Five good things and five bad things on the most infuriating of mornings each year: the Oscar Nominations.
The most visually striking and beautiful movie of the year did not have fancy special effects. It was black and white. It wasn’t shot in IMAX or even in widescreen. The way Ida looks is so wonderfully strange, the shot composition so nonstandard and against the grain that it almost puts you off in its early stages. Characters are never where you expect them to be, so often shoved into the bottom third or corners as the austere architecture of post-World War 2 Poland looms over them. It constantly looks like someone accidentally jostled the camera a foot up in the air right before action was called. Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski along with director Pawel Pawlikowski have such a strong eye for the world they have created, shooting the scenes in the convent with a different language than the scenes in the outside world, drumming up themes of isolation, discomfort and aloofness with nothing more than the camera lens. It is heartening that Ida managed to sneak into the category (Mr. Turner too, for what it’s worth) over the bluster of an Interstellar or the icy cool of a Foxcatcher or Gone Girl. Perhaps, even, some who wouldn’t have bothered with it had its only nomination come in Best Foreign Language Film will seek it out now. One can only hope.
Laura Dern for Supporting Actress in Wild
Some of the pre-announcement prognosticators predicted Dern somehow wouldn’t make the cut, so much so that I had pre-braced myself for disappointment. And yet she is there for her stellar work in Wild, and at least some is right with the world. 95% of the emotional resonance of Wild comes from Dern, as defiant as her body is weak, and she imbues the film with a sense of purpose and calm even as the rest of the film struggles to find a way through the chaos that has become Cheryl Strayed’s life. Her performance is foundational, required in order to understand why Witherspoon’s character would fall so far as to force herself to undertake her journey, and Dern handles it as well as anyone could.
Marion Cotillard for Best Actress in Two Days, One Night
For whatever inexplicable reason, the Dardennes’ powerful Two Days, One Night didn’t even make the shortlist for Foreign Language Film, despite being Belgium’s official selection (this was no Blue is the Warmest Color situation). Despite that, it did manage to score its one nomination, and it’s a big one. Cotillard’s portrayal of a depressed factory worker forced to fight for her job and middle class life by prostrating herself in front of her coworkers and convince them to give up their bonuses to let her stay. It’s a gutting film and a heart wrenching performance, one that gets to the core of what happens to families that live paycheck to paycheck and teeter over the brink of poverty, in danger of tumbling into the abyss with even the slightest provocation. The entire Best Actress category is a treat, really. And while it’s difficult to think of a performance that would have knocked Cotillard out of the running, we’ll see in a minute that the depth of potential for the Academy to make decisions like that is approximately infinite.
The rise of Whiplash and it’s nominations for Editing, Sound Design, Picture and Screenplay
We all knew Whiplash had one nomination (and presumed win) in the bag. It’s JK Simmons’ year, which is a wonderful thing, but whether Whiplash would be able to make waves in any other category was up in the air. Its other presumed best shot was in the Screenplay category, but the recent dustup over its (absurd) designation as an Adapted Screenplay that was, in fact, adapted from...itself (essentially, the feature script was written, then Chazelle adapted it into a short to sell the film, but since the short came out first, it’s considered adapted from the short, even though the short was technically adapted from the unshot script. Moving on…) even put that into question. There always seemed to be at least somewhat of a chance that it would make it into the Best Picture category as one of those token nominations, which was aided by the under-performance of Unbroken, but it was also just as likely to get bumped by more mainstream fare like Gone Girl or Interstellar or a similarly positioned low profile picture like Nightcrawler. What is most heartening, though, are its technical nominations in editing and sound design. Whiplash is (to me, at least) without doubt the best edited film of 2014, beautifully and flawlessly bringing the pulsating jazz soundtrack into the edits. Its sound design is propulsive, crisp and forceful, and while it probably doesn’t stand a chance in hell to win either of those categories, its nomination is heartening. Whiplash is the little indie that could, its Sundance buzz swallowed up by juggernauts like Boyhood and Birdman, making its five nominations a real sign that people really enjoyed it.
