Hey, Mister Postman: The 86th Annual Academy Award Nominations, or, The Coen Brothers, I Weep!

posted Jan 17, 2014, 3:41 AM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Aug 16, 2014, 9:36 AM ]

As is my new modus operandi, I defer to The Postman and his impressive knowledge of films, film production and film history for a reaction to this year's Oscar nominations -- which were announced yesterday by actor Chris Helmsworth and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs:

Dear Members of the Route,

Well, my Christmas morning has come once again, the one day I willingly wake up hours before I would normally get out of bed to pad over to my couch, turn on the television, and wait with breathless anticipation for what Santa Oscar has brought me.  No milk and cookies for me; pen and paper, thank you.  Let's open the presents, shall we?

And the nominations seem to be...

Best Picture: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street 

Though I don't spend a lot of energy making predictions for these nominations, it has been very clear to me that only 12 films released this year had any reasonable shot at being nominated for Best Picture: these nine as well as Inside Llewyn Davis, Saving Mr. Banks, and Blue Jasmine.  No other films need have applied.  And while everyone else seems to embrace 2013 as a film year to celebrate, I think this list of 12 represents an awfully shallow pool as well as one in which I'm not all that eager to wade (and I say this having already seen all 12 of these perceived "finalists" twice each).  When I publish my Top 10 list this year, you will notice only two films nominated this year on there.  Just two.  That's as bad as 2011, my vote for worst year ever at the movies, with shining stars The Artist and The Help and The Descendants leading the Oscar charge. 

My biggest disappointment of this morning's revelations is not seeing Inside Llewyn Davis listed here (or, frankly, in Best Director, Best Actor, Original Screenplay, Editing... you get the picture).  The Coen brothers may have made their best movie yet, but it's either too low-key to be heard over the din, or its distributor didn't have the muscle to generate enough hype.  And yes, I'd rather see Blue Jasmine and even Saving Mr. Banks on this list over the likes of the awkwardly condescending Nebraska, the Vanity Fair article-movie Philomena, and the somewhat naive and cliched Dallas Buyers Club.  And, once again, I sit in utter mystification that David O. Russell has conned so many people into liking yet another movie of his: American Hustle was fun the first time through, but on second viewing, it revealed itself to me as an amiable mess with no momentum, with characters left largely at sea by a screenplay that revels in the sound of its own tinny cleverness, sacrificing logic and causality whenever necessary.  Ah well...

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity; Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave; Alexander Payne, Nebraska; David O. Russell, American Hustle; Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street 

Though Gravity will not make my Top 10 list this year, even I am perfectly happy to celebrate Cuaron's astounding achievement in this category.  And certainly, I'm very pleased for Steve McQueen and Martin Scorsese, who both made favorites of mine this year.  I won't continue my David O. Russell bashing, because I know he's very good with actors (I just wish he were better with editing, pacing, structure... you know, the little things).  But Alexander Payne's Nebraska, while not as egregious as The Descendants (a film I truly hated), just doesn't strike me as that good.  Beyond one excellent performance, and a couple of other strong acting turns, I find the movie relatively slack and I can't help feeling that Payne is laughing at the movie's characters, not with them.  That's an accusation I normally level at the Coen brothers, something they absolutely don't do with the people populating Inside Llewyn Davis.  Maybe condescension works for the Academy; I don't know.

Best Actor: Christian Bale, American Hustle; Bruce Dern, Nebraska; Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street; Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave; Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club 

Interestingly, this is the one category where four of my favorite performances of the year actually show up.  As much as I have problems with both movies Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club, I really do celebrate the work of Bruce Dern and especially Matthew McConaughey.  But, if I have to be honest with myself, the one thing I wished for from Santa Oscar this year, was Leonardo DiCaprio to be remembered for his explosive, hilarious, despicable performance in The Wolf of Wall Street.  Yes, I think he's better than Tom Hanks who, despite an incredible final 15 minutes in Captain Phillips, just didn't wow me at any other time in the movie, especially with that embarrassing Boston accent.  And, much as I respected the filmmaking of All is Lost, I was similarly unwowed by Robert Redford, so I can't say I'm sad to see him neglected either.  As for Mr. Bale, while I enjoyed his Wig Performance (David O. Russell, after conning the Academy into giving Melissa Leo an Oscar a few years back by throwing her in a ridiculous wig and handing her a lot of cigarettes, has become the go-to Wig Director), I would still rather have seen Oscar Isaac, Idris Elba, or Michael B. Jordan there in his place.

