What the Oscars Missed

Selma Martin Luther King David Oyelowo

by Gabriel Valdez

The logic used to choose this year’s Oscar nominations is…what’s the right word? Unfathomable. There’s the odd technical category in which I agree with them completely, but the nominations are riddled with head-scratching decisions.

Selma, for instance, is nominated for Best Picture without being nominated in any other category but Best Original Song, “Glory” by Common and John Legend. The Academy must be really big Common fans.

All 20 nominees in the acting categories are Caucasian. I’m not of the opinion that nominations in an awards show should be subject to any quota for minority nomination. I am of the opinion, however, that there’s no way the 20 best performances this year include zero roles performed by other ethnicities.

To paraphrase a friend’s reaction, it’s almost as if the Academy is saying, “We gave you 12 Years a Slave and Lupita last year, leave us alone,” and chucking Selma into the Best Picture category just to dissuade criticism of how whitewashed the Oscars are this year.

In each category, I’ll be naming a film or person who deserved a nomination this year, who the Academy overlooked. I won’t focus it on minorities – I have my own rankings for our awards, which we’ll present before the Oscars, and I’m just taking the first person off each board who wasn’t nominated by the Academy. But I look at those boards and then I look at the Oscar nominations, and I see a big difference.

Big Hero 6 flying

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

Nominated: Big Hero 6, The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea, The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Forgotten: Actually, we’re all good here

One of the most controversial choices I make today is going to be agreeing with the Oscars wholeheartedly. I don’t believe The LEGO Movie is enough of something to earn a place alongside the awe-inspiring texture of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, the gracefully epic How to Train Your Dragon 2, or the surprisingly rousing and emotional Big Hero 6. I’m not as high on The Boxtrolls, but I would still choose it over LEGO. I have not seen the Irish animated film Song of the Sea, but even if I had to take it out, I’d only replace it with The Book of Life.

Gone Girl

BEST FILM EDITING

Nominated: American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, Whiplash

Forgotten: Gone Girl

My two favorite awards at the Oscars are always Editing and Cinematography. I’m weird like that. The oversight of Kirk Baxter’s work in Gone Girl is surprising, but like much of what David Fincher does when he’s not de-aging Brad Pitt, the finished product itself may be too audacious for the Academy to process. Gone Girl‘s narrative game of shells is handled with greater editing precision than any other film this year. It is perfectly cut, creating rhythm and tension from a story that could have easily been a complete mess in the hands of a lesser editor. I can understand and forgive most oversights on technical awards, but this one is nothing short of astonishing.

The Raid 2 heartbreak

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Nominated: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, Interstellar, Into the Woods, Mr. Turner

Forgotten: The Raid 2

There’s one film here that should walk away with this, and it rhymes with “A Man To Arrest For Smell” (work with me here). That said, there is a nomination missing, and it’s from a film I would not expect most members in the Academy to have even heard of. That would be Indonesian martial arts epic The Raid 2. Imagine if Stanley Kubrick had been in charge of designing the sets for a gang epic, half of it taking place in majestic hotels redder than blood and tiered dance clubs of glass, the other half erupting into the slums, snowy back alleys, and dismantled housing projects of Jakarta. Does it even snow in Jakarta? I don’t know, but it does in one scene in The Raid 2, and it’s not because of Jakarta, it’s because of the sheer operatic power it holds in that moment, to take your breath away, to make you feel profound loss.

The production design in The Raid 2 isn’t just nice to look at, it is emotionally evocative: unsettling, touching, beautiful, and glum each in turn. It can evoke emptiness in its richest moments, fear in its most overpoweringly banal form, and the threadbare desperation of a moment. It’s rare that you come across a martial arts film in which you could take away all the fight scenes and still have a deeply compelling drama in a fully realized world left over.