Inherent Vice for Best Costumes
The Costumes category is usually dominated by Victorian period pieces or flights of fancy (see Mr. Turner and Maleficent/Into the Woods), so it’s nice to see The Academy go for something a little more modern and off the beaten path in its period aesthetic. Costumes is one of only two nominations for Inherent Vice, which is officially the Inside Llewyn Davis of 2014, and they play a legitimately important role in setting up the world of Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of the Pynchon novel. They set up an immediate visual tension between the squares like Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot (and as an aside, I haven’t seen The Judge due to having taste, but there’s no way Duvall is more deserving than Brolin for Supporting Actor purposes) and the hippie community of Phoenix’s Doc Sportello. They play into the general Manson-family related paranoia that bubbles under the surface of the film. The mise en scene of Inherent Vice is one of its strongest features, and the costumes have a lot to do with it.
Paramount shoots themselves in the foot with Selma
Much has been written about how badly Paramount ran their Selma campaign. Considering it was not released to much of the country until January 9th (after Oscar voting had closed) and Paramount dizzyingly and nonsensically didn’t send out screeners for the film to critics or members of the various guilds (which led to no nominations from either the DGA or PGA), the fact that it only received nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Song shouldn’t be surprising, but that doesn’t make it any less infuriating. David Oyelowo’s non-inclusion in Best Actor is shameful (that category in general is a mess for a number of reasons). Ava Duvernay’s non-inclusion in Best Director is shameful. Bradford Young’s non-inclusion in Cinematography is shameful. But most importantly, Paramount’s handling of the whole thing is shameful. Selma is a great film, one of the highlights of 2014, and it ended up with fewer nominations than Into the Woods. Let’s think about that for a moment.
Force Majeure misses out on Best Foreign Language Film
Considering it was one of the few films on the short list to actually receive a relatively robust American release (I gauge this basically by the fact that I was able to see it myself by going to a movie theater and buying a ticket in the same year it is nominated), it seemed likely that Ruben Ostlund’s wonderfully weird little domestic drama was pretty close to a lock. This is less about something undeserving getting in over it, as I’ve only seen Ida in the category, and we all know at this point how I feel about it, but I really did love Force Majeure, and it’s better than many (many) movies that were nominated in the “real” categories, so it’s sad that it couldn’t find a way into the only category where it had any sort of chance.
Into the Woods isn’t that great, guys.
I don’t think there’s a better example of auto pilot nominating than Meryl Streep’s Supporting Actress nomination for her role as the witch in Rob Marshall’s middling adaptation of the Sondheim musical. She’s fine, but she’s also nothing special, and certainly below the caliber of Rene Russo in Nightcrawler or some of the women of Gone Girl or Carmen Ejogo in Selma (but we know why that one didn’t happen already). More galling to me was the inclusion for Production Design, which was thoroughly inconsistent, especially in its rushed second act. There are times during the final thirty minutes of the film that the magical woods look embarrassingly like a soundstage with some dry ice fog pumped in among their feet to try and hide it. The Costume Design nom is fine, but that’s about all it really needed, deserved.
The LEGO Movie can’t find a way into Animated Feature
One could argue that this year’s slate for Best Animated Feature is the strongest in years (and it doesn’t even have a Pixar film in contention), but that would involve believing that the derivative Big Hero 6 and relatively unremarkable How to Train Your Dragon 2 were actually worthy of nomination. I’ve heard rapturous things about The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea, which makes for two strong contenders beyond the standard American mainstream, so that does put a little extra pressure on the category. The Boxtrolls is wonderful, and I love seeing stop motion recognized, so that’s fine, but The LEGO Movie was certainly the smartest of the possible nominees, and easily the best among those I’ve seen. It’s possible that The Academy was put off by the product-placement-y nature of it, or how early in the year it was released. It is also possible that they are just dumb.
Steve Carell’s nose received two nominations today, one for Best Actor and one for Best Makeup/Hairstyling. Both nominations are absurd on the face of it (snicker), but not as absurd (or frankly bizarre) as Bennett Miller receiving a Best Director nomination without the film actually making it into the Best Picture pool. Carell’s flashy, ostentatious performance is just the sort of thing Academy voters fawn over, and while his positioning in the lead category isn’t as patently insane as Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, it’s still a clear supporting role that ended up pushing out actors like Ralph Fiennes and David Oyelowo, both of whom were the actual leads of their respective films. Miller’s directing held the film back as well, opting for an overly slow and ponderous pace that aims for a tone not that far off from Silence of the Lambs but falls oh so short of getting there. All I know is Bennett Miller has to be sending quite a few thank you notes over to Paramount for the Selma debacle that let him sneak into this category.