The Oscar nominations rolled on out this week, but with a difference: In a rather explicit admission that it does not trust its own judgment, the Academy has upped the number of Best Picture nominees from the usual five to ten. Let’s begin there.
Last year, there was widespread disgruntlement that critical and popular hits Wall-E and The Dark Knight missed the cut for this award. So the Academy decided, in essence, to protect itself from its own ineptitude by nominating more pictures. On the surface, it worked, with the extra nominees offering a little added variety to the presumed field-of-five nominees (Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, Inglourious Basterds, and Precious). This year’s Pixar gem, Up, got a nod that would have been unlikely otherwise, as did the closest thing last year saw to The Dark Knight, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. An Education was a good movie, though among the more over-praised of the year (I’d have preferred that Bright Star sneak in here); A Serious Man displayed the Coens’ serious talents (even if I wished they’d been directed toward different ends); and there have probably been worse nominees than The Blind Side, though its beating out Invictus for what Vulture called the “drama in which racism is fixed by sports” slot was a surprise, and clear evidence that the Academy, for good or ill, has fallen out of love with Clint Eastwood.
There were, of course, plenty of films that I think were more worthy than many of those nominated, including Where the Wild Things Are, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Funny People, The Informant!, Sin Nombre, and In the Loop. But none ever really came close to gathering the critical or financial momentum it would have needed to get a nod, and it seems ungenerous to fault the Academy for overlooking films that were overlooked so widely. So, in all, an acceptable list, if not a particularly good one.
I do have two complaints about the new ten-nominee format, however, one global and one circumstantial. The first is that, in expanding the field of nominees, the Academy let itself off too easily. If the problem was that it nominated the wrong films, the solution is not to expand the number of films so that it can’t help but nominate some of the right ones, too. (By that logic they should nominate every film released each year: Perfection, every time!) The solution is to nominate better films. It is a notable irony of awards season that the Oscars, though by far the most prestigious honors bestowed, are also among the most unreliable--the most complacent and haphazard, the most easily swayed by momentum or politics or behind-the-scenes lobbying. I don’t know whether the Academy could be improved by expansion or contraction or some more fundamental reorganization. But if it doesn’t find a way to have more confidence in its own judgment, eventually we’ll be treated to 20 nominees in every category and the ceremony itself will last into April.
My second, more particular, gripe is this: Pretty much any chance that another movie would steal the prize away from Avatar has been erased by the ten-nominee format. With five contenders, it might have been possible for The Hurt Locker, or even Up in the Air, to stage an upset. But with the anti-Avatar vote stretched so thin, James Cameron’s interstellar opus should win easily. (At another time, I’ll weigh in on why this will be among the Worst Things Ever.)
No real surprises here, and a solid bunch of nominees, though I think Matt Damon should have gotten a nod for conversing with himself in The Informant! and, in a better world, Michael Sheen would also have been rewarded for his brilliant turn in The Damned United. Jeff Bridges is the apparent frontrunner for Crazy Heart, though he shouldn’t be: This is the kind of performance that demands less of an actor than it appears to. A Single Man’s Colin Firth would be my choice here, followed by The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner, but the betting money says it will be Bridges or George Clooney for Up in the Air.
Just as I would have chosen Bright Star over An Education for Best Picture, I’d have nominated the former’s star, Abbie Cornish, over the latter’s, Carey Mulligan. But then, I’d have nominated Cornish over any of the other nominees but Meryl Streep, who gave the wittiest, most charming performance of her storied career in Julie & Julia. There was some early momentum for Mulligan and Precious’s Gaboury Sidibe, but it seems to have abated, and it now looks like a race between Streep and The Blind Side’s Sandra Bullock--or, put another way, between hope and despair. Let us pray the Academy remembers that Streep last won an Oscar 28 years (and a dozen nominations) ago, or, at least, that it recognizes the televisual self-interest of having her receive the award at a ceremony co-hosted by her It’s Complicated paramours Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.
Best Supporting Actor
As we have known with reasonable certainty for six months now, Inglourious Basterds’Christoph Waltz will win this award; the greater suspense is in which language he will choose to receive it. I’m sorry that Alfred Molina has never been nominated for an Oscar, but I’m glad he wasn’t nominated for his turn in An Education, one of the flabbier performances of his exceptional career. Woody Harrelson’s nomination for The Messenger was well-deserved, and Matt Damon’s for Invictus, though a little odd, is admirable as well. Christopher Plummer didn’t really merit a nod for his scene-chewing in The Last Station (neither did Helen Mirren), but given that the Academy stiffed him altogether for his magnificent supporting turn as Mike Wallace in The Insider way back when, it’s fine with me if they continue making it up to him for the rest of his life. A final word: Anyone--anyone--who believes that Stanley Tucci delivered a better performance in The Lovely Bones than in Julie & Julia should be forced to watch both films back to back, over and over, until he sees the error of his ways. It’s as if the same form of mass insanity that led the Academy to reward Kate Winslet for The Reader rather than Revolutionary Road has struck again--and this time it can’t even be blamed on the Invisible Hand of Weinstein.
Best Supporting Actress
As with Waltz, so with Precious’s Mo’Nique, though in this case the suspense is whether the famously cranky nominee will bother to show up to receive her inevitable award. I’m pleased by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s nomination--I found her performance subtler than Bridge’s in Crazy Heart--though I’m sorry that neither of the martyr-heroines of Inglourious Basterds (Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger) could displace a not-particularly-deserving Anna Kendrick from Up in the Air. And anyone who believes that Penelope Cruz was better than Marion Cotillard in Nine evidently saw a different movie than I did.
The Academy’s utter snub of Where the Wild Things Are is most egregious here. I mean seriously, guys. That’s the kind of imaginative adaptation this award should be for, the opening of a beloved classic into the possibilities of a new medium. Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Informant! could’ve used a little love here as well, but at least the caustic wit of In the Loop was rewarded.
A very solid list--The Hurt Locker, Up, Inglourious Basterds, The Messenger, A Serious Man--but by far its greatest boast is that Avatar isn’t on it.
Please, ye gods, let The Hurt Locker’s Kathryn Bigelow steal this away from ex-hubby (and Avatar impresario) James Cameron. Even amid cosmic injustice we must be afforded glimmers of hope.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.