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How We’re Handling the Oscar Nominations: Explaining ‘Selma,’ ‘Lego’s’ Omissions, and Oscar’s One True Snub

How We're Handling the Oscar Nominations: Explaining 'Selma,' 'Lego's' Omissions, and Oscar's One True Snub

As they do every year, this morning’s Oscar nominations brought with them a smattering of joy, a wave of disappointment and a few heaping helpings of outrage. Not surprisingly, the near-total omission of Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” which received only two nominations, was top of the list: True, one of them was for Best Picture, but given that its only other nod was for Best Original Song, it’s a cinch that the movie wouldn’t have made one of the top slots if they were still limited to five.

But given that “Selma’s” omission in most major categories had been prefigured by its failure to make a dent in the precursors like the Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild awards, the biggest shock was the omission of Steve James’ “Life Itself,” which was considered the likely winner for much of last year, from the Best Documentary nominations. James has a long history of being snubbed by the Academy — for once, that much-abused word feels appropriate here — going back to “Hoop Dreams'” omission from the 1994 documentary noms. (Its nomination for Best Editing was widely seen as a rebuke of the documentary branch by the Academy at large.) “Hoop Dreams'” failure to win a nomination was, James told me last fall, was “the best thing that ever happened” to the movie; its distributor, Fine Line, was prepared to capitalize on the outrage, which it built to a nearly $8 million domestic gross. But its possible the documentary branch, which also passed over James’ “Stevie” in 2002 and “The Interrupters” in 2011, has never forgiven him for airing its dirty laundry, or that they couldn’t relate to a movie lionizing a critic, Roger Ebert, who may have done them wrong. It’s true that “Life Itself” is a more conventional documentary than James’ signature vérité work — it’s my fourth-favorite of his films, at most — but if conventional aesthetics were the issue, the blah “Virunga” and “Last Days in Vietnam” would not have been nominated in its place. “CITIZENFOUR” director Laura Poitras, who is all but assured of an eventual win, told Variety “Steve James should have been nominated,” and called “Life Itself’s” omission “a heartbreak.” 

Also raising plenty of brows: “The LEGO Movie,” which failed to break into the Best Animated Film category. (It did, like “Selma,” get a nomination for original song, so if everything it’s not awesome, it’s not entirely terrible.) More than any other category, the animation nominees tend to favor traditional modes of production — the Oscars are industry awards, after all, which is why the animation branch moved to preemptively disqualify Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” for not playing by their rules — but the nominations for “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” and “Song of the Sea” certainly indicated a willingness to look outside of Hollywood, and one of the last chances to honor traditional hand-drawn animation before the form dies out forever.

On the pleasant surprise front, Marion Cotillard — an overwhelming critics’ favorite in 2014 awards and polls; how’s that for “relevant“? — made the Best Actress cut for the Dardenne brothers’ “Two Days, One Night,” while Jennifer Aniston’s aggressive campaign for the largely unseen (and largely unseeable) “Cake” came up empty. The few critics who’ve been able to see the movie are split on the merits of her performance, but the campaign certainly felt like it was gaming the system, and it’s heartening to see it fail to bear fruit.

The statistics about the Academy’s overwhelming old, white and male voting body go a long way towards explaining their preferences: “Selma” may have taken some hits for historical inaccuracy, but considering the Academy’s love for “American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game” and “Foxcatcher,” it’s hard to argue fidelity is a major concern. Likewise, although few women were thought to be in contention for major categories (outside, of course, of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress) DuVernay’s absence from Best Director and Gillian Flynn’s from Best Adapted Screenplay (for “Gone Girl“) left those categories entirely dominated by white men. As NPR’s Linda Holmes wryly observed, “Today in our cafeteria, as at the Oscars, it is Sausage Thursday.”

Here are some of the best explanations for why the awards broke the way they did, as well as some of the most noteworthy reactions.

