Nominations: Snubs & surprises

Second take

Nominations: Snubs & surprises

For once, I find myself agreeing with — and even pleased about — the Oscar snubs to Kathryn Bigelow and Quentin Tarantino. Not nominating them for best director feels right. Bigelow because of her questionable politics, and Tarantino for making the most disappointing movie of the year.

Okay, that’s not why he was snubbed (though he should be); he was ignored for the same reason Bigelow was — controversy. But the shoo-in for best film this year — Lincoln — is also tainted with controversy. Nothing, though, that will keep it from getting the Oscar. It’s almost certain that it will win, along with best actor for Daniel Day Lewis playing Lincoln.

It’s quite possible that the best supporting actress is settled as well: Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife. And best director may very well go to Steven Spielberg for Lincoln. In fact, it’s Lincoln all the way (Argo’s Golden Globe win is genuinely surprising); this is one of those times when the Academy Awards have a favourite movie that it also feels safe to celebrate.

But ask a good historian, especially an African-American historian, and he’ll tell you how annoying Lincoln is for a host of reasons. Tony Kushner’s script for the movie (another sure bet to win best adapted screenplay) has been praised for how literate it is, but its scholarship has been questioned. Kate Masur, in an editorial on Lincoln wrote, “But it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly...”

Eric Foner criticised the film “because it failed to show that it was the abolitionists, and not Lincoln, who were the driving forces behind the 13th Amendment.” Masur and several others have also noted the absence of “the greatest rhetorician of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass,” — this distinguished African-American statesman, more than anyone else, had helped Lincoln understand why slavery should be banned.

I usually like an intense, intellectual historical drama like Lincoln, but this one nearly put me to sleep. I didn’t find it instructive or engaging, and even the last moments, when the 13th Amendment was being put to vote, wasn’t as rousing as such things usually are in cinema. A Spielberg film that doesn’t even entertain. I wish he had just gone on to making a sequel to Tintin, the kind of thing he does best. Deeply disappointing also was Tarantino’s Django Unchained. A scene early in the movie has one of the good guys in the movie shoot a horse in the head — it gets a laugh from the audience, and the character who did it, played by Christoph Waltz as an anti-slavery champion, smugly says he shot the horse to spare the rider. He’s anti-slavery but doesn’t flinch, like the filmmaker, in inflicting pain on an animal.

Little works in Django Unchained, unlike his other films where even when they don’t fully work — as in Inglorious Basterds — there are always interesting and intricate action set pieces to look forward to. But there wasn’t a single memorable set piece in Django; it’s as if, already having gone far with making a revisionist spaghetti western about slavery, Tarantino feared going too far. Every time you think a scene is building up to some great and shocking and inventive new height, it pulls back.

In the end, it’s not Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz that save the picture, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s marvelous little performance, and the character Samuel Jackson plays. Both performances come as a last third act in the movie, but they finally make you sit up and enjoy what’s left of it. It’s a shame then that DiCaprio didn’t get a best supporting actor nomination. (Philip Seymour Hoffman is this year’s top bet to win best supporting actor for The Master, but then who knows, it could also go to Tommy Lee Jones for — sigh — what else? Lincoln).

Just as surprising is Ben Affleck not being nominated for best director for Argo. I have no problems with this — Argo is a sneaky picture; it opens with all the right political gestures (that it was wrong for America to have been involved in Iran) and then offers an American thriller where once again Iranians are the bad guys from whom the hostages need to be rescued. The citizens are a menacing blur in the background while the Americans are real characters.

Other pleasanter surprises were nominating an 85-year-old veteran and a 9-year-old for best actress: Emmanuelle Riva for Amour, and Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts. Unexpected but welcome nominations were for the Indie film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and its director, Benh Zeitlin. Critics are thrilled that a difficult, art house director like Michael Haneke has received an Oscar nomination for his work in Amour, a French film about an old couple ageing, that is the favourite to win best foreign film.

The two serious contenders in the race for direction are Spielberg and Haneke. Even if best director isn’t taken by Haneke, he might just wrest the best original screenplay award from Mark Baol. Bigelow too would have been a heavy contender if Zero Dark Thirty hadn’t turned so controversial. (If it wasn’t so tainted, its lead actress, Jessica Chastain, would have been the hot contender for best actress, but Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook will now split those votes).

So, where are Ang Lee and Life of Pi in all this? Nowhere; not even close contenders — mere token nominations for visual artistry. The digital Richard Parker deserves some kind of Oscar nod for being as good as his fellow supporting actors. Life of Pi will carry away the technical awards, probably sharing them with The Hobbit. The music of Pi has two nominations — Mychael Danna for background score, and Danna and Bombay Jayashri for best song. I can’t think of a more deserving Oscar than for the transcendent Pi’s Lullaby; I wish them a win.

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