Fury tank

BEST SOUND

Nominated: American Sniper, Birdman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Interstellar, Unbroken, Whiplash

Forgotten: Fury

I know everybody came here for Best Sound, but I’m combining Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, since the split between these categories is largely vestigial, and every year only serves to double the nomination count across four movies. A fifth (Hobbit for Editing, Whiplash for Mixing) is always included just to maintain the illusion that these categories don’t overlap in most of their qualifications. Anyway, who cares about all that? Where the hell is Fury? I’ll admit, I’m normally the one tossing a non-war film into the mix for Sound. I’m tempted to do that with Gone Girl‘s thick, white-noise silences or Under the Skin‘s candid, on-the-street backgrounds. But this year, Fury is one of the few films to create so much through so many sound cues. Half the film takes place inside a tank, and we need to hear not just what war sounds like, but what war sounds like when you’re behind inches of armor with barely enough space to turn your head. Fury crafts this beautifully, and I’m disappointed to see one of the year’s best films with zero nominations in any category whatsoever.

Additionally, I love Interstellar. Love it. Like, Interstellar and I are thinking of moving in together and getting a puppy just as a test run to see if we want to have little Matthew McConaugheys running around crying all the time. But the one nomination Interstellar does not deserve is sound, not when 10% of the dialogue is drowned out by Hans Zimmer beating the everloving tar out of a pipe organ. I recognize it was a directorial choice, and I won’t say it was the wrong choice, but sound is Interstellar‘s pianissimo, not it’s forte.

Interstellar ship

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Nominated: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, X-Men: Days of Future Past

Forgotten: Actually, we’re all good here

Can’t disagree with anything here. If it’s just about fidelity, you look for a place to include The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, but I’d like to see this award continue trending more toward the artistic use of visual effects, and not just how many you can have moving on-screen at once. Which is why I’m ecstatic to see no Transformers nomination.

Selma Carmen Ejogo

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Nominated: Patricia Arquette – Boyhood, Laura Dern – Wild, Keira Knightley – Imitation Game, Emma Stone – Birdman, Meryl Streep – Into the Woods

Forgotten: Carmen Ejogo, Selma

Rene Russo in Nightcrawler and Carrie Coon in Gone Girl both deserve more acclaim than they’re getting for what they did this year, but the disinclusion of Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King in Selma is very puzzling. She holds two of the most powerful scenes on film this year. In Selma, she isn’t just tasked with portraying her character, she also has the responsibility of communicating and then reacting to the emotions that Martin Luther King must restrain. Every moment she’s on-screen, she’s portraying two characters: Mrs. King and her husband. She creates the shape and space for David Oyelowo’s performance as Dr. King, and – with the possible exception of my next two choices – there is no joint performance this year in which two actors better realize a give-and-take relationship.

The Rover Robert Pattinson

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Nominated: Robert Duvall – The Judge, Ethan Hawke – Boyhood, Edward Norton – Birdman, Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher, J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

Forgotten: Robert Pattinson, The Rover

There are some actors I’m very happy to see nominated – you cannot be unhappy that J.K. Simmons is finally nominated for an Oscar. But the best supporting role this year, and not just a nomination missing, is the best performance this year, period. It belongs to Robert Pattinson in an overlooked Australian film called The Rover. He gives us an immature man whose faculties are very questionable, who starts as the enemy to Guy Pearce’s unnamed kidnapper, yet who quickly comes to idolize his captor and seek to impress him through greater and greater violence.

Pattinson plays a blank slate who doesn’t belong in this world, who would have been gentle and allowed himself to be weak if he’d only seen kindness, yet who is taught to see the world instead through a lens of brutality and so suffers his injuries like some dog kicked and used by his master, and all the more loyal for it. It is an awesome and staggering performance from an actor I never expected could deliver it.

