Let’s Talk About Those Baffling Oscar Nominations

The good news: the months and months of speculation over who will be nominated for an Academy Award is over. The bad news: now it’s time for six weeks of speculation over who will win them. Yes, this morning, Hollywood dragged its ass outta bed, went to a press conference (or, more likely, their laptop), and found out if all that hand-shaking and ad-buying was worth it. The nominations for this year’s Oscars, as announced by Ang Lee, Guillermo del Toro, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and John Krasinski (still sporting the beard sprouted for his leading role of Ben Gozzi in 13 Hours) were the usual mix of infuriating slights, well-duh sure things, and legitimately nice surprises. Let’s take a look at the major categories, who they snuck in, and who they left out (spoiler: Carol).

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Room
Spotlight

Did I mention Carol? Carol. They didn’t nominate Carol for Best Picture, which is, forgive the bluntness, fucked up – especially when the category can go all the way up to ten nominees, and I only see eight nominees here, and none of them are CAROL. And I know, there’s some sorta convoluted mathematical equation that determines exactly how many they nominate, but I’m saying this: if the purpose of expanding Best Picture from five nominees was to include more great movies, then don’t have slots going to waste for no good reason. Nominate ten movies. Also, one of them should be Carol.

Aside from that, it’s a pretty good group of films (bloated anguish porn The Revenant aside). The nicest surprise, as far as inclusions go, is Brooklyn – a terrific movie (my favorite of the year, in fact) that was starting to seem unlikely to even net a nomination, considering that it’s a modest, personal story in a race that’s somehow become about scope and production difficulty. As far as other exclusions: there was a fair amount of goodwill towards Straight Outta Compton, particularly after it scored a SAG nomination for Best Cast (that group’s Best Picture equivalent) and a PGA nomination for Best Picture. But that was always a long shot; more likely, considering its popular and critical success, was Creed, but it ultimately only managed the inevitable Supporting Actor nomination (and probable win) for Sylvester Stallone. Either nomination would’ve at least put a touch of diversity into the category.

Steve Jobs, Sicario, The Hateful Eight, Inside Out, and Beasts of No Nation were all bandied about as potential Best Pics as well, and didn’t make the cut. But hey, look at it like this: at least they didn’t nominate Joy.

Actress in a Leading Role
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

They did nominate Lawrence for Best Actress, though – and yes, it was kind of an inevitability, though I don’t think anyone would’ve minded the Academy’s general indifference towards David O. Russell’s latest extending here, to make room for, say, Lily Tomlin (Grandma), Charlize Theron (Mad Max), or Emily Blunt (Sicario). The rest of these were pretty easy to pick, though Rampling’s nomination – her first! – for the very small 45 Years was by no means a lock. Of course, IF THE OSCARS WERE FAIR, we’d see Bel Powley’s name in there for Diary of a Teenage Girl, but there I go again.

Actor in a Leading Role
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

The Best Actors here match up precisely with Best Actor (Drama) at the Globes, with the exception of comedy superstar (sorry, still can’t get over it) Matt Damon, who bumps out Will Smith – thus ensuring that, for the second year in a row, all 20 acting nominees are white folks. At any rate, this remains the most spectacularly boring slate among the major nominees; there was a small but loud faction of critics and fans pulling for Michael B. Jordan in Creed, a more interesting performance than most of the above (and a nomination that would’ve put a dent in the above problem), and some chatter for Johnny Depp in Black Mass, though that admittedly interesting performance was left drowning in a mediocre film. Anyway, none of it matters, DiCaprio’s going to win, bison liver, blah blah blah.

Alejandro González Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of "The Revenant"

Director
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

So, yeah. There’s plenty to be excited about here – Abrahamson, first of all, whose nomination was certainly one of the morning’s biggest surprises (I didn’t see anyone predicting that; most seem to think he took the slot destined for The Martian’s Ridley Scott). And it’s kind of great to see the director of Anchorman and Step Brothers being recognized for his pivot to more serious subject matter; The Big Short is, frankly, a fairly wild and experimental movie to get the sort of love it’s getting. McCarthy’s nomination was expected but earned, and don’t underestimate how easily the notoriously genre-ignorant Academy could’ve ignored Mad Max.

But no Todd Haynes. And I’m sorry, not one of those movies more beautifully expressed the singular vision of a film craftsman than Carol, which marshals everything from macro to micro, from performance to props, to create a world and immerse us in it, escorting the viewer quietly but confidently through a devastating emotional journey. That said, Haynes is used to this bullshit (he’s never been nominated for Best Director – no, not even for Far From Heaven), and, frankly, is way above it.

