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.
- 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.