This morning’s Oscar nominations brought the usual assortment of eye-rolling omissions and snubs, but as much as a 6000-strong body of middle-aged white man can do, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences are still capable of surprising us in good ways.
As much as you want to stereotype and condescend to the Academy, it’s an organization of varied and sometimes even progressive taste that is capable of voting for films other than stuffy biopics of British scientists (though they certainly enjoy doing just that ). So to restore your faith in the Oscar-voting body a little, here are the ten most pleasant surprises from the nominations today.
10. Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay nomination
One of the more divisive films of the past year (many Academy members reportedly hated it), “Inherent Vice” was generally deemed not to be an Oscar movie, even by the standards of Anderson’s previous film “The Master.” But clearly there’s a hardcore fanbase for the director within the Academy, as his film picked up both a Costume nomination and an Adapted Screenplay nod. Sure, some voters might have found the film impenetrable, but clearly enough respected both PTA’s reputation and the difficulty of his task in adapting a near-unfilmable Pynchon novel that he was able to crack the field (admittedly a rather weak one, but then again, he pushed out Gillian Flynn‘s widely admired “Gone Girl” script).
9. A strong year for Foreign & Documentary films
The Foreign-Language and Documentary categories can sometimes feel like a law onto themselves, throwing in seemingly random, obscure or just plain baffling nominations and wins. But various changes to the branches have been made in recent years, and to their credit the committees nailed it this year. Sure, they once more overlooked director Steve James (though “Life Itself” isn’t his most substantial film and appeals more to critics than to filmmakers), and “Force Majeure” proved too dark and sour for the Foreign Language lineup. But both categories are remarkably free of filler: only “Tangerines” feels a little slight in the Foreign category with “Leviathan” and “Ida” among the very best movies of the year, while every one of the five documentaries are terrific. Both categories arguably contain more value for your money than the Best Picture line-ups, and should be checked out forthwith.
8. “Beyond The Lights” in Best Original Song
Hardly anyone saw the undervalued romantic melodrama “Beyond The Lights” and the film’s total lack of momentum seemed to make a nomination unlikely. But the movie pulled an “Alone But Not Alone” and won a surprise nod for the Diane Warren-penned, Rita Ora-sung “Grateful.” Whether it encourages more people to see the film remains to be seen, but it’s good that we can now describe Gina Pryce-Bythewood‘s film as an Oscar nominee.
7. Gary Yershon’s “Mr. Turner” score
After being virtually passed over by BAFTA, most assumed Mike Leigh‘s “Mr. Turner” would hardly register with the Academy. Yet while the film was missing from big categories, it did well below-the-line, including most notably a nomination for Yershon, a first-time nominee. We thought Yershon’s score was decent without being overly memorable, but without many other options to vote for (“Birdman” was disqualified, Alexandre Desplat was already in there twice and “Under The Skin” was presumably too experimental for voter tastes), he clearly ticked the right boxes.
6. A cinematography nomination for “Ida”
The cinematography branch is becoming increasingly fond of throwing out curveballs: after surprising many last year with a nomination for “The Grandmaster,” a movie firmly not in the Oscar race in most categories, the group pulled one of the most deserving surprises this year with a nod for Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewiski‘s stunning, black-and-white ratio work on “Ida.” With tiny distributor Music Box Films behind it, the film had an uphill battle in getting much recognition beyond the Best Foreign Language category, but clearly the cinematographers branch saw the value in the work.
5. Laura Dern for “Wild”
Yeah, Supporting Actress was a weak category this year, but many thought that the fifth slot in a mostly locked-down field would go to Jessica Chastain in “A Most Violent Year” or Rene Russo in “Nightcrawler.” But in the end, the actors’ branch stayed away from dark crime fare and went for Laura Dern in “Wild.” The “Blue Velvet” star (previously nominated for “Rambling Rose” in 1991) had been on the fringes of conversation since Telluride, but many had thought that the character, who only appears in flashback, didn’t quite make enough of an impression and that the film only really held hope for Reese Witherspoon. It might be a little safer a picker than Chastain or Russo, but it’s a fine performance and it’s nice to see the Academy acknowledging Dern’s comeback, which has included “Enlightened” and “The Fault In Our Stars.”
4. Bradley Cooper and Steve Carell in Best Actor
There was always going to be heartache in the Best Actor race, with a list of contenders so strong that a performance as extraordinary as Ralph Fiennes‘ in “Grand Budapest Hotel” was deemed to be an outside chance (even if the movie tied “Birdman” in overall nominations). Someone was always going to lose out and in the end, it was Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler” and David Oyelowo in “Selma” with the pair replaced by Carell in “Foxcatcher” and Cooper for “American Sniper” (becoming the first actor to earn three nominations in a row since Russell Crowe). Cooper had relatively mild buzz at first, but the film snowballed in recent weeks, and despite being busy on Broadway with “The Elephant Man,” the actor made the cut for his dedicated (and weight-gain-aided) turn. Carell was less of a shock: he was always in the hunt, but certain misses for the film and BAFTA’s decision to move him to Supporting Actor made it rockier. We’re very pleased to see him in there.
3. Sound nominations for “Interstellar”
The two sound categories are among the most ignored by the general public, but this year probably caused a ton of eyebrows to be raised by nominating Christopher Nolan‘s “Interstellar.” Ordinarily, the idea of a Nolan movie winning beyond-the-line nods is hardly earth-shattering, but the sound mix was one of the most talked about aspects of the film. And not in a good way, with many claiming that portions of the film were inaudible and Nolan eventually having to defend his creative choices. Even if general audiences weren’t impressed, it seems like the sound artists were, as the film ended up with nods in both Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. Congratulations to (*DROWNED OUT BY HANS ZIMMERS’ CHURCH ORGAN*)
2. Marion Cotillard in Best Actress
Jullianne Moore, Felicity Jones, Rosamund Pike and Witherspoon had all been locked in since the end of September, but the fifth slot in the Best Actress race was much more open. Would it be be filled by the oft-nominated but never-winning Amy Adams for the Weinstein-aided “Big Eyes“? SAG-approved underdog Jennifer Aniston for “Cake?” Emily Blunt for “Into The Woods“? In the end, it was none of them. Aided by a genuine boost from critics’ groups (and a lack of other options to vote for), it was Cotillard for “Two Days, One Night.” We had assumed that if the actress couldn’t be nominated for the showier “Rust & Bone,” backed by Sony Pictures Classics and dedicated campaigning from the actress, a Dardennes-directed film released by Sundance Selects wouldn’t stand a chance (particularly when the film itself missed the Foreign Film shortlist). But clearly the work stood out for itself and it’s hugely pleasing to see Cotillard (who was one of our favorite performances of the year) in the lineup.
1. Bennett Miller’s directing nomination
In the days when there were only five Best Picture nominees, It used to be relatively common that you’d get directing nods for movies without a nomination for the big prize. Widening the field from 2009 onwards has lessened the likelihood as such, so it was something of a shock to see that Miller made the cut without a Best Picture nod for “Foxcatcher” —it’s the first time a director been given the nod for a non-Best Picture-nominated movie since Julian Schnabel in 2007. It not only shows the esteem in which the film is held, but also the high regard Miller is afforded by his colleagues (he’s friendly with everyone from Judd Apatow to Spike Jonze) and a testament to directors’ abilities to see work that can be invisible to many. (A win at Cannes probably didn’t hurt, either). It’s particularly surprising that Miller’s appearance came at the expense of Clint Eastwood, given the all-around strength of “American Sniper,” but we’re not complaining too much.