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Decoding the Academy Award Nominations

The winners. The losers. The truly, deeply weird. And what happens next.

One of the more bracing aspects of Oscar-nomination morning is that it represents the moment at which, after months of chatter and quarrel, the narratives we’ve so assiduously constructed crash into reality, and reality always wins. Sometimes that can be frustrating. In theaters, 2013 may have been, in some ways, “the year of the black movie,” but in the Academy, it turned out to be the year of a black movie, with 12 Years a Slave scoring nine nominations, and The Butler and Fruitvale Station completely shut out. This does not mean that the Academy is racist, but it’s certainly a reminder, as if any were needed, that the Academy is white.1

It’s a challenging moment for both the institution itself, which has striven mightily and with some success in the last decade to diversify its ranks but still has a long way to go, and for its critics, who shouldn’t be too quick to suggest insidious reasons for the underperformance of a couple of challenging movies in a highly competitive year. It’s also a reminder that for all of our guesswork, when it comes to figuring out why Oscar voters vote the way they do, we actually don’t know very much. All that lifetime achievement/Sundance hero/underrecognized-actor sentiment that was going to propel Robert Redford to his first Best Actor nomination in 40 years? Didn’t happen. The irresistible likability of Tom Hanks and the undeniable star power of Oprah Winfrey? Resistible and deniable. The certainty that Oscar voters are little more than a bunch of self-regarding old folks who could not possibly pass up the chance to reward a movie that flattered them and their history as diligently as Saving Mr. Banks did? The movie was shut out of every single category where it was thought to have a chance — even Best Actress, in which Emma Thompson was thought to have more than a chance. Although the nominations are, as always, a mixed bag, the bad guesses that some of us made are good news: It’s always a pleasure to discover we don’t know quite as much about the Academy’s tastes, which shift slightly every year as new members replace old, as we imagined we did.

OK, enough preamble. Let’s dive deeper with a full and fearless accounting.

Where I Went Wrong

I’m proud — well, proudish — to have gotten 35 out of 44 nominees correct. In Best Picture, a category that will field nine nominees for the third consecutive year, I guessed seven of the eight correctly and called Dallas Buyers Club, which came on very strong late in the season and received six nominations today, as the possible ninth. My mistake: Glumly insisting that Saving Mr. Banks would sneak in. That slot went to Philomena, which got four nominations and gave Harvey Weinstein one of his few reasons to smile today. The mildly surprising success of those two films is a reminder that the allure of the old-fashioned issue movie — AIDS in one case, the Catholic Church in the other — is never to be underestimated.

I went 4-for-5 in Best Director, assuming, or perhaps hoping, that the Academy would depart from the DGA by giving a slot to Spike Jonze for Her. Although that fifth nomination went to the very deserving Alexander Payne for Nebraska (which scored six nominations), Jonze won’t be complaining today: He’s a triple nominee (for producing, screenwriting, and, delightfully, for Best Original Song), and his gorgeous, thoughtful, and delicate movie did what many doubted it could and landed a Best Picture nomination.

Like many prognosticators, I correctly guessed that Captain Phillips’s thoughtful and proficient director, Paul Greengrass, a DGA nominee, might end up as the odd man out. I thought that the movie’s star would have better luck, but, in a dense and difficult Best Actor race, the extraordinary last 10 minutes of Hanks’s performance weren’t quite enough to get him into the field, and Redford’s one-man show also left voters cold (in the DVD screener era, movies you have to watch and not just listen to while doing something else are at a disadvantage). I’m not sure what the moral of that story is except that in the future, actors who want an Oscar nomination should probably stay far away from Maersk shipping containers. Hanks and Redford’s spots went to Leonardo DiCaprio, whom I had right on the edge, and Christian Bale, who was more of a surprise and the beneficiary of what is clearly immense Academy affection for American Hustle (which, along with Gravity, led the field with 10 nominations apiece, just ahead of 12 Years a Slave, which has nine). As for DiCaprio, the nomination — his fourth overall, and one of five that The Wolf of Wall Street received — puts to rest another false Oscar narrative, which is that the movie was too rough and dirty for Academy voters.

My sixth choice in the Best Actress race, Hustle’s Amy Adams, made it into the final five with her fifth nomination in nine years; look for a potentially powerful “It’s time” narrative to start building among those who don’t want this to turn into a Cate Blanchett walkover. I thought that if Adams elbowed anyone aside, it would probably be August: Osage County’s Meryl Streep; instead, it was Emma Thompson. I missed two of the Best Supporting Actor nominees, believing that the Academy might honor Rush’s Daniel Brühl and Enough Said’s James Gandolfini (Enough Said and Fruitvale Station are the two most richly deserving American movies to have been completely shut out today). Those slots went to the guy I had in sixth place, American Hustle’s Bradley Cooper, and The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jonah Hill. I got four of the five Best Supporting Actress nominees correct, fearing but not predicting Oprah Winfrey’s omission; her spot went to Blue Jasmine’s Sally Hawkins. And I got nine of the 10 writing nominees correct; although I felt all along that this was not going to be a good day for Inside Llewyn Davis, I thought that a consolatory Best Original Screenplay nomination for the Coens might be in the cards. Instead, that spot went to Dallas Buyers Club.

