PARK CITY, Utah -- I don't see any huge surprises in the list of Oscar nominations announced on Tuesday morning. But I do see further evidence that many people in Hollywood are ashamed of how they make their money. Of course the Academy typically hands out its awards to prestige productions, and not simply to the most popular films, but with the rise of the Indiewood segment in recent years -- meaning the major studios' semi-independent "specialty divisions" -- that division has grown ever sharper.
Four of the five best-picture nominees are Indiewood films, and the only reason the fifth one (that would be "Michael Clayton") isn't is because George Clooney has the clout to produce films for Warner Bros., rather than Warner Independent. But it's not like any of the five is some breathtaking cinematic revolution likely to provoke a weevils-all-over-the-body sensation among studio execs. All of them are the kinds of movies Hollywood studios used to make, at the more adventurous end of the production slate. You could say that only the nomenclature, and the precise construction of the financing, have changed.
Actually, no, there is more going on than a rebranding of the prestige pictures aimed at upper-middle audiences. There were nine studio films released last year that grossed more than $200 million apiece, and at least two more that will get there, which is an awful lot of success for a business full of constant whining and complaining. Out of those 11 movies, "Ratatouille" got a couple of nominations (including one for original screenplay) and "Transformers" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" were nominated in some technical categories. Otherwise, we're talking close to $2 billion in domestic box office, and zero Oscar nominations. Even the people who make those movies basically think they're crap.
But hey, I'm not complaining about the long list of genuinely interesting movies among the Academy's honorees. Amid all those splashier film, it's particularly delightful to see that Sarah Polley's lovely but little-seen "Away From Her" garnered both a best-actress nod for Julie Christie, as expected, but also a screenplay nomination for Polley herself. (Check out at the best-actress category, with Laura Linney, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page and Cate Blanchett alongside Christie -- that is one formidable list of ladies!)
I realize, foreign-film buffs, that we have a God-given right and duty to complain about the Academy's staid and middlebrow selections. Consider it done. But you know what? Once you get past your horror that "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" and "Persepolis" didn't even get short-listed, let alone nominated, face the fact this is an impressive list of pictures and filmmakers. I haven't seen Sergei Bodrov's "Mongol" or Nikita Mikhalkov's "12" yet, but those two are among Russia's greatest living directors ("Mongol" qualified as a Kazakh film). Polish cinema god Andrzej Wajda revisits a notorious World War II episode in "Katyn," and Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky's "The Counterfeiters" has gotten raves in Europe. The wild card here is Israeli director Joseph Cedar's "Beaufort," a gripping, claustrophobic war film with overtones of Kubrick.
As for the documentary category, Michael Moore's "Sicko" and Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight" were inescapable selections, and one of them will likely take home the prize (unless the Academy hasn't forgiven Moore and is too heartily sick of Iraq movies). I'm thrilled that Alex Gibney's just-released "Taxi to the Dark Side" snuck in there, both because it's such a riveting and exemplary work of investigative journalism on film and because every American who sees it is one more American who understands how bad things have actually gotten in our country.
Back soon with more from Sundance, including the premiere of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's baseball film "Sugar," their unlikely follow-up to "Half Nelson."