Breaking Down the Oscar Nominations
Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images.
This year’s Oscar nominations were announced Thursday. From Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” to Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” the choices always stir great interest, debate and offer a chance to look at the direction and quality of movies these days.
Earlier Friday, I spoke to Ann Hornaday, film critic of The Washington Post, about this year’s nominees, the favorites to win, the dark horses and the movies that were deserving but were overlooked:
A transcript is after the jump.
JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. This year’s Oscar nominations have just been announced, and as always they stir great interest and some debate, and they also offer a chance to look at the direction and even, yes, the quality of movies these days. This year is no different. I’m joined, as we have been in the past, by Ann Hornaday, film critic for The Washington Post. Welcome again, Ann.
ANN HORNADAY: Thank you, Jeff.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s start at the top, I guess. The best picture list — nine films this year. Is it about what you expected?
ANN HORNADAY: Yeah, this was pretty much the lineup I think everyone expected. There were a couple of surprises. I think the two stalking horses are “Amour” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Those were the two maybe — no, stalking horses isn’t the right word, but maybe those are two wildcards. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is this scrappy little independent film that came out last summer that earned a lot of plaudits and a lot of passion from audiences. That’s the kind of movie that sometimes you just expect it to have a screenplay nomination, almost as a nod. I think it surprised people that it really made it this far up into the director’s nomination and the best picture nomination and even the best actress.
JEFFREY BROWN: “Amour,” I noticed, is in foreign language, as well.
ANN HORNADAY: Indeed. Exactly. Yes, and that’s a rarity. This was done by the Austrian director Michael Haneke, who’s well known among critics and art house connoisseurs, so, again, not that common to have somebody from that world burst onto the more visible mainstream stage of the best picture. He was also nominated for director and his actress deservedly, I think, was nominated for best actress.
JEFFREY BROWN: I saw you wrote one of the themes you picked out was this rise of the Washington movie, or even celebrating the kind of bureaucrats or figures in Washington who usually are much put upon.
ANN HORNADAY: It’s really true. As the Post critic I got such a kick out of the fact that in the best picture nominees we have “Lincoln” and we have “Argo” and then we have “Zero Dark Thirty,” and especially “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” I think, pay homage to just process, the process that we usually wring our hands and despise.
In “Lincoln’s” case, of course, it’s the sausage-making of legislating and Congress, and it’s illustrated in that film as a such a salty, lively scurrilous art, but still kind of seen with some degree of affection. It’s impossible not to see all that through the prism of the paralysis and gridlock of today and think, huh, you know, maybe one day our crazy, crazy system will be the fodder for some great art and even entertainment.
In the same vein “Zero Dark Thirty” chronicles the search for Osama bin Laden on the part of the military and the CIA. It really gets into the weeds in terms of especially how the intelligence community just does their jobs, and a lot of that is really literally staring into a computer screen and going into dusty offices and not being glamorous or particularly romanticized. I just thought it really captured that and paid tribute to it in a very serious and I think appropriate way.
“Argo,” that was a little bit more romantic but a lot of fun to watch and, again, it was kind of a tip of a hat to the people in our area that don’t often get hats tipped toward their way.
JEFFREY BROWN: Two of those films, the directors did not get nominations, and that was one of the surprises in these nominations, that Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck were not nominated even though their films were. That in itself is a little unusual, but were you surprised?
ANN HORNADAY: I was shocked. Honestly, I was shocked. I really was. I’m not such an Oscar maven that I get shocked easily, but I considered both of them such shoe-ins and I’m such a huge fan of both of those films, I kind of have to join in the chorus of outrage, but they were left off. Some people have speculated that the controversy surrounding “Zero Dark Thirty” might have affected Kathryn Bigelow —
JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, that’s what I was wondering.
ANN HORNADAY: I don’t think so though, because it’s been nominated for best picture, the screenplay was nominated, its leading actress. If you have qualms about a film, you don’t punish just one. It just felt weird to me that they would single her out. I just think it’s the vagaries of the voting system. They did a new electronic voting system this year that might have had something to do with it, the way they weigh their votes. And now that they have more nominees for best picture, 10 doesn’t go into five. Someone is going to be left out, but I really was genuinely gobsmacked. I guess it’s kind of a glib and maybe not entirely fair, but to my mind Haneke and Behn Zeitlin, who did “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” they kind of took those slots, quote-unquote. That’s not exactly the way I would have done it, but that’s what makes it a horse race.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well while we’re on that subject, were there other films from last year that didn’t get appropriate attention or recognition that you could help correct now. We can all look for it on video, I suppose.
