Last year, it came as something of a surprise when breakout sci-fi hit District 9 was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Here was a film that had a smallish budget, shied away from Hollywood norms (casting producer Sharlto Copley in the lead role and instructing him to improvise his way through the entire shooting schedule) and was directed by total newcomer Neill Blomkamp. A few people at the time saw this as a sign that the Oscars were becoming more open to unconventional directors, films and ideas.
The problem with attempting to criticise the picks for this year’s Best Picture nominees is that all of the films deserve to be there; some less than others, granted, but they’re all great choices nevertheless. This isn’t the Golden Globes – no bribery whatsoever can guarantee a certain male actor to be nominated for Best Actor twice, for both Alice in Wonderland and The Tourist.
Arguably, this year’s more maverick choice is Winter’s Bone, set in working-class Missouri that follows a teenager roaming through an underworld of crime families and meth labs. Lead actors Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes, have also been nominated for awards. There’s also The Kids Are All Right, about two lesbian parents whose daughter tracks down her adopted father.
There’s no problem with these choices, but you can’t help but wish that other films made the final list. One of the best films of the year was Monsters, directed by newcomer Gareth Edwards. He pulled off one of the most personal, affecting and visually stunning films of the year with a tiny budget and a non-professional cast and crew. It won a string of awards and has received much acclaim in the U.K. but it doesn’t appear anywhere on the Oscar nominations list, despite its surface similarities to District 9.
Another low-budget film was Catfish, a dark take on social networking and its repercussions. There are obvious problems with listing the film in the same ceremony that will no doubt honour The Social Network in at least one category: both films concern Facebook, but only one was directed by David Fincher.
Occasionally, such omissions seem political. Having garnered a host of European Film Awards, The Ghost’s absence is probably due to scandal surrounding Roman Polanski.
Also missing is Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro’s period-drama-sci-fi-anti-cloning novel. With literary credentials, beautiful cinematography and excellent performances it’s surprising that even the BAFTAs have largely ignored it from their nominations list.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World had some of the most groundbreaking special effects of the year, but poor box office gross coupled with a decidedly specific target audience could be why the Visual Effects category is dominated by more commercial fare like Iron Man 2. Also missing is TRON: Legacy, a film only nominated for its use of sound.
This year, complaints against the Academy aren’t totally justified, and the films highlighted above are drawn from a pretty small pool of contenders: some of the nominees are worth appreciating. Consider the list for Best Actor, which includes Javier Bardem for Biutiful, a (shock horror) foreign-language film. When considering what the Academy ignores, usually it’s a given that films not in English won’t be recognised.
The problem is that despite its range, the list feels unimaginative. There are few surprise nominations, and very little provokes a reaction other than “well, obviously.”