At last we finally know the movies that will vie for this year’s Oscars. But how did the Academy do? Where’d they get it right and wrong? Who’d they forget and who should they have forgotten? To fully dissect the nominations, I invited The Dissolve’s Oscar columnist Jen Chaney to join me for a conversation about our reactions to—and predictions for—the contenders for the 2014 Academy Awards.
Matt Singer: Jen, what were your first impressions of this year’s nominations. Broadly speaking, how’d the Academy do?
Jen Chaney: On the whole, I think they did exactly what most of us expected them to do: shower the most nominations on American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years A Slave. Do I think Hustle should have shared the most nominated honors with Gravity? Not really—I like the movie, certainly, and admire many of the performances. But I think the adulation is disproportionate to how original and surprising it actually is.
Also, I really wish Inside Llewyn Davis had received more attention—it was left out of every big category. And I so wanted to see Javier Bardem introduce it as a Best Picture contender before throwing to the “Look at the scrotum!” clip during the Academy Awards broadcast. You could say it was a dream of mine. What did you think, broadly?
Matt: I approach the Oscars with an attitude I learned from Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs: I hope for the best, but expect the worst. With that in mind, I was reasonably happy with the nominations. I generally expect the movies I really love to get ignored in favor of the bigger and more-hyped contenders, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a few of the titles I really liked—like Her and Captain Phillips—get Best Picture nominees and a bunch of other recognition.
That said, there were plenty of deserving titles and performances that got overlooked. In a year as great for film as 2013, I guess some of that is inevitable, but it’s still disappointing. What was your biggest disappointment? If you could give a nomination to someone or something that didn’t get one, what would you do?
Jen: I already mentioned my Inside Llewyn Davis disappointment, which is tempered by the fact that, as I and others have already noted on Twitter, it’s pretty much perfect for loser Llewyn to be overlooked. It’s almost like the Academy watched this movie and coldly, F. Murray Abraham-style, declared, “There’s no money in it.” But that’s okay. Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t want your mainstream, awards-season adulation. It doesn’t need your mainstream, awards-season adulation.
But if I could give one nomination to something that didn’t get it… look, since this is hypothetical and all, I’ll say Short Term 12. It’s a lovely film that was clearly too small to be recognized by the Academy in such an overstuffed year. But boy, would I have been happy to see a screenplay nod or a nomination for Brie Larson this morning.
On the flip side of this question: what or who were you happy not to see in the race? While I was unhappy that Emma Thompson—distinguished, gloriously boozy at the Golden Globes Emma Thompson—didn’t get a nomination for Best Actress, I was happy that Saving Mr. Banks was shunned in the Best Picture race. Thompson was wonderful in it, but I thought the film was hokey and not a full, deep portrayal of the P.L. Travers story. But it was so sentimental and pro-Hollywood that I figured the Academy would probably throw it some love anyway. The Academy did not, and that’s to its credit.
Matt: In terms of people I actually thought had a shot (but what do I know?), I’ve got disappointment in every color y’all; James Franco was ignored for his great performance in Spring Breakers. With respect to the nominees in the Best Supporting Actor category, I have a feeling that we’ll be talking about (and quoting) Alien for a long time to come.
In terms of movies I was relieved to see overlooked, I’m with you on Saving Mr. Banks. I’ve been reading for months that it was a very strong candidate for a Best Picture nomination, in part because it’s the sort of movie that tends to get Best Picture nominations: it’s sweet, light, showcases a few good performances from famous actors, and, most importantly, it celebrates the power and importance of movies, which is sort of what the Oscars are designed to do in a nutshell. I don’t have a problem with that kind of movie in general, but Saving Mr. Banks struck me as a bit too laborious and a bit too self-congratulatory. I think it’s an interesting document of a company turning its own mission statement into family entertainment, but I definitely wouldn’t pick it as one of the best films of 2013.
How about surprises, Jen? What nomination or nominations shocked you the most?
Jen: Well, I have to admit that Jonah Hill’s nomination for Best Supporting Actor blindsided me a little. It’s a solid performance; I mean, the fact that he can even talk at all through all those teeth is a triumph. But I think of The Wolf Of Wall Street as Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie (I’m thrilled he got nominated) and, per our discussion of Saving Mr. Banks, I figured that slot would go to Tom Hanks for bringing such wily humanity to Walt Disney.
The other surprises, for me, came in the lower-profile categories. I didn’t expect to see the sweet Ernest And Celestine for Best Animated Film over Pixar’s Monsters University. I also didn’t expect Pharrell Williams to be nominated for “Happy” as Best Song, though I was pleased by that. That’s a pretty interesting category this year, with Karen O., U2, Frozen, Pharrell and… that other song I had never heard of in my life until it was mentioned this morning during the nomination announcement.
So Matt, we can’t continue this conversation any longer without weighing on the best actor category. To me, this was the hardest one of the year to call. What did you think of who ended up here?
Matt: I’m of two minds about the Best Actor category. On the one hand, just about everyone nominated is good to great: DiCaprio, Ejiofor, McConaughey. On the other hand, a lot of my favorite male lead performances of 2013 are missing from the bunch. Where’s Joaquin Phoenix for Her? Where’s Robert Redford for All Is Lost? Where’s Oscar Isaac for Inside Llewyn Davis? The Academy recognized Captain Phillips as one of the best movies of the year, but in my mind, that movie is nothing without Tom Hanks, particularly in its incredible final scenes—so where’s Tom Hanks? You could easily create a Best Actor category out of just the guys who got snubbed, and it would be just as good (or maybe better) than the men who did get nominated.
