The Oscar nominations were announced earlier today. And here’s my quick reactions.
● Three of the 5 Best Picture nominees are among my 10 Best for the year, and 1 of the 2 that aren’t heads my list of runners-up. Four of 11 — NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, ATONEMENT and THERE WILL BE BLOOD, plus JUNO. And of the other 7 favorites of 2007, 3 are foreign films that one cannot expect to be top dogs at the US industry honors (which is what the Oscars are). And while I don’t think the fifth nominated film (MICHAEL CLAYTON) is that good (5 grade), it’s no CRASH and I don’t think it’s considered widely to be a front-runner to win anyway. So I am almost guaranteed to be reasonably happy on Oscar night — the Best Picture winner is near-certain to be a worthy film.
That. Does. Not. Happen.
My tastes are not the Academy’s and I don’t discriminate against comic clowning (see the film at #2 this year), small-studio/indy films and foreign films. In fact, this has never happened. I did a quick glance over the Best Picture nominees for the last 20 years earlier today, and found that that never in the entire period where I can say I have followed movies closely had 3 of my Top 10 been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.¹ In most of those 20 years prior to today, it’s been 0 or 1. Depending on how you slice my lists, the 100 films nominated for Best Picture Oscar, just 22 (or 24 … see footnote) have grabbed one of the 200 available slots on my 10 Best list — an average of barely 1 per year.
So I congratulate the Academy on my tastes. I hope it’s simply that the best English-language films of the year so clearly declared themselves, that there was no denying them. But undoubtedly part of the reason is that some of the fall prestige or semi-blockbuster films that might have looked like potential Oscar-Baition™, fizzled at the box office and/or generated poor or little critical buzz. After all, it’s not as if the Coen Brothers and PT Anderson have been big AMPAS locks in the past (this is only Wright and Reitman’s second films). I’m thinking most of THE GOLDEN COMPASS and the ELIZABETH sequel, and to a lesser extent SWEENEY TODD and BEOWULF, plus such potential breakout films as BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD and all the anti-war films, from RENDITION and LIONS FOR LAMBS to REDACTED and GRACE IS GONE.
● PERSEPOLIS received ample compensation for its snub in the Foreign-Film race (more on that below) by getting a nomination for Best Animated Film. It’ll lose to RATATOUILLE, of course (not that I’m saying that would be a travesty of judgment). But the nomination at this moment will help PERSEPOLIS, since it was released just a couple of weeks ago in the top few cities and is now spreading around the country. I hope Sony Classics has gold-statue emblazoned posters ready. This is a case of the principal reason the Oscars matter to me … as a way of raising the public profile of small films (even small English-language films) that are good enough and accessible enough to satisfy a broader audience than the one that habitually keeps abreast of such movies. PERSEPOLIS is such a film.
● I probably shouldn’t be surprised that Amy Ryan got a deserved Supporting Actress nomination for GONE BABY GONE — she won a bunch of critics awards and was nominated by the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. But Ben Affleck’s film, good though it was, flamed out at the box office, and, Ryan aside, was pretty much overlooked by critics and award-givers. But I feared a surprise snub (though playing a trashy tramp always helps an actress).
● Though I was obviously disappointed that neither of ATONEMENT’s two leading actors were nominated, I was happy that the actual best performance in the film was — Saoirse Ronan as the pre-teen Briony in the film’s first section, who commits the sin that originates the film’s moral universe, like Adam and Eve in the Garden. She exudes childish willfulness — that toxic mixture of precociousness, thinking she’s an adult while not having the experience of an adult, and preciousness, a spoiled certainty that one is in the right come what may, especially when others have to bear what comes. The person with whom I saw the film the second time could hardly restrain his hatred for Briony throughout the second act, audibly talking to himself — a testament to her creation in the first act.
● This was known a week ago, but the foreign-films nominations are a scandal, not in terms of what was nominated (of which I cannot speak since I’ve seen none of them, and I certainly hope they’re worthy), but in terms on what was not nominated. Look … I well understand that Mexico’s SILENT LIGHT and Sweden’s YOU THE LIVING were no-hopers with the Academy. Both films are great but so stylistically eccentric that I can’t really be surprised. Just being submitted by their country is all the victory they could expect. But wth happened with several films that looked far more in line with Academy tastes but didn’t even make the “semi-final” cut of nine films from which the five nominees are chosen. This article in the Washington Post by Ann Hornaday centers most of its (justified) outrage on the snubs of France (PERSEPOLIS) and Romania (4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS), to which I would add Germany (THE EDGE OF HEAVEN) and South Korea (SECRET SUNSHINE). All four films, in my opinion, were worthy and the right kind of film to win some props. And these films were completely passed over even for the semi-finals in favor of films about which I’ve heard little critical buzz except from fellow TIFFgoer and Academy member Ken Rudolph. But Ken had the good taste to recognize the awesomeness of the right films (except Andersson) … though he does make the Polish finalist KATYN and Serbian semi-finalist THE TRAP sound appetizing and, to a lesser extent (to me), does the same for the Israeli and Austrian finalists, BEAUFORT and THE COUNTERFEITERS. Still, the bright spot is noted in Hornaday’s article:
Whatever the reasons, [chairman Mark] Johnson avers, the process is clearly in need of tinkering. He intends to approach the Academy’s Board of Governors, which oversees rule changes, soon after the awards ceremony on Feb. 24. “I think we have to do some kind of radical change and hopefully we can come up with a system that works better,” Johnson said.