Best Actress: Amy Adams, American Hustle; Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine; Sandra Bullock, Gravity; Judi Dench, Philomena; Meryl Streep, August: Osage County 

As much vitriol as I have to spew about American Hustle, I must say that I really loved Amy Adams (though I think I liked her even better in Her, but that's another story).  I am delighted to see her nominated, even if my favorite in this category - Cate Blanchett - is oh so clear.  I truly believe the rest of the nominees are just category-fillers here, and I'd gladly see Brie Larson from Short Term 12 or Julie Delpy from Before Midnight up here instead of Ms. Bullock, Dench, or Streep.  Emma Thompson's absence is woeful: I certainly think her work is every bit the equal of Judi Dench's Weinstein-encouraged vote pandering performance (lovely as it is) and certainly better than Streep's mugging, look-at-me-I'm-acting turn.  Meryl Streep is a national treasure, and I have loved many of her performances - truly loved them - but she needn't be nominated every time she shows up on film, people.  Really, give her a rest.

Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips; Bradley Cooper, American Hustle; Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave; Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street; Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club 

Why, oh why, is this always the shittiest category of the year?  Yes, I do think it's appropriate to swear.  Year after year after year, this category is filled with adequate performances masquerading as greatness, when the other three categories more often than not have so many options that people are left on the curb as the bus has pulled away.  Despite my love of 12 Years a Slave, Michael Fassbender's character was the one I could never quite grasp: I just don't think the script does enough to connect the dots to make me understand his evil (though his acting nearly does the job that the script does not, it's not enough for me).  Bradley Cooper shows a lot of nervous energy in American Hustle, but I didn't find his acting all that exemplary; he was far better last year in Silver Linings Playbook.  And Jared Leto does his best, but his character seems like such a collection of cliches - a made-up character served to redeem the film's one true character (played by Mathew McConaughey) and score audience sympathy points - that I just can't embrace his performance.  So while I am delighted that Barkhad Abdi and Jonah Hill are nominated (a second viewing of The Wolf of Wall Street makes Leonardo DiCaprio's claims that Jonah Hill led the cast in its largely improvised scenes seem quite easy to believe), I'd rather have made room elsewhere in this category for James Gandolfini's quiet work in Enough Said, Tom Hanks' quite lovely performance as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, Jake Gyllenhaal's twitchy work in Prisoners (and for me to celebrate anything in that wretched film is saying something), or Chris Cooper in August: Osage County.

Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine; Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle; Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave; Julia Roberts, August: Osage County, June Squibb, Nebraska 

For those of you playing at home, this is the only category (along with Adapted Screenplay) that I predicted correctly (explaining perhaps why I don't share my predictions).  Sure, it's a slight surprise that Oprah Winfrey wasn't nominated for Lee Daniels' The Butler, but ask yourself: if anyone BUT Oprah Winfrey had given that performance, would anyone have talked about it?  I am just fine not seeing her on this list.  I think this is a fine group.  Though I would rather have seen her nominated for the movie Happy-Go-Lucky a few years back, Hawkins is a most pleasant inclusion here.  And I'm pleased for June Squibb, even if I don't love her performance as much as others seem to.  But I'm still a bit mystified by everyone's love for Jennifer Lawrence.  As an actress.  Again, she seems to be a delightful person, and if there were Oscars for Best Congeniality or Best Post-Show Interview, I'd give them all to her.  But acting??  Her accent comes and goes more rapidly than the tonal switches in American Hustle.  Sure, if she hadn't won her undeserved Oscar last year for Silver Linings Playbook, I might think more kindly towards her this year (I do like her performance better in Hustle).  But, see, she did; she did win.  Attention must be paid!!  Julia Roberts wins the same prize Helen Hunt won last year: both women deserved to be considered as lead actress for their respective movies (Helen Hunt in The Sessions) but were relegated to Supporting to make room for them.  While I loved Roberts in August: Osage County, Margo Martindale and Juliette Lewis also did really nice work in what are definitely supporting roles.  I would also like to have made room for Octavia Spencer, who I so hated in The Help but so loved in Fruitvale Station (a movie sadly overlooked this morning), Sarah Paulson in 12 Years a Slave, Amy Adams for Her, Naomie Harris for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Margot Robbie for The Wolf of Wall Street.  This category, unlike the previous one, is, as ever, an embarrassment of riches.