Actress in a Supporting Role
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

CATEGORY FRAAAAAUUUUUD, etc. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not one for getting all worked up about leading performances campaigning for safer supporting categories (though again, for the record, I’m fine with Therese being considered a supporting role), but a lot of people are still steamed about Mara and Vikander’s nominations here – especially since it meant the latter wasn’t nominated for Ex Machina. The main argument the anti-fraudsters are pushing is that those two slots could’ve gone to “true” supporting performances – like Helen Mirren (for Trumbo), Jane Fonda (for Youth), or Kristen Stewart (for Clouds of Sils Maria). But c’mon, Trumbo is lousy, Fonda’s in Youth for like five minutes, and Clouds and Stewart are too good for these Oscars (or this world, frankly).

Actor in a Supporting Role
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

This category, one of the first majors announced, was an early indication that The Revenant was going to have a very good morning. (For whatever it’s worth, it’s one of the few nominations I actually agree with for that film.) This ended up being one of the most competitive categories, thanks in no small part to big, good ensembles like The Big Short and Spotlight; Ruffalo ended up going head-to-head with co-star Michael Keaton and came out ahead. Previous winner Benicio del Toro seemed like a pretty safe bet for Sicario, but it was not to be; Paul Dano, probably the lead in Love & Mercy, was campaigned for Supporting in what seemed like a no-brainer (Oscar looooooves actors playing famous musicians), but ended up shut out too.

Animated Feature Film
Anomalisa
Boy and the World
Inside Out
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

This has become one of the most refreshing categories, as year after year, we see the kind of giant, high-profile animated films the category was presumed to’ve been created to honor shut out by very small indie/foreign features. And thus, delightfully, we’ve got nods for Boy and the World and When Marnie Was There over The Good Dinosaur and The Peanuts Movie. So remember, sometimes they do get it right.

Still from "Straight Outta Compton"

Writing – Adapted Screenplay
Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, The Big Short
Nick Hornby, Brooklyn
Phyllis Nagy, Carol
Drew Goddard, The Martian
Emma Donoghue, Room

Good scripts, all – and, considering how many nonsense nominations it pulled (Costume Design?), it’s a little surprising that The Revenant was left out. Make what you will of what that says about the film. (Sample excerpt: “HUGH GLASS grunts, gnashes teeth, expels snot.”) Lesson: Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith clearly should’ve let us know how cold their offices were when they wrote it. The radiator was out for days! They didn’t even have a space heater!

Anyhoo, the real surprise here is the missing nomination for Aaron Sorkin (for Steve Jobs), which seemed a pretty easy pick. That film’s shutout in every category but Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress probably means its much-reported box office failure affected it more than it should’ve.

Writing – Original Screenplay
Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen, Bridge of Spies
Alex Garland, Ex Machina
Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Ronnie del Carmen, Inside Out
Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus, Straight Outta Compton

Another longtime fave was left out of this one: Quentin Tarantino, winner of two previous screenplay trophies (for Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained) and a third nomination (Inglourious Basterds), whose absence is probably best chalked up to a film that’s more divisive than his norm. At any rate, this is a very good group; it’s a category that’s often more interesting than Best Picture, where the Academy feels they can honor some slightly more offbeat titles, seen here in the form of Compton, Ex Machina, and Inside Out.

A few more random thoughts:

  • This year was an especially competitive one for Original Score – so am I the only one who wouldn’t have minded the AMPAS bypassing five-time winner John Williams getting his 50th nomination (for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I dare you to remember an original cue from it) in favor of a more daring score, like Steve Jobs or It Follows or (yes, I’m saying it) The Revenant? Or simply the lovely one Michael Giacchino worked up for Inside Out?
  • Best Documentary is always one of the least predictable categories – usually for the worse, since they tend to go for the very easy pick. And there are always far more great movies than there are slots. So it does seem strange that they went for a boilerplate musical bio-doc like What Happened Miss Simone over Listen to Me Marlon, or Best of Enemies, or Going Clear, or Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Here’s the more interesting takeaway, though: Beasts of No Nation may’ve been shut out, but between Simone and Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, Netflix has clearly figured out how to campaign for a Best Documentary Oscar.
  • Sam Smith’s SPECTRE song “Writing’s On The Wall” was nominated for Best Original Song, in spite of the fact that it’s not only the worst Bond song ever, the worst movie song of the year, and the worst song of the year, but is in fact the very worst thing we have created, ever, as a species.
  • They didn’t even nominate Carol for Production Design. I mean, that’s not even a snub, that’s trolling.

So there you have it, our cheers and complaints, and I know, it’s very easy to dismiss the whole damn thing (as this writer often has). But I will say this for Oscar: for those outside the movie bubble – and, remember, that’s most people – these nominations and wins really do mean something, in terms of raising the profile of small pictures they might not otherwise be aware of, and thus seek out. So the slights are upsetting, sure – but keep in mind, somewhere in the world this weekend, someone’s going to go see Brooklyn or Room or Spotlight who otherwise might not’ve. And all complaints aside, that is a net good.