Top Ten: 2012 Oscar Snubs
10. Best Original Song: “The Sambola! International Dance Craze” from Damsels in Distress
I knew this one would never happen, but bear with me. Whit Stillman’s films are lightly melancholy musical comedies, with the musicality emanating from his richly stylized dialogue when not actually in the form of a tune like “Love Train” from the end of Last of Days of Disco. Damsels in Distress is both his lightest and least earthbound film to date, wrapping college-age protagonist Violet’s (Greta Gerwig) do-gooder attempts at suicide prevention in, among other things, the form of a forced dance craze called the Sambola, a kind of mash-up of the cha-cha, waltz, and tango. The accompanying song (credited to Jeff Young and the World Sambola Chorus) is an unassuming, bouncy little number perfect as background for the dance moves and would be a fittingly daffy nomination for one of America’s foremost writer/director/satirist/entertainers.
Who Should Get Bumped? As much as I’m appalled by the addition of “Suddenly” to Les Misérables in a transparent attempt to compete for Best Original Song, I don’t want to have to read or hear about “the Academy Award-nominated Ted,” so away goes “Everybody Needs a Best Friend.”
9. Best Actor: Jack Black in Bernie
The lovably manic persona of Jack Black isn’t a magnet for awards, but director Richard Linklater seems to bring out the best in it. In 2003′s School of Rock, Linklater and screenwriter Mike White crafted the ingratiating and palpably Jack Black-esque Dewey Finn, wannabe rock ‘n’ roller thrust into the position of schoolteacher, earning the actor a Golden Globe nomination in the comedy lead acting category. Interestingly, that year’s award went to Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, whose full embodiment of witty melancholy is comparable to what Black does in Linklater’s latest, Bernie, a social dramedy based on a real murder case and penned by Linklater and journalist Skip Hollandsworth. Black subsumes his usual physical antics without compromising his sweet center of personable charm, inhabiting a morally-ambiguous figure whose outward charisma may hide something darker. As speculated on by a bevy of townsfolk talking heads, some of whom are real and others of whom are actors, Black’s Bernie Tiede is shaped by both what we see him do and how we perceive him through gossip and idle chatter, turning him into a larger-than-life figure even while Black’s performance keeps him downright human.
Who Should Get Bumped? The Best Actor category is, as usual, strongly full of contenders, but the one nominee that seemed to have ridden his film’s coattails into a spot on the shortlist is Hugh Jackman of Les Misérables.
8. Best Visual Effects: Cloud Atlas
While I found it on the whole overblown and far too ambitious for its grasp, Tom Tykwer’s and the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas deserved its spot on the Best Visual Effects shortlist and should have been one of the five contenders for the Oscar. The efforts of a range of visual effects supervisors from an assortment of companies brought to life multiple time periods and locations, most notably the sleekly futuristic Neo Seoul in which special effects take center stage. In this strand of the epic saga of fate and freedom, Doona Bae plays a series of clones, including one who joins a rebellion against the despotic ruling class. These sequences are clearly the work of the Wachowskis, previously the directors of The Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer, and V for Vendetta, and it retains aspects both aesthetic and thematic from each of those films, as well as being reminiscent of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element. Besides the exciting chases and near-death escapes that pepper the narrative, there are also numerous screens, signs, and graphics within the world itself that are kept relatively unobtrusive. With a $100 million budget, Cloud Atlas boasts a whole host of other visual effects outside the Neo Seoul segment, constituting, along with the score, the incontestable triumph of the film.
Who Should Get Bumped? Despite a handsome sequence in which Michael Fassbender moves awestruck through a room-sized hologram, I found Prometheus to be merely typical in its visual effects.
7. Best Original Screenplay: Rian Johnson for Looper
Rian Johnson’s previous films, Brick and The Brothers Bloom, were beguiling and uncommonly poised genre exercises with heart and soul. His third film, Looper, is ostensibly a dystopian time-travel thriller with deep veins of regret and trauma, a surprising dimension to an entertaining work of science-fiction. Johnson’s screenplay weaves these elements with imaginative chronological jumps and visual parallels between the morally naive Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his more seasoned, dyspeptic future self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis). Time-travel is very much a structural conceit tied into Old Joe’s rueful memory and Young Joe’s dawning ethical awareness, picturing his potential place in the world with a clarity unavailable to the rest of us. Even outside of these themes, the film manages to sketch out its future world with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of lived-in detail, both in the characters’ world-weariness and its few but precise genre signifiers such as solar panels.
