Friday, January 11, 2013

You've Got To Accentuate The Positive: What's Good About The 2013 Oscar Nominations?

It's very easy to be cynical about the Oscars, especially since at their worst, they're little more than a smug, self-satisfied display of onanism practiced by people who already have too many reasons to feel pleased with themselves. This year's ceremony could potentially be even worse thanks to the presence of host Seth Macfarlane, a man who is the very embodiment of smug, self-satisfied onanism. At their best, though, the Academy Awards act as a celebration of the pageantry and magic of the movies, and even a disastrous slate of nominations can provide for plenty of discourse, and a car-crash of an awards ceremony promises to be great fodder for the rubberneckers of the world.

As far as the nominations go, this year's seems pretty reflective of the good, not great nature of 2012. There's plenty to get annoyed about - the exclusion of The Master from Director or Picture, whilst understandable, is irritating - but most of the films are solid, middlebrow fare from a year that provided plenty of it. As always, the really interesting stuff never gets a shot at the Oscars (Ann Dowd certainly deserved a Best Actress nomination for Compliance) except in crazy years where something like The Tree of Life somehow gets a look in. For the films not nominated, it's probably a greater tribute to know that they will live on and grow in esteem regardless of whether or not their creators get to sit in an old theater and be bored for several hours.

Whilst it's all too easy to focus on what the Academy gets wrong, it's valuable to point out what they got right. Even a fairly bland, predictable slate like this year's has some delights buried within it, and I think it's worth celebrating them.

Delight No. 1: Searching for Sugar Man's nomination for Best Documentary

It's either Rodriguez or a lost member of Suede. Perhaps we will never know.
Whilst the overwhelming goodwill and critical acclaim that greeted Malik Bendjelloul's documentary about the unlikely life and even more unlikely resurrection of '60s musician Rodriguez meant that it had a pretty good shot at a nomination, it's nevertheless a pleasure to see it get such prominent recognition. A large part of the point of the Oscars is to draw attention to the films nominated, and hopefully this will bring more people to discover this charming, life-affirming film, which came a hair's breadth away from being my favourite film of 2012.

Delight No. 2: The very real possibility that Roger Deakins might finally win an Oscar

They'll go with Skyfall, but they'll be thinking of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
At this point, Roger Deakins is the Federico Fellini or Peter O'Toole of Cinematographers: a fantastically brilliant craftsman who has raised the art of making movies beautiful to its highest point, a man rightly hailed as being almost without equal, yet who has somehow never quite managed to clinch that statue which would stand as a testament to the esteem in which he is held. Deakins has been nominated a staggering 10 times since his first nomination for The Shawshank Redemption in 1995, and with his tenth coming from his work on the gargantuan smash that is Skyfall, there seems a definite chance that he might finally get to take home an Oscar, if only as belated recognition for the umpteen other great looking films on his resume. Even if he loses, he will be one step closer to toppling Kevin O'Connell as the person nominated for the most Oscars without winning a single one.

Delight No. 3: The lack of nominations for Hitchcock, Promised Land or Hyde Park on Hudson

Matt realised too late that Ben had lied to him about where the Oscar ceremony was being held
People often decry the Oscars for being too middlebrow and for only rewarding a certain breed of self-consciously worthy films about important people and subjects. Whilst that is as true this year as any other, given the complete domination of Lincoln over the proceedings (though, to be fair, most Academy members can remember where they were the day that Lincoln was assassinated, so a film about him was always going to be an emotive issue) at the very least they allowed a really, really good middlebrow film about an important person to lord it over all others. The Academy refused to take the bait and recognise the superficial Hitchcock, ponderous Promised Land or downright insulting Hyde Park on Hudson, so I think we can all feel a little better about them not giving The Master or Cloud Atlas their due.

Delight No. 4: Amour escaping the Foreign Language Ghetto

"I can't believe I wasn't nominated!"
I never thought I'd ever get to associate Michael Haneke with the word "delight," except perhaps by describing a situation in which one of his characters mercilessly tortured innocent people whilst eating a Turkish Delight. Ever since his grueling debut The Seventh Continent was released back in 1989, Haneke has been the go-to man for austere, emotionally draining and provocative cinema, and he has rightly been acclaimed as both a master of his craft and as a fiendishly severe and intelligent artist. In short, he is not the sort of person you would ever expect to see nominated for a fluffy old Academy Award (though his decidedly unfluffy 2009 film The White Ribbon was, normal rules about what constitutes an Oscar film don't really apply to the Foreign Language film).

