Josh: Looking over these Academy Award nominations, I’ve decided that this is a particularly strange year in film. Sure, the Academy usually makes moviegoers say, “wait, what?” when the nominations are revealed, but I can at least see their rationale in years past. But this year, I’m not so much upset about individual nominations—I’m mostly upset about the fact that for the first time ever, for me at least, the majority of the Best Picture noms are movies that I either didn’t care for in the least or have absolutely no interest in. And I think it’s telling that of the nine pictures, I haven’t seen four of them. And it’s not as if I’m some casual film watcher; by my rough estimate, I watched 87 2011 films. I mean, shit, I even have The Iron Lady and War Horse on my computer, this very computer I’m writing on, and I can’t even bring myself to play them as background noise. So either I am very suddenly out of touch or the Academy is no longer able to effectively gauge the best films of the year. I’m assuming it’s the latter. Am I alone here, though? Do you find this year’s choices to be the same kind of uninteresting, unchallenging awards fodder, cast from the same dull mold?
Matt: I think the Academy’s definitely out of touch. I mean, you only have to look at how they’re just now modernizing their voting system. In 20-goddamn-12. But as far as the best picture nominees go (and I’ve only seen two of them, which should show you how much I care), you’ve got: Spielberg War Drama, Throwback Genre Picture, Underdog Sports Movie, Heavy Drama with Comedic Elements, Confusing Vaguely Spiritual Clip Show, Woody Allen Movie, Drama About a Trying Time in African American History as Seen Through the Eyes of a Plucky White Protagonist, Scorsese Movie, and 9/11: The 9/11ing. Each movie just seems calculated in some ways, and it makes me wonder if the Academy even watched them or just read the copy on the back of the box. Now, in all fairness, I can’t really speak to the quality of most of the movies, but when a film such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is released to what could generously be described as “middling reviews” is nominated for Best Picture, I have to wonder what the fucking deal is. I get that critics aren’t the final line in determining what’s good and what isn’t, sure, but this just seems like the Academy making sure they hit all the sociopolitical tropes people have come to expect from them. And, I mean, I’d be hard pressed to say this makes me angry, but it’s fucking weird.
Josh: It’s very weird, but not entirely unexpected when you consider that almost every single movie that I loved this year was very un-Academy-friendly, and many were small, angry, off-kilter pictures that most general audiences just don’t respond to. But I thought some of this out of touch nominating was supposed to be curbed with the expansion to (up to) ten Best Picture selections. You might as well call it the Christopher Nolan amendment where critically acclaimed movies that are also commercial smash hits can be recognized for their contribution to that year in movies. And I would say that Fincher suffers when it comes to Oscar noms the same way that Nolan has. And yet The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, an excellently crafted thriller based on an international mega-phenomenon, can’t even get enough votes to be the tenth selection. Sure, it’s admittedly edgier than the stuffy-shirted voters usually go for but there wasn’t a single nomination in that category that would make me go, “well, at least the Academy isn’t totally up its own ass.” Not one. And that’s the part that upsets me the most. But while I find a kerchief to wipe these tears away, why don’t you tell me what you would have been happy to see nominated.
Matt: Well, for one, I think Drive should be on there, just for the sheer number of great performances. Plus, I really love how much the story was conveyed with so little dialogue overall. I’m happy with The Tree of Life. I know you hated it, but I really loved it, so it can stay. I’d probably put Submarine on the list as well. I love Richard Ayoade as an actor, and his debut as a director was surprisingly strong. Super 8, definitely. It’s an homage to ‘80s Spielberg, but it’s also just a great movie on its own. And then maybe The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. Admittedly, I’ve only seen about 35 movies from 2011, so my opinion’s a little bit limited. I’d honestly be fine if the Academy went back to five options like they used to do. The flexible number of nominations is a great idea in theory, but if the execution means we’re just going to keep seeing them make safe choices like War Horse and Incredibly 9/11 Make You Sad Cry Now, I’d honestly prefer fewer slots.
Honestly, as we move into February, I’m expecting some of the Oscar noms I missed to go into (or back into, as the case may be) wider circulation. My crappy town doesn’t have much in the way of theatres, and what we do have is usually given over completely to stuff like Twilight and Transformers.
