Oscars: Unpredictable Season Reflected in Splintered Nominations

In a season like this, we expected surprises. Just probably not the ones we got.

Oscar Nominations 2016 Analysis
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox/A24/Open Road/The Weinstein Co.

Thursday morning’s Oscar nominations announcement was so reflective of a splintered season it was almost beautiful … if it wasn’t so heartbreaking for so many at the same time.

“The Martian,” a film many thought to be a strong contender to win the best picture Oscar, picked up seven nominations. That’s the profile of a thoroughbred. Yet it fell out of key races like best director (Ridley Scott missing after riding the career achievement train all season) and best film editing (until last year, no best picture winner had missed in this category for over 30 years).

“Room,” a film that couldn’t get arrested on the guild circuit, with just a pair of nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, came back strong with a best picture nomination and, in a true surprise, a best director bid.

“Spotlight,” a film that showed real vulnerability in the last several weeks, missing in the contemporary categories of design guilds, falling out of the drama category with the American Cinema Editors, muscled its way back into the race with a pair of acting nominations in the supporting categories (BAFTA nominee Mark Ruffalo and SAG nominee Rachel McAdams). Oh, and it picked up the film editing nomination.

“Carol” — a film that came up short with the producers and directors guilds, yet managed notices from the writers guild, was clearly beloved by actors with SAG nominations and proved to be a hit with the BAFTA contingent — landed a respectable six Oscar nominations. And yet it STILL couldn’t squeeze into best director or turn up on a list of eight best picture nominations.

The season never could figure itself out in the run-up to the nominations, and to be perfectly honest, it seems like it might have a ways to go in getting there still. “The Revenant” led the way with nominations, scooping up a whopping 12 and becoming the 15th film to do so in the process. But with the Golden Globes wind at its back, is it really the frontrunner? Is the Academy really willing to go there two years in a row with Alejandro G. Iñárritu?

“Mad Max: Fury Road” scooped up 10 nominations, including a bid for director George Miller. But is this a film that 6,000 people can get behind, that can survive a preferential ballot geared toward choosing a winner everyone can agree upon?

“The Big Short” and “Spotlight,” with their five and six nominations apiece, could be in a unique position to upset the heavies. They’re likely to perform well with a preferential ballot. One came on strong in the end, one goes back to a Venice Film Festival bow. Six of the last seven best picture winners screened at the Telluride Film Festival, and the only two nominees this year that made the trip to the San Juans are “Room” and “Spotlight.” Food for thought.

As I look over the nominations, I’m pleased by quite a few things. I’m pleased to see director Lenny Abrahamson make the cut for “Room.” It was a unique creative achievement and one that seemed like it might have peaked too early. More importantly, I’m tickled for distributor A24, which was right on the cusp with “A Most Violent Year” last year but finally got into the dance this time around. Not only that, but seven nominations scattered across “Amy,” “Ex Machina” and “Room” deserves a pat on the back.

I’m pleased to see Charlotte Rampling manage a best actress nomination for “45 Years.” It’s the best performance of the year in the category (if you ask me) and she was in danger of missing after that BAFTA exclusion.

I’m over the moon for GKIDS, crashing the animated feature party yet again with a pair of independent releases that spoke to the branch more than commercial fare like “The Good Dinosaur” and “The Peanuts Movie.” Funny that we were all looking to “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet” rather than “Boy and the World” and “When Marnie Was There,” however.

I’m positively ecstatic that Jóhann Jóhannsson translated his hip BAFTA nod for the “Sicario” score into his second Oscar nomination in a row. It’s one of the best scores of the year, a terrifying, brooding element of the film that heightens every aspect of it.

And I’m relieved the Academy’s cinematographers branch didn’t pull the bone-headed move of passing over “The Hateful Eight” lenser Robert Richardson like the American Society of Cinematographers and BAFTA. The work he and particularly Panavision put into creating and retrofitting Ultra Panavision lenses has established an infrastructure that freakin’ “Star Wars” (specifically “Rogue One”) is utilizing. You have to give it up for that, to say nothing of the merit (the immaculate visual staging of the film is incredible). Film is alive and well in the category with the 70mm represented by Richardson and Ed Lachman’s 16mm lensing of “Carol” in the mix.

However, I also shake my head at a few things. “Black Mass” failing to achieve lift-off this season is pretty sad, as it’s a film I think will benefit from hindsight in the near future. At the very least, Johnny Depp’s possessed, committed portrayal should have been a torchbearer for the film in best actor. Alas …

I don’t know how we came to a place where Pixar’s greatest achievement to date, a masterpiece in “Inside Out,” can’t get into an expanded best picture category, but here we are. The likely reason is the fact that, in this Frankensteined system that can yield anywhere from five to 10 nominees, depending, voters are asked to fill in just five films, not 10, as in 2009 and 2010. It’s probably harder to overcome animation bias with those odds. The Academy should really go back to a defined number of 10, but that’s fodder for another column.

I have a serious bone to pick with the writers branch passing over Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant (full-stop) scripting of “Steve Jobs,” one of the year’s best films and a fascinating character-study-as-biopic. I think it’s a shame voters are so often unwilling to recognize a film that flopped at the box office, and there’s no question this film’s crash and burn upon wide release caused many to rethink their position on it. (I’ve had the conversations. They’re infuriating).

I also don’t get how you see a documentary like “Listen to Me Marlon” and take a pass, but we’re in a golden age for the form and something had to fall out, I suppose. I can complain about one or two of the nominees, but I won’t.

Fox must be feeling pretty good, despite the curious “Martian” misses. Twenty nominations shared across Scott’s film, “The Revenant” and “Joy” is nothing to sneeze at, plus four more for Fox Searchlight’s titles (“Brooklyn” and “Youth”). A great showing.

Universal, on the other hand, must be bummed out. Not that anyone is going to be crying for long as they’re still counting 2015 box office receipts over there, but “Straight Outta Compton” falling out of best picture, “Steve Jobs” managing just two nominations, the “Furious 7” song missing the cut — that smarts. (To say nothing of The Weinstein Company, which could have used a best picture nomination to help with current investor woes. This is the first time Harvey Weinstein hasn’t had a top nominee since 2007.)

As for predictions, I ran a respectable 94/121, missing one in most categories, two in a few. I nailed only three categories 5/5: best cinematography, best sound mixing and best live action short, but I’ll take it.

And now, as the industry scratches its collective head and wonders what “The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” is, we turn to the Oscars on Feb. 28. We brace ourselves for another #OscarsSoWhite backlash as there are no people of color represented in the 20 acting categories. (Meanwhile, the only female filmmaker nominated is “Mustang” helmer Deniz Gamze Ergüven — though this is all merely symptomatic. It should be noted, however, that four women were nominated in the writing categories.) We also look ahead to guild awards, particularly the PGA, which will help guide the way to the end of the red carpet. And we salute those nominated today for surviving the gauntlet.

Just another 46 days to go and the 88th Oscar season will be fully behind us …