Amour is a more quietly devastating film than, for example, Funny Games, and it was generally expected that the film would pick up a nod for Emmanuelle Riva for Lead Actress in addition to an assured Foreign Language nomination, but there remains a barrier that most world cinema never seems to be able to cross when it comes to cracking the major awards (with exceptions such as last year, when A Separation was nominated for best Original Screenplay) and it seemed that Amour would be the latest to bash its head against that barrier to no avail. So for it to get nominations for Screenplay, Director and Picture is nothing short of astonishing. There's almost no chance that it will win, obviously, but in this instance, it truly is an achievement just being nominated.

Delight No. 5: The scant love for The Master

This remake of On The Town has taken a dark turn...
At this point in his career, Paul Thomas Anderson doesn't really have much else left to prove. In the eyes of many people, he is one of the best, if not the best, directors of his generation, an artist who started great and has evolved in fascinated and unexpected ways over time. The Master was his follow-up to There Will Be Blood, probably one of the greatest films ever made, and whilst it's a great film in its own right, it does pale somewhat next to the towering dark plume of Daniel Plainview and his gushing pillars of oil. It also doesn't help that it is a fiercely difficult film with no sympathetic characters and which makes few concessions to traditional narrative film-making. In short, it's not Oscar material, and probably would only be thought of as such thanks to the pedigree of its director.

With all that said, it's a shame (and most likely due to the efforts of minions of Xenu) that it didn't pick up deserved nominations for music or cinematography. That indignity is salved somewhat by its strong showing in the acting categories, as well as the correct designation of Joaquin Phoenix as Best Actor and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Supporting. This might seem a trivial point, but I'm still mad about Forest Whittaker winning Best Actor for The Last King of Scotland when he was clearly not the lead. And relax.

Delight No. 6: The nomination for Paperman in Best Animated Short

He's even more upset about all the nominations for Silver Linings Playbook than I am
Whilst it's great to see that Wreck-It Ralph has been nominated in the Best Animated Feature category and I hope that it wins (though the rest of the field is pretty strong and I'd be happy with any of them), I'm more invested in the fortunes of the plucky little short that played before it in theatres. A heartwarming, sweet and funny film about a man who spots a beautiful woman on the train and then spends the rest of his day trying to get her attention using paper planes, it's a simply gorgeous and achingly romantic film that bowled me over when I saw it in the cinema.

Delight No. 7: Quvenzhané Wallis being nominated for Best Actress for Beasts of the Southern Wild

Roaming charges are atrocious on a phone that can literally roam around
I'm not the biggest fan of Beasts of the Southern Wild, which I thought was visually beautiful but which otherwise did nothing for me, but it would take a stone-cold bastard not to recognise how wonderful Quvenzhané Wallis was in the lead role, and it's hard not to root for her, as the youngest ever nominee for Best Actress, to do well. (Even if it would mean beating Emmanuelle Riva, who is the oldest nominee for Best Actress ever.) We should probably prepare ourselves for a lot of fumbling, mumbling, bumbling people trying to pronounce her name correctly on the night, though.

Delight No. 8: Not letting controversy get in the way of nominating Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty for Best Picture

I would pay good money to see Jamie Foxx wear this down the red carpet. And by "good," I mean "no," because that was a lie, but I would still like to see it happen.
The Oscars are about as edge as a beach ball. That's not necessarily a critique, more a statement about their tendency to favour the safe and familiar (see: King's Speech, The) over the daring and audacious (see: Social Network, The) because that's what tends to happen when you try to form a consensus on what constitutes the best films of the year. The more agreeable options tend to rise to the top. Considering that both Kathryn Bigelow's account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and Quentin Tarantino's bloody Western/critique of slavery have accrued their fair share of controversy and apoplexy over the past few weeks, it would have been easy for Academy voters to turn their nose up at them to avoid causing further controversy. Yet in this instance, quality has won out, and two impressive, absorbing and combative films have been rightly celebrated for the crazy risks their creators took in making them.

Of course, it would have been even better if they had nominated Bigelow for Director, but this is not a place for negativity. It's all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows right now.

Delight No. 9: Ted being nominated for Best Original Song

Mark Wahlberg seems really surprised to discover he has a middle finger
Actually, "delight" isn't the word. What was I thinking of? Oh yes, "fucking travesty." Look, I like Ted more than most. I think it's on average a funny film, albeit one with great deserts of awkward silence between the oases of humour, but "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" is an unremarkable song, and this nomination seems to be more a way of throwing a bone to the host than actual recognition of merit.

Mainly, though, this nomination rubs me the wrong way because it gives me hellish visions of a situation in which Seth Macfarlane wins on the night and spends the rest of the telecast parading around with his statuette and slowly disappearing up his own rectum. It'd be like if William S. Burroughs scripted the Oscars telecast and it would be horrifying, yet strangely watchable. In reality, I fear that it might be the former without the later.