Funhouse Transparency: The 2011 Oscar Nominations

The 2011 Oscar Nominations

January 25th, 2011

On Twitter, I suggested that I was relatively bored with this morning’s Oscar nominations…or, more accurately, I tweeted “Oscar nods = yawn,” which frankly says more about how much I enjoy being up at 7:30 in the morning than it does about the nominations themselves.

Still, though, I must admit to being fairly unexcited by the whole affair. While there were a few pleasant surprises, and a few snubs which raise my ire in the way that I more or less enjoy, something about the nominations just doesn’t sit right. While the nature of the 10 Best Picture nominations means that a large number of major films from the year enjoy a moment in the spotlight, I would actually argue that there are subtle ways in which this is ruining some of the other categories where voters should be more willing to go out on a limb. With the Academy’s populist and avant garde recognition now done in the main category, the ability for a director like Christopher Nolan to earn a Best Director nomination has been severely diminished, as the legacy of the five-film Best Picture race continues to hang over the remainder of the awards.

And while I wouldn’t quite call it a travesty, I would say that it demonstrates how awards voters only break out of patterns where they are absolutely required to do so.

My absolute favorite nomination at this year’s Oscars is John Powell’s nod in Original Score, earned for his tremendous work on Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon. It’s a bit of a surprise: the score received no love from the Golden Globes, or really any major precursors outside of the BAFTAs, and thus its nomination should feel as though it vindicates me months of hoping against hope that Powell would make it to the big race. However, I can’t help but feel that the nomination comes with an asterisk – had Randy Newman’s score for Toy Story 3 been submitted for the award, he would have easily taken this slot (as demonstrated by his presence in Best Original Song despite the forgettable nature of “We Belong Together”). While I love Powell’s score, the fact that he’s only there because Newman chose not to enter the race makes for a sort of hollow feeling in regards to the Academy’s willingness to objectively judge the categories at hand.

No, this is not a new feeling. However, in some ways I prefer the utter randomness of the Golden Globes to the transparent tradition of the Oscars. It just seems to be a year where the fingerprints are everywhere, and where structural decisions seem to be a dominant force. Take, for example, the three nominees for Best Animated Feature: How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3, and The Illusionist. Now, it is not exactly the voters’ fault that there are only three nominations: blame that on the Academy for the rule connecting the number of nominees to the number of films released, and the industry for not releasing enough animated films to meet it. However, the result is that the category feels rote: of course Dreamworks and Disney would both be recognized, and of course there would be a more artistically oriented entry (as we’ve seen with The Secret of Kells, The Triplets of Belleville, Persepolis, etc.). It makes one feel that Tangled is missing not because the voters thought the other films were better, but because the category needs to fit into certain expectations.

It’s a problem which flows into the ramifications of the Best Picture race. Generally speaking, the awards for Directing and Editing have been considered to be the awards most closely connected with Best Picture, or at least the original five-nominee Best Picture category. However, what used to be a mere reflection has transformed into a funhouse mirror, allowing us to imagine which films would have been nominated for Best Picture had the old structure been in place. These awards construct a hierarchy, breaking down any notion of an actual “Top 10” and focusing instead on the films that actually have a chance. Admittedly, this is something that any Oscar prognosticator with half a brain can do, but there’s something unsettling about seeing the Academy making this distinction within other nominations.

Yes, some of this stems from the snub of Inception in both categories, categories which seem as though they fit comfortably into Inception’s most distinctive qualities. If Inception grabbed a Best Picture nomination, one has to feel that Nolan’s vision and the editing of the twisty plot would be among its defining qualities, and the film’s absence in both instances seems a disservice. It especially seems a disservice since these categories have been a place where the Academy often showed attention for films which might not fit comfortably into a five-film Best Picture race. There’s David Lynch for Mulholland Drive, Mike Leigh for Vera Drake, Paul Greengrass for United 93, Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and a number of other nominees who broke through in Directing without other precursors. In Editing, meanwhile, films like The Bourne Ultimatum, Collateral, and City of God have been represented despite less attention in the major categories.