Josh: But from my perspective this year, I’d rather watch Transformers and Twilight (both of which I’ve seen) than watch War Horse even once. It could just be that I’m getting stubbornly ignorant in my old age, but I have absolutely zero interest in watching The Artist or Hugo or ELAIC—which I find really fascinating because it’s not like those movies are ones that I’d normally dismiss outright. I mean, City Lights is one of my favorite movies ever, so a silent feel-good movie is right up my alley, and I’m a big fan of Scorsese (duh) and Safron Foer‘s short-form fiction and nonfiction (which I guess is like saying I’m a big fan of Spike Jonze, the director of IKEA commercials, but still). I enjoyed much darker works this year, ones that challenged me quite a bit and showed me some seriously flawed, unsavory central characters. Films like Drive, Young Adult, and Shame blew me away with their edge. The criminally under-watched Submarine and Carnage were awesomely malicious and confused. Martha Marcy May Marlene and Contagion were both terrifying in very different ways. Does the Academy hate raw stories? They occasionally love that kind of nastiness in lead acting roles, but I guess not in their films.
Matt: See, but even in the acting nominations, I can’t honestly say I’m impressed. A lot of them seem really obvious, and others just don’t seem deserving. Like, of course Meryl Streep and George Clooney are fantastic actors, but it almost seems like the Academy gave Streep a reserved parking spot twenty years ago and they’re determined to never change the sign. And then you get to the left field nominations (That’s a little baseball pun, since we’re going to be talking about Jonah Hill in Moneyball, folks. Stay tuned.) like Jonah Hill and Melissa McCarthy.
Josh: And from now until the end of time, we have to refer to Jonah Hill as “Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill”.
Matt: I just end up assuming that Hill was nominated for no reason other than because Moneyball itself got a nod. And in McCarthy’s case, apparently 90 minutes spent farting is made up for in a two-minute speech about how girls gotta stick together, or whatever it was. I mean, I loved Bridesmaids and McCarthy was pretty funny, but I don’t think a single moment of self-awareness amidst a sea of crudity really translates to an Oscar-worthy performance. I was thinking about this the other day, and I wonder if maybe we shouldn’t change the criteria for the acting categories altogether. I mean, Brad Pitt was nominated for Moneyball and not The Tree of Life, which cheesed me off enough to actually say it cheesed me off. But it’s also not like either one of those performances is notably awful, or anything. So I wonder if maybe the Best Actor/Actress category shouldn’t change to reflect actors who do great work in multiple roles per year. Or, at least take it into consideration. I mean, maybe Meryl Streep only makes one movie a year, but again, does she really need another Oscar?
Josh: I was reading an interesting statistic about Streep the other day, though. She’s been nominated a record number of times and has only won twice, which actually makes her the biggest loser in Oscar history. That factoid made me laugh quite a bit because, and this will likely put me in the minority, I think that Meryl Streep is overrated. “She’s good in everything!” Yeah, she’s good in everything, but so is bacon, or cheddar cheese, but after so many different dishes, when chefs are throwing bacon into melted chocolate and cheddar cheese into god-knows-what, that’s all I notice. Streep is an excellent actress and a terrific mimic, but frankly I’m kind of sick of her. That’s why I was so pleased to see that Michelle Williams got a nomination for playing Marilyn. Her performance actually made me feel sexually uneasy, antsy almost, in the way that I assume audiences a generation ago felt when they saw the lush sexuality of Ms. Monroe. It was a really fine performance in an absolutely mediocre film. And I see that kind of trend with the Best Actress noms. While the men’s performances are typically pulled from movies that were also nominated for Best Picture, the actresses star in mostly shitty, forgettable, un-nominated films. That’s weird, right? Does that speak more to the still-unequal roles that women are given in films? Do we even want to open that can of worms?
Matt: I’d say if it speaks to anything, it’s to the relative dearth of great material this year. I can’t really say I’m the greatest judge of quality or anything, but even during awards season, there wasn’t much that struck me as interesting. Or that played near me; again, fuck my life. But I mean, last year as far as nominated movies went, I wanted and got to see The Social Network, The King’s Speech, Inception, The Fighter, True Grit, Toy Story 3, and Black Swan. This year, I’ve seen The Descendants and The Tree of Life. I might go see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I’d be hard pressed to say there were really any other nominees that appealed to me. And to then draw the Lead Actress nominees from movies that didn’t even make the nominations just makes me wonder. I guess The Help has three female acting nominations to lead the pack, but there was really nothing from that movie’s premise or advertising that actually made me want to see it (ie; black history from a plucky white protagonist’s perspective). I think, though, if we have to address the gender issue you brought up, I’d probably agree that there’s a definite imbalance. But it seems to me like there’s more of a lack of good stories built around or for women than there are a lack of strong female characters. But then, Glenn Close is technically nominated for playing a dude, so maybe what the fuck do I know? Although, I think maybe that’s where Young Adult or even Bridesmaids being ignored for best picture gives us something to go on, since both movies managed to tell compelling stories with strong female leads in Charlize Theron and Kristen Wiig. Again, it’s not so much that I think Bridesmaids should get a nomination, but rather that the Academy and Hollywood in general aren’t as willing to recognize stories about women.