Who Should Get Bumped? Putting aside the ambiguity of Mark Boal’s original screenplay nomination, the only nominee I have not seen is Flight, and from what I’ve read, John Gatins’s script is problematic and buoyed by Denzel’s lead performance and some special visual effects.
6. Best Foreign Language Film: Barbara, Life without Principle, Sister
The group of Best Foreign Language Film nominees is yearly plagued with weird choices and blatant omissions due to the category’s wonky rules involving each country’s self-selection and the one-film-per-country caveat. This year’s surprise came at the expense of France’s crowd-pleaser The Intouchables, but three of my favorite movies of the year were submitted by their home countries but passed over by the nominating committee. Ursula Meier’s fleet, superlative Sister from Switzerland boasts of a well-told but strained family dynamic between the constantly-moving, quick-thinking young Kacey Mottet Klein and Léa Seydoux, and even made the shortlist of nominees, but perhaps it was too low-key compared to its competition. Two icy and exceedingly political films from Hong Kong and Germany, respectively, Life without Principle and Barbara, are tightly-honed and extremely relevant. Johnnie To and Christian Petzold are internationally-renowned directors who make ostensible genre films that explode any category that tries to hold them, and this year’s works are no different. These picks, not to mention the likes of Holy Motors, Unforgivable, and Oslo, August 31st, which were either not put forward by their home countries or caught in the vagaries of international distribution, would have bestowed upon the category an edge that it sorely lacks.
Who Should Get Bumped? As in the years of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Life is Beautiful, and Z, the movie nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture is the presumptive winner in the former category and a nice footnote in the latter, so Amour stays. The next most artistically-valid nominee appears to be Pablo Larraín’s No from Chile, leaving Kon-Tiki, A Royal Affair, and War Witch to be the unfortunate films that would need to be dropped.
5. Best Actress: Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea
Amazingly, neither the BAFTAs nor the Academy nominated Rachel Weisz’s full-bodied turn in Terence Davies’s brutally elegant The Deep Blue Sea; only the Golden Globes managed to fit her into their dramatic category. Since her multi-award-winning role in The Constant Gardener, Weisz has accumulated a fascinating range of strong roles, from the dark and intense in The Fountain and The Whistleblower to the sympathetic and whimsical in Agora and The Brothers Bloom, but only this film has afforded her the full tragedy and empathetic writer/director that can bring out her best. At times tearful and at other times defiant, hot-bloodedly committed to romance only to endure its icy consequences, Weisz’s Hester Collyer encompasses a wide swath of emotion during her anguished postwar life, lovingly embraced by the shadow and candlelight of Davies’s mise-en-scène. She remains recklessly old-fashioned to the last, projecting a resigned heroism that outlasts in the memory so many of the other female performances this year.
Who Should Get Bumped? As exciting as it is to have both the oldest-ever and youngest-ever acting nominees in the same category, it’s a little too early to let Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s Quvenzhané Wallis into the nominees’ club.
4. Best Supporting Actor: Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike
Matthew McConaughey had a banner year in 2012, starring or supporting in three releases that considerably deepened his credibility as a performer and graduated from a dependable if unremarkable leading man to a foremost character actor. The least accomplished performance of the three is his prosecutor in Bernie, perhaps too Texan even for a film chock-full of sun-dried Texans, and his villainous Killer Joe is much too carnivorous and ferocious for Academy voters, leaving his overconfident showboat of a stripper and club owner Dallas in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike as the closest possible Oscar nomination and thus biggest snub. He steals scenes with suave confidence and lands the most memorable sequence drawling and cajoling out the original song “Ladies of Tampa” to an appreciative clientele. Yet there’s a deep undercurrent of melancholic desperation beneath his tan that makes him the most fascinating character in the film, many shades deeper and more startling than Channing Tatum’s erstwhile protagonist. Hopefully moving on from rom-coms and generic action-adventure, Matthew McConaughey may be beginning the best phase of his career.
