The awards race has so many qualifying events and precursors to the Oscars these days that the winners aren't hard to figure out anymore. One of the only real surprises we've got left is the actual slate of nominees, with the suspense centered around who will land in the fourth or fifth slot and get to rub shoulders with the frontrunners. This year offers some pleasant and not-so-pleasant shocks, however, because a few of those frontrunners are missing completely.
Let's get to the biggest one first, in the Animated Feature Film category. Where is "The LEGO Movie"? Where is the animated film that critics so loved and championed, it showed up on multiple year-end top ten lists? That is still domestically the highest grossing 2014 cartoon feature? I've seen four of the five nominees here, and while it's a decent bunch, "LEGO" is easily better than all the other American contenders. What gives? At least now we know that Best Song is going to "Everything is Awesome," because the oversight is so obvious that voters will surely be compelled to try and made up for the snub.
A couple of other notable omissions in the smaller categories - "Life Itself," the documentary about Roger Ebert was left out, removing the possibility of Steve James finally getting the trophy due to him for "Hoop Dreams." I've heard a lot of chatter about "Force Majeure" not making the Foreign Language Film list, but this category is always a mess due to the eligibility rules. "Winter Sleep," "Mommy," and "Two Days, One Night," should have all been frontrunners. Likewise, the Original Song category passed up obvious contenders from Lana Del Rey and Sia. I can only assume that somebody in the music branch of the Academy really has it out for Lana Del Rey after this and the "Great Gatsby" debacle.
And now let's get to the big guns. Please keep in mind that I've seen fewer of the major contenders than usual, but I've seen enough. I knew that most of the momentum behind "Gone Girl" had faded, but to see it land only a single nomination for Rosamund Pike was a shock. Similarly, "Selma" has been getting great reactions, and it was predicted to pick up a bunch of nominations, including Ava Duvernay for Best Director and David Oyelowo for Best Actor. It only ended up nabbing two, for Best Picture and Best Original Song. "Nightcrawler" was always a bit of a long shot, but Jake Gylenhaall was getting good buzz for his performance. It managed a lone Original Screenplay nod.
Instead, Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" has emerged as a late favorite with six nominations, including one for Bradley Cooper as Best Actor, who has barely even been in the conversation as a possible contender. Not much of a surprise, I guess, since "American Sniper" looks to be the kind of gung-ho, feel-good war film that the Academy loves. I don't want to be too critical here, because I haven't seen all the films, but I'm absolutely appalled that "The Theory of Everything," the gutless, formulaic Stephen Hawking biopic snagged five nominations including Adapted Screenplay. I'd love to accuse the Academy of preferring safer, more conservative prestige fare over more challenging, darker, and controversial films, but that's not true. Because this is also the year that the frontrunners include some downright weird, and even experimental work: "Birdman," "Boyhood." and "The Grand Budapest Hotel."
Frankly, I'm thrilled with a lot of the choices. Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson are finally getting recognition after decades of great work. I actually feel a little better now that "Moonrise Kingdom" got snubbed a few years back, because Anderson deserves the kudos for "Grand Budapest Hotel" so much more. "Boyhood" wasn't one of my favorites this year, but I'm rooting for it because it's such a feat of great filmmaking. And hooray for Marion Cotillard grabbing a nomination for "Two Days, One Night," over Amy Adams and Jennifer Aniston. And hooray for "Whiplash" getting a well-deserved Editing nomination. And "Inherent Vice" getting an Adapted Screenplay nod. And "Ida" snagging a slot in Cinematogrpahy. And that Isao Takahata is an Oscar nominee.
The weirdest nomination by far is the Best Director nod for Bennett Miller. Has anyone gotten a Best Director nod when their film wasn't up for Best Picture since they upped the number of nominees? "Foxcatcher" was an interesting film, but I wasn't surprised to see that it didn't quite make the Best Picture list. There were clearly a lot of strong contenders because a lot of the nominations across various categories didn't match up the way they normally do. Note that Clint Eastwood didn't get a Best Director nod, "Birdman" is missing from Editing, and no individual contributor to "Selma" had any support at all. It signals that there was no real consensus with these choices, and that's a good thing.
Ultimately this is a group of nominees I can live with, even though there are some massive flaws. I hoped to see Ralph Fiennes for "Grand Budapest Hotel," Essie Davis for "The Babadook," and Josh Brolin for "Inherent Vice, though I didn't expect them. The only snub I'm really bothered by is Gillian Flynn not getting her due for the "Gone Girl" screenplay. That and "The LEGO Movie." Because, really, how did they manage to screw that one up?