Josh: Agreed on the lack of material for women. But, maybe even more than with the actor categories, the best lead actress category seems to be more likely to just throw some nominations the way of awards mainstays. Close and Streep? They’re the safe bets. But there were a ton of great performances by new-ish actresses (in addition to the Rooney Mara nomination) that blew those two roles out of the water (I’m assuming—I didn’t watch either, ugh). Miranda July was weirdly brilliant in The Future, which she also wrote and directed. But probably my favorite female performance of the year came from Elizabeth Olsen, who somehow held her own against the haunting John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene. She carried that movie but somehow was overlooked in favor of Close in what looks like the most boring retelling of Just One of the Guys ever conceived. The male categories were a little better. At least Gary-fucking-Oldman finally got a nod.
Matt: Yeah, but, and this is where I get to be all Canadian and Righteously Angry (TM), still nothing for Ryan Gosling. It’s completely fucked up how he manages to put forth amazing performances in almost everything he’s in, and yet I don’t think he’s even been nominated since Half Nelson. By all accounts, Blue Valentine was excellent, and he was every bit as important as Michelle Williams, and got nothing. And this year, with Drive, he did amazing things with what? Maybe fifteen lines of dialogue? And everything I’ve heard about The Ides of March, bland political intrigue notwithstanding, suggests he was great in that, too. I mean, yeah, I’m glad to see Gary Oldman get nominated finally because he’s fucking great, but come on. If you’re going to give Max von Sydow or Christopher Plummer the token “You’re old and are going to die soon, so please accept this award you probably should have gotten years ago” nominations, why the fuck can’t we get one for one of the most consistently great young actors of the last five years? And for that matter, where’s any of the rest of the principle cast of Drive? Albert Brooks for best supporting actor, maybe? Dude was fucking awesome. And I’m not just saying that because I love Hank Scorpio. Seriously, where the fuck is Drive at all? Now I’m just angry.
Josh: I’m absolutely on your side about Gosling, especially the Blue Valentine snub. That simply didn’t make sense. The movie was a duo performance that never would have worked if either actor didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, and both just rocked their roles. And in Drive, Gosling essentially plays the “man with no name” character that Eastwood popularized (and in fact he has no name in the credits) and yet you see such an impressive evolution (or devolution) of emotions. He shifts deftly from shy and withdrawn to curious and confident to, in the gripping last act, teetering on unhinged but still driven and principled. I have to take issue with your knock against Plummer, though. It may be because I loved Beginners more than almost every other movie last year, but Plummer was the emotional core of a very well told emotional film. He was the heartbreaking conduit through which Ewan McGregor was able to finally learn something about himself. Without the light inside Plummer’s character, Beginners is little more than a mopey what-does-it-all-mean semi-biopic. Now, let me take a breath. I may fly off the rails because the Academy completely ignored Shame, one of the most daring and courageous movies I’ve seen in years. Fassbender had as big a year—if not a bigger year—than Gosling and he was just devastating in Shame. As with Blue Valentine, the movie relied entirely on world-class central performances that delivered on every level. Maybe Shame would have gotten more recognition if it were about baseball.
Matt: I should probably say that, in my tumultuous northern rage, I didn’t really mean what I said about Plummer, specifically. He is another Canadian, after all. I’m sure he gave an excellent performance (frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t just miss the ball and nominate him for Dragon Tattoo). It just seems really common for the Academy to give compensation awards to people they snubbed in the past, particularly when they’re very old (Am I the first to notice this?!). Like, in my opinion, Max von Sydow should probably have won for his performance in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, however many years ago that was, or really any number of other things. And it looks like his role in ELAIC gave the Academy enough of a reason that they could realistically nominate him without too much egg on their faces. But I lumped Plummer in because they’re both old, and I don’t pull any punches, man. Those old people, let me tell you. But anyway, we should probably move on. I don’t really care about the screenplays or technical awards except to say I want Jim Rash to win so he can either become some sort of high profile Oscar winner to boost Community’s appeal, or go on to actually write Time Desk: The Adventures of Dean Dangerous. But beyond that, I say we move on to direction.
