Movie News & Reviews

Oscar’s best picture nominations are an elite eight, and that’s just fine with me

Our critic’s favorite for best picture: “Birdman,” starring Michael Keaton.
Our critic’s favorite for best picture: “Birdman,” starring Michael Keaton. Fox Searchlight Pictures

For the best picture race, the Oscar voters pretty much got it right.

Which is to say most of the nominations for major Academy Awards were for films that few of you have seen.

I have no problem with that. Box office success is its own reward. If the Oscars can’t be a showcase for artistry — especially underappreciated artistry — what’s the point?

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman” (which convinces us it’s a single-shot wonder unfolding backstage at a Broadway theater) and Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (a playful visual layer cake set in pre-war Eastern Europe) lead the pack with nine nominations each, including slots in the best picture category.

Both are art-house offerings, both are fantasies concerned more with style and intellect than with feeling, both offer an alternative to conventional Hollywood storytelling. They represent genuinely daring filmmaking as opposed to the tried-and-true.

I’d give my vote to “Birdman.” “Grand Budapest’s” sustained irony wore thin after a while. (I’m still irritated with Oscar for overlooking Anderson’s 2012 masterpiece, “Moonrise Kingdom.”)

“Birdman’s” true competitor is Richard Linklater’s uber-realistic “Boyhood,” a coming-of-age tale filmed over 12 years using the same players at different ages. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that fully deserves its six nominations (picture, director, supporting actor and actress, original screenplay, editing). It will be hard to beat.

Of course, while Hollywood is famous as the Dream Factory where fantasy trumps humdrum reality, the Oscar voters have a thing for fact-based stories.

We shouldn’t be surprised that of the eight titles up for best picture, half are based on historical facts and persons: “Selma” (Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement), “The Imitation Game” (Alan Turing and the breaking of the Nazi Enigma code), “The Theory of Everything” (the marriage of Jane and cosmologist Stephen Hawking) and “American Sniper” (Navy SEAL Chris Kyle).

The fictional “Whiplash,” about the toxic relationship of a student jazz drummer and his brutal teacher (J.K. Simmons), doesn’t have a chance for best picture. But I predict Simmons will win best supporting actor.

Also noteworthy is what’s missing. A few years back, after “The Dark Knight” was snubbed, the academy changed its rules to allow for as many as 10 best picture nominees. We assumed the expanded field would always include at least a couple of movies with widespread appeal (think “Gravity” and “The Help”), giving rank-and-file moviegoers something to root for on Oscar night (and improve the telecast’s ratings).

But this year’s slate offers no such sop to the masses (boo-hoo). Not one of the nominated films has made as much as $100 million at the box office (though “American Sniper,” which opens this weekend in most markets, has the potential). “Gone Girl,” with a box office of $167 million, didn’t make the cut.

The number of nominees is determined by a mathematical formula based on early voting. But if there had been room for two more I’d have been very happy with the delightfully toxic “Gone Girl” or Reese Witherspoon’s mostly-one-woman “Wild.”

Which brings up another issue: While you could argue that “The Theory of Everything” is actually Jane Hawking’s story — it was based on her memoir — most of these films are about men. Was there no room for a female point of view?

But the most controversial element is the all-white lineup in the acting nominations. (#OscarsSoWhite was trending on Twitter Thursday.) “Selma,” with a predominantly black cast, was nominated for best picture, but Brit actor David Oyelowo, who found a way to both celebrate and humanize the legendary Martin Luther King Jr., was left out.

Racism? Well, you can always call the film industry racist and be right, but I don’t see this as a big issue here. Minority actors have done quite well in recent Oscar races, after all, particularly in the supporting actress category, where three of the past five winners were African-American. The failure of Oyelowo to get the nod is unfortunate, but not troubling. I can’t identify one of the five best actor nominees who doesn’t deserve to be there.

On a similar note, “Selma’s” newcomer director Ava DuVernay wasn’t recognized — she would have been the first African-American woman nominated in that category.

Ironically, veteran Clint Eastwood is in the same boat. His “American Sniper” is up for the top award, but he didn’t get a directing nomination. And in yet another twist, Bennett Miller did land a directing slot for “Foxcatcher,” which wasn’t nominated for best picture.

The Academy Awards will be presented Feb. 22.

Read more from Robert W. Butler at butlerscinemascene.com.

INSIDE: Other nominees, the snubs, 25 movies to watch

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