The Rover Pearce

BEST ACTOR

Nominated: Steve Carell – Foxcatcher, Bradley Cooper – American Sniper, Benedict Cumberbatch – Imitation Game, Michael Keaton – Birdman, Eddie Redmayne – Theory of Everything

Forgotten: Guy Pearce, The Rover
and David Oyelowo, Selma

I’m drawing from the top of my list, and that means Guy Pearce in The Rover. There’s a scene in which he’s captured by the authorities, fully expecting and seemingly wanting the release of finally being punished for his crimes. There is a look in his eyes that defines desperation. When the unlikely event of his rescue comes to pass, we don’t focus on that rescue. We hear it. But we focus on this dirty man in a chair coming to realize that he won’t be sent to jail, that he’ll be thrown back into the world and have to continue his journey in it. And those eyes…they communicate such disappointment, such a resignation to that reality. Few actors could play a protagonist so terrible, so ruthless, and yet so human.

There are many nominations I’d replace with others, not just one for each category, but here, I really do have to point out the inexplicable lack of a nomination for the #2 actor of the year on my list, David Oyelowo. We nominate not just for performance – which Oyelowo would deserve on that merit alone – but for the moment in time those performances arrive, for what those performances have to teach us. Oyelowo’s role as Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma deserves to be here for the quality of his performance, but it doubly deserves to be here for when it arrives and what it reminds us about our country.

I’d also kick a third nominee out in favor of Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Under the Skin dark center

BEST ACTRESS

Nominated: Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night, Felicity Jones – Theory of Everything, Julianne Moore – Still Alice, Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl, Reese Witherspoon – Wild

Forgotten: Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin

These are fine. I’m glad to see Marion Cotillard nominated again. I didn’t expect the Academy to give Under the Skin the time of day, and I was right. I’m not exactly shocked that an experimental Scottish film about an alien in the skin of a woman seducing and consuming men didn’t warrant a nomination, but Johansson delivers a brilliant performance as a predator who gradually learns to identify with her prey. Under the Skin is many things: a film that asks complex questions about identity, that embodies the relationship between urbanization and nature, and that – most astonishingly – tricks you into inhabiting the perspective of a serial rapist. It is not every actor who could anchor so many questions or communicate a worldview of sociopathy in this disturbingly plainspoken a way.

The Raid 2 e

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Nominated: Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ida, Mr. Turner, Unbroken

Forgotten: The Raid 2

These are all phenomenal choices, but there’s a glaring exception here. Again, I don’t expect most of the Academy to even know what The Raid 2 is, let alone know about how Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono are changing how we shoot movies. Like I wrote above for its production design, you could take away every martial arts setpiece and still have a complete, beautiful looking narrative. Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick in the production design also carry over to the dramatic cinematography.

What Flannery and Subhono do on top of this, however, is nothing less than completely change how martial arts movies are shot. No longer are we watching complex martial arts sequences shot from a series of static angles and crane shots. No longer are we watching long form choreography filmed from a handheld shakycam. Now, we weave in and out in extended shots that are comparable to the work of Emmanuel Lubezki, whose unbroken one-takes created the tension behind Children of Men, Gravity, and this year’s nominated Birdman.

There’s a sequence that demands performers and cameramen run through a muddy prison yard the consistency of pudding, complete with complex, timed choreography and opportunities for the cameras to not just witness, but to weave inside and through the choreography itself. A later fight scene involves three people in a narrow hallway. While there are edits, they are very specifically at the easiest points. The hardest choreography is not achieved through edits, but through a hidden choreography for the camera. It becomes a four-person choreography that demands precise staging so that the camera can weave in and out of actors’ full speed movements, still able to land on precise shots that can evoke the emotion of more classical, dramatic cinematography. There are rare steps taken in the technical elements of film that open whole new ways of shooting movies, that create brand new visual grammar for how we understand the language of an entire genre. This is one of those steps.