I don’t know if the sensibilities of either category have truly changed, but it feels as though they have. Even if it’s just a coincidence that the two years of 10 Best Picture nominees have begotten two “Clearly the Top 5” sets of Best Director nominees, it still seems as if the Directors side of things has been making up for the populist drive with a purposeful act of exclusion. The editors haven’t been quite as bad, nominating District 9 last year, but it’s hard not to consider Inception’s snub there as another sign that the film’s Best Picture nomination is nothing but a token. As someone who quite liked Inception, and who feels as though Nolan is more than overdue for a nomination at this point, to see him ignored in favor of sticking to the directors of the “real contenders” becomes a bit of unfortunate transparency which puts the entire set of nominations in a different light (especially considering that The Fighter and The King’s Speech, in particular, are far from director-driven films).

It doesn’t feel the same as a normal snub. While I think Andrew Garfield deserved a nomination for his work in The Social Network, I have actually not seen any of the supporting performances which were nominated, so it’s hard for me to be too critical of the Academy for making a decision I am in no position to judge. The acting awards, and whatever snubs might emerge, feel as though they can be judged based on a matter of opinion, snubs considered a matter of taste and little more. With the Nolan situation, however, it doesn’t feel like a matter of taste: it feels like a matter of close-mindedness, in a category which wasn’t always so close-minded.

I think there are a lot of benefits to the move to 10 Best Picture nominees, but it seems like many have an unfortunate inverse. It’s great that animated films can be represented, but if there are every two animated films worthy of nomination it is highly unlikely that both could ever get a nomination. While it’s nice to see a science fiction film like Inception recognized, it is frustrating to see that nomination serve as a stand-in for deserved recognition elsewhere. Even if I ultimately feel that the increased recognition for great movies released in a given year is in the best interest of reflecting cinematic achievement, the way those results reflect back on the other categories actually seems to do the Academy’s reputation more harm.

I am not particularly outraged about any of this, really – it isn’t exactly a huge surprise, and this isn’t even the first time that a Best Picture nominee with the label of “visionary” has been unrepresented by its director (see: Moulin Rouge, Baz Luhrmann). However, the nature of the shift in the awards is such that the larger ramifications of the snub become more transparent, meaning that it feels more outrageous than it perhaps has any right to be.

Cultural Observations

  • The only acting race that is legitimately contentious, barring some sort of SAG-related tomfoolery on Sunday, is Supporting Actress: Steinfeld and Leo will face off for the first time at the SAG, and that will be an intriguing precursor to the Oscar race. Steinfeld has to be considered a strong contender given both her age and the fact that she’s giving a lead performance, but Leo’s got the grizzled veteran status and a recent Lead Actress nomination in her favor.
  • Javier Bardem grabbing a nomination seemed a bit of a surprise at first: the film was ignored by all precursors, so to see him suddenly pop up was a bit strange. However, given that he’s one of the only acting nominee or color, I approve of the nomination simply so that an all-Caucasian acting race lineup is avoided.
  • Considering that it’s on DVD/Blu-Ray, I really should watch Winter’s Bone – consider it the first film on my Best Picture catchup (which also includes The Kids are All Right, The Fighter, 127 Hours).
  • Curiosity in the Screenplay category, although it’s easily explained. I wasn’t aware that sequels were automatically considered adapted screenplays, so Toy Story 3’s appearance in Adapted made for an awkward moment, while Black Swan has the distinction of being the only Best Picture nominee missing out on a writing nomination. However, considering that I couldn’t tell you who wrote Black Swan if you gave me all day, I think that the film has become so wholly Aronofsky/Portman’s that the script became irrelevant.
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21 Comments

Filed under Award Shows

21 responses to “Funhouse Transparency: The 2011 Oscar Nominations

  1. Tausif Khan

    In terms of your first bullet point. Amy Adams’ performance seems like something the Oscars would be more willing to reward as she steps out of her Disney princess feminine persona and moves toward a more gritty role.

    The thing that I am most annoyed by is the snub of Halle Berry for her film Frankie and Alice a passion project like Nicole Kidman’s Rabbit Hole. Berry is a former Oscar winner and should have received more press for her movie. The Golden Globes nominated her at least.

