by Steve Wagner
Before we dig into the convoluted mess created by Thursday’s Oscar nominations, let’s first define what an Oscar snub isn’t.
Jennifer Aniston wasn’t snubbed, bless her. She just didn’t quite make the cut. She was fantastic in Cake, and many though she might sneak into the Best Actress race. Might. She was never a forgone conclusion. She is definitely knocking on Oscar’s door, but this year? Sorry, Rache.
Ditto Angelina Jolie. Unbroken was a strong effort, and it was a mostly successful film—heck, it made over $100 million. But it wasn’t quite in the class of the other picture or director nominees. It shows a great deal of promise, and I think we can all agree Angie will likely be in this mix frequently as time goes by. Just not this year.
What about Jake Gyllenhaal? I certainly didn’t expect him to edge into the actor category—not this year. Jake is a great actor and Nightcrawler is one of the real surprises of 2014. I loved the film and I was rooting for him, but would have been surprised, to say the least, if he had gotten a nom this year. He’ll be back, count on it.
Does anyone really think Amy Adams and/or Jessica Chastain were snubbed? I don’t, and I would have included both of them if I were tasked with granting the nominations. Fact is, these two have both—within just a few years—become serious Oscar Darlings. They are both nominated frequently, and while both were expected to by in the game this year, it was never a given in either case.
Chastain was spectacular, but in a film no one has seen yet—A Most Violent Year—and in a year where she (confusing, perhaps?) starred in four films, while Adams starred in a comedy directed by Tim Burton, no one’s idea of an actor’s director by any means. She won a Golden Globe for Big Eyes based on her ability to rise above the pedestrian script and barely-restrained direction. This wasn’t her Oscar-winning role, and it wasn’t for Chastain, either. But, really. Does anyone doubt that both these talented women will have statues on their mantle before 2020?
The great Ralph Feinnes wasn’t snubbed. He was awesome, as always, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it was more of an ensemble film, and the star of the show was Wes Anderson’s direction, which was indeed nominated. Budapest cleaned up with nominations. It couldn’t make every category, and, again, Best Actor is seriously packed this year.
Roger Ebert, rest his soul, didn’t get snubbed this year. Life Itself is a truly fantastic documentary in a year with many truly fantastic documentaries. I had three on my top ten—Glen Campbell: I’ll be Me, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, and, yes, Life Itself. None made the list. I’m disappointed, sure. Up in arms? Not quite.
The Lego Movie? We’re getting closer to snub territory here, but, really, could anyone have had animosity or ulterior motives with regard to…The Lego Movie? It’s a shame, it deserved it, it would have made for a better race, etc. But we’re not going to lose any sleep here. The film is a classic and will be watched (and acquired) for years to come. I think the filmmakers are probably just fine with how things have turned out for The Lego Movie.
With Wild, we start getting warm. While Reese Witherspoon and Laura Den (yay!) were nominated in acting categories, the film and its screenwriter (Nick Hornby) were not. This may not seem so egregious, but it does say a great deal about the types of stories we find important and worthy of recognition. Wild was essentially the only major contender that centered on a uniquely female story, one where a woman finds her personal strength without male support, where a woman refuses to be a victim, where a woman achieves her transcendence internally. Wild was Eat, Pray, Love without the woo-woo, and there was plenty of room for it in the Best Picture race. It needed to be there.
With Gone Girl, we start getting hot. Like Wild, it was one of the best reviewed films of the year, did very solid box-office, was obviously good enough for acting nods, and was based on a beloved and critically acclaimed book written by a woman. The author, Gillian Flynn, also wrote the screenplay to the film, but was somehow passed over for a nomination. Indeed, Gone Girl was nowhere to be found in the Oscar nominations, save for newcomer Rosamund Pike, who received an Actress nod for her work portraying—let’s just say it—a duplicitous, lying, vindictive, murderous wife.
Gone Girl should have pulled down at least half-a-dozen nominations—certainly for Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, and there was room, I believe, for David Fincher in the directing category as well. What does this guy have to do to get the academy’s respect? His brilliant, timely film The Social Network was nominated and deserved to win both Picture and Director a few years ago…instead it lost in both races to the well-acted, but ultimately forgettable, British period piece, The King’s Speech. Fincher’s only other picture/director nominations were for his one real misfire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which should never have been in the mix in the first place. His daring, envelope-pushing work—Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo—received nada from Oscar. We can add Gone Girl to a long list of more-or-less-snubbed David Fincher movies.
And then there is Selma. Now, we are officially on fire.
Let’s start by noting that the Oscar nominations were announced on Martin Luther King’s birthday, shall we? Given the nearly-across-the-board absence of Selma, this isn’t just disappointing—it’s actually kind of sickening. This is a film that could not be more pertinent to our current issues with race, in a year when race relations have reached their most volatile point since perhaps the famous march went down fifty years ago. The fact that the African-American struggle for equality in the eyes of the law and in access to the voting booth is still painfully in process underscores the importance of the film’s recognition; but the real slap in the face is that Selma is clearly one of the best films of the year, and everyone knows it.
The aggregate sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic both rank Selma at the pinnacle of the 2014 films—only Boyhood, the best reviewed film of the decade, is rated higher, and just barely. I grant that it isn’t Oscar’s responsibility to right the racial wrongs in our society, but, dammit, it is supposed to be about the best films, the best actors, and the best accomplishments.
