This week, we want to deal with something that's been bugging us a little, and not just this year, but for the last few years. Every January, a familiar, but slightly different mantra is repeated around the internet: "I can't believe [insert critically-reviled blockbuster] has got an Oscar nomination, and [insert cinephile favorite] doesn't have any!" And it's understandable. It's hard to feel good about the process when, like this year, "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon," "W.E," "Real Steel" and "Anonymous" can all count themselves as Oscar-nominated films, and "Shame," "Rampart," "We Need To Talk About Kevin," "Melancholia," "Young Adult" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" missed out entirely.
But here's the thing. We'd certainly like any of the latter selection to have picked up nods, but that doesn't mean that the other films weren't deserving as well. There's one Best Picture category, and had "W.E." made it in there, then we'd have been as angry as anyone. But it didn't. The Academy celebrates 'Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,' and deserving films in particular categories are often films that were lacking in other areas.
Take a look at recent films whose nominations caused horror among film fans: "Norbit," "Across The Universe," "Wanted," "The Tempest," "Salt." And even films that won their category: "The Golden Compass." "The Wolfman." "Alice In Wonderland." Dreadful films, every one. But for the most part, it's hard to argue that Rick Baker's makeup, or Colleen Atwood's costumes, or the sound mixing on the Angelina Jolie actioners, were not among the very best examples of their particular category in each year.
And so it goes this year. "Anonymous" might have been a ludicrous mess, but it's hard to argue that the recreations of Elizabethan London in German film studios wasn't hugely impressive. "Real Steel" may have been a robot boxing movie, but one can't deny that the blend of CGI and practical effects was far more impressive a visual trick as anything in "Hugo." No one (bar perhaps Madonna) is saying that "W.E." is a masterpiece — indeed, this writer gave it an F grade in his review — but few films had such stylishly-turned-out characters, so surely Arianne Philips deserves a nomination?
And then there's "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon," which managed not one, but three nominations. We loathe the "Transformers" films with every fibre of our being; they're charm-free, noisy, CGI-driven explosion fests. But those noises are impeccably put together, and that CGI is as convincing as anything ever seen on cinema screens. A $250 million budget buys you the very best collaborators, and especially when the film is in the hands of a director as technically gifted as Michael Bay, it's no surprise it turned out some of the best work in particular categories. It's not like it was competing in the same category as "Young Adult."
This doesn't just apply to the blockbusters, either. This writer was by no means a fan of "The Help," a patronizing TV movie that felt about five hours long. But to say that is not to take away from the quality of the performances of Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain who all firmly deserve their Oscar nominations. Indeed, few other films in 2011 had such a strong ensemble. And one suspects that, by failing to nominate it in any below-the-line categories, many Academy members felt the same as we did.
But the real problem comes when a film does sweep across the board — when the individual branches stop voting with their technical know-how, and just vote for the film they liked the most. We can see why "Hugo" pushed the right buttons, but John Logan's oddly-structured, languidly paced script is the big weak link, and few could argue that it deserves to be in there more than Hossein Amini's work on "Drive," which arguably improves on the source material. Does use of Old Hollywood locations in "The Artist" honestly feel superior to Maria Djurkovic's immaculately detailed art direction on "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?" Do Janusz Kaminski's shots in "War Horse" push the medium forward as much as Sean Bobbitt's on "Shame?" And what editor of any real know-how can hold their hand up and say that "The Descendants" is better cut, on both a micro and macro level, than "Martha Marcy May Marlene"?
The fact is, 'Oscar movies,' as a type, will always play better with voters than some dark indie or stylish ground-breaker, regardless of whether they're deserving or not. If these awards were decided on merit, last year's Editing Oscar would have been won by the near-revolutionary work on "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," which wasn't nominated. Instead, "Midnight In Paris" gets a heap of nominations for being a slight improvement on most of Woody Allen's recent output. The Academy Awards are not fair, and never will be, but it's not "Transformers" that you should be pointing the blame at.