Hobbit Five Armies preparing for battle

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Nominated: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice, Into the Woods, Maleficent, Mr. Turner

Forgotten: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

While the fidelity of the visual effects in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies shouldn’t earn it a nomination in that category because of how they are used, the costume design in this third Hobbit deserves nothing less than our awe. You feel that, knowing this was their last hurrah in Middle-earth, designers Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey, and Richard Taylor went whole hog, creating an array of costumes that is the film’s true standout. From the gold leaves of the beautiful elven armor, each a complex reproduction of the last, to the individualized armor pieces that change from one orc to the next, from the fur and filigree of the dwarves’ armors to the tatters of the humans, the costuming here does more to realize the world of Middle-earth in this entry than any other technical element. The franchise has won this before, and perhaps the Academy felt like they needed to create territory for other nominees, but if The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies deserves to be nominated for anything, it’s in this category.

Hobbit Bilbo

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Nominated: Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy

Forgotten: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Only three nominees, so I may not bump any of these out (Guardians of the Galaxy should win this walking away), but it’s hard to see The Hobbit ignored in this category, for many of the same reasons I list right above in the Costume Design section. If you gave the category a fifth nomination, I’d be hard pressed to ignore the work of Judy Chin’s crew on Noah.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Nominated: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, Interstellar, Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything

Forgotten: Mica Levi, Under the Skin

You can always tempt me with a Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross team-up, as in Gone Girl, but the finest score this year belongs to Mica Levi and her wild experimentation on Under the Skin. There’s absolutely nothing like it, and its combination of mechanical regularity and teeming natural architectures is stunningly disturbing. Her score is also the most thematically important, turning the film’s key moment in a way no other musical cue does this year. It’s rare that I can hear a piece of music and feel as if my body’s temperature has dropped to freezing, but that’s the effect this music has.

I make fun of it, but out of what’s nominated, I’d like to see Hans Zimmer’s How to Beat a Pipe Organ for Dummies get Interstellar the win.

Dawn of the 1

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Nominated: American Sniper, Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash

Forgotten: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I’ll get flak for this one, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes possesses an incredible screenplay that riffs on Pierre Boulle’s original novel, the Charlton Heston film, Biblical allegories, and contains plain, old-fashioned, incredible adventure writing. It is structural perfection, it is stylistically strong, it builds a world, entirely new cultures, and it is both patient and daring in how it gets to the places it’s going. The film’s best moments don’t involve its action scenes (although these are good, too); they involve characters trying their best to bridge differences, communicate, and avert a disaster they should know all too well is coming anyway. Strip the modern visuals and the central allegory about war and you have a brilliant 1950s historical epic. Toss on the war allegory and you’re suddenly discussing too many regions of the world where cultures seek to violently eradicate those different from them.

Fury the dinner scene

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Nominated: Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Nightcrawler

Forgotten: David Ayer, Fury

David Ayer’s screenplay for Fury deserves recognition as the finest balancing act of the year. The idea of using World War 2 to examine and break down the inner mechanics of how patriarchy trains violence – toward women, toward “the other,” as a way of functioning in the world – is mind-blowing. I have never seen anything like what David Ayer does here and it requires him to balance on the edge of a knife. He instills an honest admiration and respect for the heroism of soldiers while also using the training of their mindset to define the tragedy of something that is a modern, everyday, cultural problem: too many think they’re soldiers in cultural, gender-based, and religious battles that demand us-or-them victory conditions. We enable greater, everyday violence toward those with less as a rule of our culture. It is a remarkably difficult message to convey in the trappings of a war film, especially in terms of this particular war.

What Paul Webb does in Selma also deserves recognition. He creates poetry that discusses race in a way that connects 1965 to 2015. He writes characters not as celebrities or icons, but as people burdened by the responsibility of living up to the titles they’re given. As much as anything else, he deserves credit for finding a way to communicate the words of King without being able to use any of the words of King, since Dreamworks and Warner Bros. have licensed the film rights to Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches for a Steven Spielberg biopic that will probably never get made. It’s just one of the many nomination oversights for Selma that baffle me.