Original Screenplay: American Hustle, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska 

Again, this category is rendered absurd without the inclusion of Inside Llewyn Davis, but I'd also like to have seen Enough Said get its due here, as well as In a World..., Lake Bell's surprisingly fresh and tart comedy.  American Hustle's script is a mess with some crackly dialogue (boy, I do love that ice fishing story), Blue Jasmine is not Woody Allen's greatest (though I do raise that bar fairly high), and Her - a movie I have grown to like far more the second time through - still strikes me as a loose remake of Annie Hall without Diane Keaton... or jokes.  Nebraska has too many moments that feel like sitcom scenarios of how midwestern yokels might behave or talk for my tastes, and Dallas Buyers Club takes easy potshots at the FDA and brings its prickly, intriguing lead character to a far too easy redemption for my liking.  In short, I do not think this was a terribly strong year for original screenplays.

Adapted Screenplay: Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street 

Now this is where the quality resides.  Before Midnight is little more than talk, but the talk is glorious, from the couple's discussions about their children, their marriage, their past, to the rousing dinner conversation where their friends from their vacations share their different perspectives on love.  12 Years a Slave's script is like poetry, though I must admit I find the mastery of that film more directorial than scripted.  Captain Phillips is a taut, well-directed thriller, an excellent action movie that I don't happen to love, but its script, along with its filmmaking, is certainly very tight.  The Wolf of Wall Street boasts an amazing script, with fast, smart dialogue punctuated by actors' improvisations, but a razor-sharp structure that sends its characters to the impossible heights and watches them drop ever so excitingly.  Only Philomena feels the odd man out here, as I still don't understand what the dramatic heft of the story here is.  A woman searches for her long lost son and finds out all sorts of things about him.  OK, but what does she learn about herself?  How does she grow or change?  Again, I think the account of what she found is fascinating, but I'd rather have seen her son's story than watch her wander about Washington DC and crack jokes about Big Momma's House.  No, I'd have lost Philomena in this category and replaced it with either The Bling Ring (which I saw recently and found fascinating) or World War Z, a movie I loved and which was apparently a radical adaptation of its source material.

Animated Film: The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises 

This has not been a good year for animation.  I don't love any of these films (even if I have a great deal of affection for the occasionally delightful mess that is Frozen).  The Wind Rises is really quite dull (if beautiful), Ernest & Celestine is charming but very slight, and The Croods is perfectly fine.  I truly hated Despicable Me 2 and would rather see Monsters University or Epic in its place.  But I just don't care enough to be angry.

Cinematography: The Grandmaster, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Prisoners 

I also don't think this was such a hot year for cinematography.  The inclusion of Gravity here continues the trend of visual effects-dominated work being represented in this category, and I really wish they'd split this category into Live Action Cinematography and Visual Effects Cinematography.  Gravity looks amazing, but so much of that is due to pre-visualization that I don't think it can, or should, be compared to the grey, smoky lighting of Inside Llewyn DavisThe Grandmaster is not as interesting a movie visually as I hoped it would be, and Prisoners is here only because Roger Deakins shot it and not because it's actually that great looking.  And Nebraska owes its nomination to a really superb transfer to DVD.  The movie looks far better on the small screen than it did in the theater.  I'd rather see The Wolf of Wall Street or The Great Gatsby or 12 Years a Slave here.

