6 Silver Linings to the Oscar Nominations: From ‘Mad Max’ to Charlotte Rampling

mad max fury road
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

“Do you think we ever really do see beyond those things … the surface of things?” The announcement of this morning’s Oscar nominations couldn’t help but remind me of the words of Raymond Deagan, the suburban gardener played by Dennis Haysbert in “Far From Heaven.” In his gorgeously crafted 2002 homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes used the very language and iconography of 1950s Hollywood to expose the cracks in the veneer of our ostensibly more enlightened era — and to suggest that, in terms of confronting deep-rooted racism and homophobia, contemporary American society still had a long way to go.

Racism and homophobia are not the subjects of this piece, though not for lack of ammunition. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has already come under fire for not nominating any actors of color for the second year in a row, prompting a depressing reiteration of the #OscarsSoWhite meme — a failure that seems particularly glaring in the season that gave us Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson in “Creed,” Abraham Attah and Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation,” and Jason Mitchell in “Straight Outta Compton.” (To which I would personally add Mya Taylor in “Tangerine,” Karidja Toure in “Girlhood,” Ben Vereen in “Time Out of Mind” and Shu Qi in “The Assassin,” being unbeholden to the Academy’s notions of what constants award-worthiness.) And I was personally hoping that voters, having overlooked “Far From Heaven” for best picture and director 13 years ago, would finally give Haynes his due in the same categories for “Carol.”

They didn’t, alas, though for reasons that I’d be cautious about attributing to identity politics; the film is clearly well liked, given its nominations for actresses Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, cinematographer Ed Lachman and composer Carter Burwell (finally earning his first nomination after decades of superb work). That “Carol” is a love story between two women strikes me as less of a handicap than the simple fact that some voters have never quite known how to approach Todd Haynes, precisely because his is the sort of genius that refuses to call attention to itself. You won’t read any stories about how arduous it was for Haynes to make “Carol,” or how his cast and crew braved the subzero temperatures of downtown Cincinnati. Next to something like “The Revenant,” an overblown ego trip of a movie that can’t stop calling attention to its worthiness in every frame, what chance did Haynes’ comparatively subdued filmmaking really stand?

In the spirit of Haynes, then, here’s to looking beyond the surface of things, and beyond the most obvious, self-aggrandizing contenders. Which, to its credit, the Academy managed to do in at least a few categories. Here are six silver linings from this morning’s announcement — those happy little surprises, or semi-surprises, that flew gratifyingly in the face of conventional wisdom.

1. Ten nominations for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It wasn’t “Carol” I feared for most at the beginning of Oscar season; it was “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which I suspected would be deemed too genre, too auteurist, too insanely brilliant for the Academy. I’m delighted beyond measure to be proven wrong. George Miller’s franchise-reigniting masterwork has been on a roll since claiming the National Board of Review’s top prize, and those winning ways continued this morning with Oscar nominations for picture, director, cinematography, costume design, production design, visual effects, sound editing, sound mixing, and makeup and hairstyling. I’ll go one further and say the movie should have matched “The Revenant’s” 12 with nominations for actress Charlize Theron, and for its sparely written but densely imagined screenplay. I’ll accept a best picture win as adequate recompense.

2. Charlotte Rampling for best actress. Whether or not you consider it category fraud to nominate Rooney Mara (“Carol”) and Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”) for supporting actress, I’m grateful for whatever maneuvering it took to land Rampling her first Oscar nomination — an outcome that feels no less triumphant for having been optimistically predicted in many quarters. How gratifying, too, that the performance she gives in Andrew Haigh’s piercing marital drama “45 Years” ranks among her very best work: Merging steely precision with tremulous delicacy, Rampling does more with a simple jerk of the arm in one scene than most actors could manage in an entire movie. In recent years, this category has found room for one especially inspired nominee from beyond the usual suspects; some recent examples include Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour” (2012) and Marion Cotillard in last year’s “Two Days, One Night,” and it’s wonderful to welcome Rampling into their company.

3. “Room” for best picture, director and screenplay. It’s hardly a surprise that “Carol” came up short for best picture and director, since it fared just as poorly with the producers and directors guilds. What a happy surprise, then, that Academy voters chose to reverse the trend where “Room” was concerned: Although similarly shut out by the PGA and DGA (and deemed ineligible by the WGA), Lenny Abrahamson’s heartrending mother-son captivity drama showed its strength with nominations for picture, director and screenplay, along with its expected mention for best actress frontrunner Brie Larson. That Abrahamson made it in over the more vaunted likes of Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott is one of those thrilling Benh Zeitlin-esque curveballs that the ever-adventurous directors branch throws you once in a while. But the writers branch proved no less discerning in acknowledging Emma Donoghue for her incisive adaptation of her own excellent novel, a choice that can’t help but feel like a corrective to the oversight of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” script in this category last year.