Selma march to courthouse

BEST DIRECTING

Nominated: Alejandro Inarritu – Birdman, Richard Linklater – Boyhood, Bennett Miller – Foxcatcher, Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel, Morten Tyldum – Imitation Game

Forgotten: Ava DuVernay, Selma

I’m completely lost as to how this doesn’t get nominated. Until Selma came out, the year’s been a three-way race between Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin), Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), and Gareth Evans (The Raid 2). The three Davids – Fincher (Gone Girl), Ayer (Fury), and Michod (The Rover) are in the conversation with a few of the Oscar nominees, and Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) keeps hanging around because she turned one of the most godawful scripts of the year into compelling drama, which isn’t easy.

And then Ava DuVernay came along, and then there was that moment early in Selma, when the conversation just stopped. There was no conversation to be had: Ava DuVernay is the best director of the year. And then there was that moment midway through Selma, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and you realized why. Her grasp of one of the most impossible moments in American history to translate, her ability to take the incomprehensible and help you begin to understand the texture and emotion of that moment, her ability to connect what happened 50 years ago to what is happening today…she is the director all other directors should be looking to this year. I cannot fathom what reason the Oscars have to overlook it.

Interstellar Murphy and Cooper

BEST PICTURE….

Nominated: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash

It’s really nice to see comedies like Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel recognized. I’m incredibly glad Whiplash found its way here. American Sniper I’ve mostly avoided because there is a great deal of controversy surrounding just how much has been changed to patriotize the figure at its center.

So what’s missing? The Academy gives what feels like a very cursory nod to Selma, having forgotten it in every other category but Best Original Song. I almost want to list it here again. While I’d feel pretty warm and content in my snark, it would defeat the spirit of this exercise.

You can probably guess it’s going to come down to Interstellar, Under the Skin, and something out of left field – Fury, Nightcrawler, The Raid 2, or The Rover. Those are six very deserving films, and I hate to be so boring, but it really is all about Interstellar and Under the Skin.

This is what I’ve been wrestling with when figuring out the best film of the year. Interstellar is a movie that emotionally communicates to me in a way no other film does. It makes me feel like a little kid, makes me feel like I’m going on a space adventure, but it talks about so much more along the way. Its tension and emotion are unparalleled for me as far as film experiences go. Of all the films this year, it will easily be the one I watch the most in my life.

Under the Skin lead

Under the Skin speaks about important issues of identity, and it goes to terrifying places intellectually that I’ve never been taken before. On a level of experiencing and understanding the unfeeling nature of sociopathy, of being tricked into inhabiting it for two hours, of being asked to experience the world both as predator and victim, it leaves me disgusted and aghast and yet – seeing how its real, understanding all the better how that mindset operates – it makes it so very much more terrifying.

So it becomes comparing apples to oranges, or comparing apples to the guy in that shady Buick parked halfway down the block all day. Do I choose the film that makes me feel best about the world, or the one that makes me feel worst? Truth be told, that answer’s going to change day by day. It’s going to change by the successes I have and by the suffering I see in the world. I might tell you Interstellar is one of the best adventures ever put to film one day, and I might insist Under the Skin is going to change your life the next.

I hope you’ll understand that I won’t choose, that I prefer to leave it a two-way tie. Film is about the stories we need to keep on going, and the stories we need to see to better help others keep on going. To me, it’s an odd poetry that my top two films this year come down to the opposite ends of science-fiction. It might be frustrating to you, it might feel like a cop-out, but to me it feels fitting. It feels as if each film becomes more important by not winning out over the other, that one film can be the emotional heart and the other can be the intellectual reality into which that idealization walks every day thinking it can make a difference. I feel like choosing one would be denying reality, and choosing the other would be denying possibility.

Criticism isn’t just about ranking and choosing what’s best and what isn’t. It’s about finding the films that speak to you and using them to speak to others. The best films teach critics new words, new translations, whole new ways to communicate what’s inside them, to be memoir writers who point out new possibilities through the windows art gives us. These are the films that teach me the most, that make me feel like I can communicate so much more completely.

So go see Interstellar. It’s one of the best adventures ever put to film.

And go see Under the Skin. It’s going to change your life.

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