In terms of surprises, I wasn’t expecting so many nominations for Philomena, a movie that I have to admit flew below my personal radar all through December. That’s the one Best Picture nominee I missed. I’ll definitely catch up with it now.
Here’s one question I have for you Jen: how much do all the “lesser” categories matter? Is there anything to be gleaned from the number of nominations a movie receives in the technical categories? If American Hustle got more nominations than 12 Years A Slave, does that mean it’s now the front-runner for the big prize?
Jen: First of all, I’m with you on Best Actor. I can’t argue with anyone who’s nominated, but wish there could have been, like, seven or eight this year instead of five. Just reading what you said about Tom Hanks and thinking again about what he does in that scene at the end of Captain Phillips made me tear up a little. It’s a little crazy that Barkhad Abdi was nominated today and Hanks wasn’t, even though Abdi is very convincing.
Regarding Philomena, I was a little surprised but not entirely. I think it’s a film that speaks to the older contingent of Academy voters. Dench is her usual perfect Dench self in that movie, but I found it a little disjointed tonally.
Now, to your question about number of nominations: I don’t know that it necessarily means all that much. There have been years when a film has been nominated in many categories and swept (see: The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King) and years when the official “leader” only picked up a few things in technical categories (see: Hugo in 2012). Certainly there is a lot of positive feeling around American Hustle, but I suspect where that may be more of a factor is in the Best Actress race, where it’s possible support for Amy Adams (who’s been nominated four times prior without a win) could trump Cate Blanchett. Maybe. On the technical side, I think Gravity will dominate, and I also think it could have the edge in the Best Director race. Agree or disagee?
Matt: Prognosticating that sort of thing is not my area of expertise; I never know whether the Academy is going to sweep their favorite movie through all the categories (like a Return Of The King) or if they’ll pick and choose different movies for each category. I certainly would like to see Gravity win the Best Visual Effects award, and given its competition (including The Lone Ranger and Star Trek Into Darkness), I have to assume it’s the favorite at the moment.
Speaking of favorites Jen: If your life depended on it, who or what would you say is the one sure-fire, can’t-miss, guaranteed winner?
Jen: Wow, this is like I’m talking to the Dennis Hopper version of you right now. “Jen Chaney, you are driving a bus and if you don’t pick at least one guaranteed Oscar winner, it is going to explode.” So no pressure.
I feel fairly confident that Jared Leto will win for Dallas Buyers Club. That’s another film that clearly has won a significant pockets of fans. Of the actors nominated this year, he seems to have the clearest path to victory, unless there’s a Fassbender uprising. I kind of don’t see that happening. If McConaughey wins too, that could result in a big bump for Dallas Buyers. Do you have a lock, Matt? Feel free to pretend I’m Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Mission: Impossible III as I ask that question.
Matt: I do not like the way you’ve turned the tables on me here. I’m not great with guessing the Oscars. Can I put someone else’s life on the line instead of my own?
If I have to pick one right now, I think I actually might go with Gravity for Best Visual Effects. But since I’ve already mentioned that one, I’ll pull a second: Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years A Slave. It’s easily one of the most universally acclaimed performances of the year, and I have a feeling (supported by absolutely no evidence whatsoever) that 12 Years A Slave won’t win Best Picture, and that some voters will be looking to reward it in other categories instead. I suspect Nyong’o could be the (very deserving) beneficiary of that impulse. But, again, I’m horrifically bad at guessing these things. I once lost a bet over the Oscars and had to drink an entire bowl of queso dip as my punishment. It was almost as cheesy as Saving Mr. Banks.
Let’s wrap this up with a note of positivity, Jen. Was there one nomination that made you really happy? We talk so much about the Oscars getting it wrong; where did they get it right this year?
Jen: I really hope you’re right about Nyong’o because I completely agree about that performance. It was extraordinary. I just worry about the Jennifer Lawrence factor in that category.
Okay, now to ignore my sudden appetite for hot, fatty queso dip and be positive. I actually have two positive things to say. First: I was very happy to see a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for Before Midnight. I wasn’t entirely surprised by it, but still happy to see this trilogy recognized for its way with words for a second time, the first being the nomination a few years ago for Before Sunset.
Also, I laughed pretty hard when I realized that Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa was nominated for Best Makeup And Hairstyling. I didn’t see the movie, but the thing is: I totally see why it deserves to be there. Johnny Knoxville recently made a compelling case for this, noting that the entire comedy hinged on people’s ability to believe that Knoxville’s make-up was real, close-up and in broad daylight. That is, indeed, a make-up achievement and I was gratified that the voting members could see that. See, the Academy isn’t all snobs!
What about you, Matt? What brings you joy, besides not ever swallowing queso dip again?
Matt: Bad Grandpa did deserve that nomination! Knoxville’s makeup was good enough to fool people into believing he was really an old man. That counts as an achievement in makeup in my book. I have a feeling a tonier film will get the actual Oscar, but I was glad to see the Jackasses getting a little love from the Academy.
I was also very happy to see the Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Production Design nominations for Her. You talked about the “older contingent” of the Academy earlier; Her is a movie that I worried wouldn’t appeal to that generation of voters, what with its newfangled phones and artificial intelligences and whatnot. I am very glad to see I was wrong; perhaps they were drawn in by the high-waisted pants? Whatever the reason, I’m happy to see Her in the Best Picture conversation.