The Oscar Nominations: Outside “Llewyn Davis,” Little to Complain About

Hemsworth

First, some obligatory awards season perspective: the Oscars don’t matter to you. You’re allowed to like a movie whether it was nominated for Best Picture or not. You are your own Oscars.

If that’s the case, why do we get so worked up about snubs and surprises and predictions and hopes and dreams? We want to see quality work recognized. The Academy Awards are one of the most common starting points for someone looking at the films of a particular year. If the awards don’t reflect the best movies, they’ll provide an inaccurate reflection of what we thought about film in 2013.

Nonetheless, complaining about the Oscar nominations is futile. It’s better to look at them as a starting point for discussions about the merits of movies. In that spirit, I’ve chosen four nominated-related things that made me happy this morning, and four that made me less than happy. Let’s use this list as a way of talking about movies, not awards.

(For more of my thoughts on the subject, stay tuned for this week’s episode of The M&M Report, in which Devin Mitchell and I will talk in depth about the year in movies.)


Yay

Nine best picture nominees and nary a stinker in the bunch. I haven’t seen Her or Philomena yet, but few have argued that they’re undeserving of consideration in this coveted field. And I liked or loved all seyen of the nominees I have seen. They’re diverse in tone, from the grim historical realism of 12 Years a Slave to the rollicking excess of American Hustle. Their ambitions range from visual grandeur (Gravity) to feats of performance (Dallas Buyers Club) and even a commentary on How We Live Now (Her). There’s an impassioned stately drama (Philomena), a riveting thriller (Captain Phillips), a subtle family dramedy (Nebraska) and a hedonistic romp (The Wolf of Wall Street). These nine films succeed in representing the scope of American cinema in the last 12 months.

(I’ll admit that if Saving Mr. Banks had been nominated, I would have been less enthusiastic. I liked the movie well enough, but it didn’t strike me as a particularly noteworthy cinematic achievement.)

Pharrell’s “Happy” makes me happy, and I’m not the only one. Though I’m disappointed that thee songs from Inside Llewyn Davis were disqualified and that Taylor Swift failed to make the cut, the Best Original Song category contains several delights, including the full-throated empowerment of “Let It Go” from Frozen and particularly the exuberant charm of “Happy,” the closing song for the phenomenally popular Despicable Me 2. Maybe Pharrell’s 24-hour dancefest put the song over the top. Whatever the reason, I’m “happy,” and Pharrell must be too – his phenomenal 2013 yielded Grammy and Oscar nominations and a record deal for a soon-to-be-released solo album. No wonder he’s so “happy.”

Before Midnight is an Oscar nominee. Thank goodness. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy ranks among the finest long-form achievements in film history. Though it deserved more recognition, including a Best Actress nod for the remarkably gifted Julie Delpy, the Best Adapted Screenplay nomination incorporates the director and his stars, who collaborated together to achieve the lived-in honesty of the film’s fractured romance. Truer and deeper explorations of relationships are hard to find.

The Oscars’ love for Amy Adams knows no bounds, and I’m not far behind. Though I initially left American Hustle thinking that Bradley Cooper’s performance had dazzled me most thoroughly, Adams’ voluptuous turn has stuck with me the longest. She oozes sexuality and confidence, hiding several layers of insecurity and identity confusion underneath. Even when Sydney stands around watching Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale do the “dirty work,” you can see the gears in her brain whirring. I refuse to accept the Jennifer Lawrence backlash, but if an actress from American Hustle wins, I hope it’s Adams.

Nay

Inside Llewyn Davis, we hardly knew ya. Despite the Academy’s longstanding affection for the Coen Brothers, this prickly but deeply satisfying tale of stalled artistry in 1960s New York deserved to be front and center in these nominations, not relegated to the Cinematography and Sound Mixing categories. In particular, Oscar Isaac’s masterful performance and the Coens’ fluid direction deserved recognition. Alas, it’s first on my list of “snubs” (a misnomer, given that the Academy chooses its favorites without actively opposing the rest.)

A blessedly crowded Best Actor field left worthy candidates in the dust. Though the actress categories had fewer immediately noteworthy contenders, this year’s Best Actor field has to be one of the deepest in a long while. I can’t quibble with Bale, Dern, Ejiofor, McConaughey or DiCaprio (who many predicted would fall short). But this list of five leaves out Tom Hanks and Robert Redford, both of whom were expected to be shoo-ins at least early on. (Redford avoided excessive campaigning for a nomination, in contrast to nominated actors like Dern and McConaughey. Politics, man.) And we can’t forget about Joaquin Phoenix, Michael B. Jordan, Oscar Isaac, Forest Whitaker and Idris Elba. That’s another full category right there.

The fall of Pixar is depressing. Monsters University was a straightforward animated comedy for kids that hit nearly every one of the right notes. It lacked the poetry of Pixar’s most beloved recent classics (Wall-E, Up, Ratatouille), but it had sharp humor, memorable characters, clever sight gags, an engaging plot and some surprising thematic depth. Those qualities and the Pixar brand would have been enough for an Oscar nomination a few years ago, but Pixar’s reputation has sunk. Instead, the Best Animated Feature category includes The Croods and Despicable Me 2. I haven’t seen either, so I can’t really weigh in, but I would have liked to see Pixar return to the category.

The Best Original Song category was hijacked by bribery. Yep, that’s right. An obscure nominee turns out to be the likely product of a not-so-transparent campaign for attention from a governer of the Motion Picture Academy. Just another reason to treat the Oscars with a healthy amount of skepticism.

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