There is a lot of talk about Paramount dropping the ball and not getting Selma screeners to voters, and as a critic who does rely frequently on this type access to see all the films in my queue, I do get that some may not have seen Selma in time, and therefore didn’t vote for it for that reason. It would be easy to just say, “What the fuck, Paramount?” and let voters off the hook, but the fact is Selma did get nominated for Best Picture (and Song, the one statue it will likely win), so many presumably did see it after all.
And then they decided, apparently, that the movie just somehow made it itself.
It is inexplicable, without at least questioning a possible racial (and gender, while we’re at it) bias, that director Ava DuVernay, actor David Oyelowo, and the original screenplay for Selma were not nominated, and the fact that those nominations did not occur on MLK’s birthday—a national holiday for, you know, reasons we might do well to remember every now and then—is sad synchronicity indeed. It appears that even the 2015 calendar has a better sense of irony than, say, Oscar voters who chose American Sniper over Selma in several major categories.
Boyhood scored it’s expected six nominations, and seems a lock to win at least two awards (Director, Supporting Actress), and probably a third (Best Picture) if it can hold off the Bird and the charge of the Budapest parade. Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel each pulled down nine nominations, and are likely to make some loud noise here and there, but Boyhood seems to have the right greasy-kid-stuff, having won nearly all critics groups and pre-Oscar awards up to this point. Bottom-line: the film, and the director, Richard Linklater, deserve to win, and at least here I think Oscar will get it right.
I’m also excited for Whiplash, which received five well-deserved nominations, including Adapted Screenplay, written by the film’s first-time director Damien Chazelle. I think Whiplash could win this award—it is really anyone’s game in this category, and this would be a real nod to the greatness of the film and the efforts of its young, and by all indications, brilliant director. The amazing J.K. Simmons should also win Supporting Actor for his stellar work in Whiplash—this film is one of the true feel-good stories of Oscar 2015.
The British dramas—The Imitation Game and the Theory of Everything—are definitely still in the mix, but, other than a fairly large number of nominations, neither now looks to make that much of a dent, save for the possibility of an Eddie Redmayne upset in the actor race. Other than that, it is possible neither film will win anything substantial, something that seemed somehow very unlikely just a few days ago.
Foxcatcher managed five major nominations, but it is just a placeholder, and a weird one at that. While it did not get nominated in the Best Picture category (which fielded eight this year, and had room for two more), it somehow—inexplicably—brought helmer Bennett Miller a Best Director nod at the expense of several higher-profile contenders—James Marsh (Theory), Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), David Fincher (Gone Girl), and of course, Ava DuVernay (Selma).
I’ll get to Clint Eastwood in just a sec…
Foxcatcher has felt weird to me all awards season. While I’m happy that Steve Carrel was nominated for Best Actor, I’ve always felt he should have been pushed in the Supporting category, where he would have had a legitimate chance of winning. And he was, after all, a supporting character in the film. The lead role in Foxcatcher belonged to Channing Tatum, and I am still somewhat shocked he wasn’t pushed for Best Actor. As good as Carrell and Mark Ruffalo are in Foxcatcher (and Ruffalo did garner a Supporting nod), this movie belongs to Tatum, who just nails it. This guy can act and I suspect he is going to be around for a long time. I’ve been perplexed all season that this performance wasn’t way above the awards radar.
Which finally brings me—drags me really, kicking and screaming, through the dirt—to American Sniper. I am going to reserve my personal opinions of the film for a future review; here, I am only concerned with…oh, what the hell, I didn’t like this film, and it doesn’t seem like many others liked all it that much either. It has very middling ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, the kind of numbers that say this film shouldn’t even be part of the Oscar conversation. For context, Chris Rock’s comedy Top Five scored significantly higher on both sites, which again present a very broad and reliable consensus of national film critics and journalists. Why, then, are we even talking about American Sniper now?
We’re talking about it because of Clint Eastwood, and well, because we’re still not ready to look in that mirror, the one that shows us the truth about both Selma and Iraq.
I’m not going to pick on Clint. He is one of our greatest directors and he has always had a true heart behind his work. His direction of American Sniper is slick and assured, even exhilarating in places. It is just a deeply conflicted story wrapped in a flag and a suburban snuggy, and, furthermore, all of the top-notch cinematography and sound design in the world still cannot cleanse us of our culpability in the moral failure that is the Iraq war.
Clint seems to not really understand the inherent logic with this one, but the academy treats him like radio used to treat Elton John, when even though it had been a decade since he wrote a good song there was still a permanent spot reserved for him in the Billboard top ten. And though American Sniper pulled down an impressive six nominations, it is extremely curious that Eastwood did not get a nom for Best Director—and I shudder to think it is because people were afraid of what he might say if he won.
But, outside of maybe a minor category such as Sound Editing, American Sniper isn’t going to win anything, and doesn’t deserve to, which again begs the question of why it is even there in the first place. It is hard not to think that voters just wanted it there more than they wanted Selma there—that they really would rather focus on a handsome guy with muscles and a big-ass gun than a brave minority who suffered for the cause of personal equality, social inclusion, and cultural transformation. This is just disheartening—all too predictable, yes, but very sad nonetheless.
The bottom line is that the average-at-best American Sniper’s cache of nominations came at the direct expense of Selma, Wild, Gone Girl and any number of other significant 2014 films and performances. This, I’m afraid, says much more about the state of our culture than many would like to admit.