The Oscar nominations have come and gone and more than a few head-scratchers reared up along the way. Why didn’t Transformers: Age of Extinction (regardless of what you thought of the film as a whole) not get a Best Visual Effects nod? When will Andy Serkis get an acting nomination for his unparalleled motion-capture performances? And what the Hell happened with The Lego Movie‘s Best Animated Feature nomination? It’s time to break down the major catgories and find out exactly who to bet on come Oscar night.
Best Picture – Despite its straight-forward purpose – awarding the overall best film of the year – Best Picture as a category has always been kind of strange. It originally only featured three nominees, which was immediately changed to five the following year. It switched over to ten nominees before too long, and even had twelve for a brief stretch. It settled back on five and kept it that way until criticism over The Dark Knight‘s exclusion from the category prompted the Academy to up it to ten again. Now, facing criticism for their being too many sub-par films competing against one another, they’ve settled on a compromise: as many as ten nominees and as few as five, so long as each nominee gets at least 10% of the Academy’s voters to pick it as their #1 of the year.
This makes for an incredibly unpredictable crop of nominees: chosen for their acute intensity of support, rather than the broadness of it. Movies that everyone likes well enough (like Up in 2010) won’t make the cut over ones that a (relatively) small group of people love obsessively much (like The Tree of Life). It only makes sense then why broad, mainstream crowdpleasers (even ones that are cloaked in critical praise) didn’t make the list over relative obscurities that only appeal to a certain movie-going demographic. Boyhood, Birdman and Whiplash earing a nomination should really come as a surprise to nobody. Each has amassed a rabid fanbase among Academy voters, drawn in either by its well-executed gimick (Boyhood), its stylish lampooning of “lesser” art (Birdman) or the sheer visceral intensity of its cast (Whiplash).
Like any one person, the Academy has its own peculiar tastes and preferences when it comes to film. The American film industry is intensely liberal, and empassionately wraps itself in the cloak of progressivism politics. This is why Selma and The Imitation Game – films about social injustices comitted against groups of people guilty of no crime other than deviating from the mainstream – are among this years nominees: that and the fact that both are exceptional films. This is also tangentially why American Sniper was chosen, joining the ranks of The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo; Academy voters are keen to hold a magnifying glass to the realities of the turmoil in the Middle East (and especially to the War on Terror).
The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s nomination both does and does not surprise me. Wes Anderson’s always had a strong appeal within the writing branch, but he had simply never succeeded in parleying that being a writing (or animation) nomination. I’m not sure if The Grand Budapest Hotel simply struck the right cords with the right people or if the Academy had simply decided that Anderson was done paying his dues, but either results in the same elevated attention that none of his previous projects have enjoyed.
The Theory of Everything is the real surprise for me here. It seems like it was trying to tap every well of support that its competetors got to first and drew more deeply from. The acting branch had already lent support to films featuring high-profile actors in transformative roles (Selma, The Imitation Game, Birdman). The Grand Budapest Hotel already drew the lion’s share of the writing branch’s support. Directors presumably backed the intimately scoped Boyhood or the auteurishly conceived Birdman. And as a biopic it had to compete against Selma, The Imitation Game and American Sniper. The Theory of Everything may very well upset the established front-runners with a broader base of support of voters whose tastes in film are not quite as specific as those who voted in its competators.
Who to bet on: Boyhood