Stuck in the middle with you: thoughts on the Oscar nominations

Posted by · 2:28 pm · January 24th, 2012

I am no fan, to put it gently, of John Williams’s chintzily instructive and inevitably Oscar-nominated score for “War Horse,” but I’ll admit I’ve been feeling the need for it all day. Williams is a master in the art of telling you how to feel, and several hours after hearing this years Academy Award nominations, I could really use some plaintive strings or percussive rumbling to tell me what on earth I’m supposed to feel about them.

Am I happy they took a chance on some adventurous arthouse fare like “The Tree of Life” and “A Separation?” Am I dismayed they haven’t yet caught wise to Michael Fassbender? Am I perplexed that they seem to be actively sabotaging the admittedly inessential but once-entertaining Best Original Song category? Am I pleased that the animation branch showed some solid brass balls this year, even as I question the wisdom of their choices? Am I concerned that their barometer for the year’s best documentaries bears no relation to anyone else’s? Am I satisfied I predicted 73 out of 104 nominations, even if I hated myself for making some of those predictions in the first place? I’m certainly annoyed I have to see the wildly unalluring “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” now, after thinking I might just have dodged that bullet.

I am all of these things, and frankly, sustaining that many feelings is exhausting — just ask Glenn Close, who cleverly parcelled them out one at a time in “Albert Nobbs,” resulting in one of the most simultaneously hard-earned and undeserved Best Actress nominations of recent years. (Am I exasperated by that? Am I amused? Am I just resigned? I’ll stop now, but you get the idea.) Some might say the emotional average of all this is indifference, though it’d be disingenuous for me to claim that when I still woke up this morning with the same quiet tingle of excitement I feel on every Oscar nomination day.

Of course, when one’s own favorite films of the year sit so far outside the conversation — only four films nominated by the Academy today cracked my own 2011 top 20, one of them scraping in for Sound Editing, though at least another is poised to run the table — it’s easier to feel less invested in the whole red-carpet routine. If I don’t feel personally elated or affronted by today’s news, it’s because nothing personal is at stake: the films I treasure aren’t going away.

Nor is Oscar, for that matter, even if his identity seems somewhat in flux — rarer has it been clearer to me that “the Academy” is not a monolithic individual entity we conveniently paint it as for the purpose of analysis, but a hive of conflicting individual opinions and personalities. The new voting structure for the Best Picture race is a case in point: we know each of these nine nominees received at least 5% of the number-one votes cast, suggesting a diverse range of committed camps. The people responsible for “The Tree of Life” being on the list are not the same people who put “War Horse” there, who in turn are different from the sneaky contingent who came through for “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.”

There’s evidence of contrasting impulses within individual branches, too. Are the actors who rallied for Demián Bichir the same ones who are high on Rooney Mara? Are there Academy screenwriters who are equally jazzed about “Bridesmaids” and “A Separation?” I’m sure there are some — speaking as the person whose best-of-2011 list found room for “Margaret” and “Immortals” — but I’m sure you’d find plenty more who are befuddled by at least one of those nominations. Get angry with the Academy if you like, but wonder first what — or who — you’re even getting angry with.  

For better or worse, these nominations show ample evidence of a large group of voters who unafraid, indeed unashamed, of telling us what they like. With no precursor foundation for “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” it’s clearly there for no other reason than that enough voters were honestly affected by it, and couldn’t care less what the critical majority thought. I’m as disappointed as any of you that Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton didn’t make the cut — most of all because their thornily independent, little-seen films deserved the extra exposure even one nomination would bring — but if many voters didn’t sincerely respond to their work, there’s no reason why they should feel obliged to vote for them.

(Take heart in the probability that neither Fassbender nor Swinton are the type of talents to place any more stock in these contests than we critics do. Indeed, I’m sure Swinton is too busy orchestrating morris-dancing flashmobs and rock-painting in the Hebrides, or whatever it is she does in her spare time, to have heard today’s news. If nothing else, I’m sure they’re both pretty pleased for Gary Oldman. Who isn’t?)

There’s a certain resolve to be gleaned from even the Academy’s most shocking decisions today that’s maddeningly stubborn from some angles, and admirable from others. If the animation branch really doesn’t believe that “The Adventures of Tintin” is a true example of their craft — and I admit I, too, hesitate to classify it as animated — then it’s fair that they exclude it. At least the group can’t be accused of insularity: the inclusion of “Chico and Rita” and “A Cat in Paris” from the international arthouse fringes (when they could have lazily filled slots with misfires from Pixar and Aardman) shows a catholic playfulness that more branches could stand to acquire.

Of course, if industry definitions of animation become increasingly blurry, this particular award will need to adapt or die; for now, however, given that it’s already a ghetto category, I can’t blame the branch for protecting their identity. (And I say that as someone who thinks “Tintin” is rather better than “A Cat in Paris” — though at least the latter fits this year’s official Vive La France theme.)

Clearly, some tweaking is in order across the board. To the music branch, I say that no voting process that results in only two nominees can be said to be working: it wasn’t a great year for movie songs, sure, but at least try and sell us on the category. (Failing that, a least allow us a full Muppets production number on stage. First Springsteen, then Cher, now this?) And for all their eager adjustments, the newly flexible Best Picture format just isn’t working: their goal in expanding it beyond five nominees three years ago was to get more nominees like “Bridesmaids,” not more tepidly received prestige films.

Certainly, a high-end, wild-card nominee like “The Tree of Life” dignifies the category, but I’m not sure it’s worth the residual mess the extra slots cause. (Particularly when, in three years of this experiment, the Academy has yet to relent to a film made in any language other than English: does anyone who’s seen it really believe all nine Best Picture nominees are superior to “A Separation?”) The Academy is showing an encouraging willingness to acknowledge and correct error — but right now, their decisions lack authority even as they project personality. If I’m not sure right now how I feel about the Oscars, I don’t think they are either.

The Contenders pages, by the way, have been updated throughout. Plenty more analysis, contemplation and kvetching to come over the next month.  

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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