Academy takes the light approach in Oscar nominations
The recent Oscar nominations left in their aftermath no small amount of head scratching.
Some of the best films of 2011 artfully spoke to an undercurrent of tension and darkness in the American psyche. Austin director Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter" and Danish director Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" were profound metaphors for anxiety and depression. Other films such as "Shame" and "Drive" beautifully depicted loneliness rendered in addiction and violence.
None of those four movies received a nomination for best picture.
In a year in which the stylized ache of individuals resonated so powerfully with viewers, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose to give the majority of their nods to movies that were considerably lighter in tone.
The most unbelievable honor went to "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," the story of a boy looking to find a connection with his father (Tom Hanks) who was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
The movie received a lot of negative reviews from critics, with Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post calling it "extremely labored and incredibly crass," and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune labeling the movie a "fundamentally dishonest weepie."
They were not alone in their scathing indictments of the manipulative tear-jerker. "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" received the lowest score on film-review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes. According to the site's metrics, only 47 percent of critics had a positive review of the film. No film in at least 20 years has received such low scores on Rotten Tomatoes and gotten a best-picture nomination. The last Academy Award nominee for best picture to sink almost as low was 1998's "The Reader." Both films were directed by Stephen Daldry.
And yet, a nomination.
Of course, film critics are not the same thing as Academy voters. The new rules for selection of best picture give weight to first and second-place votes, which might explain the nomination. It is possible that Daldry's divisive film had massive appeal for a few while turning off others completely. As the film's producer, Scott Rudin, told The New York Times after the movie was shut out at the Golden Globes, those "who love it, love it passionately," while others resist.
In addition to "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," the majority of the other nominees for best film either relied on saccharine storytelling or sentimentality to win over audiences, and even the best of the lot were only mildly challenging.
One of the favorites for best picture, "The Artist," is an undeniable joy, but it and Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" are well-crafted love letters to the grand traditions of cinema, while Woody Allen's light romp "Midnight in Paris" is a love letter to the titular city. Though there is certainly a place for that kind of film, having the majority of the best picture front-runners be of that ilk is disconcerting and monotonous.
"The Descendants," Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" and "The Help" were all vastly different films in tone and subject matter, but at the end of the day, each tugged at audience heartstrings.
The best picture category was not the only one to ignore the more complicated and challenging material of 2011. David Fincher's brooding and explosive "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" did pick up five nominations, making it one of the most lauded of the year's darker films, but even Fincher's remake of the Swedish thriller did not make the cut for best picture or director. Nichols, Von Trier, "Drive" director Nicolas Winding Refn and "Shame" filmmaker Steve McQueen were all left out in the director category, as well. Their stars did not fare much better.
The most egregious oversight might have come in the absence of Michael Fassbender's name on the list of best actor nominees. The rising star had an amazing year, with solid work in "X-Men: First Class," "Jane Eyre" and "A Dangerous Method," but the German-born actor shined most brilliantly in "Shame." Fassbender gave arguably the most heartbreaking performance of the year, sapping the eroticism from an explicit NC-17 movie with his pained portrayal of a sex addict.
Ryan Gosling gave a muted and affecting interpretation of a getaway driver in Refn's '70s car-film homage, "Drive." Michael Shannon carried almost every second of "Take Shelter," with his embodiment of a man driven mad with paranoia and a burning desire to protect his family from unseen forces.
Though Demian Bichir ("A Better Life") and Gary Oldman ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy") did fine jobs with sentimental and adapted material, respectively, favorite themes of the Academy, they had no place being nominated for best actor in place of Fassbender, Gosling or Shannon.
Gosling's co-star Albert Brooks, who brought a palpable danger and sadism to the bloody "Drive," was also denied a nomination. In Brooks' absence, nods went to Kenneth Branagh's slight role in the soapy "My Week With Marilyn" and Jonah Hill as baseball executive Peter Brand in "Moneyball," both surprises.
Every year will bring criticism of oversights and questionable calls by the Academy. And you would be hard-pressed to find anyone losing much sleep over well-compensated actors, directors and producers not getting a five-second close-up shot during an awards telecast. But this year's decision process felt uniquely odd due to the schism between light and dark, manipulative and challenging material.
In a year where it seemed so many filmmakers and actors illuminated the dark places of our collective unconscious, Academy voters opted to acknowledge films that sought to warm our hearts instead of challenge our minds.
There's always next year. And the Independent Spirit Awards.