Josh: Just one quick note before we talk direction. I usually consider the screenplay categories to be where the Academy can right some wrongs and give some nods to edgier films they didn’t have the balls to nominate for the other major categories, like how they nominated In Bruges a few years ago. But again, this year, easy choices. Five of the nine best picture nominees were nominated for screenplay. That’s not totally unheard of but aside from The Descendants and Midnight in Paris, none of the others chosen seem all that “writerly”. I was hoping that something like Beginners or Submarine, which both feel like great novels come to life, would be recognized, but nothing. And nothing for Martha, et al., which was structured and written in such a fascinating way. But, ugh, alright. Direction. Go.
Matt: Well, again there are a lot of safe choices, really. Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, even Terrence Malick is a pretty safe nomination, although I think The Tree of Life was a pretty ballsy movie in general. Though I have to wonder how much credit should go to him, and how much should go to the cinematographer, since about 50-percent of that movie was just beautiful shots of stuff happening. I’m tempted to say that Hazanavicius is at least an interesting choice, given that he’s nominated for making a film in a mostly dead genre, but I haven’t seen enough of The Artist to really say for sure. And again, I don’t really know if The Descendants is quite good enough to be worth all the nominations it’s getting, so I’m not sure if Payne works very well here, either.
I’d honestly like to see Richard Ayoade on the list, if only because, holy shit, look at what he made with his first fucking movie, for fuck’s sake, rather than yet another Scorsese nomination. Or maybe even Nicolas Winding Refn, just after reading about all the character work he did with the actors while making Drive. But then I read about Gosling and Mulligan omitting large portions of their lines to preserve the emotions of a scene, and I wonder how much of the movie is really there because of him. I don’t know. I think maybe I’m fine with Scorsese, because from what I’ve heard about Hugo he was doing a lot of the same sort of world-building that would have made me okay with a James Cameron win for Avatar two years ago. And also, it is fucking Scorsese. I don’t know. For whatever reason the direction category never really hits me too hard. What do you think?
Josh: I always look for nominations that are given to bold, commanding filmmaking, and I’m honestly not seeing a lot of that here. I saw The Descendants and I couldn’t imagine that movie being recognized for more than the screenplay and maybe an acting nod (though not for Clooney, interestingly). But Payne is an Academy darling, so I get it. Same with Scorsese. I’m fine with Malick here, really, because he somehow turned the most beautiful screensaver in the world into a sorta-coherent, mostly-metaphysical story about, well, all life. And as much as I loved Midnight in Paris (come on, I’m a writer and this was a gorgeous love letter to Paris and artistry), Allen doesn’t really belong here. This is one of my favorite films of his, but it’s just not much of a directorial effort.
I would have loved to see Ayoade nominated for the same reason I would have liked to see Mike Mills in this category, but in that specific case that’s more because with a movie that is written and directed by the same person, I have a hard time divorcing the two. I just have this romantic image of a wholly original and organic process that results in a beautiful movie. I also would have liked seeing Soderbergh nominated for Contagion because goddamn was that a tense, methodical look at epidemiology. After my first viewing, I wanted to carry Purell with me everywhere I went. After my second viewing, I didn’t want to leave my apartment. That’s an effective thriller if you ask me.
More than those, though, I wished some truly bold filmmaking was recognized, namely Refn for Drive and McQueen for Shame. I mean, you talk about Ayoade’s first film? McQueen already has a well-established voice and perspective and Shame was only his second film. (For those who haven’t seen it, watch Hunger, his first film—a motherfucker of a gut-punch, also starring a pantsless Fassbender.) McQueen and Refn are sure to have missteps throughout their careers, but the risks they took this year have to be applauded. Or maybe not. Whatever.
Matt: That seems as good a place as any to end the discussion for now. Especially since it’s becoming increasingly apparent that I’ve been talking out of my ass since about the time you said “So, Best Picture?”
Josh: Yeah, I’m good with that.