating the picture is AMPAS’ preferential ballot, in which voters rank their favorites instead of choosing a single candidate; if a lot of voters dislike The Revenant and rank it low, it could affect the film’s chances at a win. It’s incredibly hard to predict that, though. For those of us who find the film a less than worthy winner, the preferential ballot feels like our only hope.
So, okay. Back to the nominees. You know why everybody in the English speaking world studies Hamlet? I read it in classes three times before I graduated from high school, and the one element hammered home by those teachers is that Hamlet stands as a departure from the tradition of the revenge narrative. Young Hamlet, horrified to learn that his uncle murdered his father, dithers over what to do about it. There’s no straightforward retribution killing; instead the world goes mad with the painful confusion of a young man whose path (according to contemporary norms) should have been clear. Heck, if you read Greek tragedies, you know that before the birth of Christ great dramatists like Aeschylus debated the price of vengeance. So for hundreds, even thousands of years, writers have been weighing the emotional worth of taking an eye for an eye – yet in 2016, here we are about to give the Academy Award for Best Picture to a film that lauds a simplistic, reductive, eye for an eye philosophy. See the lengths to which Hugh Glass will go, solely motivated by the desire to destroy the man who killed his son! I kept expecting some sort of revelation in the wilderness, but nope. There isn’t one, unless you consider it more than a cheat that Glass eventually decides it doesn’t matter what kills Fitzgerald as long as he can see the man dead. There’s no growth, no depth, none of the changes in character which typify art in the modern age.
Let’s be real; The Revenant is a Chuck Norris movie with good cinematography instead of martial arts. It’s an Elizabethan drama where Hamlet never wavers from his single-minded, murderous determination. Even The Princess Bride‘s Inigo Montoya gave us a more nuanced look at vengeance. In fact, it may just be the supreme irony of the year that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy — just the kind of movies decried in Inarritu’s anti-superhero Best Picture winner Birdman — took on the notion of vigilante justice with far more intelligence and skill. I spent the first third of the movie spellbound by the gorgeous scenery, but was eventually worn down by the relentless, senseless, unremitting bloodletting. Was that all there was? Life is nasty, brutish and short? It’s absolutely beyond my comprehension that this film is likely to be our winner. I’ve disliked winners before (Birdman, for example), but this one feels like such an astounding fraud I can’t even comprehend it.
The closest thing I can give to a reason is that there’s no clear and obvious crowd-pleaser this year, and The Revenant ticks lots of boxes as a well-pedigreed film that audiences enjoyed and made lots of money. It’s an exciting story competently, even beautifully told. Its award season trajectory has the statistics-based pundits are in a complete tizzy. Now, some people think a BAFTA win cements the Best Picture Oscar, but others remember that BAFTA awarded Boyhood last year instead of Birdman. The Producer’s Guild winner The Big Short is smart and funny and makes sense out of the 2008 financial crisis (a herculean task for a documentary, let alone a feature film) but on the other hand, its protagonists only succeeded in making money for themselves against the odds. They’re not heroes or truth tellers, just smart investors, which might make them impressive to movie producers and the 1%, but not necessarily to AMPAS voters across the board.
Then there’s Spotlight, which does tell a true story of men and women who made a difference in the real world, journalists who uncovered a story of terrible, widespread abuse and resisted the pressure to let it stay buried. It’s an incredible true story, acted with quiet truth and determination, but it’s also dark and sad, with none of the bombast or majestic mountains of The Revenant. I would have thought that AMPAS would choke on nominating critics favorite action movie, the post apocalyptic and utterly wacky post-apocalyptic chase adventure Mad Max, but instead they’ve embraced it fully; it too is hard to completely count out. With ten nominations, it has support across all categories, and that makes a difference.
The Screen Actors Guild often fails to predict the Best Picture winner (they’re far better at the acting categories), but actors do make up the largest part of the Academy’s membership. So will SAG tell the story for an upset win for Spotlight? Spotlight has headed pundit’s lists since last year as the one truly inspiring story on the short list of possible winners, which may be why it won the Critics Choice Best Picture award as well. On the other hand, BAFTA’s membership has the biggest overlap with AMPAS. Back to the first hand, BAFTA failed to match up with Oscar just last year, and you could make a case that this year’s win for Inarritu was a sop for last year’s loss.
In addition to all the other statistical firsts, no director has won twice in a row and had his films win each year. Is The Revenant really the film to have break that trend? We have to consider that Oscar voters are conscious of making history, and so their level of love for Inarritu would influence their choices here.
In the end, however, with the obvious win for Leonardo DiCaprio in the works, and the likelihood of a similar win for his director, I must reluctantly conclude that The Revenant — with 12 nominations, the most of the year — is the most likely of the three (or even four) potential winners.
The rest of the stuff we know:
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short
Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight
Best Foreign Film: Son of Saul
Best Animated Feature: Inside Out
PIXAR continues its dominance. Hungary picks up its first nomination since 1988 and its 9th over all, along with presumably its second win for the Holocaust drama Son of Saul. You can probably add to this list of obvious winners The Hateful Eight‘s Ennio Morricone, finally winning a competitive Best Score Oscar. I love the guy (The Mission might even make my top five scores, as long as you count film franchises together), and it adds wonderfully to the unsettled feeling of the film, ramping up the tension with sharp bursts of strings, but it’s not music you listen to outside of the theater. Picking up the Golden Globe for best score for Morricone, Quentin Tarantino dedicated his acceptance speech to the shocking, egregious idea that Morricone had never won an award (incorrectly so, since he’d won Golden Globes and been given that honorary Oscar) which seems to have collectively convinced Hollywood that they ought to remedy that wrong, stat. For me, the maestro John Williams would take the prize for his glorious Force Awakens soundtrack. For the third year in a row, it seems likely that Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubeski will take home Best Cinematography; if he does, he will be the first person ever to win three times in a row. (A win for him will also make it four years of Latino dominance, since Chilean-American Claudio Miranda won in 2012 for Life of Pi.)
As it is expected to clean up the technical awards, Mad Max: Fury Road should be the winner of the most Oscars this year even if it doesn’t seem to be in real contention for the top prize. I’m particularly curious to see if 12 time nominee, three time winner Sandy Powell will triumph for her costumes (for either Cinderella or Carol) or whether 10 time nominee (and one time winner) Jenny Beavan will repeat her BAFTA win for the leather straps and grungy gauze of Mad Max; all nine of Beavan’s previous nominations are for gorgeous costume dramas, so it’s a really interesting new chapter for her.
Whatever else, this year was an interesting new chapter for the Academy as well. How will they react in future years from the lessons of 2015? Only time will tell.