Yesterday morning The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced their nominees for this year’s Oscars. As always, the prognosticators did not get it 100% right. There are a few surprises, both in terms of what got nominated and what got snubbed. Here is the highly subjective, yet completely correct guide to what should piss you off, what should surprise you, and how to chat about the major awards at the proverbial water cooler (i.e. on Twitter and Facebook).
Biggest surprise: Hacksaw Ridge. Mel Gibson’s WW2 thriller is easily the worst film of the Best Picture nominees. It is hypocritical, simplistic, and straining for religious depth it does not earn. It is also violent, well-shot, and jingoistic. Mel Gibson is a natural filmmaker, but his values are so warped that Hacksaw Ridge falls apart on every level that matters.
Biggest snub: Loving. Jeff Nichols’ historical drama was quietly one of the year’s best films. Its themes of civil rights, as well as the self-determination to choose who we get to love, is a stark reminder of how most Americans want basic dignity, and to be left alone.
Stray observations: La La Land will probably win (I’m going to say this a lot, just as a fair warning).
Biggest surprise: Mel Gibson. Once again, an actor/director overshadows one of our country’s best filmmakers. This leads me to the biggest snub…
Biggest snub: Martin Scorsese. Silence was one of the year’s best, most challenging films, and Scorsese’s unique style – coupled with his unparalleled knowledge of history – serve the tough, thoughtful spiritual themes (Scorsese also lost Best Director to Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, and Clint Eastwood). For more on Scorsese’s work, I recommend this blog post by New York Times critic Glenn Kenny.
Stray observations: This is probably the award I care about most, and you should, too. While Chazelle is a favorite, Jenkins’ work is more evocative and consistent. Don’t get me wrong, I love La La Land, but it sags with its middle act. Jenkins never hits a wrong note, mixing tones and modes toward a powerful, devastating climax.
Biggest snub: Joel Edgerton. As I wrote over at RogerEbert.com, “Almost wordlessly, he conveys an important truth that all married people internalize: that no one will ever fully understand their marriage.”
Stray observations: Controversy notwithstanding, this is Affleck’s year. In recent years, it seems like there is always one clear front-runner for Best Actor, and this one is arguably clearer than DiCaprio last year. We’ll know for sure after the SAG awards.
Biggest surprise: Ruth Negga. She’s the yin to the yang of Edgerton’s snub, I suppose.
Biggest snub: Amy Adams. Like Sigourney Weaver, who got an Oscar nomination for Aliens, Arrival is a science fiction film where the female lead commands nearly every scene of the film. Arrival is more challenging than it initially seems, and it would absolutely fall apart without Adams, who handily holds it all together.
Stray observations: Emma Stone will probably win, if only for the reason that the Academy loves it when big-eyed actresses sing at them (e.g. Anne Hathaway). And even with Streep’s 20th nomination and yet another snub of Annette Bening, this is a strong field.
Best Supporting Actor
Biggest surprise: Michael Shannon. Aaron Taylor-Johnson won the Golden Globe from the same movie, and while Shannon was in a staggering NINE film this past year, his turn as a sickly cop in Nocturnal Animals was not one of the most memorable.
Biggest snub: Moonlight. Because of Moonlight’s structure – six actors play two characters, at three different time periods – the Academy could have gone with any of them. My personal choice would have been Andre Holland, but any of them would be deserving.
Stray thoughts: Mahershala Ali had a great year, and I’m fairly confident it will end it with an Oscar. Hedge is not a dark horse, exactly, but it’s still nice to see a youth performance get recognized.
Best Supporting Actress
Biggest surprise/snub: None. This is a great crop of actors.
Stray thoughts: Viola Davis might be the only winner this year who is more of a lock than La La Land.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Biggest surprise: Fences. I’ve read persuasive, well-argued essays about how August Wilson – who wrote Fences – is Shakespeare’s equal as a playwright. Still, it’s strange to see posthumous nomination when the nominee in question has been gone for over ten years.
Biggest snub: Love and Friendship. Whit Stillman received a nomination on his first film, Metropolitan, and yet his adaption of an epistolary Jane Austen novella might be his most accomplished work. It internalizes something about Austen that most adaptations do not: she is funnier and more incisive than she is romantic.
Stray thoughts: Moonlight will probably win this award as a La La Land consolation prize.
Best Original Screenplay
Biggest surprise/snub: None. This is a solid crop of nominees, although I suppose it’s noteworthy the Academy recognizes something as strange as The Lobster.
Stray thoughts: La La Land is the clear favorite, and yet Mike Mills’ rich screenplay for 20th Century Women is gorgeously written, with the kind of dialogue that’s gently acute without being too twee for its own sake.
Best Foreign Language Film
Land of Mine
A Man Called Ove
Biggest surprise: The Salesman. Iran’s nominee is from Asghar Farhadi’s, one of the world’s top filmmakers, and yet this entry is a minor entry in an other staggering filmography.
Biggest snub: The Handmaiden. I don’t get why South Korea chose another film as its official Oscar entry, since it is gorgeous, funny, sexy, and strange. On technical awards alone, it deserves a nomination alongside the standard Hollywood fare.
Stray observations: This is a tough one to predict, and not just because I’ve only seen two of the films. My choice would be Toni Erdmann, the German comedy that includes transgressive nudity and the best damn cover of Whitney Houston I’ve ever heard.
Best Documentary Feature
O.J.: Made in America
Fire at Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Biggest surprise: I Am Not Your Negro. This documentary has an unusual structure – it is a lose adaptation of an unpublished James Baldwin book – but it amounts to something that’s relevant and challenging. This is one of the year’s best films, including fiction (it comes out in D.C. on February 3rd).
Biggest snub: Zero Days. Right before we collectively realized The Cold War is still a thing, Alex Gibney’s national security documentary is a penetrating look at cyber warfare, and how it’s perpetrated by nation-state with loosely aligned interests.
Stray thoughts: In terms of sheer ambition and watchability, nothing quite reaches OJ: Made an America. If it ultimately wins, will it be the longest feature to receive an Oscar?
Best Original Song
Biggest surprise: “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” It’s not one of the best songs in La La Land (more on that later), and I figured the Academy would focus on one song per movie.
Biggest snub: “Someone in the Crowd.” Hands down, the ambitious “ode to networking” song is the most fun, infectious song in the film. But it’s performed by company singers/dancers, not Stone or Gosling, so I guess the journeymen actors get the short end in favor of glitzy Hollywood glamor.
Stray thoughts: As my wife observed, if La La Land splits the vote, Lin-Manuel Miranda could win for Moana and become the youngest performer to ever win an EGOT.
Biggest surprise: Silence. I almost wish Silence was just completely shut out, just so it would be more quickly remember as an unfairly maligned masterpiece.
Biggest snub: The Witch. While The Witch is not exactly the sort of film that the Academy usually recognizes, the stunning compositions and natural light set it aside from many other nominees this year.
Stray thoughts: Everyone in D.C. should cheer for Bradford Young. Not only did he do stunning work in Arrival, he’s also a graduate of Howard University.
That’s it for this year’s Oscar guide! You may notice that the guide includes few predictions, and that’s because the next six weeks of campaigning and box office receipts may been the difference between a statue and the forced smile of loss. Who knows? Maybe La La Land won’t actually win everything!