ANN HORNADAY: Oh, goody. Well, yes, I think there were lots of ones that I was sort of keeping an eye out for. I would have loved to see the screenplay to “Looper” be nominated for best original screenplay. This was a really well done science fiction thriller by a young director named Rian Johnson, very smart young man, very well executed and thoughtful. It’s a genre picture, it’s sci-fi, it’s time travel, and it’s got action and adventure, which maybe people didn’t take serious artistically, but I just thought it was a real delightful surprise for me, so I would tell people to check that out.
ANN HORNADAY: There were two really wonderful leading performances from actors last year that deserve some recognition. One is Richard Gere in “Arbitrage,” a Wall Street thriller, again a little tiny indie film, really well done film, and also just a terrific performance from him. And also John Hawkes, who starred in “The Sessions,” about a man with polio living in an iron lung and the therapist who helps him come to terms with his sexuality and his body awareness. Helen Hunt did get nominated for her portrayal of the therapist, but it would have been nice to see John Hawkes get a nod, because it was completely passive performance, being kind of trapped in this iron lung, and he brought it such dynamism and character. I was also surprised that the cinematography didn’t get nominated for “The Master,” the Paul Thomas Anderson movie, which was maybe not a perfect movie, and I have my quibbles with it, but visually it was an absolutely transporting experience. That was a bit of a head-scratcher. Those are just a few that people might want to catch up on.
JEFFREY BROWN: No, that’s very helpful. The people who were nominated and made best actor and actress — who are you going for here? Who do you think?
ANN HORNADAY: I think it’s got to be Daniel Day Lewis’ year. I’ll go along with the crowd on that one. The best leading actress, that’s a little bit more of free-for-fall. It’s a very, very strong lineup. I was hugely admiring of every single one of these performances. If forced I would probably vote for Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour.” This is an 85-year-old actress, who is, again, well known to foreign film fans and art house fans. Her best known movie until now was “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” from way back when.
JEFFREY BROWN: Going way back, yeah.
ANN HORNADAY: Way back. She plays an elderly woman struggling with illness and end-of-life issues in this film. It’s just one those bravura, physical, emotional — it’s just an all-encompassing performance that is completely immersive. It’s really brave. It would be wonderful to see her take it, but honestly I just think they are all so deserving.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Let me just ask one more thing before I let you go, which is the sort of summing up here. We’ve had this conversation before, because you are watching movies all the time, the nominations sort of lets you think a little bit about the quality or the kind of films being made. I think you and others have noted there is some serious, challenging filmmaking from this past year.
ANN HORNADAY: Absolutely. I think it’s such a testament to what a strong year it was. Generally at this time of the year people like me, like you said, who do see a lot films, I think we spend a lot of time advocating for small films that we think are getting overlooked, and that is a part of the job, and that’s often in contrast to the kind of pablum, boring, banal, mainstream fare that the studios are putting out, but this year I think the studios really did themselves proud. It was a year where something like a “Looper,” “Skyfall,” the James Bond movie. That’s a franchise that we’ve seen some water treading on, and this was a really genuinely sophisticated and pleasing, aesthetically, narratively and technically film. Even “The Dark Night Rises,” I’ve not always been such a fan of that franchise, I thought that was very well done. When you look at this lineup of things like “Life of Pi” and “Argo” and “Lincoln,” it really tells me that quality films are coming from every direction now, and that’s just bodes really, really well for the next few years.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, isn’t that nice to hear.
ANN HORNADAY: I hope.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right.
ANN HORNADAY: She said hopefully.
JEFFREY BROWN: She said hopefully, yes, because you’ll be watching more whether they are good or not.
ANN HORNADAY: I’ll be the first tell you if I’m wrong.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, thanks again.
ANN HORNADAY: Thanks, Jeff.
JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.