Based on last evening’s Golden Globes, the upcoming Oscar race is anybody’s to win…anybody’s except, perhaps, David O. Russell’s. While The Silver Linings Playbook managed to eek out a trophy for star Jennifer Lawrence, the quasi-comedy featuring Bradley Cooper as a bipolar man trying to reestablish his life post-institutionalization pulled a proverbial Lincoln. Like Steven Spielberg’s amazing look at our 16th President, Russell’s movie went in with a few key nominations, and only managed the one success (Daniel Day-Lewis being its sole winner). In fact, the controversial Django Unchained picked up more trophies than either profile release, earning statues for Supporting Actor Christoph Waltz and, in a major surprise, Best Original Screenplay for Quentin Tarantino’s curse and N-word laced script.
All of which means nothing when it comes to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who announced their nominations on Thursday, 10 January. Of course, eventual Globe giants Les Miserables (winner, Best Musical or Comedy) and Argo (winner, Best Drama) were there, and so was eventual Best Foreign Language Film victor Amour. Rounding out the rest of the nine eventual selections (we are still getting used to this “Oscar will nominate whatever it wants, numerically,” idea) were Tarantino’s aforementioned hot button hit, Ang Lee’s lovely if limited Life of Pi, Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker follow-up Zero Dark Thirty, and perhaps most stunning of all, the little indie engine that could known as Beasts of the Southern Wild. Pretty standard, end of the year speaking…
Except, that’s where all acknowledgements of normalcy ended. Doing what it does oh so well, the Academy confounded expectations in other categories, snubbing obvious choices while championing others that left many scratching their perfectly coiffed red carpet craniums. Take the Directing category. Just a few days before, the DGA picked Ben Affleck (Argo), Bigelow, Tom Hooper (Les Miserables), Lee, and Spielberg. In a rarity that only occurs in freak film years, AMPAS ditched three of those choices to celebrate Michael Haneke (Amour), Russell, and again, Beasts of the Southern Wild (first timer Behn Zeitlin). None of the front runners even got in the Governor’s Ball door.
Or how about The Master? While it earned nods for its impeccable acting (Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman for Best Supporting Actor, and Amy Adams for Best Supporting Actress), everything else about the film was ignored. No director nod. No bone to its multiple technical achievements (it’s period piece perfection). No Picture of Screenplay support. It was the same for such popular picks as Skyfall (near gimmes for Adele and Best Song and Roger Deakins for Best Cinematography, and picks for Best Score and Sound Mixing/Editing) or the criminally overlooked Moonrise Kingdom. In fact, Wes Anderson’s critical darling could barely breathe, earning a paltry Best Original Screenplay mention only.
Elsewhere, the Academy did its usual shoulder shrug thing, putting five previous winners in the Supporting Actor category, while dividing up the goods between novices and the usual suspects in Supporting Actress and Best Actor. The real shock, however, came in the Best Actress category, where the voters ran the chronological age gamut. Little Quvenzhane Wallis became the youngest nominee ever in the category for her turn as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, while famed French icon Emmanuelle Riva (of Hiroshima Mon Amour fame) became the oldest, playing a demonic dying musician in Haneke’s heartbreaking film.
Apparently, the Academy wants to play agent provocateur when, in the past, they could barely muster a moment of mainstream meaningfulness. So disregarded that they often feel like the afterthought in an otherwise engaging debate over the cinematic artform in the 21st century, all the tweaks and tricks they’ve been using as of late have borne bitter fruit. Take the Animation category. In past years, the Academy had to struggle to find five choices. This time, they gave out four real picks - Brave, Frankenweenie, Wreck-It Ralph, and ParaNorman - while slipping in the pointless Pirates! Band of Misfits into the mix. Apparently, neither installment in the Madagascar/ Ice Age franchises was feeble enough.
Or what about documentary? Even though current head Michael Moore has implemented several important changes to the process, we are still missing major offerings (West of Memphis, This Is Not a Film) for more ‘issue oriented’ selections (with topics ranging from the Palestinian ‘problem’ to AIDS). It seems like, every year, Oscar tries to remedy its ills, only to make matters slightly worse in the end. Add in the abundance of competing contests - SAG, Critic’s Choice, Sundance, Toronto - along with the feeling that the Academy is still made up of clueless old farts and the aura of obsolescence persists. Even in the Foreign Film category, there always seems to be a given (in this case, Amour) which is undermined by something coming out of lame left field (remember, neither Pan’s Labyrinth or Haneke’s brilliant The White Ribbon brought home the trophy when EVERYONE thought they would).
It seems like,. when given the chance, Oscar can only get it partially right. They tend to march to their own belated backbeat, struggling to see the forest for the dense, often Weinstein worked trees. This year, Harvey and his hyperbole may have his work cut out for him. Tarantino and Waltz’s Globe nods aside, Django feels just like Inglourious Basterds...that is, destined to be a hit with audiences and critics, but barely making a wave in inner Hollywood circles while Silver Linings Playbook may have to settle with seeing Ms. Lawrence mentioned as its sole statue survivor, if that. As has become the habit recently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has left us wondering…and wishing. Instead of cheering and supporting it’s choices, we are once again whispering “What the…”