    • I can sympathize with you, Tausif, but Berry isn’t the only one slighted here. Tilda Swinton had an incredible performance in I Am Love and she was completely ignored, despite being a former Oscar winner as well. I haven’t seen Frankie and Alice, but I think Swinton was as equally deserving of a nod.

      Furthermore, is there still the notion amongst the internet community that Nicole Kidman cannot act or is less deserving of praise for her acting than other actresses? Just curious.

      P.S. Myles, I’ve seen The Town, and Jeremy Renner does some tremendous work in that movie, so if you were in some sort of Oscars pool I’d say that picking Renner as Supporting Actor might not be such a bad way to go.

      • Tausif Khan

        The thing for me with Halle Berry is that she also got virtually no press. I had to research to find out that she was working on this project. I haven’t seen it either. But the few things I have found on the movie says that her performance is great.

        The reason why I make the comparison with Kidman is that critics were luke warm to the film overall but she still got a nomination. Her film made nationwide release in mid January. Berry’s film will only reach nationwide release in February. My point was to raise the question as to whether studios still think that Berry is a marketable star in the sense of award winning actress.

        However, it feels to me that Halle Berry has kind of fallen off the face of the earth which I think is unfair.

        With Swinton, I saw at least one champion with Gregory Ellewood over at Hitfix.com

        • Well, Berry did star in Catwoman. (I’m serious– of all the films to star in after winning an Oscar, it had to be Die Another Day and Catwoman…) She is a talented actress, but the roles she’s had post-Oscar have been largely under the radar (Things We Lost in the Fire, the visually lovely Robots) or panned (Perfect Stranger, Catwoman, Gothika). Swinton, at least, had roles in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Burn After Reading, two fairly high-profile films that weren’t (entirely) denounced by critics.

          To answer your question: I think Berry can become a marketable star once again, but the largely lackluster projects she’s been involved with in the last decade may make things difficult. She’s talented, no doubt about it, but her recent work hasn’t been that great.

          • rosengje

            Sorry Tausif but this is one of the strongest Best Actress lineups in recent memory, with many incredibly deserving actresses missing out on nominations. Lesley Manville, Julianne Moore, Tilda Swinton, Naomi Watts, Hilary Swank, Emma Stone and many others were excluded for much more critically praised performances. Halle Berry appeared in a poorly reviewed movie, received mostly indifferent reviews, and had the misfortune of having her movie distributed by a small company inexperienced at awards campaign. That Golden Globe nomination is more than enough of a reward.

          • Tausif Khan

            @rosengje I am on even talking about an Oscar nomination. I am talking about a barely reviewed movie. It only has seven reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, total. Moreover, the fact that she had her movie distributed by a small company that is inexperienced with awards campaigns is part of my point.

  2. Ashley

    I follow you on Twitter, and I often agree with your thoughts on TV. I even convinced a friend to read your Glee recaps. But, it looks like we really diverge when it comes to movies! I wasn’t completely thrilled with the nominations this morning, but I thought there were a lot of nice surprises (Dogtooth, I Am Love for costumes, the stellar Documentary lineup) and semi-surprises (Michelle Williams, John Hawkes). I don’t see the same negative patterns that you do (at least not in the same categories).

    For instance, isn’t Tangled also from Disney (which means it has a big studio behind it and, thus, a chance at a nomination)? And aside from the films you named (The Secret of Kells, et. al.), I don’t think the Oscars actually nominate that many “artistically oriented” animated films (at least not enough for one to be considered a lock every year).

    And I haven’t seen The Fighter yet, but every positive review remarks on how Russell invigorated the film and made it livelier and more surprising than one would expect (given the script, subject matter, genre, etc). The film may not be visually exciting, but I definitely think it’s a director-driven film (and Russell gets a boost from the way he apparently handles his great ensemble). Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech is another story, however!

    I’ll stop here though, since this isn’t my personal blog!