4. “Spotlight’s” acting nominations. Forced to single out two performances from “Spotlight,” I have to admit my own votes would have gone to Liev Schreiber and Michael Keaton; Schreiber’s performance as Boston Globe editor Marty Baron, in particular, is a marvelously self-effacing piece of screen acting, a full-bodied symphony of throat clearing and brow furrowing. But I can’t argue with the two performances that came up roses here: Mark Ruffalo requires no more superlatives for delivering the movie’s most emotionally substantive turn, though I expect many will dismiss Rachel McAdams for effectively riding the “Spotlight” train to a nomination. That may well be true; any number of deserving performances have snuck in for precisely that reason, and McAdams’ turn as Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer has the sort of fine-grained subtlety that voters too rarely notice. Take another look at that scene in which she gently, skillfully encourages an abuse survivor to lay bare his most lacerating secrets — a small master class in how the simple act of listening can become a conduit for compassion.

5. The animation race. The animation branch took a lot of heat last year for not nominating “The Lego Movie,” eclipsing the fact that it came up with two very deserving choices in “Song of the Sea” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.” That willingness to consider hand-crafted, under-the-radar fare (if only the Academy’s other branches were half as adventurous) continued this morning with nominations for two more singular GKids imports: Ale Abreu’s “The Boy and the World” and Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s “When Marnie Was There.” And as much as I love “Inside Out” and “Anomalisa,” I wouldn’t mind in the slightest if “Shaun the Sheep Movie” managed to stage an upset; it’s the sort of joyously unhinged entertainment that makes everyone a dyed-in-the-wool fan.

6. “Embrace of the Serpent” and “Theeb” for best foreign-language film. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “The Assassin,” the finest film I saw in any language last year, failed even to make the Academy’s shortlist. Still, with the caveat that I haven’t yet seen Tobias Lindholm’s highly regarded “A War,” this is an excellent slate of nominees, one presumably led by the likes of Laszlo Nemes’ Holocaust drama, “Son of Saul,” and Deniz Gamze Erguven’s fierce tale of sisterhood, “Mustang.” But I would encourage audiences to seek out Ciro Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent,” a visually stunning highlight of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and “Theeb,” a richly involving, classically told adventure saga from the first-time director Naji Abu Nowar. It’s entirely fitting that these choices mark the first-ever nominations in this category for Colombia and Jordan, respectively; each movie is, among other things, a majestic showcase for its native landscape, and an affirmation that there will always be uncharted realms for cinema to conquer.

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  1. This was a great article. I agree with your write up on Fury Road. It was the most visionary movie of last year, and of the last few years. Fury Road deserves to not just win Best Picture, but also win Best Director for Miller. Agree, the Theron snub was shameful.

  2. Kool Mckool says:

    I agree Fury Road deserved a screenplay nomination, it gets little credit or discussion as the film take brilliant and timely swipes at jihad and the ISIS mentality

  3. Jinny says:

    “Whether or not you consider it category fraud to nominate Rooney Mara (“Carol”) and Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”) for supporting actress…”

    Um, it’s not something to “consider” as one way or the other. It is OBJECTIVELY category fraud. I’m sick of writers being so diplomatic about the issue. Just call a spade a spade and admit what it is.

  4. dioxinblues says:

    “Next to something like “The Revenant,” an overblown ego trip of a movie that can’t stop calling attention to its worthiness in every frame….” — Yes! The self-satisfaction of the filmmakers will only become more unbearable if/when they’re coronated, something that now seems a foregone conclusion as the boys club will undoubtedly anoint the “boyziest” of boys movies regardless of actual merit.

  5. Steelers2016SuperBowlChamps says:

    Why was the force wakens nominated? MMFR was nominated ..

  6. WTF says:

    I am losing my fucking mind!! Mad max was an excellent ACTION film and was no masterpiece. It was a 2 hour chase scene with about 5 minutes of dialogue. I just don’t get it and never will. it kills me to think of the 4 or 5 more subsquent sequels and spinoffs in the future. The sad part is this glorified beauty pagent will give a handful of statues to Max Max Fury Road.