Production Design: American Hustle, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, Her, 12 Years a Slave 

I must say, I'm thrilled Her got noticed here.  If there is one element of that movie that works spectacularly well, it's its look, but I worried that the near-future time frame would cripple its chances.  Otherwise, the big, splashy, expected films have all been invited to play: the period splendor of The Great Gatsby, the period squalor of 12 Years a Slave, the gaudiness of American Hustle's 70's, and the visual effects design of Gravity.  Yes, I'd like to see Inside Llewyn Davis here, and perhaps The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug or The Book Thief, but this is a fine list.

Costume Design: American Hustle, The Grandmaster, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Woman, 12 Years a Slave 

Well, I'm just happy I sat down and watched a screener of The Invisible Woman (a powerfully boring film) with friends, because it's nominated here, and now I don't have to run and catch up with it.  Nice costumes though.  I honestly didn't notice any costumes in The Grandmaster, so that's a bit puzzling.  Hustle, Gatsby, and Slave are all obvious choices here, but I might have gone with Her (I spent the entire first screening of the movie staring at Joaquin Phoenix's half collars, which might not exactly seem like an endorsement for the film) or the more fanciful Hunger Games 2 or even Oz: The Great and Powerful.  But really, was there a costume any more memorable than Vera Farmiga's scalloped collar in The Conjuring this year?  I don't think so.

Film Editing: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave 

I'm always amused when films that are clearly too long (I'm looking at you, Hustle) get nominated here: the second half of that film goes dangerously slack for me.  Of course, one might say the same of the woefully not nominated The Wolf of Wall Street, but honestly, I wanted that film to be 3 hours longer.  12 Years a Slave is a tough movie, but I also don't think it's too long: McQueen and his editors dared to take their time to put over the idea of what twelve years of captivity might feel like (and did so in only 134 minutes).  Gravity wisely telescoped its roller coaster-like thrills into a tight 90 minutes: bravo.  I must admit I'm shocked to see Dallas Buyers Club here.  It's a well-assembled movie, but I'm just not sure I'd ever think of it as an editorial achievement.

Original Score: The Book Thief, Gravity, Her, Philomena, Saving Mr. Banks 

I'm not great at listening to film scores.  Often, if I'm listening to the score of a movie, it means I'm not paying enough attention to the story or the performances.  Over the three times I've watched Gravity, I can say that I've truly grown to hate that movie's score.  It's bombastically effective the first time through, but I don't think it's at all good music.  Otherwise, Saving Mr. Banks is so dominated by the Sherman brothers' songs for Mary Poppins that I don't remember the actual score.  I might have put 12 Years a Slave and Captain Phillips up here, but again, I seldom take the time to listen to a film's soundtrack outside of the film itself.

Original Song: “Alone Yet Not Alone”, Alone Yet Not Alone; “Happy”, Despicable Me 2; “Let it Go”, Frozen; “The Moon Song”, Her; “Ordinary Love”, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom 

Every year, my goal is to have seen every nominated film in the English-language non-documentary feature categories (if I have time and am able, I'll watch the documentaries and foreign films, but often times, they're not all available for general consumption).  And this year my total of films I need to see to reach that goal before March 2 totals exactly: one.  Alone Yet Not Alone is a film that apparently got released in September of 2013 (or June, depending on what website you find), but only 28 people have "graded" it on the Internet Movie Database, and Boxofficemojo.com doesn't even have an entry for it.  Seeing this movie is not going to be easy (I've heard the song; it's pretty enough).  Otherwise, after years with next to no viable candidates in this category, I think this is a perfectly strong category.  I am no fan of U2's music, but "Ordinary Love" is a quite nice song, and I think Her's "The Moon Song" has real charm.  And while I might not be as obsessed with the song "Let it Go" as every single one of my friends, I think it's a most excellent entry into the Disney canon.

