Sorry, but I'm not one of those people who gets all worked up about Oscar's sins of omission. I know my personal taste in movies is way off in the outer limits of mainstream Hollywood culture, so I never expect the movies I like best in any given year to even be in the running, let alone win gold. Imagine my shock in 2009 when my second-favorite film of the previous year, Slumdog Millionaire, actually won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I figured either the Academy was getting smarter or I was getting more lenient in my dotage. Or Door Number Three: the Academy had been taken over by aliens, still the most logical explanation.
(What beat out Slumdog for my favorite movie of 2008? It was the magnificent The Fall, which went on to rank #3 in my Top Ten Movies of the Decade, although—surprise!—it received zero recognition from Academy voters.)
So I have to say that this year's Oscar nominations are at least (and at best) par for the course. This year's safe, "Masterpiece Theatre" entry, The King's Speech, cleans up in nominations—as well it might, excellent as it is in every department. Expanding the Best Picture category to 10 titles gives the Academy a chance to recognize some smaller, dark horse contenders that might formerly have slipped through the cracks at awards time (like the equally excellent—in its own, weird way—Winter's Bone), although we all know the five serious contenders are those whose directors are also nominated in their category. With the addition of Toy Story 3D, that places three of my personal 10 favorite movies of the year on Oscar's list—a pretty remarkable average, all things considered. (Hmmm ... maybe the Academy IS getting smarter...)
(Btw: conventional wisdom says that TS3D won't win because it's also up for Best Animated Feature, which it IS sure to win. Apropos of which, don't miss Wallace Baine's impassioned article calling on the Academy to disband the Animated Feature category and let the worthy animated films duke it out with the live action features. Good point, sez I. It's the message, not the medium; a beguiling film like TS3D (like the utterly wonderful Up last year, also nominated for Best Picture) is equal in emotional resonance, wit, and heart to any other film on the list—and superior to most.)
By now, we all know how often Oscar accolades are cumulative, honoring a body of work (think of John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn, or Paul Newman in The Color of Money, or Martin Scorsese for, erm, The Departed?). Or at least retroactive. Don't get me wrong, Heath Ledger deserved every inch of Oscar gold he won for his breathtaking Joker in The Dark Knight, but you know the Academy was suffering a collective case of (posthumous) bestowers' remorse over not having awarded him the Best Actor Oscar he so richly deserved for Brokeback Mountain a couple of years earlier. The retroactive factor is the primary reason we can expect to see Colin Firth claim the gold this year for The King's Speech, after his fine performance last year in A Single Man lost out to Jeff Bridges—who was winning HIS well-deserved cumulative award for Crazy Heart. (How Bridges himself managed to evade Oscar recognition for so long in such incredible performances as Fearless, and Starman remains one of the great mysteries of the age. Not to mention his criminally un-nominated performance as the scruffy, disorderly children's book author/artist in The Door in the Floor in 2004. He even did his own artwork!)
(Jeff Bridges in The Door in the Floor. Go stream it this minute!)
I'm convinced the main reason Johnny Depp was getting all those nominations for awhile (Finding Neverland; Sweeney Todd) was because Oscar voters neglected to hand him the gold after nominating him for Best Actor in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I'm serious! Nothing against Sean Penn (who won that year for Mystic River), but any great actor can act. What Depp did was create a classic and enduring movie icon, virtually out of whole cloth. Captain Jack Sparrow as we know him was not conceived in the script or out of the director's vision; he sprang as fully-formed as Athena out of the fervid, goofball imagination of Johnny Depp.
But I digress. Despite my habitually lowered expectations, there is one especially glaring omission among this year's Oscar nominees that can neither be ignored nor rationalized away. The category is Best Actress, and, Academy voters, I have two little words to say to you: Noomi Rapace. She is, of course, the woman who played Lisbeth Salander in all three of the "Millenium Trilogy" movies released this year: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Yes, the films and the performance are in Swedish, but that doesn't stop the incendiary Rapace from giving the iconic female movie performance of the year. It might be argued that the part itself is so iconic, half the actress' work is done for her, but an actress with one iota less of Rapace's guts, sass, vulnerability and smoldering righteousness could never have brought it off. Oscar voters, what were you thinking?
On the other hand, it's nice to see Christian Bale moving into the frontrunner's position in the Supporting Actor race. Although his career trajectory put him on the fast track for leading man roles early on, he's always been a character actor at heart, with a taste for the edgy. (How about his self-imploding insomniac in The Machinist, or downed Air Force pilot Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn? And what other actor would even consider American Psycho?) He's paid his Hollywood superhero dues as well, but he's savvy enough to know you don't win Oscars for playing Batman; you win them for playing The Joker. Bale gets his juicy Joker role in The Fighter, as a jittery, crack-addled ex-boxer running on the fumes of a once-promising life (and career), and he makes something pretty amazing out of it.
Finally, in the Heath Ledger Memorial "What's A Guy Gotta Do To Get An Oscar Around Here?" category, consider Christopher Nolan. It's one thing that he's not nominated for directing Inception, one of the year's most intriguing thrill rides (although the film itself made it on to Oscar's Top 10). But neither Nolan nor his phenomenal Memento was even nominated back in 2002. In both cases, Nolan at least snagged a screenwriting nomination (impossibly, he didn't win for the intricate and audacious Memento, losing to the safe bet, Gosford Park), but come on, kids, these movies don't direct themselves.
PS: If you want to see where the next generation of Christopher Nolans is coming from, drop by Open Projector Night on Thursday (Feb 3), 5-8 pm at the Vino Tabi Winery in the Swift Street Courtyard out on the West Side. Presented under the auspices of the Santa Cruz Film Festival, it's a chance for budding filmmakers to bring their short films (10 minutes or less) to show on a big screen before an appreciative audience. No entrance fee; first come, first screened. There'll be wine, munchies, and camaraderie; here's the lowdown.