Oscar Nominations, and That Click-bait Best Picture Crap

Folks, live-blogging inane awards shows will really drain the hell out of you. Much as kyra and I may or not like them, we love to make fun of them, and you’d be surprised how much crap to mock or nitpick a bunch of egomaniacal Hollywood types in a three-hour span. You combine that with every producer trying to dump their Prestige Films on the adoring public and Oscar voters between Christmas and New Year’s Day and I had to take a two-week break.

But I’m back today with some brief comments on the old news of the Oscar nominations from sixty weeks ago and a response to this embarrassingly un-sabermetric, un-mindful-of-anything-resembling-the-study-of-statistics Mark Harris article in Grantland blaming the lack of films nominated in major categories on the expanded Best Picture field. This is a mindbogglingly dumb conclusion to draw because,as  this history and Spanish major with a rudimentary but apparently (and worryingly) superior understanding of statistical correlation will show you, it is one that cannot be drawn, and is too soon to draw in any event. Unfortunately, it’s an exercise in desperate conclusory headline writing and cherry-picking that people you’d consider intelligent, you’d think, should dismiss but instead have accepted at face value, as seen here, and here. After discussing the nominees, I’ll debunk this bullshit masquerading as insight, for which I’ll use the incredibly difficult to access database of past Oscars winners and nominees. Anything to delay erasing on the guilt I’ll feel if I don’t see Philomena and complete the ritualistic High Honor of seeing all Best Picture nominees.

Best Picture

  • American Hustle (God, no)
  • Captain Phillips
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • Gravity
  • Her
  • Nebraska
  • Philomenia
  • 12 Years a Slave (by my editorial intuition, a title that starts with a number should come first in alphabetical order, but whatever)
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

By all accounts this promises to be, at least from where we stand slightly over a month before the ceremony, the most competitive Best Picture race for some time. Last year saw an interesting, if narrative-driven, result, wherein the voters practically propelled Argo to victory for the sole reason that they pitied Ben Affleck’s lack of directorial nomination. Argo‘s win was rare because Affleck wasn’t in the running, but it was really a one-and-a-half horse race, the other modicum of competition provided by Steven Spielberg’s histrionic, awards-grabbing POS Lincoln. And in the two years before, everyone felt the need to bestow gold-laden blow jobs on The Artist and The King’s Speech even though The Artist was gimmicky crap and The King’s Speech, while good, was about one-tenth the movie The Social Network was. Whatever, that happens at the Oscars.

Currently, though, I think three movies have a shot at the prize—American HustleGravity, and 12 Years a Slave. Of those three, it’s my opinion that 12 Years a Slave is easily the best (I think it, Wolf, and Her are a class above the other six). Though I greatly admired Gravity‘s heretofore unmatched technical prowess—definitely one of the most visually inventive movies I’ve ever seen, up there with 2001—I think you can critique the performances (though Bullock is well-cast, and I’d defend the script). I’d also be curious how it’d hold up, experience-wise, on your TV following the awesome theatrical display. I lament that American Hustle is somehow one of your favorites, though Alfonso Cuarón’s victory at the DGA, often an Oscar bellwether, complicates things. Look, I liked American Hustle. It’s fun enough, and it features some solid acting from a lot of people you and I probably like. But…that’s about all that’s there. It’s a rather shallow movie with no stakes and one that doesn’t bother to challenge the audience in any way. Compared to The Wolf of Wall Street, it would rather resort to feel-good happy endings than provoke or analyze. Unfortunately, it’s probably Hustle‘s conservatism and safety in storytelling that has garnered it its current place in the race, because it’s easily the movie with the broadest appeal even if it’s about a foot deep substantively. I know people who won’t see 12 Years because they’re scared of the material (they shouldn’t be), if you wanted it’s not difficult to write Gravity off as an experiment rather than a story, and it doesn’t criticize its audience the way Wolf or Her do. 

My reservations about one of the favorites aside, this is still a solid list! I’ve seen eight so far, and have only disliked one, Dallas Buyers Club, which despite McConaughey is trapped in a dialectic about accepting gay people from twenty years ago. And McConaughey’s real life counterpart was a bisexual—now that would have made for a more complex, and better, movie. Moreover, because only nine were nominated out of a possible ten, it disappoints me that no love was shown to other candidates, especially Inside Llewyn Davis (though that film’s major-category shutout is a perfect fit for its title character) and Before Midnight (not really a contender but was a speculative darkhorse this summer in addition to my favorite film of 2013). I have high praise for 12 YearsGravityWolfHer, and Nebraska all the same, and would recommend Hustle and Captain Phillips even if I didn’t love them as much as others.

