The announcement of nominees for the Academy Awards, the American film industry’s highest honor, took place in Los Angeles early this morning. The riches were spread among a mere handful of pictures, with Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and The Grand Budapest Hotel nabbing nine nominations apiece. The Imitation Game scored eight nods, and Boyhood and American Sniper each tallied six.
Those five titles—notably, three of them independent films, and one British—are in the running for Best Picture, along with Selma (one of only two studio productions, the other being American Sniper), The Theory of Everything (also from England), and another indie and the biggest surprise in this category, Whiplash.
Only two of the Best Picture nominees were released before Labor Day last year, confirming the thinking moviegoer’s perception that Hollywood essentially ignores adults for seven months of the year. (January is a special case, with American Sniper and Selma now receiving national releases and the other nominees opportunistically opening wider.)
But today's nominations also serve as a smokescreen. The Hollywood studios will spend every minute until ABC's Oscar telecast on Feb. 22 toasting “quality” and “art,” but their bread and butter—and allegiance and attention—is in blockbusters propelled by brand-name recognition (i.e., sequels) and special effects. This is not a new development in American cinema, but it’s fascinating this time of year to observe the deftness with which the industry masks its usual priorities.
The bluff and bluster also will obscure the fact that the number of movie tickets sold last year was down five percent from 2013, and in fact marked its lowest level in 20 years (even as the average ticket price remained unchanged and the overall economy improved slightly). From an existential standpoint, the big screen is steadily being overtaken by smaller screens, with long-form television gradually replacing film as the benchmark for quality adult entertainment.
A perennial side effect of the blockbuster approach is the lack of great roles for women, which is reflected in this year’s nominees. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) provide the glamour in the Best Actress category, while one could say Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Reese Witherspoon (Wild) and Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night) were acknowledged for bravely shedding their glamour.
The Supporting Actress category features Patricia Arquette, whose performance was essential to Boyhood, and Laura Dern, who succeeded in creating a vivid, touching character in just a few minutes of chopped-up flashbacks in Wild. Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game) and Emma Stone (Birdman) made the most of what were incidental roles, to put it frankly, while the inclusion yet again of Meryl Streep (Into the Woods) attests to the shortage of good female roles this year (or confirms our suspicion that Streep’s name puts Academy members under a spell).
The Best Actor nominees are notable for the physicality of their performances. Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) and Michael Keaton (Birdman) did unique and unexpected work, while Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) offered contrasting takes on masculinity.
As always, several high-profile films came up short, notably Angelina Jolie’s ambitious Unbroken (nominations only for cinematography, sound editing and sound mixing) and David Fincher’s much-hyped Gone Girl (just Rosamund Pike). Among the year’s biggest-grossing films, Interstellar was recognized for original score, production design, visual effects, sound mixing and sound editing.
There was a surfeit of strong documentaries last year, led by Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour and the artist portrait Finding Vivian Maier. The other nominees, somewhat surprisingly, are Last Days in Vietnam, Salt of the Earth and Virunga.
Aficionados will also debate the Foreign Language finalists, led by runaway favorite Ida (Poland) with Timbuktu (Mauritania), Tangerines (Estonia), Leviathan (Russia) and Wild Tales (Argentina) filling out the field.
But today’s focus, for better or worse, is the vestiges of prestige and glitter that the Oscars can still muster in a world of myriad award shows and devalued stardom.