    • skywalkerspock says:

      Not all communication is verbal. If you don’t want to peel back the layers of MMFR, and just see it as a chase film, that’s cool. But there are other things to lose your mind about with the noms, MMFR doesn’t deserve your wrath.

      • WTF says:

        It’s not just the nominations. I won’t even watch the telecast its the universal cumshot for the film. Although, you are right. There is so much more in life to lose your shit over. Let’s say it’s an annoyance

  7. skywalkerspock says:

    Nice write up. Well thought out and written. I will go one step further( farther?) and stipulate that Mad Max: Fury Road should of had 13 nominations-Junkie XL was robbed in original score. John Williams is my homey going way way back to my Star Wars and Superman vinyl records but he should not have been nominated. And I will take it one step more and say that Ennio Morricone who is a genius like QT said in the breath of classical composers did not deserve a nom for Hateful 8.

    PS. Tots agree on Schreiber’s in Spotlight being overlooked.

  8. Al Neri says:

    To be fair the stories of the arduous conditions in which The Revenant was made was more the media smelling blood in the water. If theres something the media (and their readers) like more than something being a smashing success is seeing something go down in a blazing ball of fire. Alejandro G. Iñarittu has even said he was surprised people care so much about that sort of thing. i.e. production problems. And also it seemed to be all the journalists wanted to talk about during the press junket. Now that movie is out and its proven to be a home-run I can’t help but feel alot of people are disappointed. The guy that wrote this column included.

  9. JC says:

    FURY ROAD and THE REVENANT are just conventional, linear movies with little to no character development per their running times. They are just a series of violent encounters and are considered “art” because they are not as bad as, say, a Michael Bay film (a non-accomplishment). Lol. Hollywood does not reward truly daring films anymore, let alone make them.

    • WTF says:

      JC you should be given a trophy for that comment. Fury Road is the opiate for the masses of ADD population. If course they will like it, but I don’t get how the others love it. Fury Road of course was the highest rated film of 2015 in RTomatoes

  10. david k says:

    great column-I’ve read ’em all across publications and this one has some valuable insights not seen in any of them. I wish a lot of these films were not in limbo right now, even in NYC they are hard to find…

  11. mikejudge says:

    Mad Max sucked, certainly no best picture

  12. tickelace says:

    The only thing that I care about in the Oscar race this year is Mad Max. Yet, I’m pretty much expecting it to lose because the academy is just that out of touch.

    Also, kudos for pointing out just how overblown The Revenant is and the sad lack of Carol. Charlize also deserves to be in that best actress race a hell of a lot more than Jennifer Lawrence.

    • WTF says:

      Do you really think Charlieze showed oustanding acting ability? Why didn’t they nominate JLaw for hunger games? I would say an shit ton of actress could have pulled off that role. I vividly remember just 1 scene were her character had to show acting chops. She is a great actress, but her character and script didn’t dictate her being a great actor just being a bad ass

    • Bill B. says:

      It won’t win best picture, but I think it has a real shot for best director, which it deserves.

  13. Jake says:

    Mr Chang,
    Your veiled attempts of accusing over 1,000 members of the acting branch at AMPAS of being (at worst) racist or (at best) exclusive for failing to nominate black actors from Creed, Straight Outta Compton and Beasts of No Nation would be less appalling if you, Sir, had actually listed any of these films in your Top 10 Best Movies in 2015…heck, even your Top 20…but I guess you didn’t deem them worthy enough instead choosing to include Magic Mike XXL–no outrage for Channing Tatum failing to be honored!?!?

    If you throw shade at people you don’t know for choosing 5 names out of hundreds, than you might look at yourself and your choices first.

    • Tom says:

      Well that’s unfair which is why I really hate this outcry of racism. We should not and never base liking a movie based on race or including a movie in your top 10list for the sake of diversity. The problem lies in making stories that are diverse. Make diverse stories and all will applaud it, don’t blame anyone for picking movies or finding certain movies more meaningful than others– everyone’s top 10 list is different.

    • John says:

      That’s well said! What did Mr. Chang do for diversity this year ? Nothing.

      • someperson says:

        His hypothetical Oscar ballot has Girlhood, The Assassin for BP, Hou Hsiao-hsien for BD, Michael B. Jordan for actor, Shu Qi for actress, Oscar Isaac and Ben Vereen for supporting actor, Mya Taylor for supporting actress, asghar farhadi for Original screenplay, and Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott for Adapted screenplay. I don’t know what you’re trying to get at.

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