3. Best Supporting Actor: Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained
For quite a while Samuel L. Jackson has merely been coasting on his rambunctiously profane persona, with only Quentin Tarantino seemingly able to showcase the genuine dangerousness beneath his comfortably cool exterior. Before being Nick Fury, Mace Windu, or in the infinitely YouTube-able Deep Blue Sea, Jackson’s roles as Ordell Robbie in Jackie Brown and Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction married blaxploitation confidence with modern wit and vitality; now his deceptive turn in Tarantino’s most recent film, Django Unchained, gives him an eerie historical canvas that even those previous roles lacked. His household slave Stephen (derived from Stepin Fetchit) obsequiously tends to his master Calvin Candie (an also snubbed but more showboating Leonard DiCaprio) in public but reveals his truly masterminding self in private, making him the most dangerous opponent and actual symbolic nemesis to Jamie Foxx’s protagonist Django, all pent-up rage masquerading as the servant of a white man.
Who Should Get Bumped? Ironically, Jackson will take the place of one of his hated enemies, the equally deceptive Christoph Waltz, and McConaughey will replace the perfectly-serviceable Alan Arkin, whose Argo turn is a merely the sarcastic, warm-hearted curmudgeon that Arkin could and does play in his sleep.
2. Best Production Design: Moonrise Kingdom
Moonrise Kingdom‘s set decorator Kris Moran and production designer Adam Stockhausen have production credits ranging from writer/director Wes Anderson’s previous films to recent efforts by Wes Craven, Charlie Kaufman, and Todd Solondz, which might give a taste of the subversively Norman Rockwell aesthetic that is the imaginary island of New Penzance. The home of dreamily rebellious Suzy (Kara Hayward) has the opened-up dollhouse look of Anderson’s previous locations like the vessel of The Life Aquatic or the Tenenbaum residence yet realistically resides in its time frame of 1965. Anderson’s so far only period piece benefits wondrously from numerous found objects, among them Suzy’s portable record player and the Khaki Scouts’ pup tents, as well as the whimsical and lovingly-designed church-turned-theater in which Benjamin Britten’s opera is staged. The Academy too often nominates the fantastical or the banally-obvious kinds of period details, so it would have been nice to have had Anderson’s candy-colored storybook vision finally nominated in a category so obviously dear to his heart.
Who Should Get Bumped? The craftspeople behind nominated films are so typically unsung that it’s difficult to remove them from such a privileged place as the list of Academy Award nominees, so I’ll refrain this one time.
1. Best Director: Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master
As divisive as Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was for critics and regular moviegoers, it still earned Oscar nominations for its three leads, Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Most complaints could be laid at the feet of Anderson the writer, but Anderson the director (while also of course conceding overall responsibility for the transformation of the screenplay) have much less to be forgiven about where sheer craft is concerned. As one of the most celebrated young writer/directors of the 1990s, Anderson has been the object of adulation by cinephiles for his expansive multi-character dramas and fluid cinematography, but with his previous works Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood (for which he was also nominated for Best Director), he’s subtly shifted into a register inseparable from and anchored to his volatile protagonist. The Master continues this trend, telling the intertwined tale of imbalanced navy vet Freddie Quell (Phoenix) and charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) with arresting images and an unsparingly intense gaze. The Scientology angle is a mere red herring when compared to Anderson’s rigorous weaving together of a deceptively untamed lead performance, discordant score, and unfurling canvas of mid-20th century American history and culture into a boldly idiosyncratic vision that could only have come from his mind’s eye.
Who Should Get Bumped? With nine nominations for Best Picture, there are bound to be numerous omissions from the list of five Best Director nominees. Still, despite its Best Picture nod, the newest nominee in the pack and the director of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Behn Zeitlin, should have been passed over and felt lucky for his debut to have been listed as part of the final nine for the big prize.