Eight quick thoughts about today’s Oscar nominations:
The Best Picture Lineup Is What We Expected (Plus “Philomena”)
A person could have made a reasonable case for any of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees. You have your frontrunners (“American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave”), your high-quality runners-up (“Gravity,” “Her,” “Nebraska”), your prestige film from an acclaimed filmmaker (“Captain Phillips,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”), your wild card powered by widely-acclaimed acting performances (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and…apparently, another one of those in “Philomena.” The last two are fairly similar in those regards, even if they are wildly different movies. For “Dallas Buyers Club,” we now have a Best Picture nominee starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto, because it’s 2014 and nothing has to make sense. “Philomena” has some prestige behind it — Judi Dench’s sneezes are award-worthy, while director Stephen Frears was also nominated for “The Grifters” and “The Queen.” But it was co-written and produced by Steve Coogan. Steve Coogan! Alan Partridge has two Oscar nominations now!
The frontrunners are still the frontrunners. But this year’s contenders touch on a wide enough variety of themes, topics and issues, highlight a moderately diverse array of talent in front of and behind the camera and still manage to leave out desperate Oscar Bait like “August: Osage County,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “Saving Mr. Banks.” The inclusion of “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena” and “Dallas Buyers Club” over those films is enough to make this lineup fairly solid. But…
The Snubs, We Should Discuss The Snubs
Yes, there were some snubs. “Inside Llewlyn Davis” was left out of the Best Picture lineup (more on that in a moment.) Tom Hanks was left off the Best Actor list for “Captain Phillips,” crowded out in a category so stacked it also didn’t have room for Robert Redford. Emma Thompson was similarly ignored for “Saving Mr. Banks.” Considering “American Hustle” is basically 90 percent hair and makeup, it’s kind of bewildering that the film didn’t score a nomination in the Makeup and Hairstyling category. (Nominated in place of “Hustle”: “The Lone Ranger,” which starred Johnny Depp looking like this.)
David O. Russell, Kingmaker
Let’s pause for a moment and consider David O. Russell’s remarkable turnaround. After the back-to-back missteps of “I Heart Huckabees” (which underwhelmed audiences and critics, though some people – like me, I am some people – quite like it) and “Nailed” (which was essentially abandoned), he was in a weird sort of purgatory, known for some early successes and for a rage monster persona he displayed in those videos of him yelling at Lily Tomlin.
And now! Now Russell has, for the third time in four years, directed and co-written a movie nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and one of the Best Screenplay categories. Perhaps more importantly, Russell’s “American Hustle” produced nominees in the four acting categories, just like “Silver Linings Playbook” last year. “The Fighter,” two years earlier, had to make do with three acting nominations (Christian Bale and Melissa Leo won the supporting categories, with Amy Adams also nominated for supporting actress).
David O. Russell was gone and then he was back, churning out three fairly different yet tonally similar films (the straightforward underdog sports story of “The Fighter,” the romcom-dressed-up-as-a-drama of “Silver Linings” and the “GoodFellas”-but-with-con-artists story of “American Hustle”) in quick succession. All were rewarded with scores of Oscar nods. His three movies accounted for nearly a fifth of all acting nominations handed out during those three years, which is a moderately bonkers statistic.
Oh Won’t Somebody Please Think Of The Coens?
Speaking of people who hit a rough patch and returned. Joel and Ethan Coen seemingly bottomed out with their two worst films — “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers” — before rebounding with “No Country for Old Men” (which finally won them Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture). They followed that with “Burn After Reading” (no Oscars), “A Serious Man” (which got a Best Picture nomination during the Academy’s first year expanding that category to more than five films), “True Grit” (a massive box office success and nominated for 10 Oscars, including Picture, Director and Screenplay, though it didn’t win any) and, now, “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Their latest film — despite stellar reviews and landing on many a year-end list — pulled just two nominations, for cinematography and sound mixing. (The music — including the widely-lauded “Please Mr. Kennedy” — wasn’t nominated for anything.) That ranks among the biggest snubs of the year, but as a fervent Coen fan, this makes me perversely happy. We’ve reached a point where they are so widely recognized as great filmmakers that it’s assumed any decent work by them warrants Academy consideration. Had “Barton Fink” come out last year, we’d be sitting here complaining about John Goodman’s omission. Anyway, it’s a shame they were snubbed, but it’s also wonderful they are back and at the height of their powers once again.
Two-Time Academy Award Nominee Jonah Hill
He is almost assuredly not going to win, but Jonah Hill now has more Oscar nominations (for acting) than Myrna Loy, Orson Welles, Lauren Bacall, Bill Murray, Buster Keaton, Tony Curtis, Catherine Deneuve, Liam Neeson and Robert Shaw. He has as many Oscar nominations as Cary Grant, Gena Rowlands, Richard Harris, Judy Garland, Ralph Fiennes, Christopher Plummer, Peter Sellers and Ian McKellen. Jonah Hill. This guy. We’re all wasting our lives.
Alexander Payne, Quiet Behemoth, Will Again Go Home Empty-Handed
Alexander Payne earned his seventh Oscar nomination for directing “Nebraska.” (It is also nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, but unlike his other films, Payne isn’t included.) Payne has now directed six feature films. He has received at least one Oscar nomination for four of them, winning twice for the screenplays he co-wrote (“Sideways” and “The Descendants”) while not winning the Best Director or Picture trophies. (He wasn’t recognized for “About Schmidt,” but both of his stars were nominated.)
