I've been trying hard to resist the feel-bad urges of outrage, particularly when they come from a predicable source. But the 2015 Oscar nominations released this morning contain enough bad decisions that reveal what we should value in filmmaking that I wanted to walk through a few of them. Grab your blood pressure medication, and let's get to it:
1. The parade of accolades for American Sniper: I will have much longer thoughts on Clint Eastwood's homage to Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a SEAL sniper who racked up a high kill count in Iraq only to be murdered by a fellow veteran after he had returned home to the United States, later this week. But even without tallying up its rank mendacity, which makes Ava DuVernay's creative liberties in "Selma" look positively picayune, American Sniper is just such an utterly mediocre movie.
The script is nothing but subtext made text. Eastwood employs hugely cheesy directorial choices to amp up tension that he never fully explores. American Sniper skips every opportunity to explore the conduct of the war on terror that comes its way. The third act is structured such that it totally trails off. I get wanting to honor the troops. But if that's why the Academy lauded Eastwood's latest so heavily, voters ought to recognize that service members deserve a better movie than American Sniper.
2. Nominating Robert Duvall for The Judge: I adore Robert Duvall. If only for refusing to participate in The Godfather: Part III, he deserves our credit and admiration for years to come. But did anyone actually see The Judge? I saw The Judge at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it is awful. The movie centers on a flashy lawyer, Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.), who comes home to care for his seriously ill father Joseph (Duvall) and ends up having to cope with preexisting issues in their relationship.
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It's all barking from the father and why-didn't-you-love-me moaning from the son and the general cliches about how rural communities are somehow more moral than the city. There's one genuinely moving scene in which Hank bathes Joseph, but other than that, pure schmaltz. And Duvall doesn't lift the movie beyond it.
3. The weird snub of Ava DuVernay for directing Selma: This wasn't the only odd split between the Best Picture and Best Director; Bennett Miller was nominated for Best Director for Foxcatcher, but the movie wasn't nominated for Best Picture despite nods in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories. Selma was shut out in the acting and directing categories, but scored a Best Picture nod. Whether this was because of questions about the film's historical accuracy or because of how Paramount handled screeners for the movie is an open question.
But I think it's a shame that DuVernay wasn't nominated for her work on Selma. Her direction of the film's sequences of violence is striking and important. And a Best Director race that included DuVernay, Miller and Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) could have been a useful opportunity to discuss historical detail and creative license as something many filmmakers grapple with, rather than treating them as some sort of sin DuVernay alone committed. American Sniper, which comes out Friday, also deserves the same scrutiny that until now has focused so sharply on Selma to the exclusion of other films that merit it.
4. The Best Supporting Actress nomination for Meryl Streep for Into the Woods: I know, Queen Meryl can do no wrong. But her odd choices on line-readings totally undermined Into the Woods; she's one of the worst things about the movie. I imagine most audiences' attention will turn to other issues in this Oscar race. But Duvall's and Streep's nominations today really ought to be a sharp and unpleasant reminder that a great track record doesn't immunize an actor from giving uneven or outright bad performances in the future. Star-blindness is real.
5. The exclusion of The Lego Movie: This first snub in the Best Animated Feature category prompted many Everything Is Not Awesome tweets in reference to the movie's insanely catchy song and then quickly got swamped in a wave of other disappointments. But Phil Lord and Christopher Miller threw down an aggressive marker for the rest of Hollywood with this movie, which turned a long-established toy franchise into a joyful, zany meditation on the power of creativity. The Lego Movie was a vigorous argument that you can respect an established franchise, adhere to current screenwriting convention and still make something that feels utterly new and fresh that emphasizes tenderness and isn't afraid to confront fear and disappointment. If Academy voters were put off by the challenge, or didn't even bother to watch their screeners because they thought the movie would be predictable, that's a real shame.
6. The failure to nominate Timothy Spall for Best Actor for Mr. Turner: I know a lot of people are upset about the failure to nominate David Oyelowo for his performance as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. But while I thought he turned in quite a fine performance, for me, the bigger disappointment is the failure to recognize Spall for his turn as the English seascape painter J.M.W. Turner (or Mike Leigh for his direction).
If Selma was limited by the lack of permission to use King's actual speeches, Mr. Turner has long stretches where Turner essentially doesn't speak at all, whether he's by himself at the shore or communicating largely in grunts. Selma put King and President Lyndon Johnson at odds in a way that didn't quite capture all the nuances of their partnership, while Leigh presents Turner in all his ugliness, showcasing in raw terms his treatment of his housekeeper and his pain when Queen Victoria mocks his work. It's a stunning performance in one of my favorite movies of the year, and I'm heartbroken that it's not in the conversation. In both cases, the Academy apparently only has so much tolerance for being made to feel uncomfortable by and about great figures of the past.