The nominees for the 2014 Academy Awards were announced early this morning, and while it’s easy to go down a million rabbit holes debating who shouldn’t have been included and who was left out, I’ll save the questions of who should win for another day. Instead, here are five big questions — and five big ideas — that this year’s nominations raise about the Academy’s taste and tolerance for violence, the future of science fiction and movie technique, and the reign of Queen Amy Adams:
1. The Battle Royal Of The 2014 Oscars Is Flash v. Quiet: Okay, the quietest movie of the year, J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, about a man (Robert Redford) fighting to survive alone at sea, earned only a single nomination for sound editing. But in the Best Picture and Acting categories, the toughest competition is going to be exceptionally flashy, over-the-top movies like American Hustle, Blue Jasmine (though Sally Hawkins’ performance there qualifies as quiet) and The Wolf Of Wall Street, and a much more somber one, 12 Years A Slave. I get why people would be drawn to the antic performers in the movies in the former category — all of these films are political, but the point of the comedies is that they provide you with almost constant moments of catharsis, and the reason that 12 Years A Slave is great is that it never does. But I think favoring that catharsis is a mistake.
All the hollering and conspicuous consumption and burned microwaves and trading floor antics in American Hustle and The Wolf Of Wall Street aren’t actually somehow more true or more revealing for being true, and in both movies, I think they actually take away from the pictures’ smartest, most revealing moments. And the quiet of 12 Years A Slave creates room not only for us to see the beauty of the landscape in which its terrible events take place, but to recognize how powerful the emotions behind the outburst that becomes the climax of the movie. Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a slave whose owner (Sarah Paulson) has been denying her soap because her husband (Michael Fassbender) rapes Patsey repeatedly, explains that she went to visit a friend (a trip she thought she had permission to make, which is being revoked retroactively) to borrow some soap because “Five hundred pounds a cotton day in, day out. More than any man here. And for that I will be clean; that all I ask.” It’s a desperate attempt to claim her own dignity that would have gone unheard in all the noise in American Hustle or The Wolf Of Wall Street. But it’s the most shattering, brave thing any character does in the movies in contention.
2. It’s Amazing The Act Of Killing Was Nominated For Best Documentary: But Can It Win? Some rumors always circulate this time of year that the Academy is turning against an obvious contender for some reason or another. This year, the buzz is that the harrowing nature of 12 Years A Slave has kept voting members of the Academy out of theaters, which says a whole lot more about them than about Steve McQueen’s movie, which is much more emotionally violent than it is actually physically violent (there’s a whole treatise out there about what we’re willing to look at when it comes to movie violence, but I’ll save it for another day). But if that’s true, I’m kind of amazed that The Act Of Killing made it to the nominations list at all. That’s not because Joshua Oppenheimer’s movie about the 1965 mass killings of Communists and anyone tarred with that label by gangsters affiliated with the military government of Indonesia isn’t great. It is. It unquestionably is. But it’s not a comfortable movie, either. Oppenheimer, who wasn’t allowed to interview survivors of the genocide and their families, set out to interview the perpetrators instead, and to make movies with them about the violence they were so eager to brag about. The movies themselves, and the impunity of the perpetrators, are horrifying. And The Act of Killing comes to a distinctly unsettling conclusion. I hope it wins, as a testament to innovative documentary technique, to the film’s interrogation of movies themselves, and to the film’s ability to bring attention to a part of history that’s entirely absent from most Americans’ educations. But I’d be surprised and gratified if the Academy is brave enough to do it.
3. This Is The Age Of Amy Adams: Adams’ nomination for Best Actress in American Hustle is her first nomination in that category, and her fifth overall: she’s been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Junebug in 2005, for Doubt in 2008, for The Fighter in 2010, and The Master in 2012. That’s a whole lot of love, and it sure makes her the frontrunner this year. But what does the age of Amy Adams mean? In four of these five movies, she’s played a wife or girlfriend, and when she wasn’t doing that, she was playing a junior nun. Adams has shown an awful lot of range in those rules — in Junebug, she’s a naive young wife, while in The Master, she’s a cold, sexually controlling power behind the leader of a rising new faith — Adams is the scariest thing in that picture. American Hustle elevated the sexually wild streak Adams first showed off in Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby to a prestige practice.
All of these performances are good, and yet I sort of would have liked to see Adams get nominated for her performance as Amy Her, in which at least the most important relationship her character has with a man is a friendship with Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), who is falling in love with his operating system at the same time that Amy is leaving her husband and developing a strong friendship with an artificial intelligence of her own. And more to the point, if Adams wins this year, I hope she gets more recognition for roles where the primary stakes for her character aren’t her relationship with a man, or that in movies about relationships with men, the aspirations and ambitions of her character get to be primary sources of dramatic conflict. At least her role as the artist Margaret Keane in Big Eyes, due out later this year, will center the conflict between Keane and her husband on the question of who really deserved credit for Keane’s artistic works. Her paintings were initially sold under her husband’s name and he tried to claim credit for them, and the court case over who had really created them including Keane challenging her husband to a paint-off before a judge.
4. Hurray For Science Fiction! When the Academy expanded the number of possible nominations for Best Picture up to a maximum of ten in 2009, there was some sense that the change would let the Academy occasionally do the Queen Elizabeth wave at science fiction movies, like District 9, which was nominated that year. But 22 percent of the nominees for Best Picture this year are science fiction movies! Gravity and Her are different kinds of movies than Neill Blomkamp’s innovative alien-invasion picture, of course. Gravity is less an attempt to sketch out a vision of the future than fiction where the dramatic action is set up by science, the stakes are determined by the rules of it, and perhaps most unusually, the movie sparked a debate about scientific accuracy. Her is near-future science fiction that quietly, boldly, refused to peddle a post-apocalyptic narrative, arguing instead that our world may become more beautiful (and that public transportation will finally become viable in Los Angeles), but that the price of that beauty may be that we find new ways to feel pain. Both movies are a reminder of the multitudes and potential contained within the genre, if only we can be sophisticated enough to recognize it.
5. The Academy Still Needs To Figure Out Its Andy Serkis (And Now Scarlett Johansson) Problem: The list of Best Actress nominees this year is a portrait of the Hollywood establishment. There are plenty of things wrong with the list, including that it’s all white. But it also leaves off what I thought was one of the most humane, funny, and for the actress in questions, liberated performances of the year: Scarlett Johansson’s turn as artificial intelligence Samantha in Her. We can argue about whether she belongs there. But the point is that Johansson couldn’t be on the list because, like Andy Seerkis in the Lord Of The Rings movies, she’s not physically on screen. At some point, the Academy is going to have to find a way to deal with these performances, either by creating a separate category for them, or by allowing them to compete with actors who are physically on screen. Otherwise, it’s going to risk missing out on recognizing great performances as filmmaking marches forward.