Payne is the kind of director who seems to pull career-best performances out of his stars (similar to Russell, who has found or highlighted sparks of genius in Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo and Bradley Cooper). He is also the kind of director who makes low-key, easily overshadowed films, the kinds of movies people see and respect and like and appreciate, but the kinds of movies they forget when there are louder Statement Movies to appreciate. Payne is likely not going to win a category that appears to be between Russell and McQueen, with Cuaron as the wild card. But he is almost definitely going to be in that category again.
Amy Adams Is Your New Meryl Streep
Obviously Adams is not on par with Streep the actor quite yet. But Adams has also broken through to earn her first Best Actress nomination, following years in the supporting category. This nod gives her four Oscar nominations in the last six years and five nominations overall. Meryl Streep, who earned five Oscar nominations (winning twice) in the six years spanning 1978 and 1983, has long been the paragon of Academy Award-worthy consistency. Adams is up against Streep in a fairly wide-open category that could, theoretically, be Adams’s for the taking.
The other four nominees — Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench and Streep — all have Oscars (Streep has three of them). Adams, the best part of Russell’s “American Hustle,” has shown a remarkable willingness to play against her All-American persona. (In another life, she and her “Hustle” co-star Bradley Cooper would be slumming it in a series of tepid romantic comedies; for whatever reason, we have two stars who would have thrived in that genre a decade or two ago, and they are opting instead for challenging-yet-mainstream work when they’re not busy with their franchises.)
Adams’s nominations have also come from remarkably dissimilar roles, ranging from “Doubt” to “The Fighter” to “The Master” and, now, “Hustle.” (Her breakout role in 2005’s “Junebug” was also quite different, but the Amy Adams who made that movie was not the Budding Movie Star that opted to follow “The Master” with “American Hustle.”) (Yes, she picked up a paycheck between those films to waste some time in “Man of Steel,” a shapeless blockbuster that completely wasted her time and talent.) Again: She hasn’t been making “Sophie’s Choice” or anything, if such a movie could even get produced in this era’s system. But Adams, perhaps more than fellow Oscar darlings Blanchett and Kate Winslet, seems like she could be a strong successor to Streep’s Academy throne.
Who Will Win?
It’s early, of course, but it appears that “American Hustle” has the inside track on Best Picture. (“12 Years a Slave” is better, but since when has that mattered at the Oscars?) “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuaron, Russell and “12 Years” director Steve McQueen are all the strongest contenders for Best Director, and quite frankly it’s tough to figure which of them is in the lead right now.
McConaughey could be a strong contender for the Best Actor category, owing to the same logic that saw Sandra Bullock win for “The Blind Side” (after years of making forgettable but successful romantic comedies, voters seem to like rewarding these stars when they finally branch out). The main differences here would be that (a) “The Blind Side” was a huge, popular hit, whereas nobody has seen “Dallas Buyers Club,” which works against McConaughey, but (b) he has been in the middle of a well-publicized renaissance and could have been nominated for “Magic Mike.” He’s clearly actually trying as an actor — you should see “Mud,” because he was really good and it was really good — so voters could decide to recognize that.
But could he out-draw Chiwetel Ejiofor? The Best Picture nod for “Dallas Buyers Club” helps, implying there is support for the movie, but “12 Years a Slave” could theoretically go home empty-handed, which seems downright inexplicable. Ejiofor’s sublime performance, which makes up almost the entirety of his film, would be hard to overlook. (It’s a tough category to predict, because Bale is also a strong candidate for the clearly-popular “Hustle.” And Bruce Dern could get quite a few votes for a sort of Lifetime Achievement Oscar. One thing we know: It probably won’t be Leo.)
Best Actress is tougher, because while Adams is the best actor in her movie (Jennifer Lawrence is delightful, obviously, OBVIOUSLY, but: Adams has a tougher and more multi-faceted role to play, putting on different personas when she’s with Bale’s character versus Bradley Cooper’s), she’s up against fairly stiff competition. It probably won’t be Streep, because “August: Osage County” seems otherwise forgettable. Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett are both theoretical possibilities. But in the end, it’s hard to overlook Bullock, who won for the saccharine “Blind Side” for a far lesser performance. Bullock is the heart and soul of her movie, the only human being on screen for much of it, and she gives a remarkable performance in what was clearly a physically taxing role (the kind of thing voters love to hear about, as we see every time actors talk about all the training and how taxing it all was). It’s quite a tricky one.
Supporting Actor is down to Michael Fassbender and Jared Leto, and while the latter has the edge right now, I think there’s going to be a small groundswell for rewarding Fassbender. Leto has been effectively out of the acting business a while, but Fassbender has been reliably great in movies big and small for a few years now. Supporting Actress does seem to be all but locked up by Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the most memorable and fun character in a frantic movie.
The screenplay categories are a mild crapshoot. I could see John Ridley take the Adapted trophy for his “12 Years a Slave” script, though it’d be nice to see Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater win for “Before Midnight’s” only nomination. As for Original, “American Hustle” could win Russell his first trophy after multiple nominations, but I personally hope “Her” wins. Spike Jonze, with his first wholly original screenplay, crafted a careful story that was clearly illustrated by the actors, sets, design and costumes, but one that he laid out very precisely on the page.