By Rich Heldenfels
By the motion picture academy’s own count, 341 feature films – including documentaries, foreign and animated films, but not short works – were eligible for this year’s Oscar nominations.
Forty-four films, or 13 percent of the eligible movies, received at least one nomination, meaning of course that almost 300 did not, including some fine films. (See below.) Seventeen, or 5 percent, received at least two nods; none of those two-fers, by the way, was a documentary or a foreign film, and only one was an animated feature (“Coco,” nominated for best animated feature and best song).
That stat roundup should make clear that very few films make the cut for even one Oscar nomination. And individual films that do get nominated can take a huge bite out of the total nods. The films with at least two nominations have a total of 80; 13 of those belong to “The Shape of Water.”
Now, I am not saying that “The Shape of Water” is undeserving; if I gave the best picture Oscar to one of the nominees, “The Shape of Water” would get it. Nor, after looking over the list of Oscar-eligible film, am I in any way saying that serious consideration should be given to “Baywatch” or “CHiPs,” both unendurable, or – outside of technical categories – “Fate of the Furious.” And I liked “Fate of the Furious.”
Still, it’s doubtful that many of the Oscar voters saw all 341 films, especially those that were not vigorously promoted by a studio or other interested party, even if they received critical acclaim. And the nominees seem to come from a very short list for the movie industry as a whole; while the Film Independent Spirit Awards ideally look beyond Hollywood’s usual suspects, three best-picture Oscar contenders (“Call Me by Your Name,” “Get Out” and “Lady Bird”) are also up for the independent group’s best-feature-film award. Does that just say that the line between mainstream and indies has completely blurred as it did last year when “Moonlight” deservedly won best picture? Maybe. But it also says, yet again, that the vision of awards givers may go only so far.
(Box-office success, as I have said in the past, has almost no bearing on Oscar votes. The best picture nominee ranked highest in ticket revenues is, according to Box Office Mojo, “Dunkirk” in 14th place, followed by “Get Out” in 15th.)
Of course, in any awards process, it helps to have a familiar name. Meryl Streep is going to get her nomination most of the time, as she did with “The Post,” where she is very good but not great – certainly not as startling as Salma Hayek in “Beatriz at Dinner” or Rebecca Hall in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.” I would drop Timothee Chalamet out of the best actor nominees in favor of the extraordinary work Andy Serkis did in “War for the Planet of the Apes” – only the Oscar voters still fiercely resist most fantasy films – or Sam Elliott’s turn in “The Hero” or Harry Dean Stanton in “Lucky.”
On the other hand, familiarity for the wrong reason can do harm to good work. This year, accusations against James Franco that tie into the #metoo and Time’s Up movements led to a huge fall from grace for his “The Disaster Artist,” which has only an adapted-screenplay nomination; Franco was denied a best-actor Oscar nomination after a Golden Globe win. (As a gauge of how times have changed, Casey Affleck faced similar complaints last year but still won the Oscar – for “Manchester by the Sea.”) Similarly, the fine and troubling “Wind River” could have been snubbed because it was at one time from the Weinstein Co.
And I still think the Oscars system is flawed because its nominations and winners are based on actors’ and others’ work in a single film, instead of considering all that was done in the year. The most glaring example this year: Michael Stuhlbarg was in three best-picture nominees (“Call Me by Your Name,” “The Post” and “The Shape of Water”) but not nominated for any. We could also argue about the best-picture category holding more nominees than any other, which aces out directors, cinematographers and others although their films as a whole were considered among the best. Or about the still active questions about diversity across Oscar categories, with the Women's Media Center pointing out that men still dominate behind-the-camera categories.
Still, while I expect to talk later this week about some of the Oscar races, for now I have a list of films that Oscar forgot, even when remarkable performances were on view. A couple have nominations – but deserved more or better attention than they received. Even in this list, I am missing some quality work since I have seen only a fraction of the eligible films. But I still found these worth more Oscar love than they received.
“Beatriz at Dinner.” Salma Hayek is a massage therapist who winds up at a posh dinner hosted by one of her clients (Connie Britton) – with a menacing multimillionaire businessman (John Lithgow). The film is too deliberately odd in places, but the verbal conflicts between Hayek and Lithgow are bracing – and, not surprising, full of echoes of the unapologetic mogul now in the White House. As I have said before, Hayek deserved a nomination, and I would not have objected to Lithgow picking up a supporting-actor nod.
