Thursday, January 15, 2015

Oscar veers toward niche fare

The nominations have been announced, let the caviling begin.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences once again has struck. Nominations for the 87th annual Academy Awards were announced in Los Angeles Thursday at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m., a sure way of guaranteeing that the hoopla will have faded before the news cycle reaches 4 p.m.

Oh well, that's the way Hollywood does it. Why change?

It didn't take long for commentators to circle the wagons. Variety was quick to point out that this year's Oscars played an anthem to white men, neglecting both women and people of color in key categories.

Ava DuVernay, whose Selma received a best-picture nomination, headed the list in this regard. DuVernay was not nominated in the best-director category.

Perhaps Bennett Miller took her place on the list. Surprisingly, Miller was nominated for best director for Foxcatcher, which -- focus for a minute -- did not receive a best-picture nomination.

Or maybe it was Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) whose nomination in this category pulled the rug from under DuVernay.

Wes Anderson, a markedly idiosyncratic director, cracked Oscar's code with a nomination for directing The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Clint Eastwood was shut out despite the fact that American Sniper received a nomination for best picture. Maybe skittish voters were concerned that if Eastwood won, he'd make his acceptance speech to a chair.

OK, bad joke. Eastwood did a masterful job with American Sniper.

David Oyelowo, who played Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, also was snubbed. No best-actor nomination for him.

Earlier in the week, prognosticators were saying that the spot that Oyelowo might have occupied would go instead to Bradley Cooper for his performance in American Sniper.

I like the surprise nomination for Cooper, but (prepare for a bit of heresy here) would have put Oyelowo ahead of either Michael Keaton (nominated for Birdman) or Benedict Cumberbatch (nominated for The Imitation Game).

That's not to say that those actors weren't deserving, but when it comes to degree of difficulty, what could be more challenging than playing a civil rights icon known to the entire world -- and pulling it off.

And while we're on the subject of snubs of actors, let me mention another performer who should have received consideration: Jake Gyllenhaal for his work in Nightcrawler, a movie that earned only one nomination. Writer/director Dan Gilroy was nominated in the best original screenplay category.

Not surprisingly, the Academy tilted British with nominations for Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything).

Both, of course, are deserving, but Gyllenhaal's performance as a morally challenged freelance news photographer pushed him onto a ledge that none of the other nominees had to walk -- and that includes Steve Carell, nominated for playing the devastatingly peculiar John du Pont in Foxcatcher.

Of course, not all Brits were honored. Timothy Spall, once considered a likely candidate for his work in Mr. Turner, won't have to buy a new tux.

And Tom Hardy, perhaps the best British movie actor of the lot, was ignored for his work in Locke, a movie that required Hardy to hold the screen as he drove alone in his BMW from Birmingham to London to deal with a situation that threatened to upend his character's life.

Meryl Streep received another Oscar nomination in the best supporting actress category for playing a witch in the musical Into the Woods.

Let's have a collective sigh here. Neither Streep nor the rest of the world benefits from her 19th nomination. Of course, Streep's a great actress, but let's just put her face on Mt. Rushmore and get it over with.

Streep's spot could have gone to Rene Russo, for playing a ratings-hungry news director in Nightcrawler) or to Carmen Ejogo (for playing Coretta Scott King in Selma).

And perhaps he most egregious of all snubs in this category: Jessica Chastain, who was brilliant as the daughter of a New York mobster in A Most Violent Year.

I suppose it was a bit of a surprise that Laura Dern was nominated for best supporting actress for Wild. She played the mother of Reese Witherspoon's character, a woman who went on a 1,000-mile, solo trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. Witherspoon was nominated for best-actress for her work in Wild.

Maybe Witherspoon occupied the spot that some thought would go to Jennifer Aniston, who did image-shattering work in Cake, a movie that has not yet been widely seen.

Perhaps the loudest snub was the one that was noticed first. The Lego Movie -- critically acclaimed and popular with audiences -- was not nominated for best animated film. I'm guessing that clears the way for How to Train Your Dragon 2 to take home a statue.

As Hollywood continues its march away from the cultural center ring, it's hardly surprising that The Grand Budapest Hotel tied Birdman for the most nominations (nine for each picture).

No matter what you think of them, these indie-leaning nominees offer further proof that Oscar is out-of-synch with the moviegoing public -- a sign of an industry that's faltering.

Take that comment on two levels: Hollywood isn't producing pictures that create waves of national excitement and audiences are so fragmented that it's almost almost impossible for anything but big action pictures to cut across niche boundaries.

Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, which was had mass appeal and a bit of intellectual patina, was relegated to best score and nominations in a variety of technical categories.

Angelina Jolie's Unbroken should have fit Hollywood's bill, an accessible movie that honored the Greatest Generation by focusing on the heroic life of Louis Zamperini. Alas, Jolie's World War II epic went so heavy into the torture of Zamperini at the hands of a sadistic Japanese officer that it might have taken itself out of the running.

Gone Girl, another popular movie, produced a best actress nomination for its female lead, Rosamund Pike, but was overlooked in the best-adapted screenplay category, where it was expected to score. Gillian Flynn wrote the screenplay from her own novel.

As for the documentaries: I was surprised that Life Itself -- the documentary about film critic Roger Ebert -- didn't make the cut. Perhaps voters thought that if they put it on the list, Ebert's popularity would have shut out all other contenders.

If I had a vote, Keep on Keepin' On would have made the final five. It's a great, moving documentary about the relationship between a young blind pianist and jazz titan Clark Terry.

Here's a truism: Trying to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel for the screen is difficult, perhaps impossible. Still, it's a bit surprising that Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Inherent Vice received a nomination for best adapted screenplay. Strong in parts and often funny, the movie nonetheless is marked by an overall incoherence.

Oh well, I'm sure there's more to complain about, but what does it really matter. The Academy always does as it wishes. It's their world. We just live on its outskirts.

So congrats to those nominated, condolences to those snubbed and good luck to those stuck with the task of predicting winners in what may be a difficult year.

A complete list of nominees can be found on ABC's web site. The Oscar's will be awarded on Sunday Feb 22.

And if you want a warm-up for Oscar, The Critics' Choice Movie Awards, bestowed annually by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, airs Thursday evening (tonight) on A&E at 7 p.m. Mountain Time.

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