Thursday, January 16, 2014

A few reactions to the Oscar nominations

American Hustle turns out to be an Oscar triumph for its cast.
Game on.

The Oscar nominations for 2014 have been announced. It's time to seek cover as the onslaught of laudatory advertisements begins in earnest. While studios angle for every possible advantage, the rest of us can wonder whether a particularly impressive slate of best-picture nominees will so divide voters that a surprise winner emerges.

Conventional wisdom has it that we're looking at a three-picture race with Gravity, American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave leading the field. Still, it's tantalizing to imagine the uproar if The Wolf of Wall Street -- also nominated for best picture -- managed to sneak past the competition. Doubtful, yes, but a Wolf win would re-ignite debate about the movie's carnal excesses and launch an unprecedented display of cultural hand-wringing.

Nearly everyone agrees that the big news about this year's nominations involves omissions. Among the more notable:

-- Robert Redford. Beginning with his Telluride Film Festival tribute during the Labor Day weekend, Redford was being touted as a sure bet for a best-actor nomination and perhaps even as the year's inevitable winner. Redford gave a critically admired, dialogue free performance in All is Lost, but the movie's title proved prophetic: Redford did not receive a nomination in the best-actor category. Maybe the Academy voters thought one old-guy nomination -- Nebraska's Bruce Dern -- was enough.

-- Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen brothers look at the '60s folk scene didn't work its way onto the best-picture list, and its star Oscar Isaacs was passed over in the best-actor category. Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) took Isaac's place. It's possible that the downbeat Inside Llewyn Davis was too idiosyncratic to impress Academy voters. The movie received barely compensatory nominations for best cinematography and best sound mixing.

-- Oprah Winfrey. It would have come as no surprise had Winfrey received a best-supporting-actress nomination for playing the wife of a White House butler in Lee Daniels' The Butler. I'd have considered Sally Hawkins from Blue Jasmine a bit of a long shot, but there's little point arguing with a list that also includes Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) and June Squibb (Nebraska).

-- Paul Greengrass. The director of Captain Phillips was snubbed at a time when his movie was nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay.

-- Tom Hanks. The best actor category is difficult one, but I'd have voted for Hanks (Captain Phillips) over DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street). I'm in no way sorry to see Christian Bale (American Hustle) receive a nomination, even though he was considered a bit of a dark horse. Ditto for Amy Adams (American Hustle) in the best- actress category.

-- Daniel Bruhl ranked as a strong candidate for a best-supporting actor nod for playing Formula One driver Niki Lauda in Rush. He didn't cross the finish line.

Most of the other nominations followed expectation, although I'd rather have seen the late James Gandolfini (Enough Said) nominated in the best supporting actor category: I'd have placed him higher than either Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) or Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street). Oh well, guess Hill found a role he could sink his false teeth into. I know. Terrible joke.

I'd say Spike Jonze (Her) deserved a best-director nomination more than Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street). Have we reached the point where Scorsese is like the Meryl Streep of directors, always on every list?

And speaking of Streep...She received her 18th nomination, turning up on the best-actress list for her performance in August: Osage County. Was Streep good? Yes, but I never could totally shake an awareness that I was watching Streep act rather than watching her character unravel. Streep played Violet, the mean-spirited matriarch of the Weston clan.

I can't say I'm upset that Emma Thompson -- considered a strong candidate for best actress -- wasn't nominated for Saving Mr. Banks. I wasn't a fan of the picture, and I believe Thompson has done better work.

To my delight, Cutie and the Boxer turned up on the list of best documentary nominees. I doubt that it can surpass The Act of Killing or some of the other heavy hitters, but I'd say that this off-beat look at "boxing" painter Ushio Shinohara has a puncher's chance. And don't count out 20 Feet From Stardom, a fan favorite that also made Oscar's short list.

Most years, I have a strong feeling about who's going to win the major awards the minute I learn the nominees. Apart from Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) as best actress, I have no such inclinations this year.

That means watching the Oscar telecast on March 2 might really be fun. You'll find a complete list of nominees at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences web site.

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