    One more thing: A few weeks ago, Julia Roberts started publicly campaigning for Javier Bardem. Some Oscar prognosticators thought that would help him score a nomination; it looks like they were right. On a different note, I don’t think Bardem would count as a nominee of color. My experiences are limited, but don’t most Spaniards consider themselves white?

  3. rosengje

    I completely agree with Ashley. I love your television criticism, but many aspects of this article display a lack of awareness of the specificities of film in general and the Oscars in particular. Ashley already pointed out most of the surprises, of which my favorites are probably Dogtooth and Exit Through the Gift Shop, but I think people are completely overstating the degree to which Christopher Nolan’s exclusion is a snub. Of the five nominated directors, four can make legitimate claims to being visionaries and vital cinematic voices. The Coens, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, and David O. Russell are responsible for some of the most thrilling film moments of the past 15 years, and they’ve only recently been admitted to the so-called “club.” Meanwhile, Hooper’s film was nominated for 11 other Oscars. It would have been shocking for him to be omitted.

    I’m particularly annoyed by all of the off-handed comments about David O. Russell’s undeserving nomination. First of all, if you look at the DGA nominations, it is the Coens who knocked him out of the lineup. But more importantly, Russell’s contribution to The Fighter cannot be understated and are just as important as Nolan’s more obvious direction. Russell came onto a film that had been stuck in financing hell, that has five credited writers, and had already gone through several attached directors and stars and still made the film completely his own. He took a generic underdog sports movie and turned it into a signature David O. Russell film. In addition to the incredible performances (which will earn Christian Bale a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and potentially more for either Melissa Leo or Amy Adams), he creates an incredible atmosphere. The sense of time and place is immaculate, it’s hilarious (seriously, the sisters can compete with the twin strippers in “Somewhere” for my favorite film characters of 2010), and he adopts an incredibly generous style. Further, Aronofsky’s inclusion (he would probably have occupied the “lone director” slot in a year of 5) for an outre, genre film is a pretty bold choice by the Academy.

    This post is ridiculously long, but I frankly just think the voters didn’t dislike Nolan’s direction– they liked the others more.

    • rosengje

      Also, I find the entire argument about the animated films specious. Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon, and The Illusionist are three of the best reviewed films of the year. And while I found Tangled delightful, the film most likely to be nominated next probably would have been Despicable Me. The latter was a huge commercial/critical surprise, and while Tangled has done reasonably well it was also extremely expensive and had a very troubled production history. The selection of The Illusionist is a testament to the animated group’s willingness to vote for the actual quality of the work and ignore these external narratives. It seems very strange to me to begrudge them that selection.

      Black Swan missing out on Best Original Screenplay as well as several expected technical categories (i.e. sound, costumes– although the latter may be due to some controversy over the Rodarte not being properly credited) is the clearest indicator that Aronofsky would have been this year’s lone director. I have a feeling the 5 Best Picture nominees would have been The Social Network, The King’s Speech, True Grit, The Fighter, and Inception with Nolan missing out on director.

      • rosengje

        Final point pre-Cougar Town: have you seen most of these films?

        I get the impression that you haven’t and while much of the Oscar prognostication game can be clinical, the films remain the most important part. Even though we tend to treat the Academy like one giant monolith, the members are actual people and they vote for what they love.

        • Not to fuel your argument that I’m hating on the films, which I don’t feel I am, but I have yet to see King’s Speech, The Fighter or The Illusionist.

          I have, however, seen The Social Network, Black Swan, True Grit, Inception, Dragon, Tangled, Toy Story 3, etc.

      • On the Animated side, two things:

        1) I wasn’t begrudging the nomination of The Illusionist, simply using the category as an example where certain patterns become clear and make the awards seem more clinical and transparent than they actually are. It wasn’t that the idea of nominating a less commercial film is a BAD pattern, but the idea that it’s a pattern at all becomes emblematic of larger problems.

        2) I think Despicable Me came too early in the year, to be honest – big success, but the film’s commercial viability was never matched with any sense of critical support. Tangled had the Menken song as a more viable nomination opportunity outside of the category, the Disney brand behind it, and the benefit of being in theatres (and performing solidly) at the time of the nomination process. If anything, I think the troubled production history would have made Tangled success that much more impressive to voters, but that’s just my read on the situation – we’re both speculating, and we’re speculating about the two films which would have taken the fourth and fifth slots had enough films qualified.

