The Oscars are a yearly event in which Hollywood marries itself, and this time around the two biggest recipients of Academy love are Hugo (with 11 nominations) and The Artist (with 10). This shouldn’t be such a surprise: both are movies about how great the movies are, and at least one of them actually is.
Of course, as is usually the case with the Academy, most of the films that have been nominated are bigger with critics than moviegoers. Among the nine contenders for Best Picture, only one (The Help) crossed the $100 million mark at the box office.
Several of the others were polarizing in the extreme.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life tells the story of a family tragedy, and brings in all sorts of deep ontological themes (as well as a curious sequence involving a dying dinosaur). It alienated and inspired its way to a Best Picture nomination, as well as earning nods for its director and cinematographer. Heidegger, at least, would be proud.
The Descendants (which scored six nominations) was a surer thing, but it, too, has been divisive.
And then there’s Moneyball. Given the reviews and its quality (we’re just going to dispense with objectivity and admit that we thought it was superb), it’s not exactly a surprise that the film was nominated for Best Picture. Nevertheless, it was by no means a lock. For one thing, it came out in September and is no longer in theaters. For another, it’s almost too smart for its own good—a big, ambitious baseball pic in which the home team (the Oakland Athletics) doesn’t win in the end. Not exactly cathartic.
So few would have expected it to get six nominations, as it did.
But before we get to the meat of this piece, we’re going to give a shout to an actress whose absence in the Supporting category was entirely expected, but disappointing nevertheless: Demi Moore in Margin Call.
“WTF?” you’re probably thinking. DE-MI Moore?
To which we can only say: you should have seen it. In the film she plays a ruthless corporate executive at a company that resembles Lehman Brothers. And she’s astonishingly good. Unfortunately, the film had a tiny budget and little money for an Oscar campaign, and Moore was going through a divorce at the time of its release, which made promoting it a nightmare. Which is too bad. It is the best thing she has ever done. (Thankfully, it got a screenplay nomination.) Someone should at least send her a box of chocolates.
Without further ado, the biggest snubs and surprises …
1. SURPRISE: Gary Oldman
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy scored terrific reviews when it was released in December, but the movie and its stellar leading man, Gary Oldman, seemed to be nearly forgotten in the run-up to the Oscars. He didn’t get a Golden Globe nomination or earn a nod from the Screen Actors Guild, many of whose members nominate for the Academy as well.
2. SNUB: Leonardo DiCaprio
Leo scored both a Golden Globe nomination and a SAG nod for the title role in J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the late FBI honcho, but critics savaged the film. Clearly, it wasn’t just them rooting against it. Though the Academy loves Eastwood and has nominated DiCaprio four times in the past (most recently for 2006’s Blood Diamond), it just doesn’t love this one.
3. SURPRISE: Rooney Mara
Though the American adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has been an undeniable critical success, it stalled as it came out of the gate, not quite delivering at the box office in initial weeks and—because of its late release—missing the boat with a number of pre-Oscar awards shows. Moreover, the unbelievable violence and tough sexual imagery did not make a natural fit with the Academy, a relatively old voting bloc. Still, members have shown over and over again that they like to give career awards in the Best Actor category and prefer ingénues for Best Actress. So while it’s a surprise that Mara got nominated, it’s by no means worthy of an exclamation point.
4. SNUB: Tilda Swinton
She won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress back in 2007 (for Michael Clayton) and is beloved by virtually everyone in Hollywood—despite her Grace Jones–esque penchant for kooky designer clothes. No wonder she managed to score Golden Globe and SAG nods for her role in We Need to Talk About Kevin, playing a frigid mother whose son massacres his school. It would seem to be the kind of tough, transformative role the Academy loves, but there’s also a sense that the movie itself was a little pretentious and overdirected. Also, when a movie is that tough, not everyone sees it. Add in the Rooney Mara factor and it’s understandable (though disappointing) that Tilda got shut out.