● I’ve not seen NORBIT, but I still feel confident saying it was one of the worst films of the year. A defensible film doesn’t score 9 percent at Rotten Tomatoes (the same score as LEONARD PART 6 and lower than CATWOMAN). But now … this phrase is accurate: “Academy-Award Nominee NORBIT.” Yes. The makeup people voted for it. I can understand somewhat … the stills make it clear that this was a big makeup job … but does quality of the film have NO role? Shouldn’t technical people take enough pride in their work to hate to see such herculean efforts and creativity wasted on a widely-reviled punchline and all-time turkey? Were there no other films with impressive makeup that did honor to it (there were only three nominees to fill out after all)? What about SWEENEY TODD for eccentric transformations of actors; GRINDHOUSE for the prosthetic gore; I’M NOT THERE or even WALK HARD for all the various “Dylan looks” or “Dewey looks” without (in the former case) simply replicating the actors’ natural looks; HAIRSPRAY if you want to honor fat suits; or ZODIAC or TALK TO ME for people aging over the years? Did Viggo’s tattoos in EASTERN PROMISES count as makeup? Is this worse than “Academy-Award Nominee MANNEQUIN” and (speaking of Eddie Murphy) “Academy-Award Nominee BEVERLY HILLS COP 2” (in the same year and category, no less)?
● The snub of Jonny Greenwood for THERE WILL BE BLOOD, which is simply the most memorable and certainly eclectic dramatic score (i.e., no songs, not a musical) that I can recall in the past several years. Academy rules kept him out as ineligible because the score was too unoriginal. (The late timing of the announcement was crap, regardless.) I understand the problem of dramatic scores competing against song scores or the known-reaction quantities of existing music. So there have to be rules about what’s an original score. But surely it’s relevant to the spirit of the law that a large part of the pre-existing score was (1) Greenwood’s own previous work and (2) hadn’t been used in a movie. As one of the commentators at Variety noted: “And by this standard, Santaollalla’s score for Babel was eligible how, exactly?” And, similar to the makeup folly (and the original songs noted there too), technical awards can’t rationally ignore completely the function they play in the movie. After all, they’re not technically honoring music per se (that’s what the Grammys and similar awards are for), but the use of music in motion pictures. Regardless of anything else about the not-written-for-the-film music … only a deaf man could avoid the insight that Anderson and Greenwood’s use of the music is original to the film and not simply borrowed majesty.
● I understand that Javier Bardem’s got the “showy” role in the Coens’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. He’s the Supporting Actor front-runner and deserves to be. But can a guy get nominated for … well … a naturalistic performance that actually carries the film from moment to moment as its principal audience identification figure. Being a corrupted innocent playing in waters too rough for him but believing he can get away with his relatively-minor sin and escape judgment with enough guile (i.e., all of us, in some sense). Sorry, Josh Brolin … apparently not.
● Why was anybody impressed by the Cuisinart editing of THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM? “Most editing” I could get behind … gawdknows the editor cuts, cuts, cuts away like Sweeney Todd with ADD. ULTIMATUM is a perfect example of a film edited to death. Or as I wrote here, in surprisingly substantial agreement with Atkinson (his political asides aside):
is some supposed anti-Bush subtext about gov’t surveillance and secret skullduggery supposed to hide the fact that you literally cannot make head nor tail of what is happening. … No coherent space emerges for any of the three main set pieces — Waterloo Station, Tangier foot chase and New York car chase. And so all we see is large metal objects crashing into one another, fists flying somewhere (where was Tony Jaa when you need him), all manipulated by characters that are complete robots despite being made of too-too-solid flesh … this isn’t a movie; this is a big-screen video game, with cutaways to the players “onstage.”
¹ For the stat geek, these are the number of Best Picture nominees on my Ten Best list for that year: 2006-0; 2005-0/1; 2004-1; 2003-1; 2002-2*; 2001-1; 2000-1; 1999-0; 1998-2; 1997-0; 1996-2; 1995-2; 1994-1; 1993-1*; 1992-2; 1991-2; 1990-1/2; 1989-2*; 1988-0; 1987-1*.
The asterisked years are those in which one of my 10 Best also won Best Picture (CHICAGO, SCHINDLER’S LIST, DRIVING MISS DAISY and THE LAST EMPEROR).
The multiple figures for 1990 and 2005 reflect a film among my Top 10 on Oscar night but not on it now (THE GODFATHER 3 and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN). In both cases, it was not a demotion of that film, but the promotion of other movies either seen later or growing from repeat viewings and edging it down to #11 or #12 (METROPOLITAN and MAY FOOLS in the first instance, and SARABAND and MILLIONS in the latter).