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Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, at 5:30 p.m. PT/8:30 p.m. ET on ABC

Oscar noms reward spectacle, snub subtlety

But the usual suspects share the day with some welcome new faces

By Sean Axmaker
Special to MSN Movies

There is always such a feeling of inevitability by the time the Oscar nominations roll around. Even moved back to early January, it arrives after weeks of Top Ten lists, an unending array of critics awards, and predictions from every pundit with a blog. At least they beat the Golden Globe Awards this year, but the final tally is still measured against the consensus. This year, no surprise, belongs to "Lincoln," which entered the nominations as the film to beat and emerged with 12 nominations and an almost sure lock on Best Actor. The Best Picture category swelled to nine nominees, spreading the recognition around muscular studio pictures, big Hollywood Entertainments, and demanding independents. "Amour" emerged as the foreign upstart and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" the American indie that could. The front-runners and underdogs stake their positions and the critical kibitzing begins.

Bing: More about 'Lincoln' | More about 'Amour'

That's not to say there were no surprises. Who foresaw five nominations for Michael Hanake's harrowing "Amour," or eleven for the survival drama by way of a storybook tale "Life of Pi" (albeit mostly for technical categories)? "Les Misérables" took eight nominations yet was ignored in directing and writing categories, which doesn't bode well for Oscar night. "Silver Linings Playbook" scored better than expected and "Zero Dark Thirty" underperformed. Don't get me wrong: it's not a game of numbers, it's about the movies and performers and artists. The numbers just help take the temperature of the race.

Bing: More about 'Life of Pi' | More about 'Silver Linings Playbook'

Why do we care? Because politics and oddsmaking aside, the Oscars still matter to us, both as a star-studded spectacle and a sign of industry appreciation. A nomination is indeed an honor (certainly more of an honor than the Golden Globes) and a snub is still something to get worked up over. So here is our annual scorecard on Oscar's slights and oversights: they shoulda been a contender.


The new shapeshifting incarnation of this category can shrink to five nominees or sprawl to ten films, depending on the Academy's complicated formula. This year it's a substantial nine nominees, including the inevitable but undeserving "Les Misérables," and yet it left out Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," a film celebrated on best lists across the country (it was the fourth-ranked film on the MSN poll). The story of puppy love and adolescent runaways in a summer wonderland is Anderson's most mature film to date and the most authentically benevolent and affectionate piece of filmmaking to come out of the American cinema in ages. I guess that kind of mix of storybook playfulness and unabashed sincerity isn't considered serious enough, but I'll take it over the often condescending clichés of "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

More about 'Moonrise Kingdom' from Sean Axmaker

The raw dysfunction of "The Master" may have been too uncomfortable for Academy voters but I appreciate its uncompromising intensity. There were cheerleaders rooting for "The Dark Knight Rises" to legitimize the comic book movie and "Skyfall" to honor Bond, but they'll have to settle for their blockbuster box office.


Naomi Watts was almost guaranteed a spot for her saintly suffering in "The Impossible," but it comes at the expense of the more anxious, heartbroken, achingly naked performance by Rachel Weisz in "The Deep Blue Sea," playing an educated but penniless young beauty in post-war London who gives up security for passion and loses both. The only thing more devastating than her leap into a world she can't relate to is the resilience under her fragility. Her delicate, resonant performance from early in the year has been all but forgotten in the end-of-year crush.

Marion Cotillard picked nominations from both the Screen Actor's Guild and BAFTA for "Rust & Bone" but was surprisingly left out here (did Emmanuelle Riva use up the foreign film quota?). But my pick for the most criminally overlooked performance of the year goes to Nina Hoss in "Barbara" from Germany. A longshot for Oscar, I admit, but she deserves the recognition.


I guess Hugh Jackman's big, big, big performance in "Les Misérables" was inevitable, but for all his show tune chops, it's all muscle and no nuance. In his place, I nominate Jack Black's sweet, compulsive "Bernie." Too often cast as the manic madman, Black creates a fully-realized character in Richard Linklater's based-on-a-true-story small town satire. He's as enigmatic as he is outgoing and accepting, merely hinting at the mysteries behind his contradictions. It only makes him more compelling.

John Hawkes was considered a frontrunner for his self-effacing incarnation of a quadriplegic poet determined to live a full life in "The Sessions," and given the strong showing of "Amour" it seems unfair to leave Jean-Louis Trintignant's work out. Completely overlooked is Richard Gere's portrait of corrupted authority in "Arbitrage," and Michael Fassbender was a longshot for his intelligent work in the often exasperatingly dumb "Prometheus," but his performance is impressive by any measure.

Supporting Actress

The unexpectedly strong tide of "Silver Linings Playbook" carried Jacki Weaver into the this category for work far less vivid than her ferocious mother in "Animal Kingdom" a couple of years back. Much more committed is Nicole Kidman in the aggressively overheated and gleefully disreputable "The Paperboy." Kidman gives herself over completely and enthusiastically to the role of an uncommonly self-aware (and yet still delusional) oversexed southern Barbie doll. There's nary a trace of restraint or camp in this emotionally bruised romantic idealist who throws herself blindly into one bad decision after another.

Ann Dowd, who financed her own Oscar campaign (a la Melissa Leo and "The Fighter" a couple of years ago), is more rightly the lead in "Compliance" but was considered an underdog favorite for her discomforting performance of blind obedience in the face of anonymous authority. And neither of the great Dames of British cinema -- Judi Dench in "Skyfall" or Maggie Smith of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (who got a nod from the Screen Actors Guild) -- managed a nomination.