Sound Mixing: Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lone Survivor 

True to form, this category features the year's loudest films... and a musical.  I'm a little surprised not to see Rush nominated here (or for Sound Editing), and I'm distressed that 12 Years a Slave did not get the support in craft categories that it might need to win Best Picture.  I haven't reviewed Lone Survivor, because the movie didn't do all that much for me.  I was tempted to write a song parody of "The Lonely Goatherd" as my review.  It would have started, "High on a hill, near some Afghan goatherds, Lay ee oh di lay ee oh di lay hee ho.  Some Navy SEALS stumble on those goatherds.  Lay ee oh di lay ee oh di loo."  I never got farther than that.

Sound Editing: All is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Lone Survivor 

It is perhaps a little sad that All is Lost's sole nomination is for the sound of a storm and the sound of water lapping against a boat, but... there you are.

Visual Effects: Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Into Darkness 

As someone put it many weeks ago, let's see all the other films that will lose to Gravity.  Certainly, I'm delighted The Hobbit is here, if for nothing else but the glorious creation that is the dragon Smaug.  His scenes may go on too long (in a Hobbit film?  You're joking!), but he's one of the year's more extraordinary delights.  Beyond the obvious visual effects on display in the Iron Man and Star Trek sequels, I am most intrigued by the inclusion of The Lone Ranger here.  Granted, I only saw the movie on DVD, but the visual effects that I saw looked somewhat dreadful.  What is notable, and what clearly got the nomination here, are the film's special effects, those moments - the train crashes, bridge explosions, etc. - that were captured on camera rather than added in post.  I am glad that what seems like a film's lost art is being recognized, even if the film that contains those effects is, well, not very good.

Makeup/Hairstyling: Dallas Buyers Club, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, The Lone Ranger 

I watched the seven films that qualified for this award (which meant I took myself to a remote $3 theater in the San Fernando Valley to see Bad Grandpa, thank you very much), and I have one thing to say: Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters totally deserved to be nominated.  No, seriously.  It did.  Because, really?  Dallas Buyers Club?  McConaughey and Leto did most of that movie's work by losing all the weight.  And I'm just going to hope that The Lone Ranger's nomination is more for the many wounds and things seen on other characters rather than Johnny Depp's somewhat unfortunate Injun-face.

Documentary Feature: The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, The Square, 20 Feet from Stardom 

I am devastated that Sarah Polley's film Stories We Tell got skipped in this category but am delighted that Cutie and the Boxer is here: it's really good.  I am not upset to see Blackfish go missing here: while its message may be important, I just didn't think the filmmaking was anything special at all.  I found The Act of Killing fascinating, if potentially repugnant, and I'm not sure I get all the hype surrounding 20 Feet from Stardom: the singers profiled are fun, but the movie doesn't have much to say.  Dirty Wars is a hysterical inclusion here: the movie's subject is interesting enough, but the investigative journalist who is the film's focus is insufferable and provides narration that would have seemed overheated in a 1950's B movie.  I have yet to see The Square.


Foreign Film: The Broken Circle Breakdown, The Great Beauty, The Hunt, The Missing Picture, Omar 

Having only seen two films represented here (The Hunt - bad; The Great Beauty - good), I have nothing really to contribute here.

Sadly, I also have not seen the short films in competition (except for Get a Horse!, which is one of my favorite films of the year), so I'll have to get to a screening of those contenders before casting my Oscar ballot.

So that's it!  An unsurprising, somewhat disappointing year, despite what other critics are saying, but the nominations actually do make a race out of a number of key categories.  I can honestly say I don't know who's going to win Best Picture, Actor, Actress, or Supporting Actress at this point, even if I have definite ideas.  But that will be for another time.  Until then, go see Inside Llewyn Davis, and see what you - and the Academy - are missing.

The Postman

You want a review???  I'll give you... A REVIEW!!!

Click on any of "The Postman" links for more film reviews. The 86th Annual Academy Awards will air live March 2 on ABC at 830pm EST/530pm PST.