For those of us who follow the Oscars year after year with an unhealthy degree of investment, born of the always-fragile and ill-advised hope that the Academy might actually get a few things right, this is not a particularly happy morning. It’s not always the case that one of the year’s best movies also happens to be one of its most historically, culturally and politically significant, and almost never is that movie directed by a black woman — an achievement that would matter little were “Selma” not so thoroughly deserving on its own merits.
Whether you chalk it up to racism, sexism, a popularity-contest mentality, excessive screener reliance, a highly selective backlash over perceived historical inaccuracies, or some toxic combination of all five, the Academy’s disregard for Ava DuVernay’s exceptional film is appalling, if not exactly unexpected in light of the film’s across-the-board shutout by the major guilds. Given the Academy’s failure to nominate DuVernay for director or David Oyelowo for lead actor, even “Selma’s” best picture nomination (its sole mention apart from best original song) can’t help but smack of tokenism — a backhanded acknowledgment in the one category where voters have the luxury of choosing more than five nominees. At a time when few directors who aren’t white men get the opportunities they deserve, a nomination for DuVernay would have been not just a worthy accolade but a meaningful breakthrough, just as a nomination for Oyelowo would have been a welcome exception in a depressingly all-white roster of acting contenders.
But let’s accentuate the positive, shall we? I’m thinking of the fact that Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson — two singular Texas-born talents who have previously received only screenplay nominations — were finally recognized in the picture and director categories for happily uncompromised, arguably career-best work (“Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” respectively). Or the fact that two of the world’s foremost filmmakers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, can now claim to have directed an Oscar-nominated performance — a consolation prize after their “Two Days, One Night” was inexplicably left off the foreign-language film shortlist. My colleague Ramin Setoodeh has compiled a list of 17 snubs and surprises; here, in a similarly alliterative spirit, are six silver linings — those unexpected nominations that brought a more-than-fleeting smile to this critic’s face on nomination morning.
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1. Best actress: Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”
The happiest surprise of the day, and a startling one for a number of reasons. Despite having taken the lion’s share of the actress prizes from critics’ groups (including the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics), Cotillard was widely expected to miss out here. Her equally well-regarded performances in “The Immigrant” and “Two Days, One Night” — the former all but abandoned by the Weinstein Co., the latter a French-language entry — were long shots for recognition to begin with, and there was always the likelihood that the actress would split her own voter base.
Instead, Cotillard, who hasn’t landed on Oscar’s radar since her win for 2007’s “La Vie en Rose,” wound up snagging the spot that was widely expected to go to Jennifer Aniston for her heavily campaigned, Golden Globe- and SAG-nominated performance in “Cake.” What a pleasure to be wrong: Aniston does fine work in a meretricious movie, but it’s lovely to see Cotillard’s altogether richer and less self-consciously deglammed performance in “Two Days, One Night” take the proverbial dessert in this instance.
2. Best director: Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”
Filling a spot that might well have gone to DuVernay, David Fincher (“Gone Girl”), Clint Eastwood (“American Sniper”) or Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”), Miller is a supremely discerning choice for his brilliant work on “Foxcatcher.” Extending his earlier fascination with true crime (“Capote”) and professional athletics (“Moneyball”) into an eerily discomfiting realm where the two collide, this slow-burning, long-gestating masterwork is nothing if not a director’s achievement: a triumph of mood and suggestion, and an antidote to the inclusion of Morten Tyldum for his pedestrian, connect-the-dots direction in “The Imitation Game.” Indeed, the strong showing for “Foxcatcher” overall — with nominations for original screenplay and actors Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo — makes its omission from the more inclusive picture race all the more mystifying.
3. Best supporting actress: Laura Dern, “Wild”
Regrettable as it is to see Jessica Chastain omitted for her blazingly accomplished work in “A Most Violent Year,” Dern is a more-than-worthy inclusion for her wrenching turn as a resilient, cancer-afflicted mother in “Wild.” (It’s even more deserved if you consider her quietly shattering turn as the resilient mother of a cancer-afflicted teenager in “The Fault in Our Stars.”) Given how regularly Dern has been overlooked for her feature-film work — especially her piercing, multifaceted performances in “Inland Empire” and “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” — the actress’ first Oscar nomination in the 23 years since “Rambling Rose” is as heartening as it is overdue.
4. Best animated feature: “Song of the Sea” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”
Who would have expected that an upstart distributor like GKids would score more nominations in this category than any major studio? I’m disappointed about the absence of “The Lego Movie,” too, and the murky, myriad issues it raises with regard to the animation branch, but it’s impossible to begrudge the inclusion of these two little-seen, under-publicized, gorgeously rendered fantasies. Isao Takahata’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is the work of an old master, while Tomm Moore’s “Song of the Sea,” like his Oscar-nominated “The Secret of Kells” before it, heralds the arrival of a new one. Taken together, they speak to the potent power of ancient myths, reclaimed and revitalized with striking hand-crafted artistry.
5. Best foreign-language film: “Timbuktu”
Alongside the expected nominations for Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” (Poland), Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” (Russia) and Damian Szifron’s “Wild Tales” (Argentina), it’s wonderful to see the great Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako score his country’s first Oscar nomination with “Timbuktu,” an exquisite, panoramic drama set against the 2012 jihadist assault on northern Mali. The rise of intolerance and the destruction of personal freedoms could scarcely be more pressing or relevant subjects for an artist to concern himself with at the present moment; Sissako’s beautiful film has the great virtue of wearing its importance lightly, though not so lightly that voters could afford to take no notice.
6. Best sound editing: Richard King, “Interstellar”
Best sound mixing: Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten, “Interstellar”
The two times I saw “Interstellar” in 70mm Imax, I had no trouble making out the dialogue over the music and sound effects; much harder to understand, really, were the complaints of those viewers who seem to will themselves into a state of thumb-sucking incomprehension when it comes to the cinema of Christopher Nolan. Which is not to say that the director’s mammoth sci-fi opus — driven along by a transcendentally tempestuous score by Hans Zimmer — wasn’t a marvel of sonic bombast; never before have I felt my seat rattle so violently in a movie theater. It is, as Nolan has noted, the right approach for a film that seeks above all to be an immersive experience. How right of the Academy to agree.