Supporting Actor

Yes, we all love Robert De Niro and it's been twenty years since his last nomination, but his turn in "Silver Linings Playbook" isn't as interesting as a half dozen performances from the last decade. Far more compelling is Matthew McConaughey, who uses his scruffy charm to grease the wheels of mercenary ambition in "Magic Mike," Steven Soderbergh's oily male stripper twist on the American dream. And that was just one of three fine turns that announced the return of McConaughey from his detour into featherweight romantic comedy. Come on, Oscar, that kind of work deserves your encouragement, if not your recognition.

Javier Bardem was always a longshot for "Skyfall" (come one, when does a Bond film get taken seriously by the Academy?) but the again, he won for a strikingly similar creation in "No Country for Old Men." And while I salute Christoph Waltz in "Django Unchained," it's a shame the Academy couldn't wrap it up with his fellow co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson for a triple play.


Probably the biggest surprises of any category came here, given its break with the Director's Guild of America and most pundit predictions. Benh Zeitlin's indie creativity and imaginative imagery in "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is admirable, but nowhere near as disciplined, let alone intelligent, as Kathryn Bigelow's ferocious focus on "Zero Dark Thirty." She received a well-deserved nomination from the Director's Guild of America but was overlooked by the Academy, which awarded her the "Best Director" Oscar just three years ago. Did the misguided controversy over accusations of "pro-torture" scenes scare off voters?

Ben Affleck (also a DGA nominee), considered a shoo-in for his audience-pleasing mix of cultural history and action-movie tropes in "Argo," was also a surprise snub, but I favor the daring of Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" or the unabashed benevolence and adolescent impulses of Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom." I'm not too surprised that Quentin Tarantino's audacious "Django Unchained" was skipped over, and I take some comfort that Tom Hooper (a previous Oscar winner for "The King's Speech") was rightly snubbed for his egregious mishandling of "Les Misérables." Even the film's fans admit how he bumbled the storytelling of what should have been a grand production.

More snubs:

Original Screenplay

Michael Haneke is such a sharp writer that it's not always so apparent how sanctimonious and manipulative he can be. In place of "Amour," I'd have preferred the far more nuanced and troubled exploration of lost souls and magnetic (if tyrannical) mentors in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master." The unlikely, inexplicable friendship between the two central characters is a mystery that fills the film with uncomfortable honesty and insight, and the portrait of a lost soul in post World War II American is as tender as it is revealing.

Adapted Screenplay

While it's heartening to see the love that Oscar has bestowed on the imaginative Sundance darling "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the portrait of the resilient, independent poor of the New Orleans islands leans on too many stereotypes and leaves the contradictions unacknowledged, let alone confronted. I'd have preferred the Academy to recognize the sharp, insidious satire of David Cronenberg's take on "Cosmopolis" or the ravishing and devastating emotional journey of Terence Davies' adaptation of Terence Rattigan's "The Deep Blue Sea."


In terms of sheer beauty, you can't top "Samsara," the docu-essay from Ron Fricke. But cinematography is more than simply pretty pictures on the screen. It's about creating worlds with the camera and telling stories with images, which is exactly what Peter Suschitzky accomplishes in David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis:" a surreal vision of a world unraveling before out eyes in precise, ultra-sharp images.

Foreign Language

Always an unexpected category, with its unusual process (countries submit one film each for consideration) and line-up of nominees unseen by the vast majority of stateside viewers. Given that I haven't seen "Kon-Tiki" or "War Witch," let me vent my frustration that neither "Holy Motors" nor "Rust and Bone" were even submitted (bumped by the French hit "The Intouchables," which failed to make the final cut) and sniff grumpily at the Danish costume drama "A Royal Affair," which bumped the more interesting and nuanced "Beyond the Hills" (Romania) and "Sister" (Switzerland).

Animated Feature

I can't fault the five nominees this year. I suppose you could swap the wild color, raucous energy, and Looney Tunes invention of "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" for the mix of offbeat wit and slapstick visual gags of "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," but I can't help but favor the handmade personality of the clay characters of "The Pirates!" In fact, this year there are three stop-motion features in contention, the best showing for this old school style since the category was inaugurated in 2001.


We are in the midst of a golden age of non-fiction filmmaking and the five slots of this category can't possibly encompass all the deserving films of the year. Given that, the Academy failed to honor the most daring work of non-fiction this year: Jafar Panahi's "This Is Not a Film," produced clandestinely while he was under house arrest in Iran. Panahi's engagement with the act of creation and the drive to confront political oppression and social censorship with art is a provocative and resonant piece of filmmaking and a defiant political act. He's currently in prison for his cinematic acts of civil disobedience.

Jan 10, 2013 4:28PM
This critic is what a critic is. Worthless gasps of hot air that unfortunately fall on eyes and ears of too many.  I wish people would take the time to find out what movies actually interest them instead of turn to the "professional critic" advice.  If that happened, we wouldn't have space in the paper or online to give their rambling a forum. 
Jan 10, 2013 10:36PM
they always put up  crap. every year its a joke
Jan 10, 2013 4:27PM

i also agree. all the major players in Django should have been nominated. the movie in my book was the best of the year. !! totally entertaining! very tongue in cheek!.


cronenburg should have gotten a nod also. excellent film! that he was passed over is sad.

Jan 10, 2013 3:56PM

It's nice to see that once again the nominees are mostly from mivies that no one saw.

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