Film

The Race is (G)On(e): Oscar Surprises and Snubs

Wow…

Just…wow.

We critics LOVE to lambast the Oscars, arguing that they get it wrong so frequently that their annual misguided message to moviemakers and goers threatens to turn the 80 year old institution into a true cultural afterthought. Sure, there are always signs of life, or at the very least, a shift. Last year, the Academy gave the Coen Brother's No Country for Old Men all the legitimizing love they could, while tossing some Paul Thomas Anderson affection toward There Will Be Blood as well. Heck, even Juno and Michael Clayton beat out several "prestige" pictures to walk away with a Best Picture nod. So when a film like The Dark Knight becomes one of the highest grossing commercial successes of all, there is always talk of some kind of industry recognition. Sure, popularity doesn't always equal aesthetic importance, but with the vast majority of film reviewers agreeing on the unequalled mastery of Christopher Nolan's post-modern masterwork, it seemed like an Oscar lock.

So what happens? Somehow, one of the slew of Holocaust oriented pics (albeit one that uses the senseless slaughter of millions of Jews as a sloppy psychological subplot) beats one of the best films of all time for Academy recognition. No other major awards entity has The Reader on its short list. Not the Producers Guild. Not the Directors Guild. Not the Screen Actors Guild. Only international entities like BAFTA (the British Oscars) and the Golden Globes (who cares) pegged the production for major year end consideration. Now, it's not like The Dark Knight will go away unrecognized come 22 February. It has eight nominations to The Reader's five, and has a much better chance of winning its technical awards than the latter has of earning a single trophy for Best Picture/Director/Actress or Cinematography. Indeed, at the end of the evening's festivities, Heath Ledger will more than likely earn only the second posthumous Oscar ever given, while areas like effects, art direction, and sound mixing could go the blockbusters way.

And let's not forget the other surprises and snubs, both warranted and uncalled for, that manifested themselves this morning. Below are a few of the highlights from the annual festival of cinematic second guessing. As we move closer and closer to handing out those coveted little gold men, SE&L will go into a lot more detail about this year's Academy Awards. It promises to be a very spirited and lively five weeks.

The Surprises

The Reader Gets Best Picture/Director Nods

This critic has made no bones about his hatred of this film. It's not a personal anger, or something born out of the creative team involved. No, when dealing with the organized genocide of an entire race of people by an evil governmental entity Hell bent on taking over the entire world, there shouldn't be a double standard, borderline pedophilic love story taking center stage. Daldry did nothing to warrant Best Director consideration (his work is just as pedestrian as it was in The Hours, and he got a nomination for that too. Must have compromising pictures of several AMPAS members), and the end result is confused and incomplete. This is destined to go down in Academy history as one of the worst Best Picture choices ever.

Winslet in Best Actress Category Only

Okay, this screws EVERYTHING up. Winslet was supposed to get her nod in the Best SUPPORTING Actress category as a less than subtle means of making sure she walked home with Oscar gold this year (she has five previous nominations, but no wins). Putting her here knocked out several strong candidates - including one major missing name listed below - while turning the entire race into a literal crap shoot. Depending on who you think did the better job - and all five turns were excellent - this may be the first year where the final decision is not so readily predetermined. Sadly, it looks like Winslet may be on the short end of the tally once again.

Doubt Stronger than Some Expected

By the time the pundits were through marking up their Year End excuses for self importance, John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning stage play was getting just minor, peripheral consideration. Many had Viola Davis recognized for her single, sensational scene with Meryl Streep, but few had Amy Adams, or Shanley himself, getting a nod. With the additional attention given to the leads (including a sensational turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman), Doubt went from "no way" to nicely represented. And unlike The Reader, it deserves it.

The Snubs

The Dark Knight Out of Picture/Director Race

This is just a crime. It's a scandal and a shame, pure and simple. Of the five films given Best Picture cred by the AMPAS, The Dark Knight surpasses at least three - the fractured Frost/Nixon, the epic but uneven Benjamin Button, and the cinematic travesty known as The Reader. The DGA knew this (no love for Daldry's dreary romance). The Producers Guild got this right (taking Shanley's Doubt over the Holocaust drama). And let's drop the arguments about commercial success spelling doom for Nolan's amazing movie right now. Titanic got its record breaking number of nominations. Jaws, ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings (both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King) got Oscar acceptance. There is just no excuse for The Dark Knight not being among said roll call.

Happy-Go-Lucky? Not If You're Sally Hawkins

She's been the presumptive favorite since topping several year end lists. She walked away with a Golden Globe this past January, and has been heavily touted as one of this year's nomination locks, what with other acknowledgements from such prestigious places as The Berlin Film Festival. So what happened? How did Hawkins go from predestined front runner to wounded wallflower? Blame the politics of studio shilling. Apparently, The Reader and Angelina Jolie have stronger PR people than Mike Leigh and his usually brilliant British aesthetic.

Bruce Springsteen's Wrestler Tune Gets Nothing

After the fiasco two years ago, which saw Dreamgirls earn three unnecessary nod, and last time around, when

Enchanted also scooped up a trio of nominations (and no awards), the Academy claimed they were going to reconfigure the rules regarding how Best Song choices were made. Apparently, screwing up the system entirely was the solution. As a result, The Boss, this year's Golden Globe winner (and current Oscar owner for Philadelphia) can keep his tuxedo in moth balls for the rest of the awards season. Sure, the actual nominations available for consideration are nothing to sneeze at, but were there really only three good songs this year? With two being in Hindi?

WTF?

Australia's Nomination/ The Duchess' Pair of Nods

Guess there's lots of back slapping neo-nepotism amongst the costuming and art direction cliques. Betcha Baz Lurhmann is happy!

Wanted Gets Some Tech Rec

Look, we loved this hyper fun and slickly stylized bullet ballet more than most, but it definitely didn't deserve to walk away with two technical nods. Was it's sound design and editing really that good? Or was the pool to choose from really that poor?

What's With All This Love for Penelope Cruz?

Apparently, Oscar, like most men, thinks with his little Oscar. There is no other reason why this vacant waste of Hispanic space deserves an Academy Award - especially not for this subpar excuse for late in lifeless Woody Allen. She's done better.

SE&L Satisfaction

Michael Shannon Gets Revolutionary Road's Sole Acting Acknowledgment

While this amazing movie deserved much more than three Oscar noms (the other two are for those old 'anyone can earn them' standbys, art direction and costuming), Shannon's work definitely deserves the film's only acting acknowledgment. Say what you will about the rest of Road's revisionist trip back to the sodden suburbs of the '50s, but this actor's laser sharp Greek Chorus really put the whining Wheelers in their place.

WALL-E's Screenplay Shown Some Love

For most of the Summer, there was a push to see this fascinating CGI classic go the way of Beauty and the Beast as only the second animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture. There was even talk of getting director Andrew Stanton a Best Director nod. Well, none of that came to pass, especially in light of what happened to a certain Bat-man. But WALL-E did walk away with six total nominations, including the lock in its own cartoon category. But the most surprising statement has to be the Original Screenplay acknowledgement. Apparently, someone in the AMPAS is paying attention.

The Documentary Category is Not a Complete Embarrassment - For Once

After years of screwing up something so easy as picking the best documentary from the previous 12 months, the Academy inched ever closer to quasi-redemption this year. There is not a bad pick among the five finalists, with three - Wire, Water, and Encounters - actually maintaining masterpiece status. In fact, who ever walks away with Oscar gold come 22 February, will be the cream of a really impressive crop.

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