Todd VanDerWerff, Vox

The simple fact of the matter is that “Selma” was a film told from the perspective not of a white man, directed by a black woman, about events that are important to the history of black people in America, and that implicated white people in the horrors of the time and the ongoing horrors of racial relations in the country right now. Imagine if this movie’s point-of-view character were President Johnson. Or imagine if it were the exact same movie but directed by Clint Eastwood. Either version of that story would have racked up nomination after nomination. This one didn’t, and it shows just how far the Academy has to go before it truly diversifies.

Peter Knegt, Indiewire

For only the second time in almost 20 years, every single acting nominee this morning was white. David Oyelowo was really the only person expected to stop that from happening, but his snub gave the Oscar nominations one of many diversity question marks folks are likely to be talking about today. His “Selma” director Ava DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young were both not nominated as well, stopping historical nominations in those categories (DuVernay would have been the first woman of color to get a Best Director nod while Young would have been the first black nominee ever for Best Cinematography).

Scott Mendelson, Forbes

Ms. DuVernay directed one of the very best films of the year and has been lauded and celebrated accordingly for the last two months and yet she was shoved aside for at least a few contenders who were nowhere near as celebrated. There is a real chance that this terrific and towering achievement that highlights the profoundly heroic and blood-stained work of those who worked with and for Martin Luther King Jr. during the “Civil Rights Era” will be forever defined by the notion that it wasn’t nice enough to a powerful white guy in a supporting role.

Mark Harris, Grantland

The reason “Selma” didn’t perform better today — or, rather, the reason the Academy didn’t do better by Selma today — has a great deal to do with some infuriatingly mundane issues: release timing and campaign strategy. As I hope a lot of companies are realizing this morning, it is just about always a mistake to release a serious Oscar movie in the second half of December. The Selma campaign, faced with a movie that was not going to be ready until the last minute, made a set of decisions that were, I think, catastrophic. Chief among them, it opted to shrug off most of the guild awards and not send DVDs to their memberships (it wasn’t eligible for the WGA), missing many opportunities to build enthusiasm in the rank-and-file.

Anne Thompson, Thompson on Hollywood

“Selma” was finished late and hit the race late. Paramount’s screeners to the DGA, SAG and PGA were affected. Only AMPAS and the Broadcast Film Critics — whose entertaining awards show will be telecast live on A & E Thursday night — got screeners. More and more, late arrivals are at a disadvantage in terms of catching up with awards contenders — unless you are Clint Eastwood. 

Dan Kois,

This year’s Oscar nominees point to a certain idea about the overall worth of men’s stories versus those of women’s. As is true many years, most of the actors nominated for Best Actor appear in movies the academy deemed worth a Best Picture nod. And there among the Best Actress nominees is Reese Witherspoon, one of this year’s crop of great actresses giving performances good enough to be nominated for Best Actress, but not telling stories important enough, as far as the academy is concerned, to be nominated for Best Picture. (This despite the fact that Witherspoon’s costar, Laura Dern, also earned a nomination, for Best Supporting Actress.) Only one Best Actress nominee is in a Best Picture nominee; needless to say, it’s Felicity Jones, who’s playing the wife of a famous scientist.

Adam Sternbergh, Vulture

While it’s easy to be disheartened by single performances being overlooked, or apparently worthy films being undervalued, this season overall seems tremendously encouraging. Because if the ultimate message of this year’s awards carousel is “Keep doing what you’re doing. Do it with excellence. Don’t waver. Don’t be distracted. Recognition will eventually find you,” then that should be heartening to everyone involved — whether dogged visionaries, new discoveries with great work ahead of them, or simply an audience at home that appreciates the stubborn, irrational, persistent pursuit of art.

Richard Brody, New Yorker

In fact, the theme that emerges from most of this year’s nominees is that — at the very least — they did it their way. Whatever their merits, most of the Best Picture nominees are the result of directorial obstinacy, tenacity, and idiosyncrasy, even (as in the case of Clint Eastwood) sheer orneriness. For all the handwringing about the decline of the midrange (which is to say, studio) drama, drama is doing very well, showing audacity and distinctiveness in an age of independent productions.

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