My first foray in Oscar prognostication was… to be expected. Netting a ho-hum 66/104 in all the categories I predicted, I take some consolation in going 5/5 in the cinematography field, though getting massacred in the sound categories makes me wonder what the hell I should be listening for. Regardless, there were plenty of surprises that make this whole game worth playing. So while many may be preoccupied with the various snubs throughout the fields, I’ll take a “glass half-full route” and focus on the positives – my favorite citations of the year.
Best Documentary Feature: “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
The documentary branch, like the foreign language branch, has historically been a sour bunch of voters. And when films like The Interrupters, Into the Abyss, and Senna were deemed ineligible for an Academy Award, it left little hope for the remaining finalists in the field. Popular films that manage to make it on the initial shortlist rarely get to the final stage of voting – 2010’s critical darling, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is one of the few documentaries to have achieved such a feat. And what had handicapped Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger’s film from the start was a sense that the duo were on the outside looking in, as their previous pictures and association with HBO seemed to have exiled them from the rest of the branch. Whatever perception existed has officially been denounced with this pleasant nomination, as the conclusion to Berlinger and Sinofsky’s fascinating trilogy has not only secured them a nomination, but looks to have placed the two in contention to take the award.
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Rooney Mara for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
I had initially predicted Rooney Mara to score a nomination to the detriment of Glenn Close – unfortunately, Mara’s nomination seemed to have kicked Tilda Swinton out of the category. Despite the bittersweet nature of her nomination, I am glad that Mara managed to secure a nomination. Her performance was the best aspect of a film that could have easily been overwhelmed by David Fincher’s precise direction or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score. Her transformation made her virtually unrecognizable – watching a film like Tanner Hall a few days after seeing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo displays the sort of range she has as a leading actress.
Best Original Screenplay: “A Separation”
I haven’t seen A Separation yet, so my appreciation for this nomination comes from a different place. Every year or so, there’s typically one renowned foreign film that manages to speak to a larger social milieu. Unfortunately, the Academy has limited its progressive scope over the past few years. While Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon managed to secure a surprising cinematography nomination in 2009, there hasn’t really been a crossover success with the Academy since 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth. And with A Separaton, one of the most critically adored pictures of the year, the Academy has managed to nominate a foreign film outside of its alienating category. While the Academy hasn’t really stepped up as of late with a foreign film nominated in the Best Picture field, this sort of small step forward is, well, a small step forward.
Best Adapted Screenplay: “The Ides of March”
The whole deal with The Ides of March is a perplexing one. At one point considered a Best Picture favorite, the film slowly faded away following a lukewarm reaction from those at the Venice film festival. From there on in, The Ides of March carried an aura of disappointment. That initial tepid reaction had served to remove the picture entirely from the awards conversation, up until its strong showing at the Golden Globes. But even then, it simply could not shake that initial tepid debut. But in what could have been a strong awards play for Ryan Gosling, George Clooney (both as supporting actor and director), and Philip Seymour Hoffman have to settle for a single citation in the Best Adapted Screenplay field. Not that I’m complaining – it could have easily been shut entirely.
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Gary Oldman for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I am pleased that Gary Oldman has finally managed to secure an Oscar nomination. After decades of solid work, usually offering a twist and sense of nuance to eclectic characters, he finally received a nomination for his quiet and subdued work in Tomas Alfredson’s film. Looking back on his career, I look at his quirky work in Luc Besson’s Leon as his best performance. And while his nomination comes at the expense of one of two of my favorite performances of the year (Michael Fassbender in Shame and Michael Shannon in Take Shelter), his work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is certainly worth the notice.
Best Costume Design: “Jane Eyre”
There wasn’t going to be any hope for Jane Eyre in the best picture race. And acting nods for either Mia Wasikowska or Michael Fassbender were, to put it nicely, a long shot. The quiet film from earlier in the year was, like so many other early releases, going to be forgotten. But thanks to the rather eclectic taste of the costume design branch, the picture managed to survive its early release date and score a nomination for its corset-crunching and lavish garments. Sure, it would have been nice to see some more bold citations for the picture, but as it stands, spreading the wealth to a film like this is its own prize.
Best Director: Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
During his heyday in the 80s, it was fairly commonplace for Woody Allen to secure both a writing and directorial nomination. But ever since 1994’s Bullets over Broadway, Allen has been sidelined by the director’s branch, and often snubbed by the writing branch as well (his previous citation being 2005’s Match Point). And while Allen will undoubtedly cause us to question our reawakened interest in his work sooner or later, it’s nice to see the auteur once again recognized for his sharp wit and swift directorial ability. With reverence for cinema’s legacy becoming a popular theme this year (given the across-the-board nominations for The Artist and Hugo), it’s Allen who taps into a larger spectrum of nostalgia that I don’t think either Hazanavicius or Scorsese attain in their films.
Best Picture: “The Tree of Life”
The Tree of Life was always a bit on the fence in the Best Picture race. While grand in scope and a marvelous feat of filmmaking, the picture’s confounding nature prohibited widespread appeal. And with an early release date, the Palme d’Or winner was faced with a steep climb in the race. Would the film have been a nominee had it not been for the new voting system? It’s doubtful. But the picture touches upon an anxious social zeitgeist that, thankfully, enough passionate voters responded to.
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Demián Bichir, “A Better Life”
Demián Bichir was a dark horse amongst dark horses. Despite getting nominated by the Screen Actors Guild, most prognosticators dismissed his nomination as softness on behalf of the actor’s branch, perhaps as a residual effect of A Better Life being the first screen released to voting members of the Academy. And with few critical citations, Bichir just wasn’t on anyone’s mind. Of course, his nomination took many by surprise, but I’m glad it happened. The actor gave a very subdued and naturalistic performance, and stood as one of my favorite performances of the year – it’s by far my favorite performance in the category. While his chances of winning are minimal, the mere fact that he’s nominated amongst mega stars like George Clooney and Brad Pitt means that performances can carry their weight, no matter the name behind it.
Best Director: Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”
When David Fincher was cited by the Director’s Guild for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at the expense of Terrence Malick, the general sense was that it was over. With The Artist and Hugo obtaining a majority of attention from the guild and critics, the idea that Malick and The Tree of Life would get nominated in anything other than cinematography seemed unlikely. But then it happened. Having the picture and auteur recognized for such a remarkable accomplishment washes away any sense of dissatisfaction I might have had for other snubs.
While a film like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close get the ire of various publications and blogs for its mention, few recognize what they can champion in a race. Not to be dismissive of other films, but I could care less as to what poorly received film gets nominated - it’s basically a tradeoff. For every The Tree of Life or Midnight in Paris that is nominated, there’s a War Horse. And well, I’m pretty sure the opposite holds true for others.