5. SURPRISE: Melissa McCarthy
Her scene-stealing performance in Bridesmaids captured the hearts of moviegoers (to the tune of $180 million), but Melissa McCarthy did not exactly seem to have it made with the members of the Academy. Time and again, this group of voters has shown that they don’t place much of a premium on comedies, particularly the kind in which women are vomiting all over the screen. So the fact that she sneaked in there is pretty surprising.
6. SNUB: Albert Brooks
As we’ve already said, the Academy loves to give a little gold man to an older gent who dramatically reinvents himself onscreen, and it tends to like it even better if he’s a bloke who usually played likable guys and then transforms himself into a monster. Which is part of why Albert Brooks was expected by so many people to score a nod for his role as a gangster in Drive, the neo-noir about a race-car driver (Ryan Gosling) who gets caught up in a criminal enterprise.
In fact, many thought it was a two-man race between him and Christopher Plummer, whose role as a gay septuagenarian in Beginners is another “transformative” role. (Plus, the Academy loves a straight guy who goes gay.)
Still, Brooks's failure to capture a SAG-award nomination was probably an indication the campaign wasn’t going well. And without any other major nominations for the film, it’s safe to say the older voters in the Academy just didn’t quite get the film.
Color us devastated.
7. SURPRISE: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
This adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestselling novel would seem to have it made with members of the Academy. It’s a post-9/11 tearjerker featuring terrific performances by Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Unfortunately, the film has also been criticized as being overdirected (by Stephen Daldry), and Thomas Horn’s performance as the boy at the center of the story is not exactly what you would call “relatable.” First, it got savaged by critics. Then it failed to pick up steam in the pre-Oscar derby. So its sneaking in there is a testament to producer Scott Rudin, and perhaps its subject matter, which is just the sort the Academy loves to reward.
8. SNUB: Steven Spielberg
Spielberg almost always cleans up come Oscar time, so his failure to earn a slot among the directors will no doubt raise a certain number of eyebrows. Still, this was actually a fairly crowded category (David Fincher also got snubbed), and War Horse’s nom for Best Picture (nine films were nominated in that category, compared with five people for director) is a way for the Academy to acknowledge his work without having to go over the moon for him for two movies of his (the other was The Adventures of Tintin) that it didn’t quite love.
With Tintin, it may not solely be a question of quality: apparently, the animators are somewhat conservative, and don't get behind movies that blend live action with animation. Nevertheless, The Adventures of Tintin ... directed by Steven Spielberg ... in a year with virtually no competition for animated films? Snubbed? Beaten out of a nomination by little-heard-of movies like A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita? Wow.
9. SURPRISE: Demián Bichir
A Better Life was a well-reviewed but little-seen movie that came out back in June, starring a little-known actor named Demián Bichir. Thankfully, its subject matter—a Mexican immigrant fighting to keep his son away from gang life—is the sort of fare the Academy loves.
10. SNUB: Michael Fassbender
Fassbender won plaudits for his frank portrayal of a sex addict in Steve McQueen’s Shame. He even took all his clothes off. A slew of awards buzz followed, but not a nomination, a sign that the academy may have felt both a little uneasy and manipulated by the movie’s subject matter.
11. SNUB: Young Adult
A terrific performance from Charlize Theron. A hilarious script from Diablo Cody. Reviews that were practically over the moon. But Young Adult, the story of a single woman in her late 30s who goes back to her hometown with the intention of stealing her high-school boyfriend from his wife, is also dark, dark, dark, and uncomfortable to watch in much the way that 2010's Greenberg was. Moreover, the Academy's older voting bloc is never all that generous to young filmmakers, particularly ones who are extremely confident of their own abilities. In 2009, director Jason Reitman made a comment about how "good" his movie Up in the Air was while working the Oscar circuit, and that was more or less the end of its chances on the big night. So the Academy may still be holding it against him. Plus, Young Adult is a comedy, and we all know how the Academy feels about comedies.