“Detroit.” This dramatization of notorious events in riot-torn Detroit in 1967 was another fine piece from director Kathryn Bigelow and another allegory for modern America. John Boyega makes a compelling center for the piece as a security guard caught up in the horror. There was controversy around it – including for having Bigelow, a white woman from the middle class – at the helm of a race-infused, urban drama. But the movie sticks in your guts.
“The Florida Project” (one nomination, for Willem Dafoe as supporting actor). Dafoe’s nomination baffles me somewhat; he was good but not extraordinary, I thought. The movie as a whole, though, is an excellent look at underclass struggles in the shadow of Disney World. Sean Baker, who wrote and directed the excellent “Tangerine,” is in top form again here, and there are two beautiful performances, from child actress Brooklynn Kimberly Prince as the innocent enduring this film’s despair and Bria Vinaite as her hustling, failing mother.
“The Hero.” This is purely an homage to its lead actor, Sam Elliott, who has been giving solid work in roles big and small for years. (Go find “Grandma,” with Lily Tomlin, and look at what he achieves in a few scenes.) Here he’s an old cowboy-movie player whose reputation rests on one movie – and whose living depends on commercial voiceovers. The movie did not work for me, particularly when it came to the main relationship, but Sam Elliott is wonderful.
“Last Flag Flying.” Three Vietnam-veteran friends (Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston) reunite after Carell’s son is killed overseas. What follows, under Richard Linklater’s direction, is a too-deliberate journey by the men including odd side trips such as the purchase of cellphones, and some wrenching conversations about their lives. (Film buffs will note similarities to “The Last Detail,” which was based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, as “Last Flag” is; the books are connected more explicitly than the films.) Carell is amazing, mute pain etched into his face even when the people around him jockey for attention.
“Lucky.” The last film with the late Harry Dean Stanton finds him playing a 90-year-old man whose settled life begins to need reconsideration – though not in the ways you might expect. Directed by John Carroll Lynch, better known as an actor, the film is brief but never slight, and Stanton mesmerizes. Watch him sing at a festival – frail, tender and absolutely moving.
“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.” With “Wonder Woman” itself overlooked (a blockbuster hit about a comic-book character – doomed at the Oscars), no wonder this smaller film about the people who created Wonder Woman was ignored, too. And that missed a remarkable performance by Rebecca Hall. “WW” creator William Moulton Marston (played by Luke Evans) had an unconventional personal life with his wife and mistress under the same roof; Hall plays the wife, and splendidly so, full of sharp wit and edges, yet with its own pain and occasional tenderness.
“Stronger.” Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a real-life survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, a double amputee whose life changed but whose character still needed a lot of work. It’s a very thoughtful film, with Gyllenhaal again commanding onscreen and an able supporting cast including Tatiana Maslany and Miranda Richardson. At least one critic saw Oscar possibilities for Gyllenhaal and Maslany, although Oscar itself said otherwise.
“Wakefield.” Bryan Cranston is all flashy obnoxiousness in “Last Flag Flying,” above. Here he’s giving an understated monologue, playing a man who on impulse takes up a hiding place opposite his house, there to observe his family as they go about their lives without him. Cranston is masterful.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” (One nomination, for visual effects). Here’s another case of the Oscars willfully ignoring fantasy. Of the 2017 movies I have seen (admittedly far fewer than the hundreds eligible for Oscars), it’s hard to imagine a better performance than Andy Serkis’s as the ape leader Caesar. Considering all the covering he has to act through, and how emotional the work nonetheless is, he almost singlehandedly overcomes the movie’s occasional excess. Still, the movie’s overall framing of the apes as an “other” in opposition to a human (i.e., white) supremacist foe makes it not only a reconsideration of themes that go back to western tales, but yet another example of film as a counterweight to the age of Trump.
"Wind River." A grim little thriller with nice lead performances by Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, this also boasts supporting turns by the consistently watchable Graham Greene and by Gil Birmingham, who should be on any list of supporting-actor contenders. Playing a father who is at different points suspicious, agonized and simply woeful, Birmingham gives the movie an emotional validation that is necessary especially as violence becomes more of a preoccupation. Do not miss what amounts to a coda to the film, with Renner and Birmingham together for a quiet, funny, and touching moment.
Now get thee to the video store.
Some films that Oscar forgot
By Rich Heldenfels