Winners and Losers

If Focus Features still existed in its James Schamus art-film iteration (it’s been overhauled and reconceived as a genre-film distributor), they’d be opening champagne there today: Dallas Buyers Club got the kind of red-meat nominations — not just Picture, but Actor for Matthew McConaughey (his first) and Supporting Actor for Jared Leto — that make people want to catch up with a movie. Nebraska and Her still haven’t cracked $10 million at the box office, and being able to trumpet Best Picture nominations can only help over the next six weeks (they’re the least seen of the nine contenders). American Hustle’s great overall performance and Gravity’s rock-solid showing in every tech category will add fuel to the notion that there’s a three-way race for Best Picture, but 12 Years a Slave did what it needed to do today, scoring recognition in every important category. (Look at Best Editing, a traditional bellwether for Academy affection and respect; the contenders are those three movies, plus Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips.)

On the grim side: The Oscar story for Saving Mr. Banks screeched to a halt today; its single nomination was for Best Original Score. The campaign for Inside Llewyn Davis was spirited and creative, but this was always more of a critics’ picture than an Academy movie, and its two nominations, for cinematography and sound mixing, are cold comfort. As I mentioned earlier, this was not a great season for the Weinstein Company, which had a lot of potential players that either peaked too soon or never peaked at all. Besides Fruitvale Station and The Butler, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom got just one nomination, for Best Original Song (see you at the Oscars, Bono!). And August: Osage County turned out to be the classic Oscar-contender-on-paper, and a reminder that execution counts. The movie got nominations for Streep and Julia Roberts, which helps; it could easily have done worse.

The Weird

Longtime Oscar buffs — I mean people who routinely dig around in nomination lists from decades past — will note with delight the revival of a cherished Oscar tradition this year: the nomination of a song from a movie you didn’t know existed. Congratulations, “Alone Yet Not Alone (Theme From Alone Yet Not Alone)” — you are the movie that had all of us racing to IMDb this morning.2 How obscure is this pre–Revolutionary War Christian religious drama that stars nobody you’ve ever heard of? So obscure that IMDb does not list a distributor, and it appears not to have had an official opening in New York.

Also weird: The documentary branch, and not in a good way. There’s no such thing as objective injustice in the Oscar nominations, but it is mind-blowing to me that documentary filmmakers could not look at Sarah Polley’s long-listed Stories We Tell and see its originality and deep intelligence. Bad, bad call. I won’t name names today, but suffice it to say that I’ve seen the nominees and … there was room for this film. Weird but better: the animation branch. As expected, they nominated the massive hits Despicable Me 2 and Frozen and the actually-quite-funny The Croods, but they also showed themselves willing, not for the first time, to reach outside the studio mainstream to honor Hayao Miyazaki’s valedictory film The Wind Rises and the tiny Ernest & Celestine, a movie a lot of Oscar voters will now want to catch up with.

Records and Stats

Jonze, as I mentioned above, is a triple nominee, as is Gravity’s producer-director-editor Alfonso Cuarón, but equally impressively, David O. Russell not only picked up his fourth and fifth personal nominations today (for co-writing and directing American Hustle) but extended a rather stunning Oscar streak: His last three movies (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle) have yielded a total of 11 Oscar-nominated performances, and today he became the first director to hit for the cycle with acting nominations in all four categories for two movies in a row. Eight of the 20 acting nominees are first-timers, and of those eight, five — Barkhad Abdi, Sally Hawkins, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender — were born outside the United States. A sixth, Nebraska’s June Squibb, becomes the third-oldest acting nominee in Oscar history (she celebrated her 84th birthday on November 6).

Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Amy Adams are all acting nominees from last year who will be returning to the Oscars as nominees this year. This was also a great morning for actors in non-acting categories: Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke each picked up their second nominations as writers (for Before Midnight), Steve Coogan is a double nominee (as writer and producer of Philomena), and Brad Pitt grabbed his fifth nomination overall and second as the producer of a Best Picture nominee for 12 Years a Slave.

Among all-timers, Streep extended what is beginning to feel like a record that may never be broken with her 18th acting nomination (no other living actor, male or female, has more than 12). John Williams’s Best Original Score nomination for The Book Thief is his 49th; Woody Allen’s screenwriting nomination for Blue Jasmine is his 24th overall. Martin Scorsese’s nomination for The Wolf of Wall Street is his eighth for directing, which moves him into a tie with Billy Wilder; only William Wyler ever did better (he got 12). Finally, kudos and an awed bow to producer/financier Megan Ellison, who is represented in the top category by both Her and American Hustle, also picked up a pair of nominations for The Grandmaster, and has now put the Annapurna logo on five movies that have scored a total of 25 nominations in two years.

What Happens Next

Look for some fierce campaigning for Best Actor, which suddenly feels like an open race. Look for backlash against Dallas Buyers Club; McConaughey and Leto didn’t make great impressions with their Golden Globe speeches, and complaints about the movie’s departures from reality,3 which have been relatively quiet so far, are, I think, about to get a little noisier. Look for each of the three serious Best Picture contenders to make their case — 12 Years a Slave as the important movie, American Hustle as the great piece of popular entertainment, and Gravity as the brief for what only movies and money and Hollywood can do and TV will never be able to touch. Oh, and look for Pharrell Williams at the Oscars. He wrote “Happy,” the Best Song nominee from Despicable Me 2, and a win would take him halfway to an EGOT!

Filed Under: Movies, Oscars, Academy Awards

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