“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.”
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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.