Oscars: No Hanks, no Coens, no Oprah — and no big shockers

Despite the hype, the race is almost over! And here's why the two best movies of the year got shut out

Topics: Movies, Oscars, Academy Awards, American Hustle, 12 years a slave, Gravity, Stories We Tell, Inside Llewyn Davis, cate blanchett, Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio, jared leto, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Oprah Winfrey, tom hanks, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Coen Brothers, Oscar Isaac, Movie Awards Season,

Oscars: No Hanks, no Coens, no Oprah -- and no big shockers"Stories We Tell," "Inside Llewyn Davis"

If there’s anything you could call a major surprise lurking among this year’s Oscar nominations, it might be the fact that Tom Hanks, a beloved star and two-time winner who’s seen in the business as hardworking and not egotistical, felt no love from the academy on Thursday morning. Even that is a testament to what a strong year this was in American film; in a weaker field, Hanks could easily have come away with two nominations, one for his starring role as the eponymous “Captain Phillips” and a supporting nod for his unflappable Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks.”

I know that’s deadly boring, as surprises go. Oscar voters probably thought, at some nearly conscious level: Heck, Tom’s a good guy; he’ll understand. But it actually is a surprise within the context of the Oscars, where the default setting is to reward big-name films and major stars for filling familiar niches and following predictable trajectories. Whereas the thing about, say, the dismaying disrespect shown by the Oscars to Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” and Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” – in my book the two most moving, most original and most accomplished North American films of the last year – is that it’s totally, and sadly, unsurprising.

I’ll get back to dumping cold water on the whole process in a minute but, yeah, it really was a strong year, for movies in general and strong performances in particular. You could create an alternate list of non-nominees and stack it almost entirely with big-name stars. Hanks, Robert Redford (“All Is Lost”), Idris Elba (“Mandela”), Joaquin Phoenix (“Her”) and Forest Whitaker (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) all seemed highly plausible best-actor candidates. Emma Thompson’s charming if heavily fictionalized role as “Mary Poppins” author Pamela Travers in “Saving Mr. Banks” briefly made her look like the best-actress front-runner, before conventional wisdom settled back on Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine.” (Blanchett is now, along with Jared Leto in the supporting-actor category, as close to a slam-dunk as Oscar nominees ever get.)



Oprah Winfrey’s role as the embattled, embittered, inconstant wife to Whitaker’s character in “The Butler” seemed tailor-made for a supporting-actress award. She didn’t even get nominated, while Sally Hawkins did, inexplicably, for playing Blanchett’s rootless sister (with a rootless American accent). Many people hoped the late James Gandolfini would be honored for his winning role as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ sad-sack lover in “Enough Said,” although I never thought that was likely. My colleague Mary Elizabeth Williams has lamented the absence of “The Way Way Back” in general, and Alison Janney in particular, and I’m sorry, Mary Beth, but that was never going to happen either. (I’d love to have seen Sarah Paulson or Jeremy Renner sneak into the supporting categories, for their sneaky roles at the core of “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle,” respectively.)

None of that, however, is the real story. It’s easy to get lost in the granular, horse-race details, and also seductive: Is this the year Matthew McConaughey’s comeback brings him to the podium on Oscar night? (Well, it’s now between him and Leonardo DiCaprio for “Wolf of Wall Street” – but, yeah, it sure feels that way.) Did “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Philomena” sneak into the best-picture race at the expense of “The Butler” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”? (I guess they did, if you choose to look at it that way.) Do we have any idea who’s going to win supporting actress? (Yes! Her name is Jennifer Lawrence, and you may have seen her around here and there.) But if we take a step or two back and look at the big picture behind Oscar season, which is always the question of what story Hollywood wants to tell about itself, I think we see a slowly changing institution that retains all its inherently conservative and self-protective instincts. (Nobody made a big movie about the movie business this year, in search of Oscary goodness. Big mistake, guys!)

For all the chatter among industry boosters about how this is a wild and wide-open year where almost anything can happen, that’s almost never true and it certainly isn’t this year. The leading films in the Oscar race are “American Hustle” with 10 nominations, “Gravity” (also 10) and “12 Years a Slave” (with nine). But those who proclaimed “12 Years” the winner, way back at its Toronto premiere last fall, were not thinking with their Oscar brains. Do you have any serious doubt, right now, as to which of those three will win best picture (and best director)? Which of them offers the highest fun factor, the best-looking costumes, the showiest acting, the most conventional ending, the most “movie-like” feeling? Which of them comes the closest to being a movie about how cool show business is (without exactly being that)? I’m not dissing you-know-which movie by applying those descriptors, by the way; I enjoyed it a lot. I’m just saying that the academy conspicuously rewards movies that fulfill certain specific requirements really well, rather than, say, the most remarkable artistic achievement of the year. (News flash: Oscars not about art!)

I’m gravely disappointed, even heartsick, that a film as mysterious, as tragic and as gorgeous as “Inside Llewyn Davis,” with its astonishing breakout performance by actor and musician Oscar Isaac, was almost entirely shut out. But we pretty much knew it was coming and, as with all Oscar snubs, posterity may yield a different verdict. People will still be marveling at “Llewyn Davis” when six or seven (or maybe eight) of this year’s nine best-picture nominees are Netflix oddities. (The fact that the Coens actually won best picture for “No Country for Old Men” looks more and more like a bizarre historical anomaly. Was it all about Javier Bardem’s haircut?)

As for Polley’s daring and intimate family documentary “Stories We Tell” (my favorite film of the year), I have to conclude that it’s too epistemologically slippery for Oscar voters, who tend to favor documentaries with clear agendas. Am I supposed to conclude on an upbeat note, like an Oscar-winning film? Fine: The academy deserves considerable credit for having made both its documentary branch and the foreign-language nomination process far more respectable in recent years. Even without “Stories We Tell” or the wrenching “Blackfish” or “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (not submitted by French authorities), there are some extraordinary films in both categories, from Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” Jeremy Scahill’s drone-war indictment “Dirty Wars” and Jehane Noujaim’s Egypt doc “The Square” to Paolo Sorrentino’s spectacular “The Great Beauty” and Thomas Vinterberg’s psychological thriller “The Hunt.” And, as a special bonus: no Tom Hanks whatsoever!

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...