This year’s Oscars are weird, in that a lot of decent to good movies got nominated for a lot of awards, but the vast majority of those films are worse than others that were released this year. So, in general, we don’t have to worry about something like Crash or The King’s Speech or The Artist swooping in any undeservedly taking all the awards, but is it really all that much better if a film like American Hustle, which is certainly better than those films but by no means great, runs away with Oscar night in a similar fashion? If we’re speaking realistically, there are only three films that stand a chance in the best picture race: American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave. To be true, it’s really probably only Slave and Hustle that are in contention. I’ll feel good if 12 Years wins. I’ll feel disappointed if Hustle wins. But that’s not the whole picture of the situation.
2013 was a year in which a lot of people took a lot of creative risks, and nearly every one of them paid off. The Act of Killing, The Counselor, Spring Breakers, Stories We Tell, All is Lost, Upstream Color, Leviathan, Inside Llewyn Davis, these are all films that took chances with either narrative or form, and challenged us with what a film can do and how it can show us its world. These films amounted to three total nominations (two for Inside Llewyn Davis in what would be considered minor categories, and one for The Act of Killing). Now, we all know that the Oscars don’t mean much. The fact that these films keep being made and keep being seen points to that. But there is a gulf between the sort of acceptance films like these receive on a small scale and the mainstream embrace that Oscar gold gives to a film like The King’s Speech or The Artist. I get, of course, that not all of the films listed above could bridge that gap due to their weirdness. If the Academy nominated Franco for Supporting and Spring Breakers for Picture, people will not be lining up around the block in front of their local RedBox machines to check that one out. But hey, maybe it would. We’ll never know.
Compounded on that is the traditionalist bent of the nominations, and the Academy’s refusal to consider alternative acting performances. The Academy has no problem giving Judi Dench a Supporting Actress award (let alone nomination) for about five minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love, but would never consider nominating an outstanding voice acting performance in an animated film, for example, or motion capture work, which was a controversy last year with Andy Serkis and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And It remains a point of contention this year with Scarlett Johansson in Her, a performance that is entirely vocal. It’s an astounding performance in a lot of ways, chiefly in how she makes you believe (just as much as Joaquin Phoenix, who has the added benefit of facial expressions and physical acting to back him up) that there is real love and emotion and a bond between a man and his computer operating system. You don’t have those physical signifiers we’re so used to seeing to establish their attraction and trust. It takes a confident and measured performance to bring out those emotions from just a voice in a way that is more disembodied even than an animated film, where there is still a body and a face and eyes with which to forge a connection.
There was no way Scarlett Johansson would ever get a nomination. We could speculate and hope and dream, but no one would have confidently predicted her nomination, as the Academy just doesn’t work that way. I’d love to see a world where performances like Andy Serkis’ or Johansson’s are considered for awards, but also a world where the work of Kristen Bell or Idina Menzel from Frozen or say Craig T. Nelson from The Incredibles is given just as much consideration as Meryl Streep in August: Osage County. It is true that the animated side is a little more complicated, as animators are involved, so the performance is not entirely in control of the actor or actress (though you could note similar meddling from the editor or cinematographer in a live action film), but that shouldn’t disqualify them from recognition outside of a smaller award show specifically for animated films. Having this outlook marginalizes these films on a mainstream critical scale. A film like Her doesn’t need the extra recognition, in part because it’s already a live action film, but also because it receives that recognition as a Spike Jonze film. A film like Frozen might not need the box office help, but the freedom of the Academy to recognize it in other categories than you would expect broadens the horizons of what we think of when we watch films, and what they can represent (I believe the same could be said of comedies like The World’s End that are perennially ignored).
The prevailing wisdom among (especially younger) critics on days like today is that it doesn’t really matter that Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa received more nominations than Short Term 12, or that Inside Llewyn Davis received the same number of nominations as The Lone Ranger. And, for our purposes, it probably doesn’t. We’ll still see all these films and know they are excellent. We, as dialed in members of the film community in our own little ways, will be able to see and love or hate these films on their own merits without the need for validation from The Academy. There are a lot more people in this world, though, who don’t go out on their own to see these films, and do receive some sense of direction from the Oscars. These people are going to see 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle in part because they have this direction from Hollywood that these films are worth seeing. The commercials touting American Hustle’s 10 nominations and 12 Years a Slave’s 9 nominations (it’s being rereleased into theaters this weekend) will start rolling out, and those who consider themselves film fans but not cinephiles could consider this the motivation they need to go out and see them. This is all well and good, but it also points to the potential for what the Academy could do for a film like Inside Llewyn Davis (still in theaters) or Short Term 12 (just released on DVD/Blu-Ray this week). That’s the sort of activism that can come out of something as silly and First-World-Problem-y as the Academy Awards.
So no, these Oscar nominations and surprises and snubs don’t mean much on any substantive level, but they can still do some good for the art of film. We can only hope that some sort of age-based Academy turnover happens sooner rather than later, and some young blood with the desire for change can get enough of a foothold to shake things up.