By Caryn James | James on Screens January 16, 2014 at 2:06PM
Let's start by stipulating that the Oscars have little or nothing to do with art or even how good a film is. Like any political contest, movie awards are about money and campaigning and popularity and image -- so if a good idea or vision sneaks in, what luck! But the Oscars, in particular, can be valuable in drawing attention to some terrific films and performances, even while kicking other fantastic movies to the curb. Here are the best and worst choices from this year's Academy Award nominations:
With nine films nominated, Her gets in. It won't win, but Spike Jonze's affecting, timely, touching take on our relationship to computers was, for me, the year's best film. Its nomination helps take the sting out of the outsized praise for the technically dazzling but souless Gravity. I'm sorry that Inside Llewyn Davis didn't make it too, but obviously the Coen brothers' film didn't register with Oscar voters.
Let's talk about stunt acting: cross-dress, gain or lose 40
pounds, behave like a drug-addled out-of control wolf, and the Academy gives
you extra points for Conspicuous Acting. Not that Jared Leto didn't give an
affecting performance as the transgender character in Dallas Buyers Club, but Barkhad Abdi was just as compelling as the leader of the Somali pirates in Captain Phillips, and it's great that he
got a supporting actor nomination. Presumably the voters do know Abdi is not
really a Somali pirate; he's a guy who grew up in Minneapolis. But his Acting
is not as Conspicuous, so he's not likely to win.
There were so many Best Actor possibilities that someone great was bound to be left out. It seems outrageous that Robert Redford was that guy. (It also seems more than a bit political, considering that he has built Sundance and championed independent film as the antithesis of Hollywood group-think.) Matthew McConaughey lost weight, Christian Bale gained it, Leonardo DiCaprio acted deranged – they're all amazing, but Redford's restrained performance in All is Lost belonged in that group far more than Bale's fun turn in American Hustle. I'm glad Leo snuck in for Wolf of Wall Street, which would have been a totally different film without him. Who should win? It's crazy to have to choose between Bruce Dern for Nebraska and Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave – but that doesn't matter because they may both lose to McConaughey. Subtlety rarely wins.
Julia Roberts' strong performance was the best part of August: Osage County, so it's great that she got her supporting nomination.
But really – Meryl Streep's howling in Osage instead of Emma Thompson's
persnickety character in Saving Mr. Banks?
Ridiculous, but ... see above about subtlety.
With nine Best Picture nominations and only 5 directing
slots, the old argument about how a best picture gets there without a best director
is more futile than ever. I'll just note
that Spike Jonze was, as they say, robbed (and got the de rigeur consolation
prize: a screenplay nomination). And I'm relieved that Alexander Payne's nuanced
and brilliantly quiet Nebraska and
Martin Scorsese's high-voltage and brilliantly
loud Wolf of Wall Street got them into
the director's category over Paul Greengrass and his more conventional Captain Phillips.
Yay for Belgium's The
Broken Circle Breakdown, one of my Top Ten of the year, and a beautiful,
creative little film. It's hard to imagine Felix van Groeningen's small film
about love and grief beating Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, Italy's eye-candy with a veneer of art, but I hope the nomination leads more people to
Broken Circle. It almost restores my
faith in awards that the film got this far.
Another thing that almost makes me respect the Oscars: the major snub for Lee Daniels' The Butler, an easy-listening history lesson that patronizes its audiences. Even Oprah's star power and the Weinstein Company's campaign magic didn't work to get it nominations. Sometimes the Oscar voters actually get things right.