'Selma,' Laura Dern, 'Lego': the Academy, as ever, has its own ideas about the Oscar race

Posted by · 5:57 am · January 15th, 2015

Before diving into an analysis of this year's Oscar nominations, I want to say at the top that revealing all 24 categories live is the way to go. That was just wonderful, to hear all of those below the line artists' names called in the wee hours of the morning alongside the rest. Let's make that a tradition. Now, the nominations…

The first thing of note is, for the first time since we've had the expanded field, there were less than nine Best Picture nominees. Every film we were expecting to get in got in except for “Nightcrawler,” which actually came up short in a few other areas (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress) while only turning up in Best Original Screenplay. It was a well-liked film going into the announcement but it just ended up squeezed by out in those areas at the end of the day. Still, a great push from Open Road on and I'm happy Dan Gilroy got some love at the end of the day.

Also a first in this new landscape, a director was nominated for a film that wasn't nominated for Best Picture. Bennett Miller's name popped up courtesy of his colleagues, but the movie didn't find enough passion for the top spot. Intriguing, that. Directors love Miller, so that's not entirely surprising, but the film itself is a cold enterprise and maybe a tough sell overall. Still, the Directors Branch has a tendency to go its own way, and happily (sorry Clint), they did. Nevertheless, with screenplay, director and Best Actor support, you would think it would have cracked the Best Picture list. Obviously, it was close.

After a balls-to-the-wall campaign for a film no one outside of the media had seen, Jennifer Aniston missed out on a Best Actress nomination for “Cake.” I am no fan of the film, but I always feel bad when I see that kind of effort hit a brick wall. That team really tried to seize the moment in a race that was bone dry and it was worth a shot. In the end, critical darling Marion Cotillard, with virtually no campaign beyond riding the steam of those early kudos, got the call for “Two Days, One Night.” Good for her.

Laura Dern shoved out Rene Russo and Jessica Chastain in the supporting actress field, while the supporting actor list duplicated SAG's. Dern seemed to hit the skids a bit as “Wild” became more of a Reese Witherspoon prospect. But she was able to secure, finally, her second Oscar nomination to date since first being recognized nearly 25 years ago for “Rambling Rose.” Hard not to be happy for her.

Alright, let's get to “Selma.” In the end, maybe the screener issue wasn't all there was to it. The film landed exactly the two nominations I was anticipating: Best Picture (had enough passion at the top) and Best Original Song. But nothing else. No David Oyelowo. No Ava DuVernay. Screenplay ignored. Below-the-line artistry avoided. It just didn't find love throughout the categories and finds itself in the odd situation of being a Best Picture nominee with just one other element recognized, not unlike “The Blind Side” or “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” But in effect, it's a worse situation given that there are no acting nominees. You would have to go back to, what, “Grand Hotel?” Good news is that movie won Best Picture, though.

So what happened? It's obviously one of the most critically acclaimed films in the race, so one has to assume it's not quite as simple as “maybe they simply didn't like it.” Particularly with the Best Picture nod. You have to figure the controversy played some part, large or small. But I think it's a combination of that and a number of really, really tight races. I feel bad for the folks at Paramount, who admittedly got a late start on the film, and for DuVernay. But here's the thing about these moments: the film is still there. It lives on. Its import is lost on no one. And if I were Paramount, I'd go hard for the gold. There's an underdog card to play here.

The biggest outright shocker of the morning was the animation branch snubbing (you'll just have to forgive the constant use of that word today) “The LEGO Movie.” Many had it picked to win. I found it to be quite overrated but still, that was a “whoa” moment. Instead, the branch went in for both GKIDS/hand-drawn efforts, “Song of the Sea” and “The Tale of Princess Kaguya.” The question now, though, is whether “How to Train Your Dragon 2” can duplicate its Golden Globe victory. I think it absolutely can, so all of my fingers are crossed.

Digging into the crafts categories, there were some surprises and they came early. No “Birdman” in Best Film Editing, for example, was unexpected. Also, I had figured if the makeup from “The Theory of Everything” had gotten as far as the bake-off stage, it would be in and potentially win. That didn't happen and the category will probably be a slugfest now. I correctly guessed all five cinematography nominees and was delighted to see the branch go in for “Ida” as a bit of a change of pace. Thankfully the guild misses for “Mr. Turner” weren't duplicated, as it landed in not only Best Costume Design and Best Production Design, but rather surprisingly, Best Original Score as well. (And “Dick Poop” will live in infamy.) Diane Warren's personal campaign for original song “Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights” paid off (though it's still a pity Gugu Mbatha-Raw couldn't find room as hers was, to my mind, the finest leading actress portrayal of the year).

I had heard the reel for “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” didn't go over well at the visual effects bake-off, and sure enough, the film missed in that category, with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” pulling off what its predecessor couldn't. It got the stray sound editing nod and that's it. Middle Earth goes out with a wimper. “Big Eyes,” meanwhile, missed all around, which isn't entirely shocking. I had thought maybe the production design would pop for AMPAS as it did for BAFTA, but no dice. Instead, it was “Interstellar” that popped for AMPAS as it did for BAFTA. It was a coin flip for me. But in that category, I'm sort of bummed “Birdman” didn't get the call. That was staggering, cleverly expressionistic work. Oh well.

Oh! And my favorite nomination of the morning is easily “Inherent Vice” making the cut for costume design. Mark Bridges has been with Paul Thomas Anderson for a long time and finally got to the dance with “The Artist.” It's great to see him recognized for one of their collaborations, however, and I thought he might have an outside shot. Anderson, too, was nominated – for Best Adapted Screenplay. And hallelujah to that, but it came at the expense of “Gone Girl's” Gillian Flynn. That had to be a shock for many. (Indeed, “Gone Girl” received just one nomination: Best Actress. This after being an obvious favorite on the guild circuit.)

With “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” leading the way with nine nominations each and “The Imitation Game” not far behind with eight, the nominations pretty much echoed the big picture left by the guild and industry group announcements. That plus “Boyhood” is your race for Best Picture at the moment. Fox Searchlight finds itself in an awkward situation, having two nominees to push through phase two (one of them being the highest grossing Best Picture nominee at present), while “Boyhood” is the Golden Globe champ with a lot of dry powder left over following a casual-than-most phase one campaign. But my money is still on the Weinstein hopeful.

Now, there will probably be a lot of hand-wringing in the usual corners today about what this all “means.” The folly in that, always, is assuming it's one big, grand gesture. Professionals were tasked with picking their favorite examples of work in their respective fields across an array of categories. In the final analysis, the collective is the collective, but there's no hive mind here. “They” didn't do anything as one. Keep calm and carry on.

As for predictions, I had one of my better years. I went 4/5 in nearly every single category for an overall total of 96/121 (or 87/106 if you don't count the shorts). I correctly foresaw the “Life Itself” snub in the documentary feature field, as often, that group moves away from mainstream. I was 100% in the Best Picture (“Nightcrawler” was my #9), Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film categories. I'm not really kicking myself for any of the misses throughout because I sort of zenned out after dropping my predictions. Nothing was nagging. No last minute adjustments. Just a sense of wondering how quirky the Academy would be, because they always are.

And they were true to form today.

So congratulations to all the nominees. Chin up to all of those who thought they might hear their name called today. And onward we go.

What was your response to this morning's Oscar nominations announcement? Ready to make some winner predictions? Cut loose in the comments section below.

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