        • rosengje

          I would also point out that those slots are not really as cut and dry as you imply. Waltz with Bashir missed out on a nod in 2008 (they included the defiantly commercial Bolt instead). Futher, Secret of Kells might seems like a default artsy pick, but that fifth slot was actually expected to go to Hiyao Miyazaki’s Ponyo last year. In fact, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on last year’s field of five. Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up, Kells, and Princess and the Frog are hardly readily categorized.

          • I’d argue that a group of Five throws the categories out the window – it’s why I hate the groups of Three so much. Even when something like The Illusionist breaks through in a bit of a surprise, in a group of three is STILL feels like a token artsy pick thanks to its stark separation from the other films involved. Whereas, in a group of five, the selections would be diverse enough that it wouldn’t stand out in quite the same way.

          • rosengje

            Oh, and of course the more traditionally artsy (that’s a thing) animated feature Mary and Max also missed out.

    • I see where you’re both coming from, but I guess my point was less “Ugh, Russell is terrible” and more “Russell represents the status quo.” It’s not that I don’t understand why Hooper or Russell were chosen, or even that they don’t deserve to be there, but rather that the Academy

      a) seemed to like Inception
      b) didn’t nominate Nolan

      This isn’t abnormal, but my point was that there is something about the 10 Best Picture nominees which makes it seem more egregious. Personally, rereading my piece, I don’t think I insult Russell at all. This piece, more than anything else, is about appearances, about how the optics of this particular set of nominees says something about how patterns can seem more influential than the films themselves. I’ve seen some of the more direct criticism of Russell and Hooper’s nominations in other circles, but I was simply pointing out that it seems as though the traditional independent slot was unrepresented in favor of more typical – although, not necessarily less deserving – nominees.

      Now, you argue that Aronofsky fits into that pattern, which I consider a valid argument. However, I’d argue that Black Swan’s commercial success combined with Portman’s star status would have earned the film a spot in the Best Picture race despite its generic dissimilarity from the other nominees – sure, we can’t counterfactual it to see how things might have worked if there was a more rabid race to make it into the five slots (and, as your new comment notes, Inception would have been an interesting case in such an instance), but I feel as though the film has enough working for it that it would remain in one of those slots.

      • rosengje

        I understand your points. I think part of my reaction to the reaction is just general amusement over how quickly one generation’s enfants terribles become the status quo.

        I do agree that Inception was well liked, and traditionally its enormous financial success and technical support would have carried it to more “upper-tier” nods. However, the specialty films fared shockingly well at the box office this year (I cannot get over Black Swan’s haul), which undoubtedly diluted that consideration. And there were just so many strong director candidates this year. Consider this: Mike Leigh, Peter Weir, Roman Polanski, and Martin Scorsese were all excluded for lauded films.

  4. Brian

    Myles,
    I agree with most of your reading of the Academy’s decisions in regards to how the awards system works. However, this year what is really a huge surprise is that the much hyped documentary Waiting for Superman was not nominated by the Academy for Best documentary. This year’s nominees in documentary are some of the most interesting in years, especially the film Gasland about the horrors of drilling for natural gas and how it is contaminating water all over the country. Also included in this category was the art documentary Exit Through the Shop which is in fact one of the best films made in 2010.

  5. Brendan

    Not sure how you can dismiss the directors of The Fighter and The King’s Speech by calling their films “far from director-driven films” when in the very next paragraph you admit (by saying you haven’t seen any of the male supporting performances which TF and TKS are among) to having not seen them. ???

    • I was speaking more of the films’ award narrative than the films themselves – most buzz around both King’s Speech and Fighter come from performances, and since Inception lacks those narratives it does feel more director-driven.

      I really don’t see how this piece is so insulting to those films, or their directors – my point is not that they didn’t deserve nominations, but that Nolan’s absence (which, for me, is a snub of great work) calls into question certain logics which can be read onto the awards in any year.

      An observation, not a judgment.

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