“Awards shmwards. But I’m still disappointed.”
So said one industry member on the phone today after today’s Oscar nominations. This was not a knock on the considerable excitement surrounding the triumph of “Boyhood,” a supremely unconventional movie Hollywood would never make that received six nominations from the town’s biggest annual event. Nor was there much grumbling about the volume of support for Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which scored nine deserving nominations. In both cases, the directors delivered not only their best work but paragons of the appeal they had developed over the decades. Nearly a year ago, Anderson and Linklater both won top prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival; the Oscar nominations brought a different, but related form of validation — proof that the insular world of the film festival circuit and sensibilities beyond it are not always so far apart.
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Needless to say, it wasn’t all a total letdown. However, several notable omissions left more than a few contenders in a state of disappointment today. Let us now praise the ones that deserve it.
A Miraculous Tribute
The absence of “Life Itself,” one of several awards season contenders left out of the fray, carried the sting of unexpected failure. As my colleague Peter Knegt wrote, the Academy has snubbed countless formidable achievements over the decades, from “Vertigo” to “Blue Velvet.” Nevertheless, “Life Itself” seemed to follow a trajectory similar to “Boyhood”: It landed to great acclaim at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and found distribution shortly afterward; like Linklater, director Steve James has been recognized for his achievements in the past but hasn’t been considered a serious Oscar contender since “Hoop Dreams.” (His previous feature, the brilliant portrait of anti-violence activists “The Interrupters,” wasn’t even shortlisted.) While the late arrival of Laura Poitras’ “CITIZENFOUR” seemed to upstage “Life Itself” as a frontrunner, James’ emotionally stirring tribute to Roger Ebert’s legacy never dropped out of the conversation.
And here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to drop out of the conversation. If anything, today’s nominations eliminate the onus of conversations that tend to hijack the real reasons to care about any of these movies. “Life Itself” is a considerable accomplishment for James in that it tackles a topic that in the hands of a lesser director might feel too hagiographic or maudlin and instead offers a shrewd look at intellectual prowess. The movie works on a number of levels: It’s a story of how the world’s most famous critic got that way, vis-á-vis a history of American media in the latter half of the 20th century, but it’s also a love story and a stirring depiction of perseverance in the face of a terminal disease. James captured Ebert on his death bed and found a triumphant character in spite of his grim prognosis.
Cancer movies are tough to pull off without pandering to audiences’ sentimental weak spots, but “Life Itself” manages to do so in congress with a delicate mixture of humor and philosophical inquiry about the nature of being alive. Ebert’s legacy was already assured, but “Life Itself” goes beyond saluting a famous name and explores minutae of his personality. It’s a movie about the interplay of ideas and humanity. You should watch it and you can, right now, on various digital platforms. Nominations don’t need to make that happen.
Relationships Up Close
Likewise, Swedish director Ruben Ostlund should not have to land in the foreign language Oscar category to give people a reason to see “Force Majeure.” Currently the subject of a career retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, Ostlund’s four features delve into the mysteries of human behavior from a variety of innovative perspectives. While “Force Majeure” lacks the nuanced treatment of historical identity on display in deserving foreign language frontrunner “Ida,” it features a similarly haunting look at the unspeakable dimensions of troubled relationships. Exclusively set on a ski trip gone wrong, when a man inadvertently abandons his family during an avalanche and must deal with his wife’s disdain in its aftermath, Ostland’s story manages a tricky balance between grim drama and black comedy. The recurring use of snowy landscapes lead to a keen metaphor for the murky communication between the couple as their future prospects are increasingly challenged.
Ostlund’s patient character study hasn’t lost its appeal following today’s announcements. As I wrote last year, it offers a more muted, intelligent alternative to “Gone Girl,” another unnerving portrait of marital relationships gone sour. To that end, it now has another form of alternative appeal — it’s a movie you can watch with the explicit purpose of peering beyond the boundaries of current Oscar season mania.
“Selma” provides a different opportunity. Ava DuVernay’s mesmerizing portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s biggest moment on the national stage received a best picture nomination, which at least keeps it in the fold more than many other deserving titles. But DuVernay was shut out of the director category, an omission not only notable because the finalists are all white men, but because DuVernay’s energetic investment in the material comes through in every scene without an iota of pandering. She’s in perfect congress with the movie’s other big snub, for leading man David Oyelowo, whose King radiates an authenticity unseen in the biopic form since Daniel Day Lewis’ (appropriately awarded) “Lincoln.”
In fact, “Selma” has much in common with Steven Spielberg’s 2012 treatment of Lincoln’s final days: Chronicling the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, the movie primarily delves into the backroom strategy sessions that led to the success of King’s efforts, while humanizing the figure to the point where he inhabits a real world of events rather than the mythology surrounding them. Aside from being a true movie of the moment—released mere weeks after the riots in Ferguson—”Selma” makes the case for the charged nature of the events it depicts rather than taking them for granted. King’s speeches, original material scripted for the film due to rights issues, may as well have been spoken by the activist: They register on an authentic level that speaks to the movie’s air of authenticity. It represents King’s value by building it from scratch. If you’re unconvinced, go see the movie: “Selma” doesn’t need to dominate the Oscars in order to keep finding audiences.
Everything’s Not Awesome
Then there’s “The Lego Movie.” Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller offered a goofy punchline to their own unlikely success this month during the New York Film Critics Circle dinner, when they thanked Pixar for not releasing a movie this year. Unfortunately for them, a lot of other people did—including Studio Ghibli, which put out the majestic “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” a beautiful take on Japanese folklore through lens of the country’s gender politics. Irish nominee “Song of the Sea” was another welcome entrant to the animated features category: Tom Moore, previously nominated for 2009’s “The Secret of Kells,” offered a tender riff on Celtic mythology with his wondrous followup. By contrast, “The Lego Movie” was a harsh, cynical riff on the role of consumerism in the public imagination. How else to read into a story about a world of animated brand names?
To that end, “The Lego Movie”—now available on DVD—is a wry take on the same infrastructure that works so hard to convince everyone that the only true metric of value in the film industry comes down to rudimentary ingredients involving accolades and box office receipts. To this viewer, the movie flies off the rails in its concluding act, when it becomes a celebratory commercial rather than the clever deconstruction of one. Then again, that’s not an inaccurate place to end up. Just as the relentlessly catchy “Lego Movie” song “Everything is Awesome” blinds the Lego characters from investigating the details of their world, so too do the Oscars create the perception that its nominees are the last word on the best current cinema. They’re wrong, and these snubs—among so many, many other titles—provide it.