Best Director

  • Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
  • Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
  • Alexander Payne, Nebraska
  • David O. Russell, American Hustle
  • Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Not much to add here, because the director and picture races are often almost inextricably linked, and none of the choices are particularly surprising. Again, you probably have a three-way race here, but if the Best Picture race is truly competitive you might see a rare split-decision from Oscar voters, sort of like last year (Ang Lee for Director, Argo for Picture) or 2005 (Ang Lee for Director, Crash for Picture—yes, we all know that was the Oscars’ nadir). My gut says Cuarón could pull this out if voters are willing to spread the love or that McQueen could have his moment on the stage, which would likely mean a 12 Years sweep. I’d be happy if Cuarón, McQueen, or Scorsese won. They’re all expert at controlling their camera and framing the action in idiosyncratic ways that enhance and not distract from the story. I’d take issue with Russell winning, because while I admire his talent for hiring fantastic actors, his images and story have a propulsive incoherence that doesn’t always do them justice; it helps him to adhere closely to source material, as in Silver Linings Playbook, probably my favorite of his. Payne is a mild surprise here, but the Academy has clearly enjoyed his work in the past. Nebraska is, typical of Payne, an excellently fine film that probably may have overly wowed viewers with its use of black-and-white, a nice touch that suits his movie but isn’t as special as at first glance. I would’ve preferred Spike Jonze (Her) and the Coen brothers (Llewyn Davis), but Russell was a sure thing, and Payne had to edge out Jonze and Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) for the final slot.

Actor in a Leading Role

  • Christian Bale, American Hustle
  • Bruce Dern, Nebraska
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
  • Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Another fascinating race that probably has three contenders, and should have four if people would just LISTEN TO ME ALREADY. That’s because I wholeheartedly support Leo in this category, even though I really like Dern, Ejiofor, and McConaughey. As I wrote in my Wolf review, Leo’s work as Jordan Belfort was, I would argue, the best of his career, and one that creates, I think, the most charismatically compelling on-screen villain since Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. The genius of Wolf is Scorsese’s and Leo’s ability to make Belfort contemptible and not-entirely-unenviable throughout the whole picture. It’s that dualism and emphasis on temptation that elevates the film and is what Scorsese coaxes from his leading men in his best films. McConaughey won the SAG and the Golden Globe, which bodes well for him, and wouldn’t be undeserved, as it’s important to remember we’re awarding the performance, not the movie. But I’ll say that for as strong as McConaughey’s renaissance has been, I’m not sure his selection of roles or films matches his talent—my favorite work of his in 2013 wasn’t Mud or Dallas Buyers Club or the first episodes of True Detective but his Wolf cameo. Dern might be ripe for a lifetime achievement award that coincidentally would honor a beautifully melancholy performance, and Ejiofor, an actor who’s done strong supporting work for years, could get the prize if it’s 12 Years‘ night. Bale’s the only guy I’d say is without a chance, though maybe that doesn’t square with the wave of accolades for his movie. As is often the case with Bale, his performance is extremely physical and grounded in his figure even though his body doesn’t do much in Hustle. He took the spot of two others in contention I would’ve preferred—Robert Redford’s silent but always intelligible and empathetic stranded yachtsman in All Is Lost, and Oscar Isaac, who similarly to DiCaprio makes an unbearable character bearable in Llewyn Davis.

Actress in a Leading Role

  • Amy Adams, American Hustle
  • Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
  • Sandra Bullock, Gravity
  • Judi Dench, Philomena
  • Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

This or Supporting Actor is probably the least competitive race, given that Blanchett continues to rack up the hardware. Unlike Supporting Actor, I can’t complain about Blanchett’s likely victory here. Blue Jasmine is far from my favorite Woody Allen movie, but Blanchett managed to control her modern day Blanch du Bois’ domineering nature just enough before finally unravelling. I don’t know if it’s a particularly strong field, even if all five are renowned. I haven’t seen Philomena yet and will try and go this week, and it’s quite possible Dench merited her place here. She’s Judi Dench, after all. I almost definitely won’t see August: Osage County, but what I’ve read from those who have seen it suggests that Streep is in the running on the strength of her name alone and not what has been called a histrionic and uncharacteristically bad performance. At least Harvey Weinstein can be happy that his shitty year got him at least two nominees for Best Actress, Dench and Streep, even if they’re not going to win. Your darkhorse here is Adams, who has the most noticeable boobs of the Hustle ensemble but more importantly is the best of the ensemble, being the only one who suggests multiple layers to her character rather than listening to Russell’s command to ACT. Can’t say I’d get rid of Dench and Streep without seeing their performances, but I wish the Academy could’ve made room for the most remarkable performance of the year, one that captures the pleasures and pitfalls of physical and emotional development with extraordinary range and depth, Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color.

Actor in a Supporting Role

  • Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
  • Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
  • Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
  • Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Leto is going to win this in all likelihood, which is a shame. As with the rest of the movie McConaughey excepted, it’s an incredibly dated performance. I’ll let World Champion Movie Critic Scott Tobias say it better than me:

It’s a performance that belongs in Philadelphia, not in a movie released today when we don’t have to dramatize gay people by asking actors to exaggerate the most extreme stereotypes we held for gay people when they were dying of AIDS and suggest flaming queerness in lieu of engaging in something resembling normal sexual relationships and conversation. That’s something that is almost insulting for a day in age when people in Utah are split over gay marriage. The movie allows Leto to take off the drag for one scene, and it’s one of his best even if it’s designed for those little ten-second clips they play at the Oscars ceremony. Personally, I’d give it to either Fassbender or Hill—the nomination that made me the most giddy was Hill’s, given that it’s funny enough to think of Jonah Hill as a two-time Academy Award Nominee, and that he deserves it for his sick juvenile of a human—and the actor I’d most like to have seen replace Leto (again, never woulda happened) was Will Forte for Nebraska. Forte gives a mannered performance that’s always noticeable without insisting on showing off, and is the crucial element to a beautiful movie—of course he’s the only one, Picture and Director, not nominated, likely because of his lack of showiness.

Actress in a Supporting Role

  • Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
  • Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
  • Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
  • Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
  • June Squibb, Nebraska

A two-woman race here: my girl J-Law and my girl Lupita. Lupita should win, here, for her captivating and tragic work in 12 Years as the mirror to Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup who knows the depths of her situation’s helplessness with which Ejiofor comes to terms. It’s brilliant despairing work that is the exact opposite of Lawrence’s flighty, sassy, dim-witted drunk in Hustle. I’m always happy to see J-Law on-screen, but while her wishy-washy Long Island fit her character I’m not sure its tonal ups and downs were necessarily intentional even though they were used to solid comedic effect in the “science oven” scene. She’s gonna be nominated for, and win, more Oscars in the future, and this is the least of the three she’s already attained. Give it to the better performance and role here, plain and simple.

Best Original Screenplay

  • American Hustle, by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
  • Blue Jasmine, by Woody Allen
  • Dallas Buyers Club, by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack
  • Her, by Spike Jonze
  • Nebraska, by Bob Nelson

Don’t hand this statuette to American Hustle just yet. For one thing, it shouldn’t win—the script, penned originally by Singer, made its way onto the esteemed Black List of best as-yet-unproduced screenplays before Russell came on board, and I can only imagine deleted any semblance of plot from its pages. I’d say the winner should be Jonze, and I don’t think a victory by him is out of the question. He pulled in the Golden Globe in what’s a more competitive category, because the HFPA one has one category for writing. The Academy has also been kind to Jonze and his movies before; he was nominated for directing Being John Malkovich, and Adaptation scored several nominations and a win for Chris Cooper. Now, people associate those movies, however rightly or wrongly, with Charlie Kaufman more than Jonze, but perhaps the voters still harbor good feelings by association. The Academy is also extremely fond of Alexander Payne, and though he didn’t receive credit for the script, this might be a category they reserve for honoring Nebraska given its glut of prominent nominations.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • Before Midnight, by Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater
  • Captain Phillips, by Billy Ray
  • Philomena, by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
  • 12 Years a Slave, by John Ridley
  • The Wolf of Wall Street, by Terence Winter

Readers will surely not be surprised at my pronouncement of the best screenplay of the year, Before Midnight. It sucks that I have to reconcile myself with being thrilled that the trio was just nominated. (They received the same nomination in 2004 for Before Sunset.) kyra saw a screening of Before Midnight attended by Delpy, and in her Q+A afterwards she expressed her displeasure that Sunset and Midnight are categorized as adaptations, based on “characters previously created.” She’s right to be angry at that, as it shortchanges the work she, Hawke, and Linklater do on this very personal project. They’re not working with source material—my parents, after seeing the nominations, were under the impression that the series was based off of book counterparts because of where Midnight fell on the original/adaptation dividing line—and you could say, given the narrative failure of many sequels, that their job is the hardest, because they have to guess at where these two characters might be after long intervals. I’m not sure they’d have a better chance in the original category this year, but she’s right to illuminate just how arbitrary the distinction is. 12 Years a Slave is your likely winner here, unless the Academy wants to give Wolf something to go home with (possible after the surprise nomination for Hill). Sadly, the Coens didn’t make the cut this year, though they should’ve. They’ll live.

And why you can’t say the expanded Best Picture field has caused fewer films to be nominated in major categories.

Now go back over the list of nominees in the “Big Eight” categories. You’ll notice that only twelve films are represented over the forty-four nominations. That seems low! It is low! But, contrary to what this headline has lead people on Twitter to believe and then reaffirm with nods faster than Pavlov’s dog, it is not due to the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten and now to somewhere between five and ten. Let’s let Harris take it away:

This year’s major-category nominations — 44 in all — were spread among just 12 films. (The only non–Best Picture nominees to receive any major category recognition this year were August: Osage County, Blue Jasmine, and Before Midnight.)

That’s the fewest in 30 years. What’s more, the second-lowest number of films represented in the major nominations in the last 30 years — 14 — happened just one year ago. And the third-lowest also happened in the five years since the rule change. The inescapable truth: Best Picture may have gotten bigger, but the Oscars have gotten smaller.

Okay, so Mark Harris can count. That’s a start! But he’s committing the cardinal statistical sin of conflating correlation with causation. And additionally, the “third-lowest” total of films represented happens to correspond with what he later asserts is the normal range of movies nominated in the main categories before the expansion, sixteen:

And before the rule change, “bad year” vs. “good year” didn’t make much of a difference. Between 1984 and 2008, an average of 18.3 movies were represented in the top eight categories each years — sometimes as many as 22, and never fewer than 16.

There have been five years now with an larger Best Picture competition. The number of films nominated in the “Big Eight” in those five years, including this year’s entries, is (and I’ll write the numerals for ease of comparison in contravention of my norm): 19, 16, 21, 14, 12. Interesting, isn’t it, that the first three years all fit Harris’ range—one high, one low, one in the middle. Average those three years and you get 18.4 films nominated, or above the norm. Maybe something happened starting two years ago that could, emphasis on could, also explain a change. Caught up in the appearance of novelty, Harris actually glosses over another possible explanation:

Yes, some of the voting members are elderly Los Angeles–based retirees who have all the time in the world to attend Academy screenings and yell at Martin Scorsese, but the majority are working professionals who, like the rest of us, can’t usually see everything they want to see and, unlike the rest of us, have to see everything by a deadline (this year, voting closed on January 8) that is a full month earlier than it used to be.

Emphasis mine. But forget the month, even a few days can make the difference between seeing an extra few films that might make the difference in who and what gets a boost of support when the ballots come due. This rush to deadline is compounded by how the industry chooses to release films, sending to theaters the movies they expect to win awards practically as late as possible so they can capitalize on a recency effect. And while some will benefit from being fresh—probably the best marketed ones, a stand-in for the ones people will feel most obligated to see—others will suffer. The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours long? Golly, I’d rather spend Nominations Eve seeing something shorter and less controversial. And sure enough, in the 2012–13 nominations cycle, the Academy moved up the deadline from January 13 to January 3. If you were a voter, you’d obviously prioritize what you want to see. But shortening the period to watch movies at a time when your priority list is most crowded means you’ll have to make some tough decisions, which might work to the detriment of some movies. The difference from January 13 to January 8 is potentially significant. Add in that the ballots are due early basically to capitalize on the fervor of the season—the Oscars are later this year, not until March, because of the Winter Olympics—and the shortened deadline is pointless.

But the shortened voting time isn’t necessarily the cause, though I’d venture that it’s a more likely cause than the one Harris and others are promoting, because, well, we only have two to five years from which to establish such an effect. And, that, my friends, is what we call small sample size; in other words, it’s impossible to tell. For all we know, the acting and writing categories, responsible for twenty and ten nominations each, could be responsible for the overlap. Take David O. Russell, who has directed three movies in the Expansion Era, received Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay nominations for all of them, and has seen his actors rack up a combined eleven (!) nominations, no less than three actors recognized for any of The FighterSilver Linings Playbook, or American Hustle. That’s more than an eighth of the potential major category nominations in any of those years. And what about 2008, the last year of the capped-at-five Best Picture nods: Say we had an expanded field for Best Picture, and I bet your most likely candidates would be The Dark KnightWALL-EThe Wrestler, and Doubt—in other words, four movies already accounted for in either the acting or writing categories, or in Doubt‘s case, both.

What I think we can say with limited evidence is that it would be foolish to conclude that more Best Picture nominees has led to fewer films recognized overall. Such a conclusion, as Harris concedes, is counterintuitive for a reason, especially when there could be other explanations, like less time to watch movies that are likely to be nominated. Or maybe there’s no statistical significance to a larger field given that all other categories have remained the same size, and the Best Picture nominees are highly likely to be culled from the other categories’ ranks. Or maybe voters just really fucking love David O. Russell.

Correction: I initially said that David O. Russell won the DGA award. He didn’t. He got some weird special medallion or something. Cuarón